Monthly Archives: December 2016

Music in Guernsey – Review of the Year 2016

2016 has been another packed year for music in Guernsey and the Bailiwick. With more festivals than ever, events seemingly most nights of the week all year and many records released covering everything from acoustic folk to drum ‘n’ bass to heavy metal its fair to say the ‘scene’ is possibly the most varied it has ever been.

My review of the year was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 31st December 2016 and there’s a full version below.

Review of the Year 2016 press scan

2016 has been something of a landmark year for me with regards to Guernsey’s music scene as it marks ten years since I started reporting on music on the island. In that time countless bands have come and gone, some making massive waves others barely ripples, but it’s been very rare that any haven’t at least given it their all.

This level of enthusiasm from bands, DJs and any other performers can, I think, be credited with 2016 being the year when locally produced music seemed to most crossover into Guernsey’s mainstream public consciousness.

SugarSlam

SugarSlam

One of the ways I think this crossover has occurred has been with the recent proliferation of music festival and ‘all-dayers’, hitting a high of at least 10 across the past year ranging from the established and varied likes of the Vale Earth Fair and Liberation Day to more specific events like Chateau De Son and Smaashfest or charity based shows like Jonah Beats.

Jonah Beats set the bar high for these back in March with a day spanning everything from lo-fi folk to pounding drum ’n’ bass at the Vale Castle. Highlights on that day included Blakalska, SugarSlam, the return of The Swallows and a rare big stage appearance from Last Of The Light Brigade. The organisers also released a double CD compilation album to raise money for the Helping Jonah – Helping Others charity.

The summer festival season got going, as has become the standard, with the Chaos weekend. While the event has been bigger in the past, this year’s slightly scaled down show had something of the old atmosphere back.

PUNiK at Chaos

PUNiK

This was certainly helped by the presence of great visiting bands like Japanese punks PUNiK (who also released a fine debut album), Manchester noise-rock duo The Hyena Kill and experimental rock two piece Science Of Eight Limbs.

As well as the visitors Honest Crooks continued their run of great shows with a standout set in The Peace Tent that had everyone skanking as the sun set, while SugarSlam, Brunt and Static Alice stormed the War Stage across the weekend.

The Sark Folk Festival continued its run of great events with this year’s having less of the ‘us vs them’ atmosphere of traditional folk fans and those out for a fun weekend in a field.

Burg with Becky

Burg And The Back Porch Band

Musically there was a lot of good stuff on offer but it was the artists with their roots in the islands that really stood out for me. The highlight came from Burg & The Back Porch Band bringing some Americana to the spectacular teepee stage on the Saturday evening and invoking impressive singalong moments as well as creating one of the best atmospheres I can remember at a show in a long time.

Meanwhile Robert J. Hunter, The Space Pirates of Rocquaine, Buffalo Huddleston, Nessi Gomes and visitors Mad Dog Mcrea provided other choice moments.

New festival The Gathering took place at North Field in July and showcased a real variety of bands from the island. With three days it felt like almost every band with a slightly mainstream angle was featured on the main stage but it was the Friday and Sunday evening that brought the musical highlights for me with SugarSlam and Static Alice playing to a disappointingly small crowd on the opening night and Kings and Of Empires closing the show on Sunday on a real high.

Static Alice at The Gathering

Static Alice

Whether The Gathering becomes a regular part of the island’s festival calendar remains to be seen but as an event helping spread the word about the great talent in Guernsey to a wider audience it certainly did a good job.

The Vale Earth Fair this year certainly claimed its place as centrepiece of the island’s musical calendar as the Collective presented a year-long series of events celebrating its 40th anniversary.

The festival weekend itself was as big as its ever been with a series of gigs across the Friday and Saturday leading up to the main festival day.

Teaspoonriverneck at Vale Earth Fair

Teaspoonriverneck

Asian Dub Foundation were one of the biggest headliners the show’s ever seen but for me the highlights came with She Drew The Gun, a special appearance from Teaspoonriverneck, The Correspondents and Heads Off, though special mention has to go out to Honest Crooks and Buffalo Huddleston who, with earlier slots, did a great job of getting the festival atmosphere going much earlier than usually happens.

Along with the festival weekend the Collective staged an exhibition of photos and poster art chronicling the 40 years of the event which was a fascinating chance to chart some of the performers who’ve been there for the whole time and see how the event has evolved since its humble origins. The now annual Unplugged and John Peel tribute nights both provided some great moments, but it was the return of Pussycat And The Dirty Johnsons that was my Vale Earth Fair related highlight.

Away from the festivals there was of course plenty of other music going on, in fact I think its fair to say that with the exception of Sundays there seemed to be something musical happening every day of the year if you knew where to look.

