Live music

The unstoppable rise of country music

When a major artist releases a new album, the first thing to follow is the onslaught of think pieces. And when Beyoncé released Cowboy Carter earlier this year, the tone of these think pieces – especially on this side of the Atlantic – was one of slightly baffled congratulation. Here, at last, was a pioneer who might drag this hidebound genre – of sequins and satin, of lachrymose, middle-aged songs about drink and divorce – into the modern age. ‘Modern country is like punk for the Hannah Montana generation’ The only problem is that Beyoncé was not leading; she was following. Beyoncé pivoted to country not to make it cool,

Lovely slice of Cosmic Scouse: Michael Head & the Red Elastic, at EartH, reviewed

One of the more bizarre but recurring tales about how the music of Liverpool has been shaped over these past 45 years concerns Courtney Love, the American musician famed, music aside, for being married to Kurt Cobain, and for being wildly unpredictable. This story claims the 17-year-old Love, who had travelled across the Atlantic to be near the bands she loved, introduced Liverpudlian musicians to LSD, setting in train a decades-long phenomenon known as ‘Cosmic Scouse’. The slight problem with this is that Love only came to Liverpool in 1982, by which point the musicians she had come to celebrate – Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes among

Adrianne Lenker is a treasure for the ages 

You could very well sum up their differing approaches to American roots music from how they were dressed. Both wore cowboy hats and both wore trousers, but Adrianne Lenker’s were faded denim, while Lainey Wilson went with shiny brown leather. Lenker, looking austere and speaking and singing softly, played music plucked from eternity, demanding you concentrate on her stillness. Wilson, on the other hand, was here to make the crowd feel good; a little melancholy on the big ballads, sure, but she’s an entertainer in the grand tradition of country music. Wilson’s set was divided between bangers and ballads, and the best of them were very good You might draw

Why garage punk is plainly the apogee of human achievement

How is it that a group that sounds like the Hives are selling out the Apollo? In a world configured according to expectation, the highlight of their year would be an appearance at the Rebellion punk festival in Blackpool, probably high up the bill on the second stage. They’d headline their own shows at places like the Dome in Tufnell Park to an audience made up of three-quarters old blokes and a quarter skinny young kids, suited and booted like it’s 1966 and Antonioni’s about to shout ‘Action!’. Afterwards, a DJ would play the Sonics and the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watchband. Garage punk tends to be of niche

Never admit that your band is prog – it’s the kiss of death

Sensible prog-rock bands try to ensure no one ever realises they play prog. What happens when you are deemed a prog band is that you are condemned to the margins – little radio airtime, few TV appearances, barely any coverage in the mainstream press – because it has been decided you exist solely for the delectation of a tribe that baffles the rest of the world. Once non-proggers have decided you are prog, that’s it. There is no way back for you. Just collect your Campaign for Real Ale membership card, go home and practise your drum solos. Once non-proggers have decided you are prog, that’s it. There is no

New Order’s oldies still sound like the future

The intimate acoustic show can denote many things for an established artist. One is that, in the infamous euphemism coined by Spinal Tap, their audience has become more ‘selective’. Attempting to make the best of a bad job, the artist shifts down a gear while aiming upmarket, much in the manner of a balding man cultivating a fancy moustache. The cosy concert is also favoured by pop stars craving some old fashioned string-and-wire authenticity. Occasionally, the urge is a creative one, propelled by the sense that the material being promoted lends itself to a less triumphalist approach. ‘My Love Mine All Mine’ is, thanks to the ludic powers of TikTok,

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

A giddy delight: Regina Spektor, at the Royal Festival Hall reviewed

We’ll get on to the brilliance of Regina Spektor in a moment. But first a question: why are pop music fans treated so abysmally? The afternoon of Spektor’s second sold-out show at the Royal Festival Hall, the venue tweeted that she would be on stage at 7.30 p.m. She actually took to the stage a few minutes past 8 o’clock. Spektor was absolutely magnificent once she did come on. She filled the room with charisma, charm and wit If that were a one-off, so be it. But anyone who goes to a lot of shows is familiar with how malleable the concept of stage-time is in pop music. Lana Del

Intoxicating: Bruce Springsteen, at BST Hyde Park, reviewed

Seven years ago, I asked Bruce Springsteen what he meant when he talked of the covenant between himself and his audience. It was a long, thoughtful and thorough answer, and when I transcribed it, I realised he would have won Just a Minute, so clear was his reply. Part of what he said was this: ‘I have built up the skills to be able to provide, under the right conditions, a certain transcendent evening, hopefully an evening you’ll remember when you go home. Not that you’ll just remember it was a good concert, but you’ll remember the possibilities the evening laid out in front of you, as far as where

Why aren’t Spoon filling stadiums?

Here’s a mystery for you. Why were Spoon, one of the most dynamic, sharpest rock bands in the world, playing a single night in a north London town hall (capacity 890) while Arctic Monkeys were playing three nights at Arsenal’s ground (capacity 59,000) as part of a UK tour that encompassed eight other stadiums in the UK, plus one arena, one park and Glastonbury? It’s not that Arctic Monkeys aren’t good – no one gets that kind of critical unanimity without being good. It’s just that Spoon are better, and better than almost everyone else. Onstage in London, aided by a genius sound engineer, Spoon were perfection So why aren’t

