Gabriel Moreno, Upstart Crow Festival

IMG_8127London, Sunday September 30, 2018

It’s a mild, partially sunny Autumn day and I’m on my way home walking past Spitalfields – the old market which no longer feels like a market, just a bunch of food stalls, corporate pop-up shops and boutiques pretending to be ‘authentic’, selling overpriced items tagged as ‘vintage’ or ‘artisan’. You know the kind.  I do stumble upon one authentic ‘item’ though – not inside the market but just outside in the square, where a stage has been erected to facilitate the several singer-songwriters who are playing throughout the day at this year’s Upstart Crow Festival – ‘the UK’s only songwriter festival’.

I had no idea there was such a festival, even less so close to home, but I’m lucky enough to pass by as a trio of musicians – bass, violin and guitar/vocals – play an Americana-styled song of longing. I walk past, not intending to stop, but something makes me turn around and go back – I feel the song pull me back, and I watch the rest of the concert with this singer who I’m soon to find out is named Gabriel Moreno, a poet and songwriter, and his two band members.

IMG_8047Gabriel Moreno

The songs share DNA with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Johnny Cash, sung in a Spanish accent. Moreno commands the stage and is equally good at telling anecdotes, as he is singing his songs. Some bands are concerned with being detached and ‘cool’ – this is not one of those bands, this is warm and inclusive and I’m not the only one who feels this way – the other people sitting and standing around seem to like it as much as I do; the children running around and playing, those people sitting down and watching attentively, those laughing loudly at the funny stories between the songs, and the couple who dance passionately, joined closely at the hip, to each other and to the music. 

One song, Love or Fire, is introduced as being about, ‘when you meet someone and don’t know whether what you feel is something physical, or something a tiny bit deeper.’ It’s a catchy song about desire, with a strong dose of melancholy.

Before one song, Moreno tells the audience, ’We started together in the underground scene of London. No one wanted to listen, so we just played to each other.’ And that’s very much what this festival seems to be about; a bunch of bands and singers who get together to play ‘for each other’ – and whoever may happen to pass by, and stay to listen for a while.

IMG_8020Upstart Crow Festival 2018, Spitalfields

After the concert there are stil four or five performers left on the bill, but I’ve had my fill for the day. As I continue my delayed walk home, I think about how Spitalfields has changed over the years. It used to be a recreational ground – a hospital – for people from London who needed to get out of town and recover in more natural surroundings. That’s hard to imagine now that Spitalfields is part of the centre of London and there are hardly any trees, and certainly no fields, in sight these days. But the name stands firm: ‘Hospital Fields’, or Spitalfields. 

Spitalfields may no longer be a place of rehabilitation, but when you stumble upon a music festival in the middle of an overpriced mall masquerading as a ‘market’, the beauty of the music can feel like a counter to the disease known as capitalism – and I guess that counts as some kind of recovery.

Gabriel Moreno setlist
Not available.

Villagers, Rough Trade

IMG_7967London, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

East London record store, Rough Trade, is where it’s at for tonight’s in-store mini-gig + signing by Conor O’Brien AKA Villagers, who is here with his band to promote his latest album, The Art of Pretending to Swim. 

The band begin with the song Sweet Saviour and first single from the album, A Trick of the Light – both songs hammering home what seems to be the keyword that’s explored on this record, ‘faith’.

Conor introduces the third song, Again, as a ‘song about the word ‘God’, before he says, ‘Let’s get started…Party Time.’ The drummer begins the pulsating (party?) beat of the song, but something goes wrong and the band has to start the song again. This time the infectious song plays out well. The beat is hypnotic and the lyrics read like meditative mantras: ‘I’ve found again, a space in my heart again, for God again… I let it flow… Alone again… Home…’ – such a beautiful song. 

About halfway through the set, Conor checks in with the audience, ‘You all bought my record to get here?’ The audience cheers in confirmation, to which Conor responds: ’That warms my cockles. Sincerely. I can’t say that without sounding sarcastic.’ But he’s fooling no one, he is clearly more sincere and appreciative than sarcastic.

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After six songs, the rest of the band leave the stage, and Conor sings the last song solo: Nothing Arrived, a song from his album from 2013, Awayland, with the haunting lines; ‘I waited for something, but something died, so I waited for nothing, and nothing arrived…I guess I was busy (when Nothing arrived)’. Conor delivers a chilling acoustic version where he encourages the audience to harmonize, and the audience obliges.

