Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me @ BFI Southbank

Sweet tragedy and panther horror


Alex Chilton is gone, Chris Bell is gone, Andy Hummel is gone (that makes everyone in the band, apart from drummer Jody Stephens gone), at least a couple of interviewees died a little after their bit was shot (the curse catches on). Add to that the utter disappointment of three melodic masterpieces being almost completely ignored [mainly due to endless problems with distribution; cause, if not the public, rock critics at least, majorly made up of true music fans at the time, got the deal early on and raved about them].
The Memphis band's story is full of tragedy, as Drew DeNicola's documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me made us quickly aware, a day before this year's BFI Film Festival bade us goodbye too. 
...One great misconception, Drew and other guests happily pointed out at their collective Q&A after the screening. Take it from the name - they felt awkward picking one, and they had no idea what to name their albums either. Consequently, this "Big Star" released its "#1 Record" in 1972, full of irony and nonchalance (about labels, at least). They were utter nut-cases, but they must've known they were blessed.
I don't want to go on and on about their music - it's mostly achingly beautiful and ridiculously charismatic. It's that graceful and effortless "IT". Holocaust, Lady Sweet, Thirteen 1972, For You, India Song, The Ballad of el Goodo, Chilton's vocal magic, as shown in covers of others and his own work (Nature Boy, Can't Seem To Make You Mine, The Letter - I'm a fan).
All I'm gonna say is go grab those records (#1 Record, Radio City, Third/Sister Lovers). They have the power to turn the worst of times into magic (take it from a punk girl thus commenting on what is essentially soft pop ballads. I couldn't believe my feelings then, I can't believe them now).
The second (and last) thing I have to add is this: The fact that Chilton could ever disappoint fans for getting creatively involved with the likes of Panther Burns (awesome - think more mixed up Cramps!) totally baffles me (it's not Ke$ha, people!). This is exactly the kind of thing I could imagine Chilton getting involved in - from a character point of view, the way I perceive it. Like any true artist, he's multifaceted and, in the best of them, creativity almost certainly translates to unpredictability - you don't know where your muse will take you next. You wouldn't want this man any other way... If he were the kind to take advice against eccentric choices, do you honestly think he would've come up with the holy shit he has for Big Star?

John Cale @ Royal Festival Hall

Shifty tales of a shifty player


Dear, dear John...
A driving force behind the American avant garde (despite a distinctive Welsh identity) since the sixties - from La Monte Young and an insignificant little band called The Velvet Underground to currently de rigueur producer Danger Mouse, who jams with the master for his 15th solo release Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood.
Not that the latest Cale record is that revealing of his avant garde credentials. It pretty much takes a ride on the poppy/whimsical electronic side, with a guitar still able to shake up those fancy RFH walls.
This last gig, part of Southbank's Ether Festival, opened with the sweet-voiced sensibility of Lucy Rose who had just landed from Brussels with her guitar, straight into this vast and unwelcoming hall. But she managed to hook the audience alright. Delivering glimpses of her brand new debut Like I Used To (we already knew her from her collaboration with Bombay Bicycle Club), she was funny and witty - and that voice! Her songs frankly bored me on youtube, but live she vibrates with feeling (tellingly, a lot of people suddenly ran to buy the album after the show).
What's so avant garde about Cale now - still, and always -, is that you don't really know what his mood is gonna be next, unattached by outside influence, or persuasion. He's been messing with funny-sounding synths and electronics for quite a while - also apparent in his current record. If there's something the time passing hasn't touched, it's that his brain is always going to rush ahead, incorporating timeless vintage traits on the way. He tries new shit when he feels like it; and that's exactly why no one is able to pigeonhole him.
I laid back and listened to the different soundpieces come together - from the audience shouting out their love of his marshmallow-pink jacket (very cool indeed) to the echoes of the classic Helen of Troy. Cale stayed focus and sober all the way, hardly the charmer...
He has always been the introvert. He's given a hand to more than a few heady masterpieces in his 50-year career - but he's most comfortable creeping under your skin. I let I Wanna Talk 2 U, Vampire Cafe, or Midnight Feast from his new album, creep in, trying to decode Nookie's sinister pink/blue cover...
Well, I don't have to be pushed and intrigued every passing second; that's the reality - and that's talent where I come from: It doesn't always speak loudly, but each moment has its own significance.

