Review: Alice Russell, Jazz Café

Review: Alice Russell, Jazz Café

You know what really grinds my gears? Bands that only have one. One gear, one level of intensity. For a good hour of last night’s set, diminutive diva Alice Russell, the voice behind countless Quantic hits and that cover of “Seven Nation Army” that no one would shut up about back in 2005, was guilty of just that. She was flatlining at mid-intensity, lost in the no man’s land between tension and release and it was a shame, because everything else about her set, the first of two sold out shows at Camden’s Jazz Café, was hard to fault.

For starters, Russell’s voice is the real deal. It’s powerful, husky and taut, so good that it stops you in your tracks. Her setlist was varied and well judged, dominated by songs from 2013 release To Dust, but peppered with Pot Of Gold’s funky, old-school groovers. Her chat was warm and reassuringly rowdy and her band were Tower of Power tight. Special mention has to go Mike Simmons, a burly, roadie lookalike who turned out to be an all-singing, all-dancing, violin-, mandolin- and cowbell-playing demigod.

But though you wouldn’t have known it from the roar of the crowd, or the reaction of three ‘have a go heroes’ who broke out the sustained unision bellows when an encore didn’t seem forthcoming, Russell’s set never really caught fire.

“Let Us Be Loving”, with its juddering intro and driving groove was a step in the right direction. So was a backbeat heavy rendition of “Hard and Strong” and a whip through “To Dust”, which saw the singer bend and stretch her notes to breaking point. Better still were the encores; a version of the Colombian-inspired “I’d Cry”, with some bolero-esque violin work from Simmons, and a show-stopping take on “Got The Hunger” that had Russell writhing about on stage and growling into the mic.

But by then, it was too little too late. Too late to make up for the all slow ones that hadn’t stayed slow for long and the belters that never reached fever pitch. There’s no doubting Russell’s talent or the steely professionalism of her band, but this was too much about polish and not nearly enough about drama.

–Thomas Rees

– Photo by JMJournet/Wikicommons

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Meeting AA Gill

He’s the UK’s most notorious restaurant critic and a venerated travel writer. He’s also one of my heroes. Or, at least, he was…

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People look at me strangely when I tell them I like AA Gill. My housemate brought me to account when she found a copy of Previous Convictions lying on the table and I instantly regretted bringing him up over a pint of mild with my uncle in a tired old pub in County Conwy. “AA Gill! No, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Welsh does he?” Actually he called them ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. Oh right, you were being sarcastic.

It’s not a rose tinted hero worship. I freely admit that he’s an obnoxious self-publicist. I know about the Press Complaints Commission investigations and the accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, but I can’t help myself. His prose is just too good.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. He’s reported to be the most highly paid columnist in the UK and the dust jackets of his books like to claim he’s one of the most widely read in Britain. But if you’re a fan, do yourself a favour: don’t meet him. I did, and part of me wishes I hadn’t.

It was at a talk at the Idler Academy in West London, a bookshop full of luvvy luvvy types with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting moleskin trousers. We drank Hendrick’s gin and tonics out of patterned teacups and then moved down the road to St Stephen’s Church to hear Gill in conversation with John Mitchinson, inventor of QI.

Gill offered various contradictory opinions about the nature and purpose of criticism, sidestepped a question about the moral implications of writing for Murdoch’s Sunday Times, and forgot things – an impressive number of things for someone who once claimed, in an article about Glastonbury, that he doesn’t make notes and that his memory has never let him down.

But as I joined the queue for the book signing, that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t his appearance (he’s as formidably well-dressed as everyone says he is) or the fact that he’s shorter and more vulnerable-looking than you’d expect. It’s not that he’s an ogre. Quite the opposite. When I asked him if he had any tips for young writers he looked at me with fatherly concern and he thanked me profusely when I recommended places for him to visit on a trip to Bogotá. It’s his manner and his voice that’s the problem. They just don’t fit.

On paper Gill is a voice of authority. He’s irreverent and dryly humorous, a master of the put down and the send up, of crude but ingenious innuendo and biting satire. He’s erudite and fiercely intelligent with his observations, yet he still sounds like a man of the people, as well versed in popular culture as he is in ancient history and contemporary art. He can be tender (read his pieces on fatherhood), but it’s rare for him to be excessively sentimental. More often than not he sounds worldly and at times a little jaded. His travel pieces read like the work of a man who’s seen it all and, every so often, like the internal monologue of a hatchet-wielding cynic.

But Gill in person is none of those things. He’s a chirpy, hyperactive caricature, full of “darling”s and theatrical bluster; a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas. He talks too much for someone whose job it is to watch and to listen and he does so in a reedy tenor that’s hammy and affectedly posh. It’s not the voice I had in my head as I read his withering attacks on the idiocy of golf or the trashy, eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas. It’s a drastic mismatch.

None of this would matter if his writing still sounded the same, but it doesn’t. Now that I’ve met him there’s a new voice in my head, not the voice of a sharp tongued observer, a dealer in universal truths and shrewd insights, but that of a pantomime villain. It’s Gill’s real voice and it makes his prose sound kitsch and over the top. His judgements seem less weighty and the smutty innuendo reads less like a man dragging lofty, joyless subjects down into the mud and more like the work of a sniggering school boy. He’s still head and shoulders above most other journalists, but I think it might be time to find a new literary hero. To find one and to avoid meeting them at all costs.

