TalentBanq: the new home of live music takes wing

28 Jan
Coffeepot Drive Soundbanq

Who says the devil has all the best tunes? Coffeepot Drive rock the launch of TalentBanq at 229 The Venue. Photo by Brown Eyed Girl

What a night! This week saw the launch of a new live music company devoted to, as CEO Ray Jones enthusiastically put it from the stage, “discovering, nurturing, promoting and paying new and unsigned talent”. The company is called TalentBanq, and they have 50 artists on their roster already.

Some of the best were showcased at 229 The Venue in central London, and they ranged from excellent to ridiculously good. Definitely in the latter camp is Liverpudlian solo artist Joe Slater, whom I wrote about in December. The Oasis-tinged tunes were as mighty as the first time I saw him, and this time I could concentrate more on the lyrics. “Singing for my sorrow, drinking for my pain/ Close the blinds in sunshine, walk around in the rain” was one couplet from Slow Down I scribbled in my notes.

Joe Slaetr Talentbanq

Joe Slater at TalentBanq: destined for stardom. Photo by PJ Photography

With his raspy voice, perfect pitch and soulful delivery, Slater is unquestionably destined for stardom, though he fared a little less well in the second half of the night, when we were ushered from an intimate venue into a much larger space. He was still magnificent, but a portion of the audience wouldn’t know it – those at the back kept talking through the performance, and Joe hasn’t yet developed the stage presence to get them to shut the f*** up. Would acquiring two more musicians help him transition to the larger venues he’ll soon command?

Another favourite from the December gig closed the night: Coffeepot Drive, still with their guitarists’ angel wings – one pair black, one pair white – and again getting the whole audience moving. When the keyboards were foregrounded they sounded a little like Deep Purple – if Deep Purple had a frontwoman with a gospel-powered voice, afro hair and knee-high boots, and swung as much to funk as to rock. You can imagine them wowing every festival in the UK come summer.

Some other shout-outs: Hollie Rogers has an unusually low-pitched and warm voice, giving real depth and emotion to her songs. I also bloody loved Anavae, a three-piece that had no problem filling the huge space. Their intro was pure showmanship: the lights came up on three drummers, one seated at a kit, the other two – a man and an elfin woman – standing bashing at drums to make a wall of sound like those Japanese drummer monks. After a minute or so, the two broke off into their natural roles – her singing, him at the guitar – but by then the spell was cast: the audience were hooked.

I’d struggle to describe or define their sound, which means it’s original enough not to be easily pigeonholed into a genre. But let’s try this: If Björk were to do heavy rock, it might sound a bit like this. The guitarist/singer duo, Jamie Finch and Rebecca Need-Menear, have been making music since 2011, and their experience shows. But whoever the drummer is they had with them on the night, he’s great – and I speak as the father of a talented drummer. I’d happily go see again.

Ray Jones Talentbanq

Ray Jones, CEO of TalentBanq. Photo by PJ Photography

All in all, if this selection is indicative of the quality of artists on the TalentBanq roster, they’ll soon be supplying original live talent to every conceivable venue from pubs and coffee shops through corporate gigs to massive festivals. The talent behind the scenes is impressive, too. As well as CEO Ray Jones, who brings a surprising energy to the role of compere – like David Rodigan, he looks like an accountant, but can get a vast room hanging on every word – the chief investor is Sir Mervyn Davies, Chairman of the Royal Academy of Arts Board of Trustees and also of Corsair Capital. He joked: “I love fine food, fine wine, and great music, and I invest in all three – luckily two of those make money.”

TalentBanq’s Chairman is Pablo Ettinger, one of the founders of Caffè Nero and the man responsible for its promotion of live music. And TalentBanq’s Creative Director is the irrepressible Laura Westcott, a classically trained singer with a great ear for talent of whom I’ve previously written when she launched Soundcheque and then Music for Mental Wealth. She’s achieved amazing things since leaving The Times (where I have recently gone back to work), especially given her unusual handicap: she cannot recognise certain common words, namely “can’t”, “no”, and “impossible”.  🙂

Advertisements

Holy s***: a Catholic take on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

16 Jan
08-three-billboards-w600-h315-2x

Frances McDormand’s grieving, angry mother faces down Sam Rockwell’s incompetent police officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The defining moment of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as good as any film we’ll see this year or next, comes, as it should, in the first few minutes. Frances McDormand stalks into a local advertising firm and demands to know: “What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say ‘fuck’, ‘piss’ or ‘cunt’. That right?”

