Hot 8 Brass Band

Lips of steel. The three guys on trumpet blast out top Cs for over 90 minutes, whipping the crowd into a happy frenzy as they do so. There’s also two percussionists, two trombones, a saxophonist and even a real-life genuine sousaphone.

Unfortunately, Whelan’s isn’t much of a venue: apparently “doors open at 8pm sharp” means the concert actually starts about 9.35pm and the sound is terrible. A brass band performing in such a small space does not need amplification and I’ve never seen so many appeals to the sound guy to please turn up the damn trumpets – why not just make the whole thing louder and let the musicians decide the mix? Or, if you have to mess with it, turn down the bass: this isn’t a rock concert.

However, quibbles aside, the night is still great fun. I’m not sure how well their music transfers to a recording but, live, they’re fantastic.

Big Hands

Big hands! He’s got very big hands: when he sits down at the piano, I swear fully half the keys are covered by those two hands. Boris Berezovsky – this one, not that one, which must be fun at the airport – is in town and, for perhaps the first time, we’ve a perfect view of the proceedings of a solo piano concert: cheapest tickets they may be but up here in the heavens of the National Concert Hall’s choir seats you can see (in the words and manner of Patrick Steward in “Extras”) everything.

I’d heard Berezosky’s live recording of the Godowsky Chopin transcriptions and – aside from the small revelation of encountering the default alarm clock ringtone of a former mobile phone – loved them. Take some of the hardest piano music ever written and…play it one hand. Reverse the left and right hands. Whatever tricks you can think of, he employed them.

After further research (a trip to Wikipedia), it turned out Godowsky was, in addition to a formidable pianist, a formidable personality: rehearsing once with amateur violinist Albert Einstein, Godowsky reputedly lost his patience with the greatest scientist of his time and exclaimed,

Oh Einstein, can’t you count?!

Needless to say, all of this was enough to make us swarm to the concert. It certainly didn’t disappoint although I would have loved a repeat of the Godowsky concert. The few pieces he did play were wonderful, however, as fingers rippling down the keyboard in semi-quavers suddenly reach the hard bit…and start to blur.

Is it music – or mere technical showmanship? Was it right to meddle with Chopin’s work? I can see the arguments and…no, I think it’s music and I don’t see the harm. I loved it – big hands!

Nothing But the Same Old Story

Just before Christmas, I chanced upon a copy of the long out-of-print original soundtrack to the TV series “Bringing It All Back Home“. We still have most of the series lying around at home on video tape and, though I’ve yet to watch the complete series, I was keen to get one song in particular, Luka Bloom’s “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time”, which is featured in the first episode.

Listening to the album, another song gradually got my attention: an epic tale of emigration, loneliness and despair, Paul Brady’s “Nothing But the Same Old Story” belongs, at first glance, to a different Ireland. Already, most Irish people have – thankfully – only faint memories of

Living under suspicion
Putting up with the hatred and fear in their eyes
You can see that you’re nothing but a murderer
In their eyes, we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers

For other reasons, however, the song seems strangely relevant. Just as in the 1980s when Brady’s “Hard Station” album was written, unemployment is high, the country broke and the callers to “Liveline” rage about their rising tax bills. Things were good for such a long time: wages were up, the city started to renew itself, people started returning for the first time since…ever.

However, for anybody with the slightest appreciation for what makes cities work, the problems were obvious. Dublin is a small city and it’s disgraceful how inadequate our transport system remains (five years to build two unconnected tram lines!); move outside the cosy bubble of the city centre and observe how the general lack of infrastructure has influenced a never-ending parade of housing estates, a shopping centre the only cultural advantage.

I used to work in the suburbs and the daily ritual of getting to work by public transport was like a window onto the problems of the city: board the bus at that paragon of Dublin architecture, the Department of Health, sit for 70 minutes to travel the 12 miles to work and witness first-hand the social problems of our city as the bus came under fire from rocks hurtled by disaffected youth at any of the many building sites surrounding the wild west that is Blanchardstown and its environs.

It was around then that I started to feel this was not perhaps the best way of life.

