Review: The Death of Stalin (cinema)


Three nights out in a row on work nights, and my ability to describe and process any sort of story is starting to fade…(cue undergrad me sneering over her grammar books in the pub) so though I enjoyed this movie a lot, I’m not sure I’ve got too much to say about it.

The main thing that I keep coming back to is that I don’t feel this is a story I should have been taking sides in. There’s no one I should have been rooting for involved in these events. And yet. In this week of completely unsurprising headlines about various political figures and Hollywood names who struggle to keep their wandering hands in check (and far worse), Simon Russel Beale’s smug Beria made such a potent villain that I would have cheered on any other scumbag willing to set him on fire. And so I did. Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev was a man constantly on the back-foot, seemingly unable to keep pace with the scheming around him, but who doesn’t love an underdog? And then there was Michael Palin’s cuddly Molotov, who missed his wife, narrowly missed his own execution, and remained cringingly loyal to the cause throughout. By the time Jason Isaacs strode up as Zhukov, Yorkshire accent booming, I just wanted someone competent to catch up to Beria and stop him. Since seeing the movie, He Judges has been refreshing his already prodigious historical knowledge by reading up on the various plotters’ Wikipedia pages. I can’t quite bring myself to, but he assures me that what I suspect is true: no one involved was squeaky clean, and none of them were worth rooting for. Still, as he puts it, only Beria would have made a second Stalin. It’s the least worst outcome that you can get behind in this film.

Whilst I’m very much of the opinion that mocking the self-important is a great way to undermine them, The Death of Stalin manages to do this whilst retaining an air of menace. The main characters are all utterly absurd in their own ways, but the cumulative effect of the council is still there, and the incompetent jockeying for power results in a fair amount tragedy, though perhaps not as much as anything more calculated might have done. Besides, their incompetence is nicely set off and contextualised by the alcohol-soaked conspiracy theories of Vasily Stalin, who really is ineffectual when viewed alongside the councillors.

I kept thinking of Santa Evita, too, and the worship of dead tyrants by those who gained little enough under their rule. The Death of Stalin isn’t much interested in the wider implications of the scheming and posturing of its main characters, but the working folk supposedly represented by them get a brief look-in when Khrushchev forces the reopening of the trains and lets the mourners flood into Moscow. Thousands are shot by twitchy members of the NKVD, but it’s even more depersonalised than the accident of timing that saves some from the purges, whilst others are shot even as the order to cease arrives. A few scenes remain to bring the consequences home, such as the father who was given away by his son returning for an awkward family reunion, but this isn’t a movie where you’re encouraged to get too close to anyone at all; they’re either dreadful or likely to be short-lived, or both.

However, expanded from her historical role in events, Olga Kurylenko’s serene, disdainful Maria Yudina was a highlight (the one person whose Wikipedia page I was minded to look up). Projecting fearlessness when all around her seemed unable to contain their own panic, provoking anyone who she came into contact with, she felt like a truly wild card in amongst the others. Presumably that was why the graphic novel on which the film is based gave her a more prominent role in the scheming, as a catalyst to allow events to be told in a far shorter time frame than reality allowed.

Alright, this no doubt seems a terribly po-faced response to what was a genuinely funny film, but I’ve not got the energy to figure out how the council is meant to stand in for Theresa May’s cabinet of creeps and Brexiteers, and I’m often uneasy describing this kind of story that takes the essence of historical events and prods them into caricature. Perhaps it was all a bit above my head. Perhaps I can’t plot and run at the same time. Still, I’m more than happy to take the simple satisfaction of seeing Beria’s carefully-laid plans crumble into nothing (nothing that will benefit him, at least); his reliance on fear and threats to keep everyone in line ultimately undermined when people realise they’ve no need to be grateful for his small mercies if they just unite against him. Even if said unity is something of an illusion.


Review: The Furrow Collective (The Junction, Cambridge)

Yup, my own shoddy photo…

Next, we have a murder ballad for you, says the band. Hooray, the audience responds. The band is delighted. This is folk music, and even a  polite, below capacity Cambridge crowd knows to cheer for a murder ballad. Even outside the folk club we can muster a bit of a sing along when there’s local ale and Lucy Farrell’s firm cajoling.

The Furrow Collective are sort of a folk supergroup, with a pair of Scots (Alasdair Roberts and Rachel Newton) and a pair of English musicians (Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell): four strong, distinctive voices and hands accomplished enough to cover electric guitar, saw, banjo, harp, squeeze-box, viola and a trusty shaken-egg. They’re the perfect band for this time of year too, taking traditional songs about death and secrets and ghosts and Skye waulking (not, they stress, Skywalking, though that would of course be some sort of dream crossover for me) from all over the place and giving them a distinctive re-tuning to suit their four harmonised voices.

It’s also something of an open secret that most of the audience has probably heard only one of their songs in advance , and probably associates it heavily with Chris Cornwell’s lanky, bug-eyed beasties and their eerie world. Like the video above for Wild Hog in the Woods, the band on the surface seems quite mellow and sweet, but they’re soon revealed to be a coiled spring of the precision unheimlich. Am I overstating this because of the Cambridge crowd? Maybe. (It’s quite likely, isn’t it?) But what first attracted me to folk music was not, as I then assumed, Seth Lakeman’s power chord fiddle playing, stadium folk with the emotions turned up to twelve, but the sheer existential horror of stories of forgotten, violently silenced women like Kitty Jay and Josie. The Furrow Collective know how to sell that dread in a subtler way, and it’s so much more effective for it.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that they could have made an awful lot more noise than they did, but they chose not to, and it gave their songs an eerie tension. This is true of songs I was less familiar with, and with their fearless takes on classics made popular by Martin Carthy, whether solo or with Steeleye Span. The rocking banjo version of King Henry and the hypnotic Polly Vaughan showed their confidence in taking these well known songs on and giving them yet another twist, freshening them and pushing their narratives to the foreground. The repeated lines and circling choruses of their songs were polished storytelling devices, making sure the audience kept the thread of the song, and only rarely sliding into a background of plinky-plonk toe tapping (and indeed, still the best sort of plinky-plonk toe tapping!).

There’s a natural sort of irony to a lot of the songs sung from the perspective of a sentenced criminal, or any other public figure whose point of view was adopted by a troubadour at some point . Whether you’re making your local outlaw into some sort of Robin Hood, Hobsbawmian bandit by claiming he’d have gotten away with it if not for that pesky Eve-archetype of a woman, or simply imagining your Royal OT3 in an awkward situation, your story is a lot more palatable, at least to a modern audience, if there’s a bit of a knowing wink to it. The Furrow Collective seem to have that down pat, and to know just how seriously some of these stories should be taken: tell them with a straight face, but let it be known there’s a twinkle in your eye. It doesn’t mean sacrificing the genuine emotion that’s helped preserve a lot of this stuff, whether it comes from men’s grievances against disloyal wives or from women’s regrets about the men they’ve married.

