Tinariwen – Magical desert blues

Last night I floated across the Sahara on a wave of dusty desert blues.

This was Tinariwen at the Union Chapel in Islington.

The band is unique. They are comprised of Touareg people – nomads from across the Sahara. Tinariwen means “the deserts” in the Touareg language. The group was formed by the founding members 30 years ago in military training camps in Libya prior to Touareg rebellions in Mali and Niger. The band’s latest album, Tassili, won a Grammy award.

They appear on stage dressed in nomadic clothes; brightly coloured (blues, oranges, greens) robes, turbans, sandals and their faces mostly covered by veils. They play traditional Touareg music with electric guitars and strong influences of North and West African music along with American blues and even rock.

This is a magical band. And the Union Chapel is a magical place (voted by Time Out readers as London’s best music venue). And I almost felt at one point last night, sitting in the balcony, where the full spectacle of the dark cavernous but beautiful venue is at its best (as are the acoustics), that I might float out into the huge empty space under the almighty ceiling on a magic carpet, down to the desert campfire like stage setting the musicians were sat in.

I have no idea what the songs are about. They are sung in Touareg or French. And for the first few songs I did start to feel s sense of repetitiveness, even thinking that I enjoyed the support band Lo Jo more.

No real criticism mind, as Lo Jo were excellent, and deserving of further investigation. A French based band, they sounded like Serge Gainsbourgh and Leonard Cohen mixed with North African melodies and violins and some amazing dancing and vocals from the multi instrumentalist backing singers.

But just as Tinariwen started to lose my attention the repetitiveness and flow of one similar sounding song into the next started to take on a hallucinatory type effect. And as if sun stroke by the desert sun I became mesmerised by the music.

Each song is built on pretty much the same foundations of layered guitar picking, supported by electric bass, percussion played out on a bongo like drum and moody worldly sounding lead vocals and haunting harmonies.

This was rifftastic stuff with looping melodies played out on dirty dusty amplified electric guitars, building and building all the time with astonishing percussion from the single drum. Little explosions of a different guitar riff or drum fill added to the excitement.

The blues are very evident, (probably finding their way into the band from their original African routes rather than via the Mississippi), as is rock. The band have in the past supported the Red Hot Chilli Players, and the final song of the main set was driven by a blistering bass riff not dissimilar to Flea, answered with a lead guitar you might have heard on any great southern rock album of the 1970s.

This almost brought the house down, literally, with the full capacity audience stamping the floorboards of the chapel for more.

And when the guy who appeared to be the main front man (the six musicians changed instruments often and took turns on lead vocals) returned saying the only thing he seemed to know in English and had said several times during the evening – “Ca Va? It’s ok?” The audience went wild.

The encore saw them literally dancing in the aisles. As the riffs and percussion and vocals built and built resistance was futile, you had to move. As did one of the other elder band members who got up from his seat and danced in his robes and turban at the front of the stage, arms flowing like a snake charmer and jumping up and down with adoring audience members as the night ended with an explosive volley of rhythm.

Magical, charming, wonderful and totally unique.


The Master – Powerhouse performances

Well I am not really sure what The Master is all about. But then thanks to the mind blowing performances of the lead actors, notably Joaquin Phoenix, it doesn’t matter.

What little story there is follows drifter and drunk Freddie (Phoenix) on being discharged from the Navy following World War Two. He meets the leader of a sort of religious cult – Lancaster Dodd – The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The two very eccentric men’s friendship then forms the basis of the rest of the film.

Not a lot really happens. The movie is more like a portrait that you might find in an art gallery rather than a conventional narrative driven film. It is all about character. But our own interpretation of those characters, because very is little given away.

While Freddie’s character does gets some back story, his fragile mental state which includes alcoholism, violence and an inability to have an emotional relationship, is never explained.

We learn even less about The Master. What exactly his cult is about and what he is trying to achieve and why are not explained.

Both men’s motivations seem irrelevant to Director Paul Thomas Anderson who seems merely intent on painting their pictures so we can see their external personas but only wonder at what is going on inside.

That the film works on this level is due to the incredible affability of the two characters. Despite their many flaws they are extremely likeable. And interesting.

These are two wildly different people. One a loser, one successful. Freddie appears to be like a Jack Kerouac character drifting drunk and aimlessly across 1950s America. While The Master is like an intelligent, funny and charming head of a family who makes family gatherings so enjoyable and who everybody wants to be around.

There are hints at themes in the movie, including people’s attempts to find their way following the war, longing for a family to be part of, father and son relationships, power over others and confronting alternatives. But they are only hints.

This is an abstract work. But one filled with great photography, including some great tracking shots, especially in a harbour near the start, a well used 1950s jazz score and of course the acting.

Phoenix and Hoffman in the Master

Hoffman is as ever excellent and at his best. But Phoenix is unrecognisable and unbelievably good, physically displaying in his performance, awkwardness, charm, intelligence, humour, mental scars and unpredictability. It is not often that a performance stands out so much that you think it must be a clear cut Oscar winner. But this one does (the character’s dubious morals perhaps being the only bar to this being an actuality).

