Neil Young and Promise of the Real at the O2 11.06.2016

On this, the Rebel Content Tour, the ageing rocker proves to be both ageless and still rebellious

As two straw hat-sporting, dungaree-wearing, grain-spreading figures scatter seeds across the O2 stage you would be forgiven for mistaking the gig for a theatrical performance of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This precedes the entrance of the evening’s villains. Wearing hazmat suits and spraying pesticides across the stage, the serene country atmosphere is wiped by a Ghostbusters-like nightmare. Hidden beneath his black hat and a harmonica, Neil Young looks like Zorro, an environmental protagonist here to save the world from corporate greed and environmental unsustainability with his acoustic guitar.

The rock hero emerges behind a piano for After The Gold Rush. The subdued and understated solo opening enhances the environmental message of the night, as Young updates the lyrics to ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run in the twenty-first century’. This contemporary edge is soon superseded by the reminiscent audience who eagerly cheer the line ‘There was a band playing in my head, and I felt like getting high’. From Hank to Hendrix, is a beautiful number, oozing vulnerability and showcasing Young’s often overlooked vocal abilities. Heart of Gold and The Needle and the Damage Done are welcome inclusions from the 1972 masterpiece Harvest. They sound even more impressive live in 2016 than on the CD I grew up listening to in my father’s car.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_0503fc7e-30a0-11e6-9c43-b579056ef2e5Young caps off this solo opening with Mother Earth (Natural Anthem). Hunched over a battered organ, with a single candle illuminating the old rocker, he resembles a maniacal musical genius conducting mass. Considering his recent live release Earth and the same title emblazoned on his t-shirt, we are under no illusions that Young is still fighting overtly for the environmental cause. Mother Earth’s conclusion exacerbates this:

‘Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways Or trade away our children’s days.’

The gig really shifts up a gear when Young exchanges his acoustic guitar for his trusted electronic weapon ‘Old Black’ and his band Promise of the Real are introduced. The subdued, understated opening descends into a frenzy of feedback and crunching guitar sounds, showcasing his accreditation as the godfather of grunge. Most notably Alabama and Words (Behind the Lines of Age) still sound as bitter and venomous as on record, almost 45 years on from Harvest. Even On the Beach’s Revolution Blues is dusted off and Walk On is a jovial experience.

A mention must go to Promise of the Real, in place of the ageing Crazy Horse. Including Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of Willie) they look like excitable children who had won a competition to play alongside their hero. Young to’s-and-fro’s with Lukas, engaging in a sonic, solo duel in constant attempts to out-do one-another, although Young always reigns supreme. This exemplifies the unpredictable nature of the night, as well as the authoritative dominance of the 70-year old, as his band constantly fight to respond to his cues and his lead. Having recorded and released The Monsanto Years with Promise of the Real, it comes as a surprise to only hear one song from the album, that being the self-titled single. This is somewhat a relief after a Bristol audience was subject to hearing the entirety of the then-unreleased Tonight’s the Night, four times over in 1973. It is safe to say that Young’s songwriting hasn’t gotten any less confrontational, however:

‘Every year he buys the patented seeds Poison-ready they’re what the corporation needs, Monsanto When you shop for your daily bread and walk the aisles of Safeway, Safeway.’

The rocker attempting to tackle his vendetta against Safeway.

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There is a notable lack of Zuma, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps, though with 36 studio albums to his name, it is inevitable that some albums will be overlooked. One album that is well-showcased is his and Crazy Horse’s excellent 1990 effort Ragged Glory. This is not just because Young concludes with a 30 minute Love and Only Love from the aforementioned album. While at first encapsulating, compelling and hypnotic, twenty minutes in it seems as though Young has forgotten he’s performing to a crowd, and instead serving his own boredom, or rather his ego.

F*!#in’ Up provides the youthful encore, bringing the 2 and a half hour barnstorming set to a close. For one last time the three guitarists and bassist gather in the centre of the stage in attempts to impress one another, as they had all night. Their musical chemistry is clear. By the end Neil Young is hard to distinguish as the old crony, as the band engage in a food fight, aiming cherries at each other and into the crowd. Promise of the Real not only sufficiently support Young musically, but they bring the 70-year olds’ youth back out of him. Tonight proves that Neil Young is not just an ailing rocker and that he still has a thing or two to teach today’s youth about how to rock out.

Coldplay at Wembley 16.06.2016

Coldplay redeem my faith in the world with a spectral showpiece.

The second of four sold out nights at the home of English failure (football*) saw the London band paint their home town multi-coloured, like they swallowed a rainbow and projectile vomited it across Wembley.