The four very different voices of the group members, and the variety of instruments they can play between them, keep the set lively and interesting, and keep the stories absorbing; even simple ditties about tending sheep and old nags. The way in which they offer each other the foreground in songs is effective but never forced or over-mannered, so that while a female voice may ‘tell’ the story, and Alasdair Roberts may sing lines spoken by a man, or vice-versa, the consideration is above all that it sounds good, rather than that it’s turned into a script to be adhered to. Folk music survives because it can adapt: universality must combine with contemporaneity, and The Furrow Collective understand that well, and implement it better than many. I’m somewhat ashamed that Wild Hog in the Woods was the first track of theirs I’d heard given that it was from their second album, and I’ll gladly seek them out again, both live and on recordings.

Review: Thor: Ragnarok (cinema)


Geyr nú Garmr mjök
fyr Gnípahelli;
festr man slitna,
en freki renna.

This passage from the Old Norse mythological poem Völuspá roughly translates to: ‘aieeeeeeeaaaaaaahhh we come from the land of the ice and snow…’* it perfectly encapsulates the anticipation of the epic drama of the gods’ last stand… and yeah, it’s about bloody time a Thor movie made use of Led Zeppelin. With just the right amount of slo-mo, with just enough of a neon-tinged, synth-backed hat-tipping to the ’80s, woven around the orchestral grandeur of the earlier Thor soundtracks and the Old Norse world as seen through the eyes of nineteenth-century nationalist romantic painters, this sequel managed to convincingly bridge the universes of Guardians of the Galaxy and the early, pre-‘magic’ MCU outings like Iron Man.

The first Thor movie was my unrivalled favourite in the MCU until The Winter Soldier, and it’s still up there, though I don’t remember much about The Dark World and always seem to confuse scenes from it with the far better Hellboy II (both have dark elves, right?). Conversely, Norse mythology is not my favourite part of Norse literature, and perhaps this is why I can’t bring myself to care one bit about whether Loki’s actually Sleipnir’s father in the movies or not, why Sif isn’t blonde, and whether Thor happens to be a woman or a frog in the comics. But nevertheless I’ve always felt that Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki have been more accurate representations of their mythological counterparts than the heroes of most Beowulf movies have been (Grendel Grendel Grendel aside). No change there in Ragnarok, it’s just that now Taika Waititi gets to put his own deadpan New Zealand twist on the jokes whilst gleefully undermining all the glory of the Asgard we’ve seen previously in the MCU.

I’d like to see it again before proclaiming it my new favourite in the MCU, but even though all the killer lines were in the trailer they remained funny in the film. The best shots were there too, though cunningly devoid of some crucial bits of CGI (lightning, fireworks, injuries…) which is a trick I’m very happy for blockbusters to play in their marketing campaigns if it derails some of the endless ott plot speculation that even the most minimal 30 second teaser can now inspire. OK, it’s also true that if you have even the vaguest idea of Norse mythology you’ll know precisely how the ending on Asgard is going to go from one of the trailer shots. But it’s no problem when watching the movie: it’s much more about the journey. And the one-liners.

I love Taika Waititi’s humour. It’s dry and often awkward and embarrassing and surreal, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the perfect tone for me in its balance of these things with an absurd yet somewhat  grim, bureaucratic reality. Being honest though, I did occasionally find it a bit jarring in Thor: Ragnarok, not least because Waititi’s voice work as Korg and Rachel House, the actress who plays Topaz, are just so heavily associated with Hunt for the Wilderpeople for me. But you can get used to these things, and it’s only a tiny note of reservation in an otherwise excellent script that has room for all the quips we’ve come to expect from the MCU as well as a decent chunk of character development. And while the lion’s share of that development obviously goes to the Lord of Thunder himself, there’s enough shared round — Loki, Skurge, Valkyrie, Banner and Hulk — that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s been left out. Sure, though I’m sure the essays on every twitch if Hiddleston’s lips are being prepared as I type, I did particularly appreciate the fact that this time the brothers really seemed like brothers, but also that Thor seemed finally to have learnt a trick or two himself when it comes to dealing with the God of Mischief…

I don’t want to make this too spoilery a review, but in general it has to be said that Waititi makes a superhero move that isn’t just great fun but it also smart and self-aware. It doesn’t take much:  non-white faces in all the crowds, women wielding swords in the front lines of the refugees taking their last stand, prominent, meaty roles for Valkyrie and Heimdall (‘hey I Enthuse, isn’t he meant to be the “whitest of God’s”?’ I literally couldn’t give a shit. He’s not even in enough Norse mythology to have anything resembling a personality. Once, he’s a seal. Tbh I’m disappointed when I see fanart of Norse gods and he’s not Idris Elba. Why? Because if he could be Idris Elba why wouldn’t he be?). Mainly though, it’s about a society built on violent conquest and imperial colonialism recognising its past. Hela wants to take it back to what she views as its heyday: she’s unapologetic about celebrating the fact that its wealth came from empire-building and slavery. Thor and Loki are more shocked to learn about their father’s youthful warmongering, despite Odin’s Marcus Aurelius-esque renunciation of this past, and there’s a joyous irony in the way the movie leaves Asgard at the end, a society built on conquest that has been completely turned on its head.

Also effortless in Waititi’s hands, and something I feel a bit bad even having to draw attention to, is the handling of Valkyrie. This is how you do a supporting female character. This is how you do a female badass. She’s not a love-interest or a victim, she’s got her own backstory and her own motivation. She was the main surprise for me, having enjoyed her in the trailer but not realised what a hot mess the character was: when she appeared, swigging from a bottle, and stumbled sideways off her landing ramp, I knew I was in love. She’s a brittle, semi-functioning alcoholic with a tragic past, she’s capable of subduing Loki and is bffs with Hulk. Thor wanted to be a Valkyrie when he was a child, not realising that it was an élite female fighting force. He’s not mocked for this, and he’s proud enough of the fact to tell her about it. He and Valkyrie deal with the spaceships pursuing them by leaping from one to the next, ripping out essential components with their bare hands in a scene that reminded me of the long-shot in Avengers which follows the team as they fight the flying alien troop-carrier beasties. At the end of their efforts, they each leap back into the hold of their own craft and look each other up and down with an impressed smirk. Then they get on with the business of saving Asgard. This stuff shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but too often it still does. I just hope so much that Valkyrie will be returning to the MCU and that she will continue to be written by capable, thoughtful hands.