For me though the highlights amongst all of this came in the form of the Sound Guernsey events for Guernsey’s youngsters. Showcasing a range of music they have grown from relatively humble intentions with shows at The Venue to fully fledged event gigs at The Fermain Tavern.

Honest Crooks at Sound Guernsey

Honest Crooks

Their summer party being a highlight of this as The Doomsday Project, Honest Crooks, Asylum Seekas and Blakalaska shared a stage with already impressive new comers Track Not Found and Equilibrium while their Christmas Party later in December gave was another great night.

When it comes to new bands a few have stood out. As well as the aforementioned Track Not Found, hardcore metallers Granite Wolf made an impressive debut in September developing on the likes of Brutus Stonefist and She Haunts The Roads and I very much look forward to hearing more of what they’ve got to offer.

The real stand out of the new crop though were Burning At Both Ends who have taken the fairly well trodden pop-punk template and breathed a new life and energy into it, winning over many fans with their tight live shows and impressive debut album.

Burning At Both Ends

Burning At Both Ends

As well as great music on the island, musicians continued to spread their wings further afield.

Along with two BBC Introducing showcases on BBC Radio 1 featuring 12 acts, a few stand outs emerged, Robyn Sherwell continued her rise with the release of her debut full length album to much acclaim back in April, including a UK tour and having one of her songs picked up for use on the trailer to Hollywood movie Suffragette.

Nessi Gomes also completed a hugely impressive crowdfunding campaign leading to the release of her debut album, Diamonds & Demons which was supported by a tour of the UK, Europe and the Middle East which will culminate with the official Guernsey album launch event next month.

Of Empires continued their march to becoming bona-fide rock ’n’ roll stars with support from all over the place including debuting new single Baby Darlin’ Sugar on BBC Radio 1 through BBC Introducing and picking up many nods as one of the UK bands to watch as we head into the new year and they prepare for the release of more music and a lot more gigs.

Robert J. Hunter

Robert J. Hunter

Meanwhile Robert J. Hunter continued gigging around London and the rest of the UK regularly, initially supporting his second album, Before The Dawn and then releasing his third, Where I’m From, though the Spiritual Records label a couple of weeks ago.

Plenty more records were released this year with Space Pirates of Rocquaine’s Vraic & Roll, Lord Vapour’s Mill Street Blues, Brunt’s Blackbeard and the aforementioned Burning At Both Ends all standing out, but it was a single, Drifting, from the duo of Flexagon and Buff Hudd that really seemed to take off, receiving much praise and also being picked up by Tom Robinson on BBC 6 Music.

As the year neared its end The Recks made something of surprise return with a new single and line up and they look set to make 2017 their year as they plan to finally unleash their long-awaited and much-anticipated debut album and in a standout live moment SugarSlam (yes, them again, they’ve had a great year) and Insurrection marked their 25th and 30th anniversaries respectively with an excellent night at the De La Rue.

Insurrection

Insurrection

It’s safe to say that 2016 has been an impressive year for music in Guernsey with a real variety of sounds and styles coming to the fore (beyond what’s mentioned here drum ’n’ bass and electronic music have had a real growth as well with Hard Riddims and Strategy gaining footholds as regular events) and opening up what could easily be a small and insular scene to a wide audience, and lets hope that continues with more people heading out to listen to new music around the island and there’s already some exciting sounding things coming up!

And a few particular highlights by category…

Band of the Year – Honest Crooks
Festival Stage/Event of the Year – Vale Earth Fair’s 40th Anniversary celebrations
Newcomers of the Year – Burning At Both Ends
Set of the Year – Burg & The Back Porch Band at Sark Folk Festival
Album of the YearRobert J. Hunter – Where I’m From
Visiting Band of the Year – PUNiK

You can listen to the BBC Introducing Guernsey review of the year radio show here

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Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges book coverWhile I had always been generally curious about the life and work of Alan Turing the 2014 movie The Imitation Game piqued my interest and so I sought out the apparent source of that film, Andrew Hodges extensive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.

Like Turing, Hodges is a mathematician and that is obvious throughout the book as this is as much about Turing’s work, as it is about his life, something that as it goes on, seems very appropriate given Turing’s apparent approach to life.

Of course the now most famous section of Turing’s life and work is dealt with extensively as he spent the Second World War working at Bletchley Park on various form of code breaking.

Most famously the Enigma but various other things besides, including working on the foundation of what has become the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and USA, albeit in a technical rather than diplomatic capacity – throughout we get the impression diplomacy wasn’t one his strong points.

Beyond this Hodges goes into quite some detail on his work in the field of pure mathematics and logic before and after the war, his involvement in the first computers, and more work on fields combining mathematics with biology.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

I will be the first to admit much of the detail of this went somewhat over my head, but my ignorance only served to demonstrate quite how impressive the work Turing was undertaking was.