It’s her first line. Quite the introduction to our no-shits-given, no-shit-taken protagonist. But the key moment is not that. It’s this: moments later, she spots a cockroach waggling its legs upside-down on the window sill. We expect her to squash it. Instead, almost tenderly, she pokes it upright with one finger. It’s an insect variation on Blake Snyder’s famous “Save The Cat” advice for rendering a flawed hero likeable, but it’s also the crux of the film.

Three Billboards may appear to be all about aggression and violence, especially from the trailer, but really it’s all about forgiveness, compassion, redemption. And not the bullshit, two-bit redemption of Hollywood’s debased currency – “his daughter died so now he’ll save this other girl and that’ll make it right” – but redemption like Christ on the Cross, flogged and pierced with a lance and crowned with thorns, nails driven through his flesh into the unyielding wood, and still saying “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do”. A silent adjunct to the opening scene is that the young advertising guy is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find when McDormand enters – a story in which a crotchety grandmother finally finds grace moments before being violently murdered.

I’ve been getting Biblical on your ass here because McDonagh so clearly is. Not overtly, not at all: in fact, there’s a wonderful scene in which Frances McDormand’s Mildred comes home to find the local priest in her kitchen, and rips the sanctimonious so-and-so a new one over the church’s condoning of “altarboy-fucking” of which, since he’s “a member of that club”, he is guilty by association. It would not surprise me if this reflected McDonagh’s own views. But lapsed or not, you can’t take the Catholic out of a boy so easily. I should know.

Any redemption in Three Billboards is Biblically hard won: through being disgraced, sacked, burned and pummelled in the face; through losing your daughter and being abused by your husband and still resisting the urge to smash his head in; through a dozen tiny acts of compassion (one of the greatest, and you’ll understand the heft of it when you see the film, is simply handing a badly injured man a straw) that in the end trump revenge.

I’ve been told that actors will riffle through a putative script looking for their “Oscar moment”. In Three Billboards Francis McDormand is given one, or else creates one, with every single scene. But my favourite is just the look she gives when the police chief (Woody Harrelson), whom she blames for not properly investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, inadvertently coughs blood into her face. Her face registers surprise, shock – but also sudden and helpless compassion.

There is a Christ figure in the film, too, if you want to read it that way (and I do), who through the sacrifice of his willing death sets troubled souls on the path to forgiving, and being forgiven. It’s a typically McDonaghesque reversal that that death should be through suicide, perhaps the greatest sin of all in the eyes of the official Church.

Three Billboards is an astonishing film: sacred and profane; tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. I want to see it again. After a year of election upsets, they say there are no certainties. But if Frances McDormand does not follow her Golden Globe with an Oscar it will be stranger than seeing Trump in the White House; and if Martin McDonagh does not pick up at least Best Screenplay, I predict a riot. And I’ll be handing out the Molotov cocktails.

 

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
daisy-ridley-as-rey-and-mark-hamill-as-luke-skywalker-in-star-wars-the-last-jedi

Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

star-wars-8-porgs-food-luke-chewbacca

Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

17 writers on poker: He Played for His Wife and Other Stories

11 Dec

he-played-for-his-wife-and-other-stories-9781471162299_hrThere can’t be many poker players, at least of a certain age, who haven’t read Anthony Holden’s 2002 classic Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. It’s a rare pleasure to read about poker from one who is not merely a skilled player, but a skilled writer, too. At least I thought it was rare, until I went to the recent launch evening for He Played for his Wife and Other Stories at the Hippodrome Casino.

The book, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, features a preface by Al Alvarez and stories by 17 different writers – all of them good, some of them great. One is Barny Boatman, who was at the launch. I told him I hadn’t realised he was a writer as well as a player, and that I’d greatly enjoyed his story, a character study of a born loser with a supernatural twist, which had just been serialised in Bluff magazine.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve written quite a few things, actually. This one took me bloody ages. I rewrote it and rewrote it. So I’m glad it hit the spot. Someone did change a couple of words, but…” Barny smiled. Anyone who’s seen him play will know he wouldn’t fold easily. “…I got it changed back again.”

Anthony Holden sadly could not be at the Hippodrome launch, for health reasons. But there was a bevy of poker-playing actors, including Neil Pearson (who contributed a story), Dougie Henshall and the wildly entertaining Naoko Mori, as well as the playwright Patrick Marber.