Hela was great fun as a villain too, with Cate Blanchett on full ham, and Karl Urban brought a by-now familiar level of nuance to Skurge’s array of scowls and pouts. The film did a lovely job of showing how Thor and Banner initially had less of a relationship than Thor and Hulk, but, using the same enthusiasm that initially brought Thor and Jane together, they were able to bond over shared interests, whether gained through 7 PhDs or the fact of being educated as a prince in a technologically advanced society… And there were plenty of moments where I had pause to wonder whether someone involved in the script had in fact brushed up on their Norse mythology: the way in which Dr Strange magically refills Thor’s glass, like the Utgarða-Loki episode; Thor, alone, fighting Surtur’s demons, in Sutur’s hall, the way he so often ends up fighting giants in the Eddic material, and I had to do a double-take as Hela emerged from the sea at one point, thinking for a minute she was riding the Miðgarðsormr. But perhaps he’s being saved for future films.

Finally getting to see Thor: Ragnarok was like unwrapping the Christmas present I’d asked for, longed for, waited patiently for. I knew how awesome it was: I’d asked for it. Maybe I’d accidentally opened a drawer and caught a glimpse of it, shutting it quickly to preserve the suspense. But in essence, I knew what I was getting and I couldn’t wait to get it. My point is: many of the best lines in Thor: Ragnarok are in the trailer, and if you’ve a passing knowledge of Norse mythology and how superhero movies work you can guess from very early on in the movie exactly how things are going to go down. But it’s still awesome.

*It doesn’t. It means something more like ‘Now Garmr howls loudly before Gnípahellir; the wolf will break his bonds and run loose’. And Led Zeppelin wrote the song about themselves going to Iceland for a tour as much as about the Norse discovery of the island. But let’s gloss over that: the riff makes a great hero’s theme.

Review: Blade Runner 2049 (cinema)


I wasn’t going to go. I haven’t forgiven Ridley Scott for Prometheus. I’ve been baffled by the idea of this sequel ever since I first heard about it, especially when Harrison Ford was brought on board. And although I went through a phase at around 14 or so of living, breathing, drawing fanart for Blade Runner and reading all the K.W. Jeter books, I’m damned if I can remember a thing about them. The trailer didn’t help, I have to say. But then the reviews started coming out: one major fear was allayed by the news that Jared Leto’s role was pretty small. There were impressed murmurings about Harrison Ford, too, and surprise at Hans Zimmer’s range. Also the healthy reminder that this is Denis Villeneuve’s movie now, not Ridley’s. And I like to think that Denis Villeneuve is less interested in either big questions or big answers than Ridley Scott is these days; he’s instead happy to dwell on the complicated human response to the questions.

Mild spoilers below.

So yeah, I kinda loved this. It’s not perfect, I do have a few complaints, but for the most part I barely noticed the three hours fly by. I suspect that, a little like Arrival, which I also really enjoyed, if you focus too closely on any aspect it might start to come apart, but enough was cohesive and coherent enough that I don’t feel the need to dwell on things that weren’t. My main gripe was with Luv’s arc, and it could have been solved by having even less — i.e. no — Jared Leto. Luv is Wallace’s number two at his replicant-making corporation, and she is stronger and more ruthless than any other replicant we’ve seen. She also seems initially to be far more complex than an obedient second-in-command, though sadly this never goes anywhere. Wallace is the kind of boring misogynist god-complex psychopath that it was completely unnecessary to show or give any dialogue to (we all know the type…), whereas for the first two-thirds of the movie I thought Luv had an agenda that was separate from his: she was very aware of how humans saw replicants and she was capable of exploiting it. She also seemed to have a fairly complicated emotional response to some of those aspects of humanity that humans also struggle to come to terms with: love, reproduction and death. Unfortunately, this was swept away and she became all brawn with very little below the surface by the end of it, and it’s my biggest disappointment in the movie.

By giving Luv’s agency and motivation a bit more prominence, and perhaps by showing a little more of the institutional hierarchy that Madam (a steely Robin Wright) fitted into, the movie would have given its depiction of women more depth. In this dystopian hellscape of a future, women are everywhere as sexualised images; in one scene we even have the perfect blending of the Virgin and the Whore, though it feels pretty hollow for the fulfillment of such a popular fantasy. Other grim realities seem to persist: women are seen as disposable vessels by some, whilst for others they’re elusive objects of reverence and mourning. However, I don’t think the film glamourised any of this. It showed a lonely world, full of lonely people, isolated from one another for their own protection. And when you do let someone in in this world, are you always just hearing what you want to hear? Deckard and K seem to have different responses to this, and the fact that the movie doesn’t attempt to resolve differences like this is something I appreciate about it. It could have done better by offering a female perspective in more detail, and Luv would have been the perfect opportunity for that.

Still, the sound and visuals were impeccable (and if I could enjoy Sicario for those things even when the last half-hour infuriated me, then this was ten times better). Blade Runner 2049 is deliberately disorienting throughout: the soundtrack is an incredible, thrumming thing, where the sound of a police drone’s engine merges with the bubbling of water on a stove; battering synths sound in time with over-worked windscreen wipers; is a piano played off-screen being played by someone we can’t see, or is it part of the soundtrack? And in moments of high emotion, where revelations are had, memories are dredged up and heartstrings are plucked, the camera frequently denies you the opportunity to read the actors’ faces. Instead we see K’s hands, or the tense silhouettes of characters in conversation. We think we know what we’re filling in, but how do we know we’re reading the situation correctly when we don’t have all the usual cues?

And yes, those reviews praising Harrison Ford were right: Villeneuve wrings an astonishing array of emotions from him, but it’s understated and unassuming, whilst still conveying Deckard’s grim, hopeless trudge of survival. Plus, having never really quite grasped Ryan Gosling mania, I did think he was an excellent lead in this. His performance reminded me on a number of occasions of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, not because it was of a similar standard, but because it seemed to convey so much of the confusion and longing at the heart of that film so much more effectively. He was a scared child, a tightly wound ball of confusion and hurt and betrayal, and a man used to observing and responding to orders who suddenly found himself reconsidering these things. Yes, it’s a bit rich having him play a representative of a marginalised group as a handsome white guy, and yes, while we’re at it, the universe still needs to sort out its response to Asian representation. But I can’t fault Gosling’s performance.

The ‘twist’ for K was one that I felt confident was coming for much of the film: words are chosen carefully, the sense of disorientation mounts, but in the end, I let myself believe for a few scenes along with K. The effect of the revelation on him was all the more profound for having finally caught me up in it, and the unfairness of his ending was, to my mind, another of those contradictory presentations of human nature that Villeneuve seems to enjoy so much. It made it clear that K is less the inheritor of Deckard’s story than of Batty’s story. I’m not normally that engaged by Asimov’s troubles, or the line between human and machine, but damnit, Blade Runner 2049 actually made me care about this. Very glad I did go in the end.

(you’re still not forgiven for Prometheus though, Ridley)

Review: Flatliners (cinema)


Well, if you’ve read the first post here, or the ‘about’ section…finally, this is what I claimed this blog would be all about! Me watching terrible movies/movies I’d otherwise never watch because there’s an actor in them whose imdb page I feel compelled to go through in detail. The thing is, I’ve realised that there are a lot of people more dedicated to doing that than I am these days. And also, whilst I have copies of Milk and Elysium, I’ve not felt like I’ve really had the surplus of time required to make myself watch them. But I’m still paying Cineworld, and I missed my chance to see The Limehouse Golem, so off I went to see this shirtless Diego Luna scene I’ve been hearing so much about.