There is much here for those willing to delve deeper or with a deeper knowledge of the subjects discussed, though Hodges does a good job of at least making it vaguely understandable to the layman.

The other side of Turing’s life is dealt with in similar detail from an upper middle class upbringing, his experiences at public school, to his romantic life and the problems this lead to later in his life.

All of this dealt with in something of a logical fashion and, while that may say something about the author, I was left with the impression that it said much about the subject and his view of the world as well. Towards the book’s climax this is expanded upon greatly as his homosexuality is explored around the subject of his surprisingly low-key trial and punishment for his activities (for which he has since been posthumously pardoned).

Along with the war-time work and post war work on computers this is the most interesting section of the book, as it explores the notion of homosexuality in a wider context of the period and the genuinely devastating (and hugely scary) effects it had on many men, not just Turing, though it seems he treated the whole thing in a rather matter of fact way.

Alan Turing in his youth

Turing in his youth

In this he was probably not alone but is something of a high-profile pioneer as, throughout the book, from his early relationship with school friend Christopher to his more problematic later encounters he is clearly unapologetic about his sexuality and astonishingly open about it considering the fact it was illegal at the time.

While he never seemed to explicitly ‘campaign’ for gay rights (I had the sense such an idea wouldn’t have occurred to him) by his very actions his entire life seemed to push the boundaries of society’s view, whether it had an expressed effect during his lifetime or not.

The story of course culminates with Turing’s death by suicide in 1954 and, unlike the film, makes him out to be the same unconventional genius he always was right to the end.

Hodges never paints him as a direct victim of his situation in society, suggesting his suicide was a very conscious decision, potentially based on a collection of factors in his life which are explored in fascinating detail, particularly with regard as to why homosexuals were suddenly so clamped down upon in the early and mid-1950s compared to the periods before and after, although there are some fairly laboured 1984 comparisons here.

Alan Turing memorial

Turing memorial statue in Manchester

Throughout, its fair to say the book is a heavy piece to read thanks to the detail but it never feels unnecessary as it becomes clear Turing lead an astonishingly complex life thanks largely to his position within society combined with his mathematical and scientific expertise and Hodges does an astonishing job of painting this in a way that, now I’ve read The Enigma, I can’t help but feel The Imitation Game almost entirely missed.

And in a nice post script moment it’s pleasing to know that despite what the book says a memorial to Turing does now exist near both Manchester University (where he worked in his final years) and the city’s ‘gay village’ which seems the perfect location as well as being something of an understated kind of memorial that suits the man described in this work.

Hodges has also set up a website including updates on the biography and other information at turing.org.uk

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The True Story of the Royal Rumble – Blu-ray

The True Story of the Royal Rumble - blu-rayIn January 1988 WWE (then WWF) started their year with a TV special show featuring a new type of match. Based on the traditional ‘all in’ Battle Royal that has been a part of professional wrestling for decades, the Royal Rumble took the basic format of many men in the ring at once trying to throw each other out and, with a few tweaks, made it into something that is still one of the most anticipated and well-known pro-wrestling formats as we head to its 30th occurrence next month.

To mark what they are calling the ’30th anniversary’ WWE have released a ‘documentary’ looking at the ‘true story’ of the match and the surrounding event and, much like most other recent WWE productions it is a mixed bag, too focussed on short attention spans to present anything genuinely revealing.

In a conceit they’ve used a few times recently, most memorably in Daniel Bryan’s autobiography and accompanying video set, the historical story is interspersed with behind the scenes moments focussing on the most recent event (in this case 2016). While this behind the scenes stuff is vaguely interesting most of it is either things you’ll have seen before if you’ve seen anything about how WWE stages one or their shows or is clips of the actual show you’ve already seen, just with a bit more clever editing involved.

Hacksaw Jim Duggan wins the first Royal Rumble

Hacksaw Jim Duggan wins the first Royal Rumble

The most interesting elements of this are around the ‘surprise’ entries and how the surprise is maintained, though a few brief clips with AJ Styles do little more than suggest that somewhere in the WWE archive is a very interesting interview with one of the greatest wrestlers on the planet that we’re not being shown.

The historical segments are the most interesting part of this with the match’s creator, WWE legend and ‘Vince McMahon’s right hand man, Pat Paterson and NBC executive Dick Ebersol giving some insight into its creation (Ebersol stands out massively as a non-WWE figure on one of these documentaries though the archive shots of him promoting the XFL suggest he’s someone trusted by the McMahon machine) and the first event with that matches winner, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, actually speaking quite well on what it meant at the time and how the match came together in the ring.

From there it’s hard to escape it feeling like an hour-long trail for the next event with many current performers talking about how big and important the match has been over the years in clearly scripted ‘interviews’, with obvious accompanying clips.

