Hard to love – but Shirley Manson is terrific: Garbage, at Usher Hall, reviewed

There’s nothing quite like the drama of a prodigal’s return. ‘I’ve been singing in this venue since I was ten years old,’ announces Shirley Manson, staring down nearly half a century of personal history at Edinburgh’s ornate Usher Hall. The fact that Garbage’s lead singer made the United States her primary residence many years ago lends this homecoming concert added potency. There are shout-outs to her dad, a ‘Happy Birthday’ serenade for her sister and what looks like a tear or two at the start of the encore. A ‘badass’ attitude is so sleekly applied it seems like a Che Guevara T-shirt in the racks at M&S For all the

The mutilation of Radio 3

On Saturday 12 December 1964, Harold Wilson addressed his first Labour party conference as prime minister, George Harrison was photographed with his new girlfriend in the Bahamas, Pope Paul VI told Catholics they could drink alcohol ‘in moderation’ before Midnight Mass and, according to the Mirror, ‘two strip-tease girls fought in the nude in their dressing room after finishing their fan dance at a night club’. The station has become little more than a Spotify playlist interrupted by the disc-jockey burbling It was also the day that Record Review arrived in its Saturday morning slot on the BBC’s Third Programme, now Radio 3. And there it remained. During the Three-Day

It was midnight in a field in Wales and I was lying face down in six inches of mud: Green Man Festival reviewed

I love Green Man. The smallish festival is the second most beautiful site I’ve ever visited (after G Fest, which is situated on a beach in a fjord in the Faroe Islands). Nestled in a valley between the mountains of the Brecon Beacons, it has great bills, it’s impeccably organised and I feel nourished by it. But, in the interests of being honest about festivals for those who have never been, I should also confess that this year it supplied the single most miserable experience of my music-watching life. It was midnight, in a field in Wales, and I was lying face down in six inches of mud Friday was

Uneasy listening: Kathryn Joseph, at Summerhall, reviewed

I have always been fascinated by artists who bounce between tonal extremes when performing, particularly the ones who serve their songs sad and their stagecraft salty. Adele, for example, fills the space between each plushily upholstered soul-baring ballad by transforming into a saucy end-of-pier variety act, coo-cooing at the crowd and cursing like a squaddie. John Lennon gurned and clowned his way through the Beatles’ concerts, subverting the naked suicidal plea of ‘Help!’ in the process. John Martyn would belch and joust in mock-Cockney at the conclusion of a particularly sensitive piece. Jackie Leven punctuated songs of immense pain and sadness with eye-watering stories of defecating in alleyways and getting

Ian McEwan’s capacity for reinvention is astonishing

McEwanesque. What would that even mean? The dark psychological instability of The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love? The gleeful comedy of Solar and Nutshell? The smart social realism of Saturday and The Children Act? The metafictional games of Atonement and Sweet Tooth? Ian McEwan’s brilliant capacity for reinvention is a hallmark of his literary career. It’s simpler to say what McEwanesque is not: baggy, meandering, plotless, long. Yet all of these adjectives could be applied to his surprising new novel, Lessons. This cradle-to-grave (well, seven-ish to seventy-something) narrative concerns the life and times of Roland Baines, born, like McEwan, in 1948. Roland shares more than just a birth date

Sensational: Herbie Hancock, at the Edinburgh Festival, reviewed

‘Human beings are in trouble these days,’ says Herbie Hancock, chatting to us between songs. ‘And do you know who can fix it?’ ‘Herbie!’ comes the instant reply, shouted from somewhere in the stalls. Hancock might be a jazz legend, but he’s not quite the Saviour. Kicking off this year’s excellent contemporary music programme at the Edinburgh International Festival, he’s a hit from the moment he strolls into view. In his long black frockcoat, Hancock has come tonight as the High Priest of Cool. When he straps on a keytar, he’s a funky gunslinger. When one of his outstanding trio takes a particularly inventive solo, he cracks up with undisguised

