Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Killer Queens

Live: We Will Rock You (Jukebox Musical)
Dominion Theatre, London, UK

On the last night of a recent trip to London my mum, brother and I enjoyed a performance of the jukebox musical We Will Rock You.

My bro’ and I have wildly different musical tastes. He doesn’t share my love of alternative and leftfield music, instead being a connoisseur of
West End shows. A talented singer and actor, he has performed lead roles in a variety of musicals himself, from West Side Story to Oliver!

I’m not as big a fan as my brother, but I enjoy the surreal aspects of musicals. In Jesus Christ Superstar, my bro' played the Messiah himself; surreal isn't the word when it comes to watching your sibling being crucified on stage.

We Will Rock You is of course based around the songs of Queen. For Britons Queen are a national institution rather than a band. I remember the groundbreaking Bohemian Rhapsody video dominating the airwaves for weeks back in '74. Suddenly everyone in Britain was a Queen fan. They took studio wizardry to its greatest heights since The Beatles and Pink Floyd, featured not one but four talented songwriters and were a staggering live act to boot.

I have to admit the storyline of We Will Rock You is flimsy at best – in a dystopian future originality and individuality are outlawed by the Killer Queen, and our hero Galileo fulfils a prophecy which heralds the return of rock 'n roll - echoes of Rush’s 2112 and Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.

But the production has everything you’d expect from a West End musical: great songs (courtesy of Queen’s formidable back-catalog, of course), marvelous costumes, fabulous sets, a mind-boggling array of gimmicks and special effects including lasers, levitating platforms and computer effects. The show pokes gentle fun at rock cliches and there are some hilarious quips about boy bands and pop idols. One could feel the affection in the audience for Queen as kitsch icons, and especially for the long departed Freddie Mercury.

Since my family and I live on opposite sides of the world, moments together are precious, and we had a marvellous time. As my mum knows, each of her two boys enjoys his own showbiz fantasies. I’ve played my share of Brian May air guitar solos in my time, and I know my brother - an incorrigible ham - was visualizing himself on stage, singing his heart out, soaking up the adulation then signing autographs for his adoring fans at the Stage Door.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Not You Again!

Vauxhall Bridge, London, UK

As mentioned previously, I once spotted Brian Eno near San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Surprisingly, today I again had the strange experience of running into Eno, this time on Vauxhall Bridge, London following a visit to the Tate Modern. Our eyes met briefly and we continued on our way. I wish Brian would quit following me to art galleries.

This is the second time I've experienced dual sightings of a celebrity musician. In 1980 I stumbled into famed harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler when I was visiting a friend at Downing College, Cambridge. Two years later, I was stepping onto a river taxi in Venice, Italy, when I bumped into a fellow passenger. It was Larry Adler!

Check out cool celebrity encounters at Dead or Alive

Friday, March 2, 2007


Tracks: The Juke Box
The Lime Tree Pub
Paignton, Devon, UK

My father Raymondo and I were in Paignton, South Devon today. In true British seaside fashion it rained cats and dogs, and we damply took refuge in The Lime Tree public house, where we enjoyed some excellent real ale and a delicious ploughman's lunch. The Lime Tree also has a pretty cool juke box.

Most nights The Lime Tree is a headbangers' haven, and as we entered we were greeted by the unmistakable strains of Enter Sandman pounding on the juke box. That's my dad's favorite Metallica number.

You never know exactly what kind of music will tickle my dad's fancy. After seeing The Beatles live in 1962 he remained distinctly unimpressed, famously assuring my mother "They'll never get anywhere". But he redeemed himself back in 1977 when he correctly foretold that both Wings' Mull of Kintyre and The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band's Floral Dance would reach number one in the charts, predictions of which he remains justifiably proud.

"The Beatles? They'll never get anywhere!"

Back at The Lime Tree, Raymondo became even more excited and almost choked on his pickled onions when a fellow punter selected his favorite Divine Comedy song National Express, a paean to Britain's favorite bus company. My dad loves the words to that song, especially the hilarious lines:

Mini-skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle

Back in 63
But its hard to get by when your arse is the size
Of a small country

From the ridiculous to the sublime, the next track was Muse's haunting Thoughts of a Dying Atheist. We Brits visit the pub to chat and get pissed, we don't usually expect lessons in philosophy from the juke box, but my dad and I got into a lengthy discussion on religion. I'm somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic, while my dad has vaguely Christian leanings.

The mood shifted abruptly when Scissor Sisters' I Don't Feel like Dancing started up. I love that song, it just makes me feel so happy and takes me back to my disco dancing days when I was 15. My girlfriend at the time was curvy, and dancing the disco hustle at close quarters was pure teen ecstasy.

While my dad was getting the next round in, David Bowie's Life on Mars? came on the juke box, and my heart leapt with joy. It's one of my all time favorite tracks
, telling the story of a young girl who flees a family argument by going to the cinema, only to find the film a disappointment since it echoes her life.

In its bizarre depiction of social ennui, Life on Mars? was quite an eye-opener for me when it came out. In fact it's no less profound now than it was in 1971. Glam rockers like Bowie and Roxy Music gleefully subverted young minds - mine included. Subliminally alerting us to issues such as cultural fascism and the ambivalence of sexuality, they were signposts to teenage revolution.

I reflected on those formative musical experiences as Raymondo and I left The Lime Tree. I thought of my lovely dad, my wonderful friends, the semi-drunken conversations, the songs and juke boxes which had helped shape our relationships and our world. How different life would have been, I mused, without those epiphanies. Then, as if in answer to my thoughts, the clouds lifted and a spectacular double rainbow appeared in the South Devon sky.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Spirit of Satchmo

Live: The Brindisi Prison Boys (Trad Jazz)
The Devon Arms, Torquay, Devon, UK

My dad and I arrived in Torquay this evening for a typical British seaside break. We scouted the town for live music and were happy to discover that a trad jazz band called The Brindisi Prison Boys would be performing tonight in a local pub.

The Devon Arms is located at the top of a hill in a quiet cobbled alley a stone's throw from Torquay's bustling town center. As you venture a little farther up the rise you can enjoy a fine view of Torquay's harbor. The ozone - what's left of it - is refreshing and it's easy to conjure up images of gruff old tars downing pints of scrumpy before splicing the mainbrace and putting out to sea, England expects every man to do his duty and all that.

The pub was already packed and The Brindisi Boys swinging
hard by the time my dad and I made our entrance. You couldn't imagine a more good-time music than trad jazz, and a crowd of all ages and types were already going wild, encouraged by lashings of powerful local brew.

The Devon Arms employs one of the sexiest and most buxom barmaids I've ever seen, and it was a treat to return to the bar for more ale and admire the fine wares she had on display. Not only that, she was a rosy-cheeked, friendly nymph who spoke with the most naughty and alluring South Devon twang I've ever heard.

The Brindisi Boys themselves were an excellent band
- accomplished and professional - authentically invoking the spirit of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens through tight ensemble playing and spirited soloing. I hadn't realized until the landlord informed me that the South Devon coast is in fact home to a thriving trad jazz community, and the Brindisis' good-time vibe made me recall Satchmo's famous dictum that, "There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music."

Although the mood of the evening was joyous and carefree, there was a bittersweet aspect to the proceedings. It emerged that The Brindisi Boys' banjo player and leader was terminally ill. This was to be his final performance with the group, and he made a dignified and touching speech urging his bandmates to carry forward the trad-jazz torch.

It was a testament not only to the inner strength of the gentleman concerned, but also to the healing power of music that such sad news in no way diminished the buoyant, effervescent mood which The Brindisi Boys had created.