Out for a walk on a recent sunny spring evening on Dun Laoghaire pier – not incidentally, one of my favourite things about Dublin – I ran into an old music friend at the train station. We caught up and the conversation was pleasant but ended – as so many do these days – with the words,

“So, yeah, I’m fine. Oh, but, uh, I’m emigrating next week.”

All I could reply with was, “Oh, that’s funny…me too”. Not next week, of course. The arrangements are nowhere near complete. That’s the general plan, though, and it’s been a long time coming. I won’t pretend that the current economic climate has anything to do with those plans but it’s instructive to see how many others have the same plan now. Where did all the money go? We wasted our chance to improve things. There’s better places out there and I’m moving on.

I was just about nineteen
When I landed on their shore
With my eyes big as headlights
Like the thousands and thousands who came before
I was going to be something . . .
Smiled at the man scrutinising my face
As I stepped down off the gangway

A Morning in Cloney

Cloney Audio sell quality hi-fi equipment. Superior and tempting hifi equipment. Their absolute cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel (and I use that term in the loosest sense possible) CD player is priced at €629. Calling here is not a good idea for those planning an extra holiday or possibly even buying a car.

However, I’ve been in pursuit of a good amplifier for some time; my current system is a Denon MD30 micro-system along with a pair of B&W 602 S3 bookshelf speakers; two quality products but the Denon was only ever meant as a short-term solution until I found an amplifier worthy of the B&Ws. These speakers deserve:

  • A decent amplifier. More than decent, perhaps; the speakers themselves are due an upgrade soon enough, so it might make sense to consider an amp that completely outclasses the B&Ws.
  • A CD player. Not a great one because, eventually, I’ll get an audiophile-grade networked music device like the Transporter. The Squeezebox has changed my habits but, for now, I need a decent source.

Cloney were good enough to let me test a multitude of amps, CDs and speakers. In fact, this is why I come here: they’ll let you listen to your CDs on almost any combination of equipment they sell. I tested their sub-€1000 amps with a pair of B&W 685 speakers, the successor (and nearest match) to my current 603s.

Thanks to the salesman’s infinite patience, I eventually settled on a Primare I21. In an effort to relay to my future myself exactly why I chose this amp, I’m going to briefly describe the equipment I tested:

  • Rotel RA04
    An entry-level amplifier, only briefly tested; I wasn’t overly interested and, bizarrely, there’s no remote.
  • Arcam A70
    A league up from the RA04 and roughly twice the price. I also tested these – and every other amp – with a pair of B&W 685s. Detail is good – notably the drums in Lester Bowie – but, to be perfectly honest, I can’t detect €799-worth of difference from my present system. It fact, it seems less lively than what I’m used to.
  • Rotel RA06
    I like this right away. Priced similarly to the A70, this is a totally different machine with a completely different feel: Joni Mitchell is with me in the room, as is Stacy Kent. The trumpet in Gershwin soars above the orchestra, just like you always wished it would. If I see nothing else today, I’m happy with this.
  • Primare I21
    I’ve never heard of these guys (Scandinavian, it turns out). Certainly, it looks very nice and feels solid and reassuring. It’s in a different price league but why not try it while I’m here? Although Gershwin has about the same detail, the piano is very definitely tighter and better separated. The bass in Herbert is clearly more pronounced. In short, it seems this beast has all the detail and brightness of the RA06 along with a warmer sound.

Combined with a second-hand Primare D20 CD player going for a (relative) song – with which it handily shares a remote control – it’s a fairly easy decision.

Expensive taste is a curse; if the Primare was only cheaper, I’d take it. Lo and behold, they have an ex-demo model which works out at the same price as the RA06. My only reservation is that the warmer tone of the Primare may, in some way, neutralise its brightness. However, I eventually reason that it’s surely better to have warmth and brightness than brightness alone.