Support acts Lianne Le Havas and Alessia Cara proved to be underwhelming, failing to clear the dark clouds that hovered literally and metaphorically after the horrific events of previous weeks. Despite the former seducing us with her charm and soul, the latter lectured us with her ‘be who you want to be, not what the media wants you to be’, broken-hearted, excessive thanks etc. spiel. Considering the scale of Coldplay’s previous supports (see Jay Z and Girls Aloud circa 2008), the £70 ticket prices perhaps could have stretched further and provided more than just a gazebo to protect their supports from the rain.

Nonetheless the band the 80,000 fans came to see spared no expense theatrically and pyrotechnically. Coldplay’s arrival on stage brought the first of numerous explosions of confetti of the night. Entire forests must have been demolished to supply Coldplay with confetti for their tour; it was possibly the reason why Chris Martin’s ex-wife and renowned environmental nut Gwyneth Paltrow ‘consciously uncoupled’ him. A huge commitment to his trade, dare I say it marital martyrdom. Martin and co. transformed Wembley into a glistening spectacle with an impressive lights show involving LED wristbands; the stadium must have resembled a UFO from afar. The audience thus became part of the show, rather than just spectators. Coldplay clearly weren’t put off by the fact that this same stunt left their Mylo Xyloto Tour completely unprofitable. Nevertheless, the stadium glowed and sparkled beautifully like a psychedelic acid trip from the 60s. Even the band’s instruments dripped multi-coloured paint as though they had fallen into an M & Ms mixing vat. This all distracted from the fact the title track from the band’s latest effort A Head Full of Dreams opened the show rather modestly, despite Chris Martin’s best efforts to lead the procession like a master of ceremonies with the demeanour of an excitable Jack Russell.

Martin gets his fair share of stick but it is hard to deny his showmanship qualities. While the rest of Coldplay stand mute on the grand stage, the band’s lead singer and leader entertains the crowd like a poorly dressed performing monkey (see his repugnant, rainbow-coloured, over-sized basketball sneakers and long-sleeved and short sleeved t-shirt combo) . His energetic bursts up and down the stage runway, solo-spinning like a drunk in a club just before lights go up, not to mention his ability to hold a tune at the same time, renders Martin a real tour de force to admire. However with the more downbeat numbers like Yellow (gotten out of the way surprisingly early), The Scientist, and Fix You seeing mass sing-a longs, it shows involvement takes no persuading. As the lyrics reverberated around North London, it became clear how personal and recognisable they are to each and every member of the audience; a testament to just how ingrained Coldplay have become within British culture.

13450891_10157042234300187_6799952874059811115_nNew, seventh album A Head Full of Dreams was, as expected, heavily showcased this evening. So much so that the Grammy Award-winning debut Parachutes and Brit award-winning and Grammy-nominated X & Y were neglected in favour for the mixed reviewed A Head Full of Dreams and Chris Martin’s sickening ode to his break up with Paltrow, Ghost Stories. Nevertheless it sounded better live, with the likes of Hymn for the Weekend (minus Beyonce, unfortunately) and Jonny Buckland’s infectious guitar rhythms on lead single Adventure of a Lifetime proving that every Coldplay song is made for live performances.

Swapping from the main stage to a smaller podium in the centre of the stadium, the band oscillated to more subdued numbers like 2014’s Magic and the audience Instagram-requested (Coldplay you don’t help yourself) God Put a Smile Upon Your Face, wonderfully harking back to second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. Drummer Will Champion, bassist Guy Berryman, Martin and Buckland crowded round the podium in what were nice, stripped-back, understated renditions, particularly compared to the colourful parade that had preceded. A poignant, yet dreadful, cover of the late, great David Bowie’s Heroes, also featured, with the band paying tribute to Muhammad Ali, the Orlando victims, MP Jo Cox and Christina Grimmie, throughout the night.

Paradise was as fun as you’d imagine, until what seemed like the concert had been hijacked by Calvin Harris for an unnecessary nightclub rave-esque ending. Mylo Xyloto’s Charlie Brown provided a highlight of the night, it turned the concert from toe-tapping into full-scale jumping even getting the elderly audience members (sorry father) bouncing enthusiastically. Viva La Vida was the peak, and would later echo along Wembley Way all the way to Wembley Park Station. The encore, however, failed to elevate the concert to new heights with most of the songs you’d expect at the climax used up earlier, instead opting to finish with Up&Up; nice but just that.

Coldplay, love them or loathe them, are currently the biggest pop band in the world. Now veterans of the big stage, having performed the ‘prestigious’ Superbowl Half Time Corporate Circus, and headlining Glastonbury for – what seemed like – the 16th time, their pensions are well and truly secure, please now get back to writing good albums.

