Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ah, Freddie....

It's a review of an album! And it's going in a proper book! And the book is going to be published this month! And I love Queen! And I love Freddie! And I'm not going to include my usual accompanying dog pic here because it would be disrespectful to all concerned...and anyway, if you read the review all the way through the end you get Freddie himself...and what could be a better prize than that???

Queen’s 1991 album ‘Innuendo’ - the last to feature entirely new material and the final studio project to be recorded before Freddie Mercury’s death - is an elaborate tapestry that weaves both bold flourishes and sublime, subtle nuances together into a richly decorated masterpiece.

Bookended by two classic but stylistically disparate anthems, a dozen strikingly individual songs chart a course that many believe mapped the emotions of those at the helm. If this is the case, the result of what must have been an inordinately harrowing experience produced a surprisingly upbeat album that offered one of the most charismatic characters in rock a fitting finale. But even if you ignore such a context, ‘Innuendo’ - from the rumbling beats at the start of the extraordinary, baroque title track to the defiantly audacious anthem ‘The Show Must Go On’ - is a bold, uplifting adventure, with the many experimental twists and turns along the way underpinned by the band’s trademark style from start to finish.

The thrilling guitar breaks, catchy refrains and raspy vocals on ‘Headlong’, the grungy ‘Hitman’ and the fast-paced rhythms that infuse the otherwise moody slow-burner ‘Ride The Wild Wind’ with energy evoke similar former glories on a pomp rock theme. The iridescent sheen of glamour that lightly coats every song sparkles most brightly on three intelligent lullabies: the emotive ‘I Can’t Live Without You’, the heartbreakingly tender ‘Don’t Try So Hard’ and the dreamy, ephemeral ‘Bijou’ all serve to showcase both Mercury’s inimitable vocal range and his fellow band members’ ability to instinctively gauge when to allow their frontman his moment in the spotlight. Elsewhere, a life-affirming blast of rock gospel set against an operatic backdrop in ‘All God’s People’ brings a spirited thrust to proceedings somewhere around the middle of this gloriously eclectic trip; so far, so very good.

It would be easy to single out the powerfully emotional ‘The Show Must Go On’ as the album’s defining aria; indeed, it’s an edifying, unforgettable tour de force. But two other tracks stand out above the rest. The layer of vaguely sinister, dark undertones that ripple menacingly beneath the superficially camp, eccentric surface of ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ lift the song from mere novelty status into more insightful realms, turning it into an idiosyncratic paean to the bleak, disturbing feelings of desolation, alienation and sheer derangement experienced when contemplating the imminent arrival of the Grim Reaper. The surreal accompanying video featured Brian May dressed as a penguin, John Deacon as a court jester, Roger Taylor with a kettle on his head and Mercury - his manic grin beaming out from underneath a mask of melting greasepaint - wearing a formal dinner suit and balancing a bunch of bananas on top of a wild, wild wig. Combining elements of the visual extravaganzas that promoted both ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in 1975 and ‘I Want To Break Free’ almost a decade later, it was as bizarre - and, in parts, hilarious - as it was shockingly moving, exemplifying the time-honoured bravery of a pioneering rock band playing games with their audience and taking a gamble against odds that, this time around, were most definitely not stacked in their favour.

Meanwhile, ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ offers a very different perspective on a similar, defining theme. On one level, this contemplative, wistful ballad - penned by drummer Roger Taylor but, like the rest of the album, credited to the band as a whole - is an overly sweet, sentimental ditty, lacking depth or focus and not very typically Queen. But here, it stands alone as an enduring tribute to a man who turned his whole life into a performance. Listen carefully to Mercury’s final, breathless whispers at the end of the song, and you can rest assured that, underneath the crown, the furs and the brazen, largely untrammelled ego, there was a humble man who appreciated those around him for supporting the spectacle of his roller coaster existence as much as he enjoyed creating it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oh please, I'm not 'that' sort of camp...

As summer prepares to do its disappearing act for another year, it’s time to take stock and recall your fondest memories of the season. Decry and protest what I’m about to say all you want, but I’m willing to bet that, for any honest person over the age of around 30, it wasn’t camping at Glastonbury.

There comes a time in every man and woman’s life when flat sandals and/or wellington boots play havoc with your fallen arches, decent bathroom facilities are a right, not an option and the constant rumble of Bolivian drummers is anathema to those who crave a good night’s sleep. So why do so many people who really should know better still insist, year after year, on grimly undertaking to endure the whole festival debacle, including running away from home to be there?

“But it’s a wonderful experience for the kids!”, they cry, as they punch the Charlton Park postcode into the Skoda Roomster’s TomTom. But come 17, those kids will (we hope) be going it alone and creating their own festival memories anyway, just as their parents once did (or maybe didn’t, hence the desperation to recapture their youth today). And unless those parents are happy about setting their kids up for years of therapy, their memories are unlikely to involve mum’s ‘Lady J’ (if you don’t know but really want to, Google it) or dad’s inability to erect his double-skin Outdoor Revolution. “But a day ticket is a cop-out!”, the Skoda family wail. Yeah, right; if you’re not feasting on an e-coli bap and wondering where the handy wipes went seven hours before the first decent band appears on stage, you’re merely a festival tourist. It seems that those old enough to remember the Beastie Boys in their earliest incarnation still believe that unless you fight for the right to party, you’ve no right to be on site. Oh, they have no idea what they’re missing...