I have some history with Marber – he was Time Out’s columnist for a while when I was Editor, so we reminisced about that rather than poker. But it was poker that put him on the road to success that would take him to Hollywood and an Oscar nomination: his first play, which opened at the National Theatre in 1995 and won an Evening Standard award, was Dealer’s Choice, the second part of which takes place entirely around a poker table. Marber’s slice-of-life story in the book, The Old Card Room, is a paean to a vanished era of poker where men with nicknames like The Doc or The Chauffeur played in smoky back rooms and the chosen game was seven-card stud rather than Hold ‘Em.

There are so many strong stories in He Played for his Wife… that it feels invidious to pick out any individual ones. Nevertheless, I did particularly love David Flusfeder’s Heads Up, which imagines a game of heads-up poker in which the antes never go up, between two players so evenly matched that they end up playing forever; a sinister high-stakes story by Michael Craig, author of one of my favourite poker books, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King; and Jennifer Tilly’s Once More Into the Abyss!, which, as the title suggests, is clear-eyed and mildly self-loathing about the dark side of the game.

But the real high-wire writing comes from D.B.C. Pierre in Five Tables. Take this on how he got hooked on poker as a kid, in a family home game:

“Then the table sloughed its salt and pepper and cloth to become a vortex, a court of miracles where the laws of maths spun dust-devils through our hands. I didn’t know at the time how unlikely it is in the history of the world that a deck of cards has ever shuffled into the same order twice, nor how remote the chance is that it ever will; but you could feel the maths swirling. It was a voltage. And there was violence in it.”

After rather too many drinks at the launch to be thinking straight, we all played a tournament, organised by Shelley Rubenstein, who contributes another of the better stories in the book. Shelley’s not afraid to think big. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but in Shelley’s story, He does play poker.

Who won the tournament? I know only that my Aces got cracked by 10-J and I took my leave early. My fault for trying to be too clever: with the blinds high, I let the button in by flat-calling Natalie Galustian’s raise. I figured she and everyone behind me would fold to a 3-bet as I’d been playing tight; also I’d need two players’ chips to stand a chance of winning the tournament. The flop, naturally, had a 10 and a Jack in it to give the button a lucky two pair. Ah, that court of miracles, that violent vortex of maths.

He Played for his Wife and Other Stories, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99

Christmas cheers: a night of Music for Mental Wealth

9 Dec
Coffeepot Drive

Lady Oracle and the angelic guitarists of Coffeepot Drive

“That wasn’t at all what I expected,” said a posh-voiced suit as he exited St Paul’s in Covent Garden, after the Actors’ Church had been shaken to the rafters by a mighty gospel-voiced singer named Lady Oracle and her rock band that included two guitarists with angel wings. He hated it, I thought. He only came for the heavenly a capella carol singing which kicked off the evening by Stelle Cadente, composed of members of the London Philharmonic Choir. But he went on: “It was absolutely fantastic. An amazing evening.”

This was “A Celebration of Christmas and Music”, in aid of Music for Mental Wealth and Nordoff Robbins. As the founder of Soundcheque (see previous blog) as well as of Music for Mental Wealth, Laura Westcott knows a thing or two about talent-spotting, and she came up trumps this time.  There were dizzying arpeggios from classical-crossover pianist GéNIA; a very modern take on the traditional Irish harp from the flame-haired Lisa Canny, who played a blinding version of Ed Sheeran’s You Need Me, I Don’t Need You; and the aforementioned finale by Lady Oracle and her band Coffeepot Drive, where they topped their own songs with the best cover ever of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody.

Joe Slater

Singer/songwriter Joe Slater, up from Liverpool for the Music for Mental Wealth benefit at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden

But fantastic as they were, the real discovery of the night was young singer/songwriter Joe Slater, down for the night from Liverpool, who received a spontaneous and unanimous standing ovation. Ye Gods, that’s a talent. Even the brand-new song he tried out, Wasting Away, was brilliant. The songs have tunes as anthemic as Oasis, his voice is powerful, with high notes in the range, a rock ‘n’ roll rasp on command, and real heart. He’s all there. The complete package. The real deal. To all record label scouts: go see. Go sign.

And of course the night was one in aid of good causes. Laura Westcott herself battled with anxiety and stage fright as a music graduate, which made her courage in singing and reciting a self-composed poem as moving as the verse itself. As was the guitarist in Coffeepot Drive, who spoke of depression and suicide in his musician family, with a broad smile to hide the tears.

Christmas is indeed a time for giving, and not just iffy socks to distant family members who have more than enough already. If you’d like to make a donation, go to www.musicformentalwealth.com.