Roman Reigns and The Rock at the 2015 Royal Rumble

Roman Reigns and The Rock at the 2015 Royal Rumble

The aforementioned Duggan interview, along with interviews with Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and a few others do give a bit more context to the past events but, for various reasons (some obvious, some not), many of the key players are missing making it hard to get past a superficial or one-sided feeling to all this.

Unfortunately it makes the main ‘documentary’ feel like something of a wasted opportunity as there is certainly an interesting story to tell about this most famous of matches, but it feels as if the surface is barely scratched here with a chronologically muddled film that doesn’t seem to want to do anything but stress the importance of the event without any real back up to this while fitting into the current WWE network format that will do nothing but date it badly in the coming years. And with all of this phrase ‘make Roman look strong’ is never far away…

Chris Jericho and AJ Styles in the 2016 Royal Rumble

Chris Jericho and AJ Styles in the 2016 Royal Rumble

The Blu-ray set also includes a few ‘exclusives’ that are interesting asides in a few cases, particularly Duggan discussing his confrontations with The Undertaker at an early Rumble and then much later, Ric Flair talking about his return to wrestling in the WWE in the early 2000s and Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch discussing the idea of a women’s only Royal Rumble in the future.

Also included are a series of matches from Royal Rumble events over the years including four full Rumble matches. While all are interesting and a few are referenced in the documentary, there is a lack of any sense of coherent curation or explanation of ‘why these matches’ leaving it all feeling a bit disjointed, something that really sums up the whole package.

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Clameur De Haro and The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers – The Golden Lion – 23/12/16

Clameur De Haro at The Golden Lion

Clameur De Haro

As the offices closed up for Christmas The Golden Lion in St Peter Port was packed on Friday 23rd December 2016, Christmas Eve-Eve, and with many having already been in the pub for several hours it was down to Clameur De Haro and The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers to provide the entertainment.

‘The Clams’ started things off downstairs with the crowd already packed up to the front as they launched into their set. Mixing their own songs with covers of rock classics and some festive fare, all in their own ‘sort-of-bluegrass’ style, the audience were into it from the start.

Being right at the front I could hear things perfectly though, given the layout of the pub and the wall of people going about half way down the bar, it was hard to tell how far back the music penetrated but that didn’t matter as we were all having a great time at the front with the band being their usual chatty and relaxed selves.

Clameur De Haro (and Mike from Blue Mountains)

Mike from Blue Mountains gets up close to Clameur De Haro

Christmas covers invoked mass singalongs but it was also great to hear not only the other covers but also the band’s original songs being sung back at them which helped increase the party atmosphere even further.

As the first set reached its peak with accidental stage invasions and more Christmas classics it was clear everyone, both on and off stage, was well into the festive spirit (or was it spirits?) before the music moved upstairs into the newly opened ‘Lions Den’ bar.

In its past life the upstairs room of The Golden Lion had been a semi-abandoned pool hall, but now, after some extensive renovations thanks to new owners White Rock Brewery, its has been converted into an old-fashioned feeling bar room with a small stage area at one end. While clearly made for more relaxed events the old world feel perfectly suited The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers and the energetic audience were certainly up for more great music.

The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers

Clem and Gemma of The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers

The Skillet Lickers style of ragtime street skiffle went down an absolute storm with people dancing from off the off and packed to the front, much like downstairs. A few sound issues early in the set were ably worked through and around by the now experienced band.

Added to their generally fairly fluid line up here was Andy Coleman on trombone and, given his experience playing everything from jazz to mod to ska, he fit in perfectly and it was like he’d been jamming with the band for years as they rolled through their repertoire of obscure vintage lo-fi classics in their trademark style.

Gemma, Clem and Shacks trio of vocals all played off each other excellently while Greg, Ash and Andy all had a chance to shine on musical leads as Paul kept the bass rhythm going on his battered looking tuba as the party atmosphere continued.

The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers

Ash, Andy and Shacks of The Rectory Hill Skillet Lickers

With their first set finished Clameur De Haro were back downstairs for more of the same, albeit a little more ramshackle and well lubricated than an hour previously, and the atmosphere just kept lifting and lifting making for a great way to see in the Christmas weekend and a great round off to live music in 2016 (excepting of course the events happening on New Years Eve) that was very similar to how my musical year started back in January.

You can see more of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page

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Sound Guernsey Christmas Party – The Fermain Tavern – 20/12/16

Eqilibrium at Sound Guernsey

Eqilibrium

As I arrived at The Fermain Tavern on Tuesday evening, through a sea of bad Christmas jumpers, Santa hats and other festive ephemera, Equilibrium were mid-way through a set of upbeat pop rock to kick off the Sound Guernsey 2016 Christmas party.