Sigur Ros: The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment @ BFI Southbank

"There were a lot of women in white dresses, floating on water..."


Unsurprisingly unwilling to talk about / promote their sixth album Valtari, the Icelandish (a mix of Icelandic and outlandish) post rockers had another of their creative-smart-ass ideas: Why not invite a dozen directors - some of which they had worked with before, and some they would have liked to-, hand them all 10,000 quid, dollars or smg (either way, in film-maker lingo that's called "modest") and free creative reign, and see what they come up with. Enter the Valtari Mystery Film Experiment.
The influx of videos was overwhelming (it reached the thousand), while established directors unexpectedly offered their hand once the word got around.
The results were presented in a magically flow-y, dreamy and hypnotic (surprise!) cinematic ritual in Southbank, courtesy of the 56th BFI Film Festival; which was followed by a Q & A with the band's manager John Best and film-makers Alma Har'el, Melika Bass, Clare Langan and Nick Abrahams. Film 4's David Cox was named host.
Those of you who have listened to Valtari you know already that the band has given birth to a magnificent album, once again (that break and those solo projects were totally worth it). And the film-makers proudly rose up to the occasion: I loved Anafelle Lui's winning entry (based on Fjögur Píanó); Langan's work was stunning (she has, after all, been tested by the band before in I Gaer - the film she created for ICA, and she presented on 12 screens in a 360 degree pod in Trafalgar Square); John Cameron Mitchell's characteristic wit was translated to illustration; Ramin Bahrani's breathing (or dying?) fish was peculiarly captivating, while Ragnar's Kjartansson's didactic and super funny piece on how to successfully perform the Heimlich maneuver and save people from choking was spectacularly unexpected. Some took refuge in mesmerizing landscapes, dancing, drama, minimalism - some bordered on boredom...
According to Best, they had to witness countless "women in white dresses, floating on water" - and, naturally, slow motion. "Everybody shoots in slow motion when they shoot Sigur Ros". Wise words... Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Luckily, there's always people that see the strength, the humor, the irony of it all. Take a look at what we saw at and decide for yourself.
If anything, the project gave me a good think on how I'd direct Sigur Ros myself. Could I - would I?- really avoid slow motion?
In any case, what matters here is that Valtari's evocative, faraway beauty doesn't really need much accompaniment at all. But a 1,000 videos won't hurt either...

Patti Smith @ The Troxy

Bang(a) the drum


I have seen Patti and her band on stage several times now. And I have to say, ever since her recent covers record, 2007's Twelve, she's been attracting paradoxically (since we're talking about songs often even older than her own) younger crowds. This year's Banga rejuvenated her audience once more.
It's a record highly eco-conscious, above all, with a salute sent upwards to the late Amy Winehouse, among others. Naturally, Smith has a way to turn even the eco-friendlier of tunes into sexy and dynamic rants (or whispers, but their power remains still).
Given all the above, there was a good base to build one more amazing performance on. Despite the great absence of guitarist Tom Verlaine, Smith knows how to be in good company - whether that includes, on occasion, My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, or the incomparable Lenny Kaye, her solid companion through the years.
Her current tight-knit ensemble chose wisely between the new record (Banga, Constantine's Dream, This Is The Girl etc.) and old familiar hits: Gloria and Because the Night are ever present, along with Rock'n'Roll Nigger, Free Money, Dancing Barefoot, and a powered r'n'r medley by master Kaye. It's high time we paid tribute to the man that not only has he been a vital force to Smith's life and sound, but to our collective sound-obsessed minds - and to rock history in its whole. Lenny, you're the dude!
I have never seen both him and Smith be anything but completely generous with their audience. To a point that I would've taken her (especially) more anti-social, defiant self any time. She's turned more and more hippy with age, despite preserving her signature punk queen spit (I wonder if it always comes as natural, or it's a necessary thread to her outcast persona). But she's ever as captivating. Real to her art. No matter who you are or where you come from, your level of Smith dedication for that matter, you can see through that.
 I could name any little or big, hidden or obvious flaw. The truth remains: For a couple of generations now, it hardly gets as beautiful, intoxicating, mind-boggling as with Patti Smith.