Dazzling – if you ignore the music: Beyoncé, at Murrayfield Stadium, reviewed

Scheduling open-air concerts in mid-May in northern Europe is a triumph of hope over experience. I last spent time with Beyoncé – I’m sure she remembers it fondly and well – in 2016, in a football stadium in Sunderland on a damp, drizzly, early-summer English evening of the type that even strutting soul divas struggle to enliven. I don’t think it was merely the weather which left me underwhelmed by her brutalist attack, the sheer choreographed drill of the show, the lack of engagement, of spontaneity, of joy. By then, Beyoncé was no longer seeking to be regarded as a mere pop star. She had recently taken on the unearthly

In praise of goths – the most enduring of pop subcultures

More than 40 years on, every town still has them, wandering the streets with pale skin, more make-up than you can find in Superdrug, swathed in acres of black fabric. Goths, rather unexpectedly, have turned out to be the great survivors among pop subcultures. Others have risen and faded, but the goths – laughed at, ignored, dismissed – have endured, seeing their style and their musical tastes slowly incorporated by everyone else (there’s even a goth version of hip-hop, known as ‘horrorcore’). Goth was a fitting name for the music: overbearing and foreboding; delivering ecstasy through the building and releasing of tension rather than through major chords and primary colours;

London’s best jazz bars

When jazz music arrived on our shores in 1919, with the first British tour of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, it received a frosty welcome from many. Other performers tried to get the group kicked off theatre bills, and the tour ended abruptly – with the Original Dixielanders being chased to Southampton docks by a lord who had just found out the lead singer had been trying to seduce his daughter. Happily, in the subsequent 100 years or so, jazz has gone on to earn a firm place in our hearts and record collections. With the return of London Jazz Festival, which runs from today until 20 November, we hunted down

Only traces of their eerie early spirit remain: Kings of Leon, at OVO Hydro, reviewed

A few years ago, I spoke to Mick Jagger and asked him which of the (relatively) new crop of rock groups he rated. It was a short list, I recall, and not hugely inspiring, but Kings of Leon made the cut. ‘They have a kind of Texas weirdness that you don’t find in a lot of modern rock bands,’ he reckoned. ‘I like their quirkiness, and the fact that you can hear the countryish and blues thing behind them, but it’s not that obvious.’ Aside from the fact that they are from Tennessee, not Texas, it felt like a reasonably astute summation of Kings of Leon’s appeal when they first

The subtleties of her songbook were lost in this enormodome: Diana Ross at the O2 reviewed

When Motown first packaged up a roster of artists and songs that could be embraced by a non-black audience, no new act – not Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye or Little Stevie Wonder or Martha and the Vandellas or the Temptations – crossed over into the bosom of Middle America as easefully as the Supremes. Or Diana Ross and the Supremes, as with many internal ructions they were later rebranded, Ross being the one with shimmering star quality who stood in the middle and sang the lead. They were signed to Motown 60 years ago and given songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland to sell in floor-length gowns. Those songs have seeped into

I’m not sure they ever reached a fourth chord: Spiritualized, at the Roundhouse, reviewed

Every so often, Jason Pierce drifts into focus. It happened at the end of the 1980s, when his then group Spacemen 3 (motto: ‘Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to’) suddenly and briefly went from being those weirdos from Rugby to one of the defining groups of English alternative rock thanks to their album Sound of Confusion (there’s a whole strain of American psychedelia that is explicitly indebted to their two-chord drone). It happened again a decade or so later, when Spiritualized’s album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space became a big hit, and a staple of Greatest Albums lists. He’s in one of his partial-focus

A joy – mostly: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, at Usher Hall, reviewed

Drummers are patient chaps, in the main. Think of Ringo in Peter Jackson’s recent Beatles docuseries, Get Back. Lolling around peaceably for days on end as Lennon and McCartney bash about, looking for clues. Drummers twiddle their thumbs behind their kit while the musos fret over chords and key changes, waiting for the moment when they will be called upon to hit skins with sticks and make a song worth hearing. In 2018, admirably urbane Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason finally lost patience. The band has effectively been finished since 1994, and following the death of keyboardist Rick Wright in 2008, Mason was caught between Roger Waters and David Gilmour,

The perfect pop star: Dua Lipa at the O2 Arena reviewed

Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, was released at the least promising moment possible: 27 March 2020, the day after the first lockdown came into force in the UK. Just as a pandemic swept the world, she was releasing a maximalist pop album that, surely, was designed for the communal experiences no one was having. But something about it connected: Future Nostalgia was a worldwide hit, the first British album released in 2020 to go platinum, the tenth bestselling record in the world that year. It turned out to be the right album for a wretched year. No wonder her show at the O2 was centred on it – every

I would be surprised if his next tour included arenas: Louis Tomlinson at Wembley reviewed

You don’t need to be a historian of pop to realise that having been part of a huge manufactured group is no guarantee of subsequent success. Most boy and girl band stars, after a brief flurry of passion, are forced to descend into the netherworld of panto, reality TV, and ever-diminishing returns from the actual music. The problem seems to be that the wider world doesn’t have the mental space to accept three, four or five people competing for attention. In almost every case, the wider world can only be bothered to embrace one person after the split, and it’s not always the one you expect. Gary Barlow – the

Felt like being caught on the moors in a storm: Keeley Forsyth, at the Barbican, reviewed

It took a moment to realise Keeley Forsyth was there. There were already three musicians, faint figures on a dark stage, wreathed in dry ice. And then, to their side, one became aware of a patch of darkness that was a little darker than the rest, and which seemed to be moving. Even when she moved into the slightly less gloomy part of the stage, Forsyth remained hidden: this was a show of startling unease and intensity. ‘Well, she’s spectacular,’ one chap ahead of me said to his friend as they filed down the stairs at the end. ‘Not sure I could manage more than an hour of it, though.’