When Jarvis Cocker took to the Glastonbury stage in 1995 and sang the opening line to ‘Sorted for E’s and Whiz’ (“is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?”), the crowd went wild - so wild that they missed the punchline. Much later on, I got in the car and drove home - yes, home: where the heart, the bathroom and the bed is - to have a long soak, a dreamy sleep and plan for tomorrow’s posh picnic. The next day I returned to the site refreshed, revitalised and all ready to pick my way over the casualties - some of whom with confused, miserable small children in tow - who seemed to have left an important part of their brain somewhere in a field in Pilton. Oh, how I pitied the poor fools!

Since my initial (dreadful!) Glastonbury Festival camping experience decades before, I’d vowed never to do it again. Decades on, and I refuse to go back on my word. Glasto, V and Download; WOMAD, Roskilde, Les Eurockennes - my fond recollections of the music, the atmosphere and the zeitgeist of the day are punctuated with memories of hotels ranging from the East Midlands Travelodge to the Hotel Ambassadeur in Belfort. Are my experiences any less authentic than those who gambled with trench foot, ‘holiday’ tummy or donating their entire temporary abode to ruthless thieves? Is a nightcap enjoyed at a warm, snug bar more or less of a ‘festival high’ than a dodgy tab pushed at me by some mashed up bloke from Camden Town? And psst: wouldn’t you really much rather have watched Blur from the comfort of your own sofa?

Come on, admit it: you had your fill of E’s and whiz twenty years ago; these days, a cup of tea, a hot bath and a nice clean duvet is what really gets you through the night. And kids, pay heed: this is indeed the way the future’s meant to feel.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Two go wild in Dorset (and Bath...)

I've just returned from a foodie trip to Dorset and have some serious over-sharing to do, mainly involving fabulous shenanigans at River Cottage HQ (followed by lunch at the original RC Canteen in Axminster), an overnight stay (and dinner) at the gorgeous Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster and supper at the Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis. How was it for me? FabFabFab, as you can probably imagine...I'll be spilling a cauldron full of beans here soon. Meanwhile, I thought you might like to read this (below); I don't often share my Folio/Venue reviews here, but a certain VIP has asked me to. And Hugh am I to argue? I'll be back soon, to tell you all about my Dorset daydreams. For now, read on and enjoy (and whether you do or you don't, let me know).


I don’t think I adapt particularly well to change. I languish in cosy comfort zones and I’m much more likely to mutter “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” than embrace the kind of novel fad gadgetry that others seem to thrive on.

I waffled on about similar themes last time I reviewed the cosy piscatorial paradise that is Onefishtwofish, back when what’s now the almost-completed new Southgate shopping centre was a pile of unpromising rubble and restaurant ownership in Bath had turned into a seemingly endless game of pass the parcel. My point was that Onefishtwofish is one of those rare places where no change is a really positive thing: it’s as lovely today as it was when it first opened its doors, and as a result it’s quietly, calmly gone from strength to strength (and garnered heaps of acclaim in the process) - my kind of place indeed. But just as the Bath landscape started to slip back into a more settled routine, my personal horizon started shifting around. By the time you read this, it’s likely that Folio editor Rachel will have a lovely l’il baby to take care of. Meanwhile, the magazine you’re bouncing on your lap right now is being nurtured by Rachel’s temporary replacement, Laura. For a self-confessed stuck-in-the-mud, this situation was initially all very disconcerting. So, when Laura and I arranged to meet for the very first time over a review dinner, I was grateful that we were off to one of my favourite familiar, easygoing bistros in Bath - too much shiny and new in one evening would have been a recipe for emotional indigestion. As it turned out, I’d have to be a very bitter old trout indeed to find anything about the ensuing experience indigestible.

Tucked away in an atmospheric subterranean enclave reminiscent of similar ventures on the Marseilles’ harbourside, Onefishtwofish is as gently characterful as Bath ever gets. I was standing at the dinky bar humming the ‘Blind Date’ theme tune when Laura arrived, but it wasn’t long before we were yakking away at a table for two underneath the arches, Laura tucking into a specials board squid starter that she declared to be the “lightest, freshest and all-round nicest squid experience she’s ever had” while I made merry with a pile of creamy scallops doused in a lime and ginger marinade and sandwiched between layers of crispy wantons, all dotted hither and thither with velvety avocado. After that, I did the ling thing, and my sweet, meaty fillet (a lesser-known member of the cod family, don’cha know) came with an irresistibly moreish smoked salmon bubble and squeak and a luxuriously creamy clam-strewn chowder - a combination that went down as smoothly as the chat that drifted effortlessly from “hello, who are you?” formalities to “hi, this is me” familiarity. Such was the level of girly - sorry, professional - banter while we were ordering that both of us completely forgot what Laura’s plump, spicy Szechuan-peppered red snapper came with; as a result, I ‘knowledgably’ informed her that the exotic, flavoursome semi-broth it came resting on can only have been puy lentils when in fact it was nutty, toothsome black rice - there, now she knows me properly for the big mouth no-nothing that I am.

For puds, a toffee cheesecake topped with fresh chilli and a dense slab of white and dark chocolate mousse cake were, like the rest of the meal, rich in contrast, wit and individual style...just like the company. Despite my initial protestations about novelty, new friends and the imminent arrival of new babies will always make me smile; mingle both against a backdrop of reliably good food served in properly welcoming surroundings and I’ll happily raise a glass to shifting scenery. In fact, I’ll crack open a bottle - some things, at least, never change.