Ethel, Ella and all that jazz: the soundtrack of a Chicago childhood

Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System compresses memoir and cultural criticism into one slim, explosive volume, and in doing so the Pulitzer Prize-winning author makes both forms new. Hers is a wry, intimate portrayal of a passionate and intellectual woman coming to maturity: ‘Older women’s tales… are hard to pull off,’ she writes: ‘They risk being arch.’ But Jefferson is never arch. Her eye is too keen and her aim too true. She turns her clear gaze and razor-sharp intellect on America past and present, where freedoms are skewed and limited by race and gender. The book is about the second half of a life, which is where the real

How I fell in love with the blues

I was never into the blues that much. I listened to a bit of Roy Buchanan and Rory Gallagher but only as accidental overspill from rock. I knew the Rolling Stones’s sound came out of their love of the blues but what they added was more important (to me) than what they took. And then there was Eric Clapton. In common with a discerning portion of the British population, I loathed Clapton after his drunken endorsement of Enoch Powell’s rivers-of-blood speech. Even if I’d somehow let that slide, I could never forgive him for ‘Tears in Heaven’ which was like having a bucket of oversweetened bilge water poured over one’s

Fabulously boring: Weather Station’s How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars reviewed

Grade: C– Anyone remember that TV advert for Canada from the 1980s – a succession of colourful images, including a delicious pink donut, downtown T.O. and soaring mountain peaks, displaying the beauty, vitality and vibrancy of the country? It made me want to visit. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me there now – that glorious, vast expanse now the sine qua non of smugness and condescension. It has become a terminally precious country and we should withdraw our ambassador, or invade (that being the fashion). Weather Station, led by the fabulously irritating Tamara Lindeman, were once okayish indie folkies who have now become pretentious, half-assed purveyors of somnambulant fake jazz, like

Expectations were met and then exceeded: Arooj Aftab, at Celtic Connections, reviewed

We gathered on a freezing Sunday night, inside a barrel-vaulted church designed in the 1890s by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to witness a cresting wave. Vulture Prince, the third album by the Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer, composer and producer Arooj Aftab, was one of the most accomplished and interesting records of last year. A keening song of loss, dedicated to her late brother, Vulture Prince is almost impossible to pin down. It’s a flood plain of merging musical streams, a genre-phobic blend of jazz, minimalism, Sufi devotional music, acoustic textures and torch song. Sung almost entirely in Urdu, its beauty and import are immediate, its emotional pull universal. Following two Grammy nominations

Joyous perfection from a band that’s sure to go far: Gabriels at The Social reviewed

The bigger the next big thing, the smaller the room you want them playing in. You want the people who got inside to be thankful they made it in (not least because the more exclusive the show, the more hysterical the tweets afterwards: ‘You plebs couldn’t get a ticket, but I saw the very future of the planet!’). You want the air so thick with heat and chatter before the band comes on that there is a sense of event before a note has been played. You want everyone there — band and audience alike — to feel they are at the only place that matters, regardless of it being

Good noisy fun: black midi, at the Edinburgh International Festival, reviewed

This year we must love Edinburgh for her soul rather than her looks. The EIF should be commended for making the best of a tricky hand, but the lodgings for its music programme bring to mind a fallen society beauty forced from her New Town villa into a rented bedsit. Edinburgh Park is a cathedral-sized tent in a business park, wedged between the city bypass and a shopping mall. The wooden floor planks buck and roll like a galleon deck. There is a roof but no sides and the Covid-quelling ventilation is, shall we say, robust. So yes, forget the optics. In 2021, content is everything. As it transpires, it

Could she be the new Sade? Celeste at Union Chapel reviewed

Some years ago, when I was the music editor of a newspaper, I called a number of historians of black music asking if any of them could write about why the audience for new music made in the styles of classic soul, blues or jazz was almost entirely white. The people I asked, some of them august commentators on African-American culture, offered a few suggestions: black music was historically co-opted and deracinated by the white music industry so comprehensively that black artists just didn’t want to go back there; black music has always been about progression rather than revival, and it is simply of no interest to look back; the

Whiny, polite and beautiful: Kings of Convenience’s Peace or Love reviewed

Grade: A– The problem with Norwegians is that they are so relentlessly, mind-numbingly pleasant. Well, OK, not Knut Hamsun or Vidkun Quisling. And probably not the deranged fascist murderer Anders Breivik either. But then maybe that’s what unrestrained, suffocating niceness does to a certain kind of person: they end up strapping on a machine gun, or yearning for Hitler. Or both. Kings of Convenience are two earnest and very pleasant youngish men who often wear nice jumpers. They come from Bergen, which is as pristine and congenial a city as you could wish for: sharp, clear northern air and wooden-framed houses filled with agreeably plain furniture. Oh, and fish everywhere.