I’m not a fan of horror movies as a rule; my exceptions could probably be counted on one hand and might still stretch the definition of horror. Examples: An American Werewolf in LondonShadow of the Vampire, Get Out and Let the Right One In. Luckily, this is not quite what I’d call a horror film: there’s an underlying point to the shocks in a way you don’t always seem to get. Possibly its lack of commitment to being a simple horror is what hampers it, but I’m going to go with the problem being its lack of commitment to not being a horror film. I mean, look at that naff advertising above, with the exaggerated CGI ghost-figures. Diego Luna’s character doesn’t even flatline! And though on a meta level you might argue that what they unleash by flatlining is just a darker version of their own selves, it’s certainly not in the demonic way the ad people went with. So yeah, I’m not saying there was a particularly subtle or effective point to the horror, but it was there. Expect spoilers below — and a total ignorance of the original Flatliners. I meant to watch it beforehand, but ran out of time for that too.

On the whole, this movie was a bit better than I was expecting, and considerably more entertaining, even if in hindsight there are a LOT of holes. Ellen Page gave a good performance with very slim material to work on. She plays Dr Courtney Holmes, a medical student obsessed with finding out what happens to our brains after the moment of death. There’s a bit of an abrupt start to the film that makes it hard to engage with any of the characters much, but it’s obvious enough that Courtney is racked with guilt and grief about causing the death of her young sister in a driving accident. To be honest, I expected them to go with the idea that she’d already had a near-death experience in the crash, and hence wanted to learn more, but that might have involved a bit more plotting that the film seemed willing to do… Instead we have to figure out how heavily this still weighs on her by Ellen Page’s hunched shoulders and glassy stare.

As Courtney assembles her two assistants for the procedure she wants to perform — stopping her heart and then restarting it a minute later, whilst scanning for ongoing brain activity — we get only the mildest hints of the group dynamic. This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy where, despite the competition, anxiety and depression, the student doctors all ultimately (well, sort of) support each other and look out for one another. At the beginning of the movie competitiveness wins out over all else. So we meet the struggling Sophia, worried about her grades and the money her Mom spent on getting her into Med School, and the cocky, jockish Jamie, who’s on the lookout for the kind of research that will send him up the ladder to success as swiftly as possible. The two of them panic and bungle Courtney’s revival, so they call in Ray, the competent one (who is presumably meant to be a little older and wiser after his six years in the Fire Service, and who seems to have just as much of an issue with the entitled rich kids as Sophia initially does). Ray’s rush through the hospital turns the head of Marlo, who’s been trading barbs with him over patients in some unsubtly tropey behaviour (gosh, do you think they like each other secretly?), and Marlo joins the group too.

The opening third is the weakest because the film doesn’t really allow the characters any breathing space before the experiment. Although Courtney’s motives can be guessed at, there’s a lot of scenes where the others talk about her, within earshot, while she looks a bit dazed. We’re told that she and Sophia used to be close, but seemingly not close enough that Sophia knew about her sister’s death. Courtney as a character does not exist beyond her grief for her sister and her drive to find out about the afterlife. We’re only allowed into her mind at the very last minute.

At least Jamie makes enough sense as the one to follow her into the afterlife: he’s reckless and willing to try any narcotic he can get his hands on. Ray’s refusal to take part never waivers, and I’m glad of that, but Sophia’s involvement never quite rings true. Her relationship with her mother could have been better explored — her guilt about sharing nudes of her classmate is completely justified, but what’s happened to the guilt she feels in the first scene we see her in, pressured into a role that she struggles with because of her mother’s expectations? She wants to fit in, and Marlo is seemingly the most competitive of the characters, but when so much of this has to be inferred from only one or two lines of dialogue, and the relationships are not really established beforehand, none of it really sticks.

Even Ray, who I’m delighted to say survives the movie,(1) isn’t given any depth; he’s the voice of reason, and his background is intriguing, but so much is left unsaid/unused. At one point, when I feared they might still have him flatline with the others, it occurred to me how awful his guilt-ghosts might be after his time in the Fire Service, but as they never had him do so, we don’t know whether he had any comparable guilt, or how he managed it. Not even a reference to it when he tried to talk Marlo into admitting what she’d done. Other backstories, like Jamie’s failure to help a girl he’d knocked up see her abortion through, were somewhat unimaginative and lazily handled.

Science (I mean, “science”) is also largely abandoned as soon as the effects of the flatlining begin to take hold. There’s initial excitement about the activity they see in different parts of the brain after Courtney has died, but no one thinks to return to this when they’re suffering the bad trip that comes later. Why should the last viable brain activity they can detect leave the person in a state of guilt and rage? Is this a roundabout Dylan Thomas reference? We’re all just raging against the dying of the light, right up to the last minute? Or is it a religious point? This is when our worst sins come back to haunt us, and it may as well be Hell as a product of our own subconscious? But (asks the arts student), is this actually something absorbed into the subconscious by living in a society founded on a religion that allocates punishment in the afterlife because of our failings in life? Who knows! The film doesn’t give a crap. Look at the creepy abandoned city, folks. Look at the pretty lights — now see them go out. Oh look! Here’s a sad-eyed blonde woman. She was probably wronged in some way. And now the surroundings are exploding into a dust cloud?

So essentially, the film isn’t interested in explanations beyond those you’d get in a horror movie, but the payoff doesn’t quite come with horror movie catharsis. Once all the flatliners have encountered a vision of their own guilt that haunts them most, we’re in straight-up horror territory, with fairly standard things like lights going out and radios re-tuning themselves (is this because of the electrical activity in the brain? Is it just because this is what happens in horror movies?). But there’s no fearsome Last Girl to vanquish the demon, not least because the demon is still, probably, in their own minds (Jamie’s stabbed hand muddies the waters here, unhelpfully). Instead, there’s a rather trite lesson about admitting your sins, owning up to your mistakes and then learning to forgive yourself. Um, great? Lucky the girl whose photos Sophia spread around was so forgiving. Lucky we could just cut away from Jamie’s reconciliation with the woman he knocked up — ‘hey Bobby, your Daddy loves you, but only because he fucked up his brain in a stupid medical experiment and he’s worried that if he doesn’t love you enough then a guilt-demon version of your Mom will come and kill him.’ Great basis for a constructive relationship.

Marlo’s a bit more resistant: like Courtney, she can’t ask for forgiveness from the man she accidentally killed on the job. Plus, owning up to what she did would mean disciplinary action. She seems to think that admitting what she did to Ray (who offers forgiveness through hot sex — but still holds her to account for altering autopsy records) ought to be enough, but she’s got that wild-eyed look that Izzie Stevens gets when she knows she’s going to do something rash, like cut Denny’s LVAD wire. So Marlo nearly buys it — she seems to think that by dying again, she can ‘speak’ to the man she killed and ask his forgiveness. The imagery of the scary dead black man whose death she caused repeatedly trying to strangler her is … not the most edifying part of the movie.