Wolf Alice at Oxford Academy 13.03.2016

Wolf Alice prove why they are the most exciting British rock band around today, leaving Oxford with a trail of glitter in their wake.

Opening band, grunge try-hards, Bloody Knees sounded more like a Nirvana B-sides cover band. It begged the question where they got their name from: when vigorously pleading on their knees to Wolf Alice’s tour manager to let them support, or worse, when providing him with sexual pleasure. (Despite my admittedly harsh criticism Joff and Joel of Wolf Alice would later sport Bloody Knees merch, so what do I really know).

Swim Deep, however, nicely set the stage for the main act. Their set included ‘King City’ and ‘She Changes the Weather’ from their 2013 debut, and one couldn’t help but get lost in the dream pop. Aided, no doubt, by performance enhancing substances, frontman Ozzy Williams looked like an anti-drugs campaign advert. His over-sized white shirt could have been mistaken for an escaped strait jacket and combined with his occasional wide-eyed psychotic scream Williams could have just walked onstage from an insane asylum. In half an hour they showcased their excellent second album, ‘Mothers’, finishing with ‘Fueiho Boogie’, the colossal trance-pop anthem of 2015. The performance culminated in four out the five members plugged into a keyboard/synthesiser, synthesising away, to carefully transport the crowd to whatever planet Swim Deep had reached.

Having been supported by Drenge on their last tour, this is a testament to the scale of Wolf Alice’s ascent in the past year. They’ve leapfrogged the aforementioned Drenge and now Swim Deep (whom Wolf Alice actually supported in 2014) – both with two albums under their belt – to lead the pack of upcoming British rock bands. The future looks bright.

Somewhere between the attempted grunge of Bloody Knees and the indie-pop of Swim Deep lies Wolf Alice. ‘Genreising’ the band proves to be a tough ask with the following terms being used in attempt to categorise: ‘Brit-Grunge’, ‘shoegazing indie’, ‘90s indie rock’, ‘intimate folk’ and ‘bubblegrunge’, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Ultimately, they don’t fit a mould; they simply don’t follow the ‘guide to making an indie band’, which is possibly the finest compliment I can pay.

Opening with ‘Your Loves Whore’, the pulsing strobe lights flashing an intense orange added to the ferocity of what would be a fierce performance. The anti-love song set the standard for what would be an intense and hard-hitting show. Followed by ‘You’re a Germ’, the disgust and animosity spat out by the wide and wild-eyed Ellie Rowsell almost felt personal. Adorning a black dress and covered in glitter, the frontwoman looked both ready for prom, but also as if she was about to attend a funeral. Perhaps this interpretation was more reflective of the themes she would sing about. Nonetheless, this is enough reason to tear down those posters of Hayley Williams, or for those still living in the nineties, Courtney Love, because Ellie Rowsell is the new poster girl for rock.

The glitter-clad crowd looked like a group you’d expect to see at a Paramore gig, the same sort that camped overnight to get into the first showing of Twilight Eclipse the day it opened back in 2010. Maybe they followed the trail of glitter to the venue, or their curiosity in the fact the band is named after a fairy tale by Angela Carter. Maybe it’s me being cynical, but nevertheless, this shouldn’t distract from the serious subjects being tackled. Deceptively dark themes of growing up, adolescence, love, abuse, drugs, depression and death, are hauntingly but innocently embodied by Wolf Alice and their music.

‘Bros’ and ‘Freazy’ immediately follow. These very danceable, more light-hearted tracks complimant and simultaneously provide a welcome respite from the venomous fury of the opening two songs. The untamed songs juxtaposed to the dreamier, sway-inducing numbers demonstrate this ranging unpredictability which makes Wolf Alice the band to watch and the best product of 2015. The more composed ‘Silk’ is a highlight, even better live than on record. It sounds like a lullaby, and is another example of the set fluctuating from feral to the ethereal in an instant. The 23 year old Rowsell proves she is both vocally brilliant and able to convey ranging emotions, much like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith.

Wolf Alice isn’t all about its gem of a frontwoman, however. At stage right prowls Joff Oddie, the band’s lead guitarist whose influence on the band’s sound is evident on ‘Lisbon’, ‘Fluffy’ and with just about every guitar effect heard on the night. On the other side of Rowsell lurks the open-shirted, stagefloor-spitting, bass slapping Theo Ellis looking like Sid Vicious but overdosed on glitter. Drummer Joel Amey, makes sure he isn’t overlooked, adequately assuming vocals for ‘Swallow Tail’, the band’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The unrushed, winding five minute build-up concludes with a final minute, swallowdive plunge into musical chaos.

