Thursday, 23 January 2014

Augustines Album Launch Party @ Lexington

I've been to many great gigs, but few have been - or, I suspect, will be - as special as the launch of Augustines' self-titled second album at the Lexington on Tuesday 21 January. In many ways, playing the Lexington was a homecoming for Brooklyn residents Billy McCarthy, Eric Sanderson and Rob Allan. It was in this tiny venue above a North London pub where they launched their debut album Rise Ye Sunken Ships in the UK and Europe back in 2012, complete with a bottle of champagne passed around the fans (as my Dad, who was lucky enough to have been there, reports). Drummer Rob is also from Islington originally, so his family and friends came out to support, including his father who stars in the video for the first single from the new album, 'Cruel City'. But most importantly, this fans-only gig, which reportedly sold out in just four minutes, brought together all the most hardcore Augustinites in London, showing so much love for the band that they seemed genuinely overwhelmed by it.

A constant refrain in praise of Augustines is that they wear their hearts on their sleeves like no other band. Their obvious delight at being able to perform for us, and earnest desire to put on the best show the possibly could made it an absolute joy to be there - two days later, I still have a perma-smile, and I was so hyper after the show that those who saw me assumed I'd consumed a massive amount of drugs. Despite needing a shot of steroids in his ass that morning to fight off illness, nothing would stop Billy rocking out, even ripping his trousers while launching himself head-first into Rob's drum kit.

With the addition of another Englishman, Al Hardiman, on trombone, Augustines sound even better than when I saw them back in 2012 at Thekla, Bristol. On anthems like 'Chapel Song', 'Jaurez' and 'Book of James' they made a huge sound, impossible not to rock out to, which made the acoustic, sing-along versions of songs like 'East Los Angeles' and 'New Drink for the Old Drunk' all the more touching. At the same time, Billy bore his soul to us, not only through the lyrics - which tell heartbreaking stories while emphasising perseverance over adversity - but in his frequent talks to the audience. The story of his visit to the doctor that morning was a reminder of the fragility of a man who been through so much yet remains determined to get the most out of life. He also told us about the feeling of alienation in New York which led him on a trip down to Mexico, then up through Alaska, before finally reaching the San Francisco coastline and admitting he was as lost as ever: the inspiration behind the new song 'Walkabout'. It seemed to be a feeling a lot of us in the crowd related to, and his solo acoustic version of the song was one of the most emotionally intense moments I've ever experienced at a gig.

After the show, I corned Billy on his way to the bar, but was so overwhelmed by the show that I just about managed to splurt 'That was amazing, I love you so much!' while shaking terribly from an adrenaline overdose. I imagine Augustines are used to this kind of reaction by now (at one notable gig in Paris, a whole bunch of women climbed on stage and started pawing at them), but that they always seem so surprised and pleased by it is just another reason to love them even more.

Augustines will be back in London on 14 April 2014 playing Koko. Click here to listen to Augustines interviewed by Dermot O'Leary on Radio 2 and performing new song 'Nothing To Lose But Your Head' as well as a cover of Phosphorescent's 'Song For Zula'.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

24 Hours in Pittsburgh - Venezuelan Literature + Motive Band

Me and Dayana among the stacks of Venezuelan books
As 2013 draws to a close, I'm trying to see how much of the year that I missed blogging I can catch up on. Here's one I made much much earlier...

While in the States for the LASA conference back in June, I decided to make the most of the super-cheap Megabus and catch up with some of the Venezuelan ex-pat writer community currently residing in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the Megabus is cheap for a reason, and an unexpected change of schedule left me with only 24 hours in the Steel City, but I made the most of every minute!

I was extremely excited to finally meet Dayana Fraile and Guillermo Parra, tireless promoters of Venezuelan literature abroad. As well as a fellow student of Venezuelan literature, Dayana is the author of a wonderful collection of short stories called Granizo. Guillermo frequently translates Venezuelan poems, short stories and essays, and posts them on his blog, Venepoetics. His Selected Works of José Antonio Ramos Sucre is also one of only two translations of Venezuelan work published in the USA since 2008.

They kindly took me to the University of Pittsburgh, which I'd wanted to visit for years, since I'd discovered it was home to a building called the Cathedral of Learning. Anywhere where education is the religion is my kind of place! The 'Cathedral' is built in the late Gothic style, and home to a collection of 'national' classrooms, each decorated in the style of that country (the English one was built with timbre left over from rebuilding London churches after the Blitz). I was pleased to learn that the University library is home to an enormous collection of Venezuelan literature, and desperately wanted to stay there and read - although even with a whole of nothing but reading there, I still wouldn't scratch the surface.

