Friday, July 03, 2009

Big Gigs and Microscopic Thoughts

I've never been a fan of the large concert, yet, pick and choose, and they can be as good as the smallest gig. In the last week I've been to two large concerts, both one offs; Neil Young in Hyde Park, and Kraftwerk at Manchester Velodrome as part of Manchester International Festival. Such different conceptions of music, of course, but both formed in the fulcrum of late 60s optimism, and coming to age in the anything goes attitude of the seventies music business. For all that industry's excess, it was at least willing to make and put out the records. Interestingly its the electronic futurists Kraftwerk whose back catalogue is nailed to that decade, from 1974's "Autobahn" to 1981's "Computer World" made up 90% of their set last night, whilst Young's seventies gems are joined by others from the 60s, 90s, and even more recently. (The 80s, it seems, was a disaster for just about everyone.) Pointless comparing and contrasting two such different gigs other than proof that you can like two entirely opposite things without fear of contradiction. I liked Neil Young's primal nature, chopping at his guitar like a Canadian woodsman with his axe, through songs like "Fucking up", "Hey Hey My My" and "Mansion on the Hill" as well as his more subtle country songs, kept wondrous by that surprisingly adaptable voice of his. In Hyde Park it rained briefly before support Fleet Foxes came on, but they harmonised away the rain, though, to be fair, their sound got a little lost in the vastness of the place. Far better were Chrissie Hynde's the Pretenders, who made the most of their first on the bill spot. Hyde Park's a civilised location - easy to get too and from.

Last night, at Kraftwerk, the expectation had been high all week. The Steve Reich premiere, played by Bang on a Can All Stars as support, was an interesting prelude. Reich had earlier said in interview that he'd never heard Kraftwerk until he knew he was on the bill with them, which does make one wonder about the world in which he's lived and worked for so long. His piece, around 20 minutes long, will require repeat listens, I think, as it never quite locked into a particular place, or pulled away from its anchorings - yet there was much to admire. If anything it reminded me of the early 70s experiments that Fred Frith, Bill McCormack and others were doing, in some of those EG/Virgin art acts, particularly Matching Mole. (Listen to some of their live releases.) That whole scene was coming from jazz improv, of course, and the idea of a composed piece for a band (as this was) reached a similar location from a different direction. Kraftwerk I've never seen before. They've always seemed more concept than band to me. I've not even listened to them much over the years, whilst appreciating their innovativeness. In a set that spanned those iconic albums, as well as the codas of "Electric Cafe" and "Tour De France Soundtracks", what was fascinating was how they've controlled their image and their vision throughout their career. This could easily be the same man-machine that Lester Bangs wrote about in the late 70s. The re-tooling of their sound means that the songs all had a consistency - yet as I've mentioned, they were mostly recorded in that 7 year period, so we shouldn't be too surprised - and did feel timeless. Kraftwerk, remarkably, have always managed to avoid any of the contemporary cliches of the day. If Reich hadn't been listening to pop music, Kraftwerk, you feel, have stayed away from any electronica that wasn't in their own heads. Only the "Electric Cafe" stuff, from a period when technology had caught up with their vision, sounded thin and dated (as it did, to be honest, when it came out.) The British Cycle team came out onto the Velodrome track during the Tour De France segment; we donned 3D glasses for a sequence of songs beginning with "Numbers" which was more than just a gimmick, became an integral part of the show; and those one-hit-wonders, the robots, came out for their single track, "We are the Robots."

Unlike Hyde Park, the Velodrome is stuck in the middle of nowhere. Our taxi driver - a regular Man City goer didn't even know where it was - and we abandoned taxi to follow the crowds across the Asda car park. The roads around Alan Turing way were gridlocked, and much as the gig itself was great, you had to shake your head at how difficult Manchester makes things for itself. As a start to the Manchester International Festival it was an unalloyed triumph however, which will last long in everyone's memory.

Next week, at least, I'm back down to earth, able to concentrate on more microscopic thoughts. There's the options of Social Media Cafe, The Other Room poetry reading, and a series of readings in Oxfam in Didsbury, as well as the Festival pavilion and much else. Yet, I'm piling up even smaller things that need processing. I've been writing poems with a frequency thats unusual of late, and yet they're all in scribbled manuscript form at the moment - it being the one form of writing I still do longhand.

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