Incidentally, at this point I very much felt that Ray was right. Marlo should not be a doctor. But also Ray ~needs~ her to come back, and like every other flatline, Ray revives her. It’s honestly a bit of an ask to invest much in their relationship, but Diego Luna tries very hard to sell it, and he has an impressive array of concerned-disappointed frowns.

Damn, I was meant to be relatively enthusiastic about this movie. When I came out of the cinema I felt it had been far more enjoyable than I expected. And I suppose it was, despite all the problems and loose threads and plot holes picked at above. But it was quite short, and a cursory Google seems to indicate that quite a bit was changed and/or cut during the later stages of production. There were a lot of missed opportunities, and it was a movie that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. I’m more curious than I was about the original now. Watch this space, I may get round to watching it eventually. Ooh, but The Bad Batch is on Netflix…

(1) Look, Contraband was my last effort at watching a Diego Luna movie I’d otherwise not have watched. He doesn’t come off so well there. Maybe someday I’ll write up my thoughts on the first forty minutes of that film. I have a lot of them. Few are good.

Review: Han Solo’s Revenge (Brian Daley)


All I remember about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the only Star Wars EU book to precede the Han Solo trilogy by Brian Daley, is that it taught me the word ‘querulous’ and there was a very misty forest with some crystals and Darth Vader in it. But I think I enjoyed it well enough, even if it was clear that the characters were still somewhat underdone. I didn’t get that feeling from Brian Daley’s Han and Chewie though: for the most part, the odd dated aside um, aside, these felt like the characters I recognised from the movies and the so-called Legends books. I say that as someone who has always enjoyed Han’s adventures, but who has avowedly been one of those Luke Skywalker nerds since my very first viewing of A New Hope. Sorry Han, you were just never my favourite, though I like you well enough.

No need to have read the first in Daley’s trilogy before plunging into this (which He Judges unearthed in a second-hand bookshop in Haworth … Brontë quality it ain’t, no matter how much better it is than Chuck Wendig’s work). It’s a slight tale, in which very little takes place, set pieces feel rather forced, and description takes priority over plot. In a year in which I wrote my first long-form fanfic I find all this to be incredibly reassuring, at least. The level of description, whilst not making for stellar writing, is fun and a lot more imaginative than the more recent EU novels seem to have been able to be. There’s a lot more variety in the alien species and a lot more inventiveness when it comes to the technology; sure it may not work well within a larger, coherent franchise, but on the other hand I didn’t feel like there was a box somewhere that needed to be ticked, reading ‘must include at least one Togruta’.

The story begins when Han proves himself to be somewhat lacking as both linguist and anthropologist, having accidentally started a cult on a backwater planet. He’s broke, the Falcon is running on outdated fluidic controls, and he has to take a mystery job in the Corporate Sector in order to make ends meet. This turns out to involve a shipment of slaves, and naturally our hero is appalled and soon manages to contrive a way to turn on the slavers and free the captives; only to remain out of pocket by ten thousand credits. The rest of the book is Han’s ongoing search for the credits, which sees him fall in with Fiolla, an ambitious Authority employee looking to expose her own peoples’ involvement in the slave-trade. The Empire doesn’t feature at all in this setting.

Fiolla’s an interesting one. She’s black, and in Brian Daley’s EU, her people lived under slavery on her home planet for years, learning incredible skills of mimicry and people-reading as they survived however they could. It’s all a bit essentialist, and is meant to show why Fiolla cares so much about catching the slavers, although for the most part that reason fades into the background and it’s her ambition that’s emphasised. Similarly her competence wavers in that familiar way you get from a certain tropey take on ‘Strong [minority] Character’: at times Fiolla seems to have a handle on things, but at several crucial moments she goes all naïve and indecisive, allowing Han to grab her hand, leap in and save the day. It is his story, after all…

Daley just doesn’t seem comfortable writing Fiolla’s voice, and though Han and Chewie are the main POV characters, he manages well enough with their droid friends. This is one aspect that I miss about Wendig’s writing: when it’s going well, and when he’s writing his original characters, he has no problem writing man, woman, alien or unaffiliated. Other supporting characters in Han Solo’s Revenge are handled with confidence and are given voices of varying distinctiveness — the alien bureaucrat Spray is excellent fun, even if Zollux and Blue Max are essentially 3PO are Artoo without the camp. The technology is never overly handwavy or all-powerful either: in fact, dog-fights are almost too tense, the shields almost too weak after one or two shots. This is not a world where Han Solo would ever contemplate coming out of hyperspace within a planet’s atmosphere… But it’s still a world where Han’s real skill is in piloting, where his love for his ship and his affection for his co-pilot are strong, and his ability to make money is somewhat wanting. Many before me have pointed out that OT-Han lacks a lot of chill: he’s not some suave lady killer, but a dork who’s just winging it. That Han already existed when Brian Daley released this in 1980, he’s no figment of fangirls’ imaginations.

Thinking again about the book’s title it becomes clear how thin the plot is. Han’s revenge? I’m not sure what he wants revenge for. He did agree to transport an unidentified cargo, and though the unfortunately named ‘Zlarb’ (but can you imagine that said in Harrison Ford’s drawl, with dripping disdain for the material he’s forced to read? Excuse me a moment) intends to turn on him, the book doesn’t really get the message across that Han wants the credits as ‘revenge’ for an attempt on his life. Perhaps it’s one of the pitfalls of writing a character we know survives perfectly well: it’s hard to get worked up about any apparent danger to his life. There are also a lot of reveals right at the end, which don’t have all that much impact, as they’d not really been telegraphed much in advance. It’s all tied up relatively neatly, but key moments happen off-scene and are narrated by characters to one another, which rarely makes for the most satisfying dénouement. Also, whilst some scene-setting felt distinctive and original, the honour-based society of Ammuud seemed a bit of a cop-out to this medievalist. Nevertheless, there was some fun stuff in this and it wasn’t as cringe-inducing as it might have been; obviously I’d rather have Fiolla with her somewhat thin characterisation than not have her, and it’s another reminder that Star Wars has indeed featured POC since way before TFA.

Review: The Dears (Oslo, Hackney)

IMG_20171007_210601.jpgMy photo.

Of the three gigs in the one week (I am so behind on writing things up!) this was the one I was looking forward to most. Yep, the somewhat niche Canadian indie band, not the folk legends or the superstar singer-songwriter. It didn’t disappoint, thought I find it hard to articulate why I love their music quite so much; as with Maxïmo Park I just can’t figure out why more people don’t love them. Well, Hackney certainly loved them at least, in that somewhat too intense middle-aged hipster way, but it was still quite nice to be part of, at least until the shoving and the guys lining up in the front row for the encore, blocking the view of all behind them… but this is a review of the music, not the crowd.