Having played with it for a few hours now, I’m happy. Almost-€1000-worth of happiness? Hard to tell just yet. It’s different, for sure: better detail in music, more realistic in almost everything. There’s a weird programme about harps on BBC4 right now and it sounds fantastic. It all sounds warm and fuzzy, like you remember an old valve radio. An interesting day, for sure; based on price lists and magazine reviews alone, I’d probably have opted for an Arcam. I’m very glad now I didn’t (and can’t see myself opting for hi-fi equipment blind in the future, plummeting sterling or not). Update on the Primare experience to follow after a few weeks’ listening…

And so it begins…

Summertime, that is, not an inter-galactic battle spurred by the long-forgotten rivalries between two ancient races.

Yes, come this morning, I’m offcall; the sun comes out; stays out; it’s warm enough for wearing only a light jacket to work. A gentle breeze crossing MacMahon bridge. Same on the way home and, at 8pm, it’s still bright. Joy of joys! Looks like things are getting better: it’s officially summertime and summer is actually coming.

Then, when you thought things couldn’t improve, the New York Times reports on a new production of an almost-forgotten and never-recorded Leonard Bernstein musical. A new Bernstein musical?! How many days have that?!?! That’s a damn fine way to usher in summer.

Quote of the Day

They’re all a celebration of how good it is to be alive, apart from the ones which are a lament about how bad it is being dead.

Shane MacGowan, discussing Irish music in a 1991 South Bank Show.

I rescued the show from our aging collection of slowly decaying video tapes (that said, they still play fine after 17 years which, for sure, is a damn sight longer than the DVD+R to which I transferred it will survive) and watched it again this morning.

It’s a beautifully researched and executed programme, the highlights of which are Bob Geldof interviewing Van Morrison and the talking (and, from time to time, singing) heads of Bono, Christy Moore and one Junior Crehan.

Crehan, an old-school traditional session musician and storyteller clearly represents the old Ireland in the face of young upstarts such as Bono, however, crucially, he’s clearly a predecessor rather than the last of his kind.

Subjects of all interviews – and the programme itself, much more so than Irish music per se – are why they write songs and what is Irishness? Answers to such a searching question are, of course, few and far between, however the exploration is wonderfully researched and includes a few key insights (or, at least, assertions) about Irish music:

  • It never underwent a revival, simply because it never died out.
  • Irish songs come from experience, rarely fiction.
  • The words themselves are often less important than the sounds.

Such an exploration cannot help but include, along the way, various insights into Yeats, Joyce and Kavanagh and the distinctions between Irish literature and Irish music do, indeed, blur as Van Morrison launches into a unique version of Kavanagh’s “Raglan Road”.

UPDATE 6/1/2008:

  • I found plenty of references to this show on the web. Directed by Peter Lydon, it’s entitled “Clear Cool Crystal Streams” and was first broadcast on ITV on 21st October 1991. It was entitled “Shamrock ‘n’ Roll” for broadcast in the USA and was reviewed in the New York Times. A 2002 article in Hotpress makes mention of Phil Lynott’s omission which, now I think about it, is a fairly glaring one.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, I can’t find any clips on Youtube. It was definitely worth rescuing my ancient recording.

Chicago Symphony Rehearsal

Well, it was quite a thing, it really was. Rarely has a perilously positioned brass neck’s pay-off been so great. I could have played tourist for the morning; I very nearly did. I had tickets bought and audio player rented for the Chicago Architectural Walking Tour. It meant an early morning but somehow I’d gotten my accoutrements together and carcass down to the ticket office and left time for breakfast.

To celebrate, I’d rewarded myself with breakfast (muffin tops, alá Seinfeld, from a local coffee chain). En route, I’d seen bodies entering and exiting Symphony Hall. It was early morning; my subconsciousness pondered the meaning of this whilst I feeded upon muffin tops.

Some context is required: although we had played in Chicago Symphony Hall and had several days to spend in the city, we had ourselves taken in no shows. Between arrival, concert, jetlag and general “getting our bearings”, we’d made no provision for entertainment as such except for noticing Chicago Symphony were playing Thursday, i.e. tonight. We, unfortunately, had another gig that clashed heart-breakingly with that of the CSO’s. This unfortunate fact had placed something of a damper upon the trip, to say the least. We were sojourned just five minutes down the road in the Hilton Hotel; it may as well have been a light year away.