The band really came into their own on the slower more melodic tracks that showed off their talent with harmonies, but it was the rockier stuff that quickly got the crowd bouncing and singing along, culminating in a rendition of Slade’s Christmas classic, Merry Xmas Everybody. Equilibrium may still be a little rough around the edges but they are one of several young bands with great potential and already have built quite a fan base.

After the accessible, easy pop sounds of Equilibrium, young trio Track Not Found put a slightly different spin on things with their shoegaze-y indie grunge.

Grace Tayler of Track Not Found

Grace of Track Not Found

The band have already gained a reputation for being something a bit different at the younger end of the Guernsey music scene and they continued this trend as their extended songs veered from a kind of sparseness to thick fuzz tones over which Grace Tayler’s vocals, also veering from tuneful to screams and roars, laid.

While they still lack some of the stage craft necessary to entirely live up to their potential, Tayler already has a kind of enigmatic presence that could become a signature, while playing almost all their own material shows they have a real creative drive with stories and emotions to transmit in their own way.

As the set went on this drew the audience in, helped by a cover of Slaves’ The Hunter, with The Doomsday Projects’ George Russell on vocals before, ending on a grunged up cover of Wham!’s Last Christmas.

After that Zak Trimmer treated us to a brief more relaxed interlude with a couple of solo piano songs. Displaying quite some confidence chatting with the audience his pair of covers went down well, particularly a brave and largely successful take on Bohemian Rhapsody that got carried through its more rocking moments by an inevitable mass singalong.

Problematic at Sound Guernsey

Problematic

Kicking off with an original by the name of Spiteful, Problematic’s set started on a high point they never quite made it back to. Mixing bluesy tones and grooves with hard indie rock and a bit of Muse’s sensibilities made for an interesting sound but one that never quite coalesced into a convincing whole, despite being very well-played.

None the less, after Track Not Found’s more nod along stuff, it provided the perfect soundtrack for the bouncing bodies on the dancefloor, building the energy towards the trio of headliners and Problematic are yet another on the growing list of young bands with a lot of potential who will be worth keeping an eye on as they grow.

Despite being seemingly constantly gigging this year, this was my first time seeing Buffalo Huddleston since the summer and it made it something of a refreshed experience for me.

Mike Meinke of Buffalo Huddleston

Mike of Buffalo Huddleston

The band seemed more relaxed on stage than I have seen in a while as they did exactly what they do best getting the audience involved with their upbeat, ‘folk-hop’, vibes from the start.

Sunrise stood out as a highlight tonight and it was nice to see the crowd responding to the whole band and not just Jull-z, as sometimes happens, and Mr. Cloud rounded off the set in fine style with everyone dancing and singing along.

After a Christmassy start Burning At Both Ends rounded off what has been an excellent first year for them with a set of their typically tight and energetic pop-punk and the audience responded accordingly going as far as to get something approaching a pit going.

Peter Mitchell of Burning At Both Ends

Mitch of Burning At Both Ends

There were a few point across the set where it sounded as if frontman Peter Mitchell was having trouble with his voice but he battled through as the words were sung back at him by quite a number in the crowd, probably more than to any other band tonight, showing just how Burning At Both Ends have caught the imagination of the young crowd.

What If Someday They’re Not There provided a nice slower interlude mid-set before they got everyone bouncing once more and guitarist and bassist, Martyn Brown and Adam Dawe, headed off into the crowd bringing the set to a close on a high.

Static Alice kept the rocking energy up in the room as, despite being six bands in, the Sound crowd showed little signs of flagging (sugar and caffeine are marvellous things!). The band seemed even more relaxed on stage than usual and their mix of stage presence and precise, tight packages of pop-rock were the perfect thing for this party.

Dom Ogier of Static Alice

Dom of Static Alice

Along with the usual favourites like Hurricane, King Kong and Black Cadillac Man, Static Alice introduced a new song and told us they are in the early stages of work on a new album they hope to record and release in the new year. Based on this we’ll be getting more of the same kind of rock, and that’s no bad thing.

With an encore almost called for, the band launched into their take on The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz anyway and brought another standout night for Sound Guernsey to an end. Lets hope that continues as we head into the new year as it really feels like a new scene is beginning to grow at these shows that can only start to feed into the energy of the rest of Guernsey’s ‘scene’.

You can see a full gallery of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page

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Stonewall

stonewall film posterUpon its release in 2015 Rolland Emmerich’s Stonewall was pretty well critically savaged for a few reasons, now, a year later I’d thought I’d give it a go being somewhat distanced from the ‘hype’ and as it has appeared on Netflix.

Following some fairly heavy-handed opening captions over a montage of the 1969 Stonewall riots we are dropped into a fictionalised account of that event starting with the arrival on New York’s Christopher Street of Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a (fictional) typical Midwestern boy getting his first taste of the big city.