In the afternoon, Guillermo took me to meet Israel Centeno, one of the most successful and prolific Venezuelan authors of his generation. We first came into contact after I translated an interview with him for my Venezuelan Literature site, as he was keen to discuss the London that had once been home to him in the 80s. As a writer in residence, for City of Asylum, Centeno lives on the spectacularly colourful Sampsonia Way. Part of City of Asylum's project is to reinvigorate this part of North Pittsburgh, turning the houses into works of art, narratives and historical documents, which makes it a fascinating place to visit (read more about these 'House Publications' here).


As well as admiring Israel's house, it was an incredible opportunity to talk to him about his work and opinions about contemporary Venezuela. It was also fascinating to hear about the London he knew - Brixton at the time of the riots, filled with squatters and sexual liberation - so different from the city I grew up in. That London is the setting for his novel Bajo las hojas, a complex and challenging story about writing as the ultimate form of power and control.

"Do they still have orgies in the graveyards?"

Thinking I'd have some time to kill between meeting Israel and my midnight bus, before leaving for the States I'd searched for live music in Pittsburgh that evening, stumbled upon Motive and very quickly become addicted to their It's Illicit LP. They have been called The Strokes 2.0, and the influence is obvious, but they do it very well. Dayana kindly volunteered to come with me, and although we sadly among a very limited number of music fans in the Smiling Moose that evening (most people were downstairs watching the Penguins lose), Motive rocked hard and made us dance like crazy people. 

You can buy new singles Mammals and Burn Down Brooklyn for $1 each, or name your price for the It's Illict EP at

John Wilson Orchestra present MGM Film Musicals @ Royal Festival Hall

Superstar conductor John Wilson returned to the Royal Festival Hall  with his hand-picked orchestraon 5 December, this time with a selection of music from classic MGM film musicals like Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris and Gigi.

Blown away by last year's celebration of Rogers, Hammerstein and Hart, as well as the JWO's annual prom performances, I booked my ticket way back in February to ensure I was in the middle of the front row. Wilson's star is certainly rising as for the first time he sold out two consecutive nights in London.

Musically, not as good a selection as last year - despite standards like The Lady is a Tramp - but it's always a treat to hear these lavish scores lovingly recreated and played by such a large and talented orchestra. It was a joy to see Anna-Jane Casey perform live too (my first time since Chicago in 2010, although I have enjoyed her prom appearances many times since), along with Matthew Ford.

I was one of only a handful of people under sixty there, and on my way out I overheard a couple talking about what a shame it was that 'the young people' are missing out on such quality music. Like John Wilson, I believe these old Hollywood musicals are timeless classics and hope that as his fame increases he will succeed in making them truly popular once again.

John Wilson and his orchestra will be celebrating the work of Cole Porter at the Royal Albert Hall on 25 November 2014. Book tickets here.

The National @ Alexandra Palace

The first time I saw The National 2008 in what was then the Carling Academy, Birmingham, holding just a few hundred people, Boxer had just been released and they were on the cusp of their big break. Since then, High Violet was voted one of the top albums of 2010, winning the Q award for Best Album. They were nominated for 'Best International Breakthrough Act' at the 2011 Brit Awards - ironic for a band who had released their first album ten years earlier. Now they sell out the Alexandra Palace for two nights (13 and 14 November 2013). 

When I first started this blog two years ago, I posted a rant about how disappointed I was with the way The National were heading. As it turns out, I'm one of the few old-school fans I know who actually really loves Trouble Will Find Me. My worries about the band going bland were unfounded, as songs like Don't Swallow The Cap (above), Sea of Love and Graceless have all the lyrical dexterity and raw, self-deprecating, confused emotion that makes me return again and again to the band. Nonetheless, in the lead-up to the gig I'd been listening obsessively to early albums The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, as I so often do, thinking what a shame it was that they would never play those songs again, so I was OVERJOYED when they played my favourite song, Available with the outro from Cardinal Song - in Matt Berninger's words "a strange mix of anger and eroticism". Matt's hair may be receding and his eyesight failing, but it's great to see he still has the rage which bubbled through their early albums. 

(Sadly I can only find a really bad quality video).

Over the years, I've followed The National to the Royal Festival Hall, the Zénith in Paris (supporting Pavement) and the 02 Academy Bristol. This is the first time I haven't been in touching distance from them in a throng of die-hard fans, so I felt weirdly dislocated from them. They did a good job of filling the enormous stage with an impressive light show though, and I really appreciated the set-list packed full of hits from across their albums (including other old favourites like About Today and Mr November)The next time I see The National will be supporting Neil Young in Hyde Park in July - I can't wait to see what they're like in front of a crowd of over 60,000.