– Thomas Rees

Postscript: Suffice to say I’ve changed my mind somewhat since writing this. Here’s my tribute to Gill, following his death in 2016.

Review: Laura Jurd’s Human Spirit

It’s just over two years since a 21-year-old Laura Jurd released Landing Ground, her unnervingly assured debut album. Human Spirit is the follow up, due for release on 19 January and now touring the UK. On the evidence of Wednesday night’s launch at the Forge, it’s a worthy successor – every bit as impressive as the young trumpeter’s first outing, but markedly different.

The strings have been ditched in favour of a brass heavy front line, comprising Jurd, trumpeter Chris Batchelor and trombonist Colm O’Hara, while a monster of a bass saxophone takes care of the low end – with help from Mick Foster, its bearded keeper. The rest of the group – vocalist Lauren Kinsella,guitarist Alex Roth and drummer Corrie Dick – are Jurd’s bandmates from art rock/improv group Blue-Eyed Hawk and their inclusion is telling.

In ‘Opening Sequence’, the rich harmonies and folksy trumpet lines of Landing Ground made a return, but it wasn’t long before we were in Blue-Eyed Hawk territory. ‘She Knew Him’ saw Foster drop the first of many rumbling bass grooves as Jurd launched into a bluesy solo, heavy on the wah-wah pedal, and Roth kicked his guitar into overdrive. One of the highlights of the set, ‘Brighter Days’ juxtaposed reeling melody lines with a ponderous brass chorale, shifting between a series of complex grooves before descending into chaos.

‘Pirates’ brought further anarchy, plus a story book vocal narrative set to a reggae backbeat, and there was even more going on in the album’s title track. It opened with a spidery guitar riff and a slow moving verse. From there a grunge-rock chorus launched a stinger of a solo from Chris Batchelor followed by a funk groove, shot through with horn section injections that sounded like gleefully misplaced samples. Just as it was grinding to a halt, Foster and Jurd ushered in a second churning, head-nodder of a bassline and the rest of the band piled back in. The rhythm section rocked out as Kinsella whooped and trilled and Batchelor reached for his plunger mute to give the audience the full Goldfinger.

Sudden shifts between light and dark became the order of the day, and ‘More Than Just A Fairy Tale’ brought yet another when its gently rolling theme was derailed by a slide-shredding O’Hara trombone solo. Rounding out the set, ‘Closing Sequence’ was both warm and unsettling with a haunting vamp that bled into the texture towards the end.

In its essence Human Spirit is Blue-Eyed Hawk meets Landing Ground with horns. It’s jabberwocky music; a thrilling mish mash of references and styles that makes for a rollercoaster of a live set. If Jurd’s debut was unnervingly accomplished, then Human Spirit is edgy, irreverent and brave. It doesn’t look for approval, it just makes you sit up and listen.

– Thomas Rees

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Review: Blue-Eyed Hawk – Under The Moon

Blue-Eyed Hawk
Under The Moon
(1) Oyster Trails; Somewhere; Aurora 5AM; (2) Spiderton; O Do Not Love Too Long; Reflections On The Spiral; (3) Living In The Fast Lane; Intro (For Fathers); For Tom And Everything; Try To Turn Back; Valediction (56.54)
(1) Lauren Kinsella (v); Laura Jurd (t, syn, v); Alex Roth (g, elg, syn, v); Corrie Dick (d, pc, harm, p, v). (2) with Tom Herbert (b). (3) with Tom Herbert (syn). Giant Wafer Studios, Wales, 14–17 April 2014.
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Blue-Eyed Hawk are a young London-based quartet with a fondness for poetry and a refreshing lack of respect for musical genre. Their name comes from a line in W.B Yeats’ Under the Moon, making the title for this, their debut album, an obvious choice. That’s where the obvious ends, however, because there’s nothing predictable about the music. On the contrary, Under the Moon is impossible to pigeonhole. It’s an album of twists and turns that toys with your expectations to the extent that you never quite know what’s coming next.

‘Aurora 5AM’ is, in its essence, a pop ballad with a tender vocal and the sort of melody that swims around in your head for hours afterwards. It’s a little sugary perhaps, but develops into a cleverly worked vamp of overlapping lines and subtle off kilter rhythms that banishes any sense of cliché. ‘Living In The Fast Lane’ is rocky and schizophrenic, anchored by a catchy overdriven chorus, while ‘O Do Not Love Too Long’, ‘Reflections On The Spiral’ and ‘Intro (For Fathers)’ are ambient masterpieces, folk-infused and restless.

‘Somewhere’, a trippy, dystopian rendering of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ heavy on the effects, is likely to divide opinion and I’m still in two minds about ‘Spiderton’ (though the scat vocal and trumpet introduction with its undercurrent of wobbly, flatulent synth is great fun). Even so, this is a formidable first release, an album that demands to be played repeatedly and that encourages you to listen more widely to better understand its gloriously eclectic influences.

– Thomas Rees

This article was published in Jazz Journal in January 2015, Vol 68 No.1