In flashback we see how he was thrown out of his home for being gay, but conveniently had a place at Columbia University so headed to New York where we catch up with him as he meets a group of ‘street kids’ (highlighted by Jonny Beauchamp’s Ray) who introduce him to the seedier side of gay life as he finds his way through the summer of 1969 in what feels like a very broadly drawn and often stereotypical fashion.

Being directed by the man behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, it shouldn’t be surprising that Stonewall paints everything in very broad strokes. Unfortunately those films are entirely fictional disaster epics while Stonewall purports to tell something at least vaguely based on fact and includes many real life figures of the New York gay rights movement.

Jeremy Irvine as Danny in Stonewall

Irvine as Danny

On one level I can see why Emmerich may have chosen to take this approach, simplifying the story to make it more easy to digest to a broader audience. In doing this though he seems to cut out a lot of fairly crucial detail to not only the Stonewall Riots themselves but then the ongoing movement it spawned.

Added to this is that the fictional Danny, while being something of an easily digestible everyman for the white middle class, seems to erase a lot of the contribution to events from large, and crucially still often unrepresented, sections of the LGBT(etc) community most notably in this case transgender women of colour and lesbians.

Added to this is the fact that the film seems to gloss over a lot of the issues that were part of the cause and effect of the riots so, much like the people involved, they are paid a brief lip service but little more, making the whole affair seem somewhat shallow and more about Danny’s fictional (if representative) coming of age story and a flash of angry youth.

Jonny Beauchamp as Ray in Stonewall

Beauchamp as Ray

While the story is very generic in many ways the performers do what they can with the little they are given but really only Beauchamp comes out as memorable while many other usually good actors, including Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and others are left with little to make them stand out while the production design never feels like a real city, at its worth feeling almost cartoonish and its best simply too clean and neat for some supposedly fairly squalid locations.

Some more captions over the closing of the film try to point out the importance of the riot, but even these don’t really make their point as they are not backed up by what we’ve just seen.

In the end this all comes together in something of a confused mess where none of the characters really become fully rounded and the story isn’t sure if it wants to be a coming of age story, a vague organised crime police procedural or a film about gay rights history.

Street kids in Stonewall Photo by Philippe Bosse

‘Street kids’ on Christopher Street

In many ways, on paper, it is something akin to Pride (set during the UK’s gay rights revolution in the 1980s) but while that is entertaining, thought-provoking and, above all, feels genuine, Stonewall feels like an oversimplified fictionalisation of an event that doesn’t need to be, and really shouldn’t be, treated in that way.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story posterOver the last 40 years it’s fair to say that the galaxy of Star Wars has become something of a safe space for family friendly action adventure cinema – certainly there has been plenty of peril but in the end it’s always been a good old romp of heroes overcoming villains in the most ‘white hat’ wearing of ways.

So, as the famous line ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared on the screen at the start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there was a familiar sense of anticipation for more of the same.

As soon as that faded though it was clear this wasn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars – gone was the orchestral blast and iconic, scene setting ‘crawl’ as we were dropped to a new, fairly desolate, planet and a new set of characters, in this case the Erso family, hastily followed by new Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a squadron of Death Troopers, a kind of black clad, amped up version of the Stormtroopers of old.

Here we meet our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and, along with her, witness the death of her mother and apparent capture of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), followed by here being rescued by mysterious apparent-Rebellion member Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

While this has overtones of the introduction of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope the whole thing has a much greater sense of danger, and this is something that continues throughout the movie as Jyn and her rag-tag band of rebels visit various planets new and old in their hunt for the plans to a rumoured Imperial super weapon.

While this story is all very exciting there are moments where it lapses into video game plotting but for the most part these are easy to overlook.

Despite the inter-planetary setting and background of the rebellion against the empire Rogue One has a much smaller feel than the main run of the series with a focus on Jyn’s story as she discovers the rebellion with the help of pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Krennic’s role in the creation of the Death Star.

This gives a lot of background to things we’ve heard mentioned in past films so, while not integral to the over arching plot (that chronological begins in The Phantom Menance and, at this stage, continues to The Force Awakens) it is interesting to see and with predominantly new characters doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of the Skywalker saga like some other prequels have done.

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Added to this, also setting it apart from the previous Star Wars films, is a genuinely political edge. While the Empire remains undeniably ‘evil’ (how could anything led be Darth Vader and The Emperor be anything but), shades of grey are added to the Rebellion.

While this doesn’t cause any effect to the grand run, it gives Rogue One a slightly different angle on things that makes it feel more down to earth and, in a sense, more grown up, reflecting, as it goes, something of real world religious and ideological conflict (though it is more general in this than specific).

Even if some of the new characters are somewhat basically drawn, much like side characters in the other Star Wars films, their stereotypical nature make them easy to get behind so, when we reach the third act, there is a genuine sense of tension, even though we have a fair idea of the final outcome.