The Dears were a kind of recent re-discovery for me. I think I was vaguely familiar with No Cities Left and Gang of Losers at the time of release (back when I bought the NME), but never owned copies. I remembered Murray Lightfield talking about Blur’s influence on him, though from Wikipedia it seems he eventually got a bit fed up with the Damon Albarn and Morrissey comparisons. Quite right too: he’s got a stunning voice of his own, with a broader skill set than Albarn or Morrissey’s vocals. Happily, He Judges has good taste in these matters, and owned both of those Dears albums, which I’ve had on my regular playlists for a few years now. A few months back we came across Degeneration Street, which is also an excellent album, and discovered that they would be in the UK this autumn, having released two albums since Degeneration Street.

Oslo consists of a club space above a bar/kitchen, and the whole thing is really very Hackney. Happily, it’s not quite as expensive as the city it’s named after, and it was a great little venue to see a band we knew this well in; I imagine that it’s like seeing British indie bands who I became familiar with at the same time on tour in North America, where they still play smaller rooms with low stages and no barriers. And here we got two very different support acts too, each with a decent length set.

The first was Lou Canon, another Canadian, who played Björk-esque dubsteb beats from her keyboard, projected creepy blinking eyes behind her, and sang in powerful, lilting cascades. Phildel is the closest comparison I can think of. Considering how small the audience was at that stage of the night she inhabited the space well, keeping up a consistent barrage of fairly catchy tracks that I’m looking forward to finding online and recommending to all my synth-lady-loving friends. Following her was Fabrizio Cammarata, a rather intense Italian with an acoustic guitar. I liked the Spanish-language track he ended on, and his percussive guitar-playing, but most of it was rather too po-faced and over-wrought for me, all too highly-strung and trying terribly hard. I might get suckered in by an album of it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d normally seek out to see live.

After the two support acts’ sets, The Dears themselves had well over an hour in what was by then a very warm, very crowded room. The only members from The Dears of those albums I’d first heard over a decade ago are the now married duo Murray Lightfield and Natalia Yanchack, whose vocals and interweaving keyboards and guitar define the sound of the band. Although their music wanders through a number of genres it’s the sound of Natalia’s light, sweet vocals (well yes, quite like Amy Millan of Stars, though The Dears did form first) and Murray’s rich, versatile range that keeps it all consistent. Whether more synth-heavy, more soul-inspired, or driven by the rhythm section, the material in their set — spanning their twenty years together — flowed together seamlessly. There were a lot more tracks from No Cities Left and Gang of Losers than I expected, and these tracks still definitely went down best with the audience, despite the high quality of the more recent albums. Well, if I get to see them again I’ll cheer just as loudly for tracks from Times Infinity, which we bought on the way out…

Still, it was fantastic to hear so many tracks from Gang of Losers (though no ‘Ballad of Human Kindness’!). And the irony of hearing ‘Whites Only Party’ in a largely white crowd of Hackney hipsters was heavy, but we all danced anyway — it’s irresistible when you hear the rhythmic opening. Throughout the set Murray said very little, hidden behind a pair of sunglasses and presumably sweltering in a black jacket and turtle-neck as he dashed from guitar to guitar to keyboards. He was more playful when he came out for the encore though, a smug grin on his face as he hefted his acoustic guitar and told an audience shouting out various requests: “I’m gonna play what I wanna play!” before giving us a lovely acoustic version of ‘Ticket to Immortality’.

I’ve found it quite hard to have much to say about this gig, just because it was all something of a blur of enjoyment — a really substantial set, excellent sound and performances, tight and professional and full of familiar favourites as well as great new tracks. I’d love to see them again, I’m really enjoying listening to Times Infinity parts one and two, and it was a great way to round off a very busy week. I’ll not let them slip off my radar again.

From El Greco to Goya (The Wallace Collection)

IMG_20171007_155905.jpgPortrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés by Francisco Goya (my wonky photo).

Oopsie — should have read that review in a bit more detail, rather than just going “El Greco?! Goya?! COUNT ME IN!” Then I might have realised beforehand that the exhibition at The Wallace Collection contains only one work by the former, and two by the latter; the other room is made up of a mixed bag of contemporary Spanish art also collected by the Bowes family. Still, it’s very much worth a visit just for the headliners, not least as entry to the Wallace is free (and while you’re there you can see one of the most impressive collections of medieval armour in the country…and a load of stuff looted from Lahore that probably shouldn’t be in this country…).

I love El Greco’s strange, lanky people and the deep, dramatic black shadows he uses. The example in this exhibition, a version of a scene he painted a number of times, is not my favourite, and looks somewhat like Terry Jones in a way I just can’t shake, but it was still a treat to see it close up. St Peter’s big, wet eyes are proto-Manga, exaggerated orbs that deny the viewer’s gaze with determination; I imagine that when hung higher up, the perspective works very effectively, but at eye-level it’s a bit disorienting. It’s still interesting to see, a detail that changes depending on where you stand in relation to the painting.

The background, also seen closer than the artist maybe intended, is a gorgeous expressionistic swirl over Peter’s right shoulder. Cloud-shapes nudge up against the landscape in matching greys and blues, and a hunched figure floats in front, face obscured. The green of grass in the background and ivy in the foreground brackets St Peter along the same diagonal as the dark outcrop of rock under which he prays, emphasising the pale line of his arms, which cut across on the horizontal. His arms are where the detail lies, as well as all the tension in St Peter’s body: veins bulge and forearm muscles swell as Peter’s clasped hands press against one another. A lot of it’s a bit odd if you focus too closely only on one area, but as a coherent whole it’s a masterful composition, bringing together colour, shape and line to draw the viewer’s eyes precisely how the artist intends.

The Goyas opposite are less imposing: one is a small, sepia study of prisoners, the other a portrait of the artist’s friend, a man who sought the reform of Spanish prisons: Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés. This is my favourite in the small exhibition. The sitter looks distracted, ready to sit up and leave the painting at any time, but momentarily arrested by some question from the artist. There’s a phrase on his lips and a frown of concentration lingers; his upper lip could do with a closer shave; his eyes seem to be caught on their journey from middle-distance to meet ours. To borrow from Garrow’s Law, he appears to have the rouged fury of righteousness in his cheeks. Around all that humanity in the face, his hair wisps away into grey smudges, his collar is a perfunctory, structural scrawl, and the red of his jacket simply offsets the colour in his cheeks. Portraiture at its finest.