The quartet have set a new standard for upcoming bands. The band refused to rush their first album as four EPs teased us before the much-anticipated debut was dropped last summer. These EPs were showcased this evening with the dreamy ‘90 Mile Beach’, head-banging ‘Storms’, nightmarish ‘She’ and heart-breaking ‘Blush’ proving that Wolf Alice’s back catalogue is extensive and impressive. Debut ‘My Love is Cool’ was a long time coming, especially since the band’s inception as a folk duo (Rowsell and Oddie) back in 2010. But it didn’t disappoint, receiving widespread critical acclaim and certainly ranking among my best debuts of recent years. As a result, Wolf Alice are Brit nominees, Mercury Prize nominees, NME award winners, and most remarkably Grammy nominees for closing firecracker ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’.

The band returned to the stage for an encore starting with ‘Turn to Dust’, its messages of immortality posing food for thought as it diffused throughout Oxford Academy. They would finish with the giant ‘Giant Peach’, making sure they left their glittery mark on another stage on their sold out tour. Assisted by Rowsell and Ellis’s trademark dance routine, this finale marked an undisputed effortless triumph.

While the band are unlikely to have thought about a second album – their debut being proof of why to not rush records out – fans will wait hungry for more. In the meantime, they should savour these shows because this might well be the last chance you get to see Wolf Alice in such an intimate environment.

Grammblings

Rock artists have no problems collecting Grammy Awards, just look at Bruce Springsteen with 20 and I’m sure Bono will show you the crown he had melted out of the 22 trophies U2 have won. Rock does have its own categories, of course. However, annually, the decisions made by ‘industry experts’ to historically cement a Best Rock Album, Song, Performance etc, of the year, does provide frustrations to rock music fans. It is shocking that The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Queen, The Who and Tupac Shakur have never won a Grammy Award. It is unforgivable that The Strokes, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads have never even received a nomination. This list of grammy-less music icons is long enough but worryingly it seems to be growing. With the nominations for the 2016 awards being announced on December 7th, and with a host of outrageous omissions and inclusions, the rock categories are more neglected than ever.

Starting with the holy grail of the rock categories, the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. 2016’s nominations boast a list of possibly the most uninspiring rock albums of the year. I will start with James Bay’s The Chaos and the Calm. Enough to make any rock music fan feel nauseous. It must be obvious what’s coming next. Best Rock Album?! Just because he wears a hat doesn’t make him Slash. Quickly moving on. Second on my hit list is Matt Bellamy’s most egotistical and self-indulgent work yet, Muse’s Drones. Take the song Revolt as an example, ‘They’ll take away our homes, They’re just machines and drones’. Hardly Dylan or Cohen-esq. Then there’s the highly suspect decision to award Highly Suspect a nomination for their almost unknown album Mister Asylum. We’ve also got the remarkably unremarkable Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie. The only album on the list even slightly worthy of the nomination for Best Rock Album of the Year is Slipknot’s comeback 0.5 The Gray Chapter. The disappointing thing is that I could list five better rock albums from the past year off the top of my head. Wolf Alice’s sublime debut My Love Is Cool, Mini Mansions’ shockingly yet inevitably overlooked The Great Pretenders, Foals’ What Went Down and The Maccabees’ Marks To Prove It (both lacking necessary exposure across the pond), Kurt Vile’s B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down…, Blur’s The Magic Whip, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, I could go on.

This dull list of Best Rock albums possibly overcomes the controversies of past years. U2’s notorious musical nuisance Songs of Innocence’s nomination last year, and even worse, Led Zeppelin’s live album Celebration Day winning in 2014, despite being recorded in 2007 and released in 2012. It should be acknowledged that the real controversy here was that this was the first Grammy won by Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin, whom some regard as the greatest rock band of all time, should have been recognised for their genre-defining work four decades ago.

Interestingly the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) did see past the latest albums of usual Grammy favourites Mumford and Sons, Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs and Foo Fighters. Although they did manage to slip a debatable nomination in for Something From Nothing for Best Rock Performance. As did British grunge newcomers and future superstars Wolf Alice, who received a humbling but much-deserved nomination for their juggernaut hit Moaning Lisa Smile. They join Dave Grohl and Co., Alabama Shakes’ Don’t Wanna Fight, Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s, and Florence + The Machine’s What Kind of Man, on what is a far more encouraging list. I could be picky, Tame Impala, to name one exclusion, had a fistful of hits, but let’s not spoil the party. Whether the NARAS make a respectable decision we shall have to see on Friday 15th February (see 2014 Best Rock Performance going to alt-rock anti-heroes and drum-assaulting Imagine Dragons’ pop hit Radioactive over the consistently criminally overlooked Queens of the Stone Age, with My God is the Sun).