Battle of Scarif

Battle of Scarif

This third act also includes some of the bravest story moments since The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even tops that, something rare to see in a world of ‘happily ever after’ blockbusters from the likes of Marvel.

Where the film falters is in its overuse of call backs to the original trilogy. Hints and suggestions would have been nice but a few are just too on the nose and detract from the final product.

Most notable among these are a slightly too uncanny valley computer generated version of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (surely he could have been seen as a hologram thus losing any realism issues) and a Darth Vader who somehow just doesn’t feel quite right, though finally getting to see his much rumoured Sith Temple/castle was a nice if unnecessary touch.

Death Star strikeWhat this all amounts to is a genuinely exciting ride with enough grit around the edges to make it something a bit different while maintaining enough of what we love about Star Wars to make a fine couple of hours in the cinema, though this one may not be for all the family in the way that the main series is.

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Arrival

Arrival movie posterIt’s always a treat when the chance arises to see a film with very little foreknowledge. In that regard in a world of Marvel cookie cutter repetition and uninspiring sci-fi blockbusters Arrival made for a nice change, as all I knew going in was that it was sci-fi and it had generally favourable reviews.

I will admit that the fact it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner didn’t fill me with hope, while I don’t recall seeing either be actively bad, nothing springs to mind that I’ve seen that made me excited by their presence.

Forest Whitaker is equally one of those actors who never seems to play a bad role but here wasn’t the driving force of the movie and was in what gets called a ‘character actor’ kind or part.

All three here though were very good but Adams was a particular stand out as she is the linchpin of the film not only for the narrative, but also the central point of the ideas it deals with.

The narrative is, as I have suggested a fairly standard science fiction trope of ‘first contact’. A mysterious set of space craft appear in 12, apparently random, locations around the planet and military and scientific experts proceed to try to and work out what they want with the usual mix of aggressive posturing and paranoid conspiracy.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival

Amy Adams as Louise Banks

On this level there is the added extra of a reflection of what’s become known as ‘post-truth’ with the CIA, ‘alt-right’ media and (slightly stereotypical) international tensions all present forming the background to the other narrative centring on Adams’ linguist, Louise Banks.

This other aspect is hard to discuss without spoilers, other than to say it deal with perceptions of time and human nature in regards of free will and determinism. What makes it particularly good is that it does what the best sci-fi does, in the way of 2001 or Close Encounters, it leaves the audience open to discuss what they’ve just seen while answering enough questions to be satisfying.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival

Adams and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly

This is the films biggest strong point as, while the basic plot and performances, along with the special effects, are all engaging it is how it gets your mind ticking over that is Arrival’s most impressive feature (that said I’m not sure mid-afternoon in a busy city makes for the most conducive way of watching it in that regard).

Arrival exists as a stand out of recent sci-fi for two reasons; first it is a compelling story that is genuinely absorbing and constantly leaves the viewer in suspense of what is to come, the other is the sense of raising open questions that already have me wanting to see the film again and discuss it with others who have seen it, and most of this comes through a stand out performance from Adams that is, at its best, genuinely effecting.

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Robert J. Hunter – Where I’m From

Robert J. Hunter - Where I'm From coverWith the release of his third album, Where I’m From, Alderney born blues artist Robert J. Hunter has reached something of a landmark moment creating a stripped back live set of semi-acoustic songs to complement the more intense blues rock of his past releases.

Also featuring his now regular band mates, James Le Huray and Greg Sheffield, the album continues Hunter’s journey that began as a teenage guitarist in blues bands like Rawcuz Crowzz in Alderney before moving to Guernsey to develop his sound as a solo artist and as part of Twelve Ton Trouble (amongst others).

His move to London saw him take on his music as a more serious business resulting in several mini-tours of the UK and countless shows in and around London developing him into the formidable performer and songwriter he now is.

Where I’m From has been released through Spiritual Records and is available to listen digitally on Spotify and Apple Music and in physical form through Rob’s own website.

My review of the album was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 10th December 2016

Robert J. Hunter - Where I'm From review scan

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Against Me!, Milk Teeth and Mobina Galore – Electric Ballroom, Camden – 08/12/16

Against Me!

Against Me!

Heading into Camden’s famed Electric Ballroom venue on a surprisingly mild December evening it was clear that the night’s headliners, Floridian punk rockers Against Me!, had brought a sense of occasion with them.

Snaking down Camden High Street from the venue’s doors, waiting for them to open, was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen for a show all clearly attracted by the message of inclusivity the band have been championing for, at least, their last two albums but in less specific ways their whole career.