Next to him are the prisoners whose conditions he campaigned to improve. This unassuming little piece is meant to look like a causal study, but it works in opposition to Meléndez Valdéz or St Peter: where the detail of those catches your eye first, and the sketchiness of some areas is only noticed later, the painting of the prisoners soon reveals itself to be very un-sketch-like indeed. The composition is meticulous, with the gathering of shackled men framed in the prison tunnels by a blazing white arch of light. Up close you can see that much of this white was painted on last, thick and dry, ensuring it dominates your first impressions. From it, your eye drops to the men: casually placed in the haze of the background, but more carefully posed at the front, down to one man who lies with his feet up on a set of stocks, a shackle at his neck and ankles, and a scrap of cloth artfully draped over his crotch. It’s as awkward a posture as the others hold: if he positioned himself like that for comfort, it can’t have been comfortable for very long. Another leans against a wall; one bends forward slightly, both caught in positions you wouldn’t want to hold; but the central figure twists in the most uncomfortable way, depicted mid-hobble, his balance in doubt as he tries to move his tightly bound feet.

Interior of a Prison, 1793–4 by Francisco Goya (also my wonky photo).

I’d never normally describe myself as a fan of brown paintings, but Goya’s browns are rich and warm, earthy and alive. You can see the layers of his working and the very conscious way he chooses to portray his subjects. Like Meléndez Valdéz’s gaze, caught mid-rove, or the prisoners in their stress positions, Goya’s paintings made me feel stuck between accepting the accuracy of what he showed, and double-guessing the expert manipulation of scene and light that he uses. Reality and realism hand in hand.

After those three, the rest didn’t do as much for me. It was like going into Dublin’s Caravaggio room in reverse; there you can build up to the masterpiece, nodding at various bold pretenders until you get to the genius itself (The Taking of the Christ is one of my favourite paintings, and all Caravaggios I’ve seen have been unearthly in person — though I’ve not been to the National Gallery in Dublin for a few years now) [honest, really I’m usually much more of a fan of fin de siècle stuff with colours and personal angst, but I do make exceptions]. In this case, after the show-stoppers, there were a couple of, to my eye, fairly perfunctory fruit bowls. There was a documentary on the history of still-life that convinced me of the merit of the genre, and reminded me of the few examples I do like, but generally, while I admire the skill involved, I don’t want to spend much time looking at them. The same was true here, plus there was something about the perspective of the bowls and baskets that made me feel queasy, as though the artist was trying to have his cake fruit and eat it.

In the next room there were a couple of good fits with the El Greco and Goyas: I liked the surreally levitating St Anthony and the mysterious monk with convent in hand (though something about his shoulder seemed awry under his heavy hood). I didn’t much care for the vast dollop of pink, cheruby gauze that was someone’s idea of the Immaculate Conception, and the best thing about the show’s other large painting was learning that archangels sometimes go on road-trips and advise people to cure blindness with fish. Apparently it’s from the Apocrypha; no wonder it sounds so much fun. The death of St Andrew fitted artistically with the idea of El Greco, with its sinewy, stretched body and dramatic lights and darks, but there’s little secular pleasure to be had in the image of Andrew’s crucifixion, unlike St Peter’s tearful repentance. A nice surprise in this room was, however, a portrait of St Eustochium: a woman who helped Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, and whose portrait used to hang in a monastery (not a convent). I don’t remember much about the painting itself, but I was impressed by its size and original place of hanging, almost enough to forget my bitterness at never having heard of this woman who played a key role in the Church’s history. To be fair though, even through ten+ years of medieval studies, I have always fiercely resisted learning anything about the Church, so it may not be the misogynistic sweeping-under-a-rug of female history I’d automatically assume…

Review: Tori Amos (Royal Albert Hall)

My photo, between acts.

This was a mad dash to get to and from, a bit ambitious for a weekday night, though totally worth it for Tori herself. Of the support acts, whilst I very much enjoyed the venue (imposing enough to count as a support act), I could have done well without Bell X1. It might just take all my willpower not to refer to them as Bellend1 more than this once, but I’ll try to keep the complaining brief before I get on to the enthusing.

They seemed a curious choice for a support act to Tori Amos, whose music is generally experimental or kooky in some way or another, whose lyrics are personal and challenging, and whose skill in making the piano a grunge instrument remains unrivaled. Perhaps whoever booked them had only heard some of Tori’s more staid recent album tracks, as Bell X1 are the worst kind of Irish stadium rock, grimly ploughing a path behind 2000s-era U2. If I say that Damien Rice was a bit too edgy for them you’ll get the idea (full disclaimer: I actually really love his album O). I’m also not really a fan of the kind of high-pitched, breathy singing favoured by the likes of Bon Iver and Sigur Ros, and this was more of the same (Sigur Ros via Snow Patrol perhaps?), so it was never going to win me over. Still, my despair came pretty swiftly in their first song as the bland singer cooed ‘oh god, I’m such a drama queen!’ over inoffensive warm guitar music. Their Wikipedia page compares them to Talking Heads! Talking Heads for chrissake! I don’t understand stadium rock. I don’t understand one bit. Sure, there was a Star Wars reference in once song (‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’) and when a different band member sang one song it picked up a little. But not my kind of thing at all, really. I’d much rather Tori had started earlier and we’d had an extra encore.

I’d also much rather have had a better view of the stage, but you can’t have everything, and at least the RAH apparently sounds glorious no matter where you are, which is the main thing. The lighting was pretty cool too, swirling over the audience as though we were alternately trapped in a kaleidoscope or a snow globe.

As I left I overheard a somewhat bemused concert-goer comment “she really likes her pedals, doesn’t she?” Yes, anonymous concert-goer, Tori does like her pedals. And, with her liberal use of them, what a job she did of filling that vast building with sound. On stage it was just Tori on her stool between keyboard and piano, her mid-song transitions between the two rows of keys seamless and long-practiced. On a few songs she had a backing track, noticeable particularly on tunes from Scarlet’s Walk (2002), where the drum-beat helped shift ‘Pancake’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ into something like trip-hop remixes of themselves. And her voice has endured wonderfully; when Tori does breathy vocals you can hear the full power of her body behind her careful use of air. It doesn’t sound effortless because it isn’t: it’s a whisper designed to cut through the boom of the piano. She can still hit most of the high-notes, and though she might not have the endurance for some notes that she used to have, she’s accomplished at tweaking her songs here and there to bring them into line with what her voice is capable of now. Songs from her first album are still absolute highlights.

The set-list was a satisfying mixture of fan favourites and new material, with a couple of classic Tori covers (now performed under the sub-heading ‘the Fake Muse Network’ with a Fox-like graphic). I’ve been meaning to write up a review of her recent album, Native Invader (2017), but don’t yet feel I’ve really had a chance to fully immerse myself in it enough to do it justice. It’s grown on me very quickly though, and songs that rather passed me by on the first listen now stand out — one such example is Reindeer King, which got a play after the Fake Muse Network. A cheeky cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ (songs of joy and peace become ‘songs of reindeer’) led into Reindeer King with a typically understated wryness, the warm orange of the lighting giving way to cool blues and whites in the second half of the set. ‘Russia’ and ‘Breakaway’ were her other selections from the new album, and though I’ve have picked ‘Up the Creek’ and ‘Bang’ (or just the latter if I could only have one), both stood up well against material from To Venus and Back (1999) (which I confess to not knowing well at all) and earlier songs.