The scenes the two leads share are mesmerising. Although like Director Anderson’s previous work There Will be Blood, the film feels somewhat unbalanced with the cast of supporting characters completely over powered by the leads.

And while the acting, cinematography, and sheer enigmatic oddness of the two lead characters sustains the first half, two and half hours is perhaps too long to stay engaged in a movie which ultimately leaves you grasping for meaning. None the less, a brave, unconventional and impressive film.


World Press Photo 2012 – Difficult but worthwhile viewing

World Press Photo 2012
Royal Festival Hall

Was 2011 really so depressing? Just in case we’d already forgotten some of the natural disasters, wars and general misery affecting so many people throughout the world, this exhibition reminds us with 150 in-your-face excellent images.

It is so easy to forget. Was that incident that long ago? I’d forgotten completely about that! But surely that is the point of photo journalism, from whose leading professional practitioners these photos have been chosen: to inform so that we care, or at the very least know what is going on out there.

Many of the images on display here though arguably inform, or show us too much.

Amongst a series of photos from Anders Breivik’s massacre on Utøya island, near Oslo, are images of dead bodies scattered on the shore.

Photos from the Mexican drug wars show bloody scenes of unimaginable violence, including a severed head placed beside severed legs in the beach resort of Acapulco.

There is thought provoking ambiguity in some of these images. In particular, four gritty black and white images of public hangings in Iran appal us at face value, cause some hesitation (just for a moment) when we read that the victims are convicted rapists and murderers. And the final image of a clamoring crowd goes some way to confirming the medievalism of the whole scene. Yet aren’t we clamoring for the same view?

If these images are too graphic, isn’t that an indication of our own preference for denial? To look the other way? Because as this exhibition vividly explains, nothing conveys a truth more than an image. Reading about some of these events will never garner the same strength of impact and therefore, memory, or response to them.

One of the best examples of this is the stunning portrait of what looks like a family on a mountainside in Yemen. Easy to pass, thinking there is nothing going on in this image (which several people did); the caption reveals that the girls, in their early teens, are married to the adult men. The series is about child brides. The image now takes on a whole different horrific gravity such is its illustration of the youth of the girls and the age of the men. While the text helped understand the image, the image, when understood, told us everything.

But despite the violence of many images and the totally depressing situations depicted in others, this annual exhibition perhaps succeeds most in the personal stories.

There are, as you would expect, superb big images from headline news stories, such as the Japanese Tsunami or the Arab Spring. But it is the close up portrait of an aged, deeply lined Japanese woman, captioned “a tsunami survivor” that most impresses, as a photo and an idea.

Likewise, the familiar image of a young woman sat crying amidst an apocalyptic scene is a moving and a truly great image. But another image, in which a woman proudly holds up her daughter’s graduation certificate, salvaged from similar destruction, tells us so much more.

Even in the series on the Norwegian massacre, it is the simple image of a red rose lying on the silent water that is most personal, most moving and most inspiring.

This exhibition makes for difficult viewing. And so it should. People should be hit in the face with the terrors going on in the world.

Saying that, the overall selection of subject and image could benefit from more focus on joyous or inspiring acts (armed guards protecting a Rhino in Kenya from poachers is one of very few images that causes a smile, while also informing and inspiring).

It should be noted that there are images here by photographers who died trying to tell us what is going on. Perhaps not a reason in itself to go. But they are great photos. And they should be seen.


Argo – the wrong message


Ahhhh go F*** yourself if you think Ben Aflleck’s new movie Argo is a great worthy 70s style political thriller. Because it is not. It is a very tense, entertaining and well made movie. But politically, it is simply wrong.

The story is set against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the take over of the US embassy in Tehran. Six “ordinary” American civil servants escape to the Canadian embassy. But before they are discovered and mistaken for spies, CIA agent Affleck must hatch a rescue plan.

This takes the shape of creating a fake Hollywood sci fi movie called Argo and creating the ruse that the six refugees are the Canadian film crew scouting for locations in revolutionary Tehran.

A bizarre and incredulous plot survives plausibility due to the fact it is supposedly very much based on a true incident. And the film’s execution, mixing political thriller with Hollywood parody, works surprisingly well.

There are extremely good scenes: the well staged attack on the embassy; the Hollywood section benefiting from the ever excellent Alan Arkin as the self deprecating Hollywood mogul; and the edge of your seat final act.

The late 70s period is meticulously recreated too and the movie almost pulls off a ruse itself in looking so much like the giants of the 70s political thriller – All the Presidents Men, The Parallax View, Capricorn One etc – that it is easy to be fooled into thinking it is, like these, intelligent.

But in those films the enemy was America. A corrupt, faceless, power hungry America messing fatally with ordinary people seeking truth. This was Hollywood really challenging its home turf with brave often dark conclusions.