This idea of inclusivity was reflected in the supporting line up. It sounds like something that shouldn’t need commenting on but, as this was, I think, the first time it’s happened at a gig I’ve attended, all three bands were at least female fronted but in each case this was far from their defining factor.

Winnipeg duo Mobina Galore kicked off proceedings with a wall of grunge punk noise that combined the fuzz sound of Nirvana-era Seattle with the heavier end of The Offspring’s brand of pop-punk.

Mobina Galore

Mobina Galore

Jenna and Marcia were instantly captivating thanks to the sheer power of their sound, the fact there were two and not at least four people on stage was never sonically noticeable, bringing to mind the likes of The Hyena Kill and Science of Eight Limbs in different ways

This, combined with the way they worked together and obviously fed off one another’s energy, created something that got the already big and still growing audience nicely warmed up.

Had the set gone on any longer I worried their sound may have become a bit repetitive but for a raging half hour Mobina Galore were powerful and absorbing from start to finish.

It was obvious from their reception that Stroud based quartet, Milk Teeth, brought quite a following with them and as they launched in Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation before segueing into their own material that quickly gained more.

The band’s sound was rooted in pop punk but they weren’t scared to venture into heavier territory and it was when they merged the two that they hit their best moments.

Milk Teeth

Milk Teeth

Becky Blomfield was a constant focus with powerful vocals along with a great line in high kicks and bass playing while Billy Hutton, celebrating a year on guitar with the band, acted as a great counterpoint.

Highlights of the set came with Swear Jar and a very nice slower number from Blomfield that was the first moment of the audience consciously coming together in support of a band’s explicit lyrical sentiments – though plenty more such moments were still to come.

With a nice little speech from Hutton continuing this, Milk Teeth delivered a brilliantly uncynical performance that, judging by the audience response at the end of the set, saw them win over many new fans to their diverse punk rock sound.

As a banner revealing a pair of black and white, Rocky Horror-eque, lips was revealed and Against Me! hit the stage the now packed crowd in the sold out Electric Ballroom pushed forward and the level of excitement surpassed possibly any show I’ve ever attended.

Against Me!

Against Me!

Launching into True Trans Soul Rebel before a surprisingly powerful 333 and then Haunting, Haunted, Haunts the band matched this excellently and proceeded to ride a wave of energy with the audience for the next 90 minutes spanning their entire career, balancing older material with a focus on songs from new album Shape Shift With Me.

Despite the fact some of the subjects dealt with in Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics can be on the dark side their delivery camet with a positive attitude and a huge, infectious smile, throughout, with Dead Friends, White Crosses and Delicate, Petite and Things I’ll Never Be highlights of the first part of the set in this regard as the audience sang virtually every word back at the band, at times almost out doing the PA.

While the first half of the set would have made this a stand out show in anyone’s book something changed to elevate it even further when, in the introduction to Bamboo Bones, Grace made a comment that, while she is an atheist she got the impression that the energy she feels performing is the equivalent to that the evangelical claim to feel in church.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

This seemed to strike a particular chord with the audience, myself more than included, as we shouted back the words ‘What god doesn’t give to you, you have to go and take for yourself’ with an astonishing conviction and invoking a sense of a ‘punk rock revival meeting spiritual’ which continued for the rest of the night.

From there through Boyfriend, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I Was A Teenage Anarchist and an almost overwhelming Black Me Out, Against Me! took this further elevated energy and converted it into something truly life affirming and poignant on both a personal and social level.

Throughout the set all four members of the band were astonishing. Grace and guitarist James Bowman (the other long-standing member) clearly have a telepathic connection on stage. Inge Johansson (who joined in 2013) looked like Johnny Ramone picked up a bass and got a whole hell of a lot happier while being an energetic powerhouse and clearly having a powerful connection with Grace while Atom Willard (also in the band since 2013) was mesmerising behind the drums, truly thundering and powering the band’s folk-tinged punk rock.

Inge Johansson of Against Me!

Inge Johansson

As the audience called for more Grace headed back onto stage alone and, as well as a customary thanks to the crowd, made the point that playing in the UK means she can be pretty sure she’s not playing for anyone who voted for Trump, before delivering a particularly poignant solo version of Baby I’m An Anarchist from the band’s debut, again with full crowd vocal backing.

With the rest of the band back FuckMyLife666 and a particularly rousing Sink, Florida, Sink closed the show with the audience a sweaty, moshed up mess but still calling for more even as the house lights came up and the backing music returned.

Only beginning to disperse once Grace returned to the stage to distribute some guitar picks brought to a close one of the best night’s I’ve spent in a music venue anywhere (this may be up with the Rancid gig at Brixton in 2006 I have bored my friends about) and re-confirming a sense of punk rock (and live music in general) as not just a genre but a feeling, a lifestyle and a place that is genuinely accepting and life-affirmingly positive in an entirely uncynical way.

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