A perfect welcome back to live music: Sarathy Korwar at Kings Place reviewed

There is a reason music writers tend to stick with music writing rather than transferring their manifold talents to the business side of things. Our dirty secret is that, for all our exquisite taste, most of us — with a few exceptions — have no conception of what the rest of the world actually wants from their music. The first piece I ever wrote was a student newspaper review of a gig in a Leeds pub, in which I gushed about the headliners but noted, with a sneer, the fact that the support didn’t appear to have any actual tunes. We would be hearing no more from them, I cautioned.

In Chet Baker’s albums you can hear America’s romantic self-image curdling

The thing to remember about Chet Baker, an old acquaintance says of the errant jazz musician in Deep In A Dream, James Gavin’s exemplary 2002 biography of Baker, is that ‘he can hurt people even after he’s dead’. Baker could be dangerous but mostly he hurt himself. He died, squalidly, in 1988, and his music, at least, can still wound. In Baker’s oeuvre the ballads are deep blue and the up-tempo tunes are somehow tinted even darker. The ‘jazz James Dean’, the ‘Prince of Cool’, Baker was extremely pretty in his younger days and made music that cast a similar enchantment. His trumpet style was lyrical, his singing voice light

Like much jazz, it might have benefited from being less solemn: BBC4’s Ronnie’s reviewed

Ronnie’s: Ronnie Scott and His World-Famous Jazz Club was like the TV equivalent of an authorised biography: impressively thorough, often illuminating, certainly long — and perhaps a bit too reverent for its own good. The programme began with some of today’s jazz musicians testifying to just how great the club is. From there, we cut to the story of Scott himself, with his Jewish East End background and his early love of the saxophone. By 16, he was accomplished enough to cross the frontier from East End to West, and played in various swing bands. But then he and his fellow 1940s hipsters discovered bebop, a reaction against commercialised swing

A gripping portrait: Billie reviewed

This documentary about Billie Holiday is transfixing. Not just because it’s about Billie Holiday — I am not into jazz yet her version of ‘Strange Fruit’ is obviously incredible — but for the previously unheard audio tapes recorded by Linda Lipnack Kuehl in the 1970s with the people who knew her. This includes, for instance, Billie’s cousin, John Fagan, who chucklingly says he pimped her out as a child — ‘girls started young’ — and that women who ‘step out of line’ like to be knocked about and are proud of having a black eye as it shows ‘someone loves them’. Or it’s a band member recalling how Billie had

The dazzling, devious, doomed sound of James Booker

Dr John called James Booker ‘the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced’. Booker died in 1983 at 43, ruined by drugs, drink and madness. Though he appeared on plenty of other people’s records and stages — Dr John, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King — Booker recorded only three studio albums in his lifetime. Classified, recorded in October 1982 and now re-released on vinyl, was the last of them. It might not be the best of them, but it shows why Booker was one of the greats. The studio was booked for three days, but Booker had a breakdown the week before and couldn’t get a

Taylor Swift is fascinating – but you really wouldn’t want to be her

There had been some question about whether Taylor Swift’s Netflix special would actually appear. Last year it seemed that the ownership of her old songs by her previous record label would scupper it. But no, Ms Swift is not to be resisted, and lo, Miss Americana is available right now on Netflix, one of its two big music documentaries for the spring. Many older men seem to have a visceral distaste for Ms Swift. If you share that distaste, then I’m sorry, it’s your loss, because she’s a fascinating figure (who has also made three truly terrific albums in Fearless, Red and 1989), and Miss Americana is well worth watching.