Back to the moment: 10am, bodies entering the hall…no show scheduled…rehearsal? Could I be so lucky? Well, I declared in the safety of my own mind, it’s worth a try. Emboldened by the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “open rehearsal” in the NCH last year, I decided it was worth ago…

It was closed. Family and special guests of the orchestra only. Sorry son, not a hope. Come back November 9th. Well, with any luck I’d be back home by then. But, wait! I played here the other night! I’m one of you guys! Kiss me, I’m Irish! Well now, that’s a different story…I entered bearing proudly the moniker of “travelling musician”. Half right, at least.

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One very quick text later to my brass buddies ("omg, come down to the hall right now and listen to THIS") and I’m seated just in time for Sibelius’ violin concerto. Christoph von Dohnány is conducting, one Arabella Steinbacher performing the solo. Just like Pittsburgh’s, their rehearsal is essentially the concert: play the piece, play back a few random bars. A bit like Gordon Ramsey’s F Word – “bar 80, violins. bar 114, horns. Sibelius violin concerto…done.”

Following this, my trombone colleague arrives with supernaturally good timing for the highlight of the evening, (morning in our case) Bruckner’s 4 symphony. This is a treat from start to end. A delightful horn solo is rewarded with the orchestra’s foot stomping (tonight’s audience won’t get that!), the most perfect string section imaginable is counterbalanced with a most bombastic brass section putting in their oar for some demanding ff passages. Then, at the end, we got to hear the horn solo again! Magic.

Not much more to say. It was simply surreal: sitting down, savouring what is quite possibly the best orchestra on planet earth perform for me, my friend and just one other person. Now, if I never do anything else again, you can put that on my tombstone!

iTunes

  1. Connect iPod to MacBook. iTunes has compatibility with such devices, to a point.
  2. iTunes recognises iPod.
  3. iPod library appears in iTunes.
  4. I play a track.
  5. Track plays. I’m happy, however fleetingly.
  6. Error message appears saying something like “iPod cannot be synced as the file is locked.” I am puzzled and concerned since I ticked the box “do not even attempt to sync my library with my iPod, ever” because I have an advanced piece of software over here which handles multi-directional transfer of music between computers and portable music players and doesn’t require credit card details in order to download album artwork.
  7. I continue but this message keeps appearing. Over in the iTunes browser, weird things are happening.
  8. Ignore all training by suddenly ripping iPod cable from iPod. Scare co-workers by swearing loudly in the office.
  9. The genre of each track I’ve played through iTunes has inexplicably changed from “Electronic” to “5”.Vow never to try anything involving iTunes ever again…especially playing music.

Amoeba Records

Dangerous. That’s the only word for Amoeba Records.

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Outside it is the 60s, with bar-goers spilling out into the street, smoking an assortment of substances and generally hanging out, bikers revving their Harleys up and down in the evening sunset and the suddenly-short buildings evoking Los Angeles…but there’s no mistaking the Victorian houses and improbably sloping streets for anywhere but San Francisco.

It’s a tenuous position, really, for a brass band-playing do-gooder software engineer but I make it inside safely.

This warehouse of a shop has everything: new, used, rock, pop, jazz, classical, reggae, punk. Apparently you go down in Amoeba Records lore forever (“arms as big as tree trunks, hair red, like the fires of hell”, etc.) if you ask for a disc by a band they’ve never heard of. Asking for The Idle Race doesn’t even faze them:

It’s in oldies.

Other notable buys are the complete four-disc “Hot Fives and Sevens” Louis Armstrong set and, at last, the Traveling Wilburys.

San Francisco really seems to eschew the chain stores…I’ve seen a Barnes and Noble but overall it’s full of one offs or, like Amoeba, mini-chains. For instance:

  • They have their own “scan and listen” posts which have a decent subset of their selection and look to be cobbled together in Linux with a skinned XMMS providing the playback. A far cry from Borders’ flashy listening posts…and somehow endearingly “just how I would have done it if I’d been asked” in spirit.
  • They publish a big newsletter with picks and random comments by their staff (at least some of whom seem always to have wanted to work in a record shop) across all genres.

It’s great. I can’t buy enough. All in all, I create another packing problem for myself and mercifully avoid the DVD section altogether.