Argo however, catastrophically presents us with a predictable Middle Eastern enemy. An Iran almost only consisting of Islamist extremists intent on medieval barbarism. Yes there is the odd scene of “ordinary” Iranians, but they are fleeting, and the non violent Iranians are presented only as people seeking US visas or being tortured or murdered.

There is one exception in the form of Sarah, the Canadian Ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper. Perhaps the most interesting character in the movie she faces real choices and ambiguous loyalties with potentially disastrous consequences. We quietly learn in one of the all too few criticisms of western ignorance that she is really called Sahar. But alas the character is only in about three scenes and begs to be far further developed.

From a political point of view the film opens promisingly. The backstory is told with comic book graphics (reminiscent of the superb Persepolis) and documentary footage. A voice over explains that the 1979 revolution (and therefore subsequent Iranian issues) were partly in response to the 1953 US and British orchestrated coup. This saw Iran’s democratically elected secular leader ousted and replaced by 20 years of tyrannical rule.

But regarding insights into western culpability in the consequences of their meddling, that unfortunately, is about it. After this the film concentrates fully on the central story of the rescue of the six Americans camped out in the Canadian embassy.

And Iran (which in Hollywood blockbuster parlance might as well stand for all the Middle East and Islam) is presented as the dangerous exotic, the other, where bad things happen and from where innocent ordinary American folk must be rescued (perhaps these ones did, but is there really not a more interesting nuanced and larger story to tell than this?).

The overall effect is to present the Americans as heroes. Even the self parodying Hollywood scenes, seem to finally conclude what great selfless citizens you can find there and how the power of film saves lives!

With the current worsening of relations between the west and Iran, this seems like an odd time to bring this film out. And ultimately, despite its qualities, doesn’t this type of clichéd, predictable positioning of the Middle East as the enemy serve to reinforce extremely uncomfortable and dangerous stereotypes?

An entertaining movie no doubt. And definitely more thought provoking than your average mainstream blockbuster. But ultimately that’s all it is, a blockbuster, with stupid and dangerous politics at its core.


Lucinda Williams – Rocking at the London Jazz Festival

Sunday 11th November 2012

Lucinda Williams can rock out with the best of them. “I’m 57 but I could be 7 years old” she sings tonight.

But with half an hour of heavy drumming and feedback soaked guitar workouts to rival any young rock guns at the close of this set, not to mention sex laden lyrics, she could have sung that she was 17 years old.

This was pure turned up rock, with songs evoking drunken binges, messy one night stands and dreams of playing electric guitars loud (a notion referred to in more than one of her songs).

The Royal Festival Hall with its classical music leaning formality however is a strange place for such music. And what’s more she was appearing as part of the London Jazz Festival.

Yet Lucinda Williams, for those that don’t know her (and plenty don’t, the Hall was only about two thirds full last night), is not a jazz artist at all. She is not a rock artist either. Country blues is perhaps the most apt description. But really, as she has mentioned often in interviews, she defies labelling.

And the start of Sunday’s set was in the main, a great example of her eclectic diversity, at times even seeming appropriate to a jazz festival, with the excellent acoustics of the theatre totally appropriate.

Lucinda opened solo with acoustic guitar singing the great folksy Lake Charles, followed by the soft country track Greenville (both from her 1998 breakthrough, Grammy winning album Car Wheels on A Gravel Road), with Lucinda now joined by the wondrous named guitar player Doug Pettibone providing slide flourishes.

With bass player David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton completing the band, Lucinda, in her unique bourbon soaked vulnerable yet powerful voice sang the opening lines to Blue: “Go find a jukebox and see what a quarter will do….”

Evoking so much about the power of music, this was also a signal of the mix of styles that laid ahead and the breadth of quality she drew on from across her back catalogue (she was voted America’s best songwriter in 2002 by Time and over her two nights residency at the Festival Hall this weekend only repeated three songs)..

Amongst the more quiet county, folk and blues songs tonight were notable jazzy influenced numbers such as Copenhagen, Overtime and the almost Doors’ Riders in the Storm jazz like leanings of Are you Down.

Adept in every style, the band put on a formidable show of talent, notably drummer Norton, deftly handling soft brush strokes and modern jazz fills.

But the last half hour was all about rock, with exploding guitars and Norton now pounding his skins so hard he even broke one stick completely in half.

Perhaps the band’s lack of comfort in the venue, because of its inappropriateness to the barrage of tracks basking in sex drugs and rock n roll that closed the set, might explain why the songs tended to end abruptly once they hit their groove.

But Unsuffer me, much more powerful than its album version, here bereft of strings and back to raw basics, burst with blistering guitar after each chorus. And Come On saw Lucinda roar out the chorus’s ultimate put down – “You didn’t even make me, come on” above an almighty clash of electric guitars, bass and drums.

This isn’t the kind of music one sits and politely listens too as the Royal Festival Hall restricts you to doing. Lucinda even apologised for the venue’s constraints and lack of bar inside.

But despite the lack of room to dance, this was a night of high quality varied mature music from a 57 year old going on 17.