The most exciting rock-related Grammy category of recent years is undoubtedly for Best Alternative Album. Despite being a category within which to honour Radiohead whenever they release an album, and the considerably blurred lines between the rock/alternative categories (with Green Day, The White Stripes, Coldplay and the Black Keys interchanging between the two), it does boast the strongest rock albums. This year Tame Impala, Alabama Shakes, Bjork, My Morning Jacket and Wilco are up for the gong. Last year saw a list that could have easily been mistaken for the Best Album Award: Alt-J, Arcade Fire, Jack White, Cage the Elephant and eventual winner St Vincent. While it is fantastic to see such variety and deserved recognition, it is a shame that these albums are sidelined into an arguably lesser category.

A few more problems with the Grammy Awards:
– The categorisation of the Grammy Awards is clearly still a problem. Despite the total number of awards being cut from 109 in 2011 to 78 in 2012, I still feel like I could win (or at least be nominated) in one of the many categories, one day. The Grammy Award for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package goes to Helen from DHL; the Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals goes to Vincent, an excessively fussy florist; and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance goes to the one person who knows what that is, probably a Sebastian. It provides the complete opposite problem to the farcical BBC Music Awards which offers just 5 awards on the night.
– Another glaring issue with the Grammys is the Americanised nature of it, which is reflected in the fact that country has 4 awards on offer, Christian/Gospel has 5 and American Roots has 7. These are all effectively solely winnable by American Artists. In comparison, Reggae only has one available award. To say the Grammys are western, US or even white-centric is an understatement, but that is a discussion for another day.
– The inconsistencies of the prize awarding also leads to confusion: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs losing to the Black Keys’ Brothers in the Best Alternative Album category in 2011, but winning Best Album overall. Similarly, in 2013 Mumford and Sons’ Babel won Best Album but lost out in the undeniably lesser Best American Roots Album category.
– Along with the endless list of awards on offer, the constantly changing awards categories (the Best Metal Song award, for example lasted two years), as well as unclear differences between awards (Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, Record of the Year and Song of the Year) provides problems for artists, academy members and music fans, alike.

When superannuated Luton flute-rock band Jethro Tull caused arguably the biggest Grammy’s upset of all time by claiming the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental in 1988, the category was consequently scrapped. Their fusion of prog/hard-rock and woodwind instruments on Crest of a Knave was favoured over Metallica’s seminal and hotly tipped …And Justice For All. As a result of this controversy and the ensuing criticism faced by the NARAS, the Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Metal Performance categories were born. Almost reflecting the guilt felt by the NARAS, Metallica would go on to win Best Metal Performance in 1989, 1990 and 1991; it was almost as if the category was literally made for them.

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Metallica lost out to flute playing Jethro Tull for 1988 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental

Other notable controversies (to name a few) include:
– Steely Dan winning Album of the Year in 2001 over Radiohead’s Kid A and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP.
– The Baha Men winning Best Dance Recording in 2001 for Who Let The Dogs Out.
– Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down winning Album of the Year in 1985 ahead of two of the best albums of all time, Purple Rain and Born in the USA.
– Eric Clapton’s Layla Unplugged beating Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for Best Rock Song in 1993
– The 1970 Album of the Year gong going to Blood, Sweat and Tears for their self-titled album over The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
– In 1967, Eleanor Rigby and Good Vibrations were overlooked for New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral for Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Recording.
– Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (rightfully) claimed they robbed Kendrick Lamar of four awards in 2014, most notably for The Heist winning Best Rap Album over Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. NARAS has gone some way to rectify this, nominating Lamar 11 times for this year for his critically acclaimed and politically essential To Pimp a Butterfly.

It is clear that the Grammys come with a lot of issues. Its awards are excessive and confusing, and its credibility is surely declining with the questionable nomination and awarding decisions. I have only scratched the service by looking at the rock category. Obviously rock is disregarded by the NARAS, with (too) much focus going towards how many awards Beyonce is going to win, what Kanye West will or won’t do, and what, if anything Jennifer Lopez is wearing. Ultimately, rock n roll doesn’t need the Grammys. James Bay can have his Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song awards. While recognition from ‘industry experts’ is always nice, a welcome boost to the ego of real rockstars; rock n roll isn’t about the awards. The genre wouldn’t be what it is if it was.