Now over twenty years old, ‘Beauty Queen/Horses’ was a particular highlight, as was ‘Cloud on my Tongue’, and the crowd rejoiced to hear both ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Precious Things’ — oh the cheer that went up at the line ‘so you can make me come/it doesn’t make you Jesus’. It may have been my first Tori gig, but my excellent companion assured me that was a common response, and we agreed that a small mosh pit would be ideal for future Tori gigs. Sitting primly through ‘Precious Things’ as she wrings the piano for all it’s worth isn’t nearly as much fun as leaping and punching the air would be. But even up where we were, with only an awkward view of the stage side-on, we were utterly absorbed in the music.

She joked that the first time she’d played in London, for ’40 quid’, it had been at someone’s birthday party and she’d attended with Neil Gaiman. She self-deprecatingly described the misery of the birthday guests as she played through the track-listing of Little Earthquakes (1992), even as the present audience was still in raptures over hearing the title track. The resilience and defiance in her lyrics is a large part of the appeal, and her fans are ferociously loyal to the music that brought them to her. It seems to me that on her new album she’s got more to say than she’s had for a while, and it shows in the quality of the songs. Just like the old favourites that still get the biggest cheers, music in the face of adversity — personal, political or historical — is what she does best. The people at that birthday party might not have needed to hear that sort of music, but there are plenty of people out there who do. It was fun to share such a vast space with them for a night, though in future I will try to seek her out at smaller venues, and I’ll probably give the support acts a miss…

Review: Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy (Cambridge Junction)

Image source (x)

It’s always a treat to see either of these two, although this is the first time I’ve seen the pair of them perform together (aside from with The Imagined Village). Martin and Norma Waterson, yes; Martin and Dave Swarbrick, yes; Eliza and her band, yes; just dad and daughter, not previously. And the dynamic was a lot of fun, two dry wits together expressing their love for the slightly absurd nature of the music they play, whilst also conveying the genuine emotion that they find in the folk songs — and more recent compositions — that they perform. Not to mention the fact that they are incredibly accomplished musicians, one of whom played the version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ that provided the inspiration for Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. And he’s still one of the humblest and most genuine people you’ll ever encounter.

The set-list was largely made up of tracks recorded on their joint album, The Moral of the Elephant (2014), though Martin also played a recent acquisition — the name escapes me, and it doesn’t seem to have made it onto the page — that had apparently dogged him for some time before he’d managed to pin down the melody that he was so full of praise for.  The fact that, at 76, he’s still collecting and adapting material made this song the perfect example of his mantra that folk music is not about heritage but about life, a mantra reinforced by Eliza’s solo take on ‘Nelly Was a Lady’. The latter is a song written by Stephen Foster and taught to her by a colourful Canadian family friend, described as a great source of ‘hideographs’ (if I remember correctly). The tale of young Foster and his tragic, accidental death is as poignant and vaguely absurd as any you’d find in a broadside ballad (he tripped in his tiny New York apartment and hit his head on the sink as he fell, as there was no space to fall anywhere else); though like many ballads it needs to be read within its historical context. Eliza is a great defender of pop music and the songwriters who are able to write reams of hit songs, whether for broadside ballads, Motown or any other genre. She places the music that she and Martin perform within an ongoing tradition, the two of them noting common reference points and the underlying universality of emotions in these songs: people still love a good lock-in at the pub (Blackwell Merry Night), mothers still suffer the agony of losing their sons to war (Monkey Hair) and six individuals will still struggle to reach a common solution if they don’t work together (The Elephant).

Most of these songs aren’t the anonymous, centuries old pieces of tradition that I suppose many people associate folk music with. The three just mentioned also have named composers, and even the tracks they played with a more mysterious transmission history have been moulded and edited by different singers, performers and composers. An individual who has left their mark on a song is as worthy of discussing as the song itself at this kind of gig. When there’s not a composer or someone to credit the ‘trad. arr’ to, Eliza memorably described the great old ballads as icebergs or glaciers: something that starts off vast, but shears off pieces here and there as it travels the world. It’s perhaps a theory that skims bit close to Russian formalism for my taste, but I can’t deny that folk music does tend to gravitate towards particular types of story… Two grand narratives they put together in their own way were the ‘girl has to be quiet with her lover because her mum’s upstairs and has a vast collection of weaponry for dealing with just such lads’ (I paraphrase, but Eliza described it along these lines!) and ‘died of love’. Examples of the former that may be familiar are Silver Dagger and Kate Rusby’s ‘The Cobbler’s Daughter’, whilst the latter tends to crop up all over the place, often tacked onto the end of a narrative that’s about one sort of ill-fated relationship or another (many of Jim Moray’s preferred traditional songs seem to end like this…). The idea of the mother wanting to save her daughter from an unhappy future relationship, and the intensity of heartache (whether it’s after a break-up or a death) are at the core of these songs, and it’s not hard to see why they endure.

Another thing I’ve always admired about Martin and Eliza’s views on the music they play is their willingness to use it against modern narratives of purity and nationalism. Supporters of Folk Against Fascism, they were involved in setting up The Imagined Village as a multiracial, multicultural folk band that could create a sound that did justice to modern Britain — and historical Britain’s — reliance on immigration and the labour of its colonies. Just go and have a listen to Benjamin Zephaniah helping them re-work Tam Lyn. At this gig it was hard not to hear an anti-Brexit, anti-isolationist streak in the mischievous glee with which Eliza pointed out that, once upon a time, the popular English view was that Napoleon was their saviour, not Wellington… ‘The Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ comes across as a sibling to ‘Bonaparte’s Lament’, which Eliza recorded with her mother, Norma Waterson, on Gift (2010), providing a nice link between the two albums.

Musically, the two of them have a very particular dynamic; they’ve been playing together since Eliza was born, so there’s no attempt to make her into a substitute Swarb. And though she’s got her mother’s lungs, she’s a different generation of musician, and her voice and violin loop elegantly over and around Martin’s solid, syncopated guitar. Occasionally, as on the encore rendition of John Barleycorn, her enthusiasm doesn’t leave much space for Martin’s voice, but on the whole it’s a good balance, and even when they mess-up their intro they seem to be on the same wave-length.

An evening with a Carthy or a Waterson will always come with good stories as well as fantastic music. This was no different, with Eliza tending to provide the longer, meandering shaggy-dog stories behind the songs, and Martin occasionally expressing his enthusiasm for one melody or another, or muttering fond complaints at his guitar, which was prone to misbehave in the heat of the venue. It was a delight: consummate showmanship, peerless musicians and great storytelling. And, if you’ve any memories of seeing any Watersons or Carthys perform over the last decades, Eliza would really really love to know about it, so she can reconstruct her own family’s iceberg.