 

 

 

Raiders of the Lost Art: the singular MuBild exhibition of Frith Powell

2 Nov
FP painting

“Playing Field of a Circular Argument”, by Frith Powell

I saw two art exhibitions at the weekend: the magnificent collection of 50 Cézanne portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and an astonishing retrospective of the work of Oxford-based artist Frith Powell.

Cézanne was termed “the father of us all” by Matisse and Picasso, yet he was at first ridiculed by art critics and achieved recognition only later in life. Though he first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1863, the first (and last) of his paintings was not accepted until 19 years later.

It made me wonder how many great artists are currently hiding in plain sight, unheralded by their contemporaries.

Later this weekend, I got my answer. One, at least, is living in Oxford.

Stepping into the Barn Gallery at St John’s College, one feels something akin to what those Victorian explorers hacking through the jungle must have felt when the undergrowth suddenly gave way to a lost civilisation. Frith Powell’s major exhibition, “The MuBild of Arte Normale and the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, is not just an extraordinary body of work, previously unseen. It feels like a whole new lost branch of art.

DSC_0638

“MuBild” translates as “nothing art”: “Mu” being Japanese for “nothing”, with “Bild” German for “art”. The term “Arte Normale” stems from a meeting in the ‘90s between the artist and Time Out’s then Art Editor, Sarah Kent, which in fact I helped engineer. Frith Powell says that Sarah looked at his paintings nonplussed, saying that this was not “normal abstraction”.

Indeed it’s not. This “nothing art” is like nothing else. It’s an attempt to make abstraction real: to give symbols and figures from Frith Powell’s id solidity and form, in an alternative language whose rules and syntax seem all clearly thought out but are tantalisingly not quite divinable to the outsider. The connection is made overt with a horned symbol that recurs in many paintings, but which Frith Powell has also given physical form in white marble. The sculpture is exquisite, a thing of beauty and mystery, alternately suggesting devil’s horns, a crown, or a plucked tooth.

Frith Powell himself says that “the essential challenge for me, as an abstract painter, is in creating what could be called a ‘fiction of reality’, something that looks as though it might be real, at first sight, or is at least highly suggestive of reality, but on closer examination is seen to be unrecognisable. Other.”

FP Beckley view

“View from the Common Road, Beckley” by Frith Powell

Though the paintings vary in style and medium, having been created over several decades, the whole is astonishingly coherent. Only one work stands out like a sore thumb: “View from the Common Road, Beckley” is a detailed landscape in pen and ink, the perspective perfectly proportioned, the trees just right. One wonders if it is included as a definitive rebuke to the uncharitable viewer who might be wondering whether Frith Powell chooses abstraction only because he lacks the technical skill for representation.

And this is just one half of the exhibition. The other is “The Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, which is a collection of sculptures and objects housed in glass display cabinets. The fact that this exhibition is just five minutes’ walk from Oxford’s ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum gives it extra piquancy. These objects are like the artefacts of some lost tribe – some functional, some religious, some sexually charged.

FP woodland deities

“Woodland Deities”, by Frith Powell

The anime director Hayao Miyazaki would appreciate the series of “Woodland Deities” carved from funguses in the remote forests of Northern Scandinavia, or the twisted branches that have been turned into fantastical flutes, or the faces found in or struck from pebbles. Conversely, Frith Powell (or rather his craftsman alter-ego, Fabio Penitenti) has returned civilisation to nature with three acorns that, if you look closely, were carved from Champagne corks, or spiralling Christmas trees fashioned from tin lids.

Also striking (and very funny; much of the exhibition is playful and raises a smile) are a gigantic spoon carved from a massive block of wood, that has a strong whiff of Christian iconography; and the “Poet’s bird feeder hat”, with bird seed stored in its brim for anyone wanting to play St Francis of Assissi for the day.

DSC_0631

Part of the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti

In the interests of journalistic balance, I must declare an interest: I was at Oxford with Frith Powell’s wife Louise, also an artist, and have known the couple, on and off, for three decades. But I have seen only the odd piece until now. If I hadn’t been impressed, I would have written nothing. It is as a critic, not a friend, that I say this is an exceptional body of work, all the more astonishing for having been hidden from the light for so many years – Frith Powell is now 70.

Will art critics make the trek to Oxford? Are any editors still interested in unearthing fresh talent rather than chasing the clicks of the more established names? Perhaps not. But take my word for it. If you are in Oxford between now and November 16, do visit the Barn Gallery at St John’s College.

Remember that even Cézanne was once unknown.