I’ve seen Villagers’ music described as both ‘neo-folk’ and ‘chamber-pop’. I don’t know what these terms mean, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Conor sings his well-crafted songs with a skill and conviction that transcends whatever creative description he may be appointed.

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These short mini-gigs that artists do to promote their records, are interesting. They are longer than just a playing a song or two on a TV show, and they are shorter than a ‘proper’ gig. But for the artist, I’m guessing it’s a kind of primer, where they can get an indication of whether their record works live or not, before touring it ‘properly’. For the audience, it’s a good way of getting a taster of the record they just bought, and hopefully, as is the case with Villagers tonight, leaving them wanting more.

Villagers setlist
1. Sweet Saviour
2. A Trick of the Light
3. Again
4. Hold Me Down
5. Fool
6. Long Time Waiting
7. Nothing Arrived

David Crosby, Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Crosby and FriendsLondon, Sunday, September 16, 2018 (Photo by R. Cruvellier)

David Crosby has come to the end of a trail, the trail that is the European stint of his Sky Trails tour. The concert is presented as David Crosby and Friends, and given Crosby’s tendency of being in bands named after the first letters of the members’ surnames, I’d like to rename this evening, An Evening With CRPLD&W – after the great bunch of musicians gathered on stage this evening: Guitar player and lead vocalist David Crosby, Keyboardist and backing singer (and Crosby’s son) James Raymond, guitarist Jeff Pevar, bassist Mai Leisz, drummer and backing vocalist Steve DiStanislao and keyboardist and backing vocalist Michelle Willis.

Crosby enters the stage slowly and sturdily, like an old man. And, let’s be real, he is an old man. But unlike many other famous singers of his age, his voice has remained intact; whether he sings a quiet folk song or one of the rockier songs, his voice is strong and on top of everything, even the loud electric guitar which sometimes stands out too much for my liking in the soundscape. The set consists of a collection of songs, several of which I don’t know, some a bit rocking, some a bit jazzy, some a bit folky. But the setlist is chosen wisely and the songs all go well together. Though the band is at times prone to slightly longer solos than what I usually appreciate, I get it; they’re musicians and their job is to play – and play they sure can. And those harmonies. If Crosby is known to be in bands where singing beautiful harmonies is key, then he certainly continues that tradition with this group of musicians, who all deliver beautiful harmonies to go with Crosby’s impeccable voice.

IMG_7868CRPLD&W

For this fan of The Byrds, Eight Miles High, is a welcome part of the setlist. What an awesome execution of the song. I can’t imagine The Byrds ever played it better than it’s played this evening.

For the encore, Crosby and his Friends launch into a raunchy Almost Cut My Hair, which is as topical for still-long-haired-after-all-these-years Crosby, as when it was released in 1970 – his hair is as long as ever, and long may it keep growing.

The last song of the evening is the ultimate CSN&Y protest song, Ohio, originally sung by Neil Young, but tonight Crosby sings it with as much gusto and conviction as when Young sang it upon its release in 1970, following the shootings of four students by National Guardsmen on campus at Kent State University in Ohio. It’s no longer the sixties or seventies, but kids are still getting shot in educational institutions, and governments still seem to represent their own personal careers more than the people they were elected by, rendering this song as sadly relevant as ever.

IMG_7870Nothing swept under the rug

Earlier in the evening, as an introduction to the CS&N song Delta, Crosby tells us an anecdote about the time his friend and fellow musical legend, Jackson Browne, forced the drug-ravaged and depressed Crosby to sit down at a piano and finish the song – the result is a stunningly emotional song with evocative lines such as, ‘Got the soul of a ragpicker, got the mind of a slug, I keep sweeping problems, under my rug.’ Whatever problems Crosby might have had over the years, they certainly don’t show tonight; with a voice in perfect shape and a brilliant band to back him up, the carpet he’s been standing on all evening is for comfort only – tonight’s concert has no problems to sweep under any rug.

IMG_7884The end of the Sky Trail

David Crosby setlist
1st set
1. In My Dreams (CS&N song)
2.  Morrison (CPR song)
3. Naked in the Rain (C&N song)
4. Thousand Roads
5. At the Edge (CPR song)
6. Guinnevere (CS&N song)
7. What Are Their Names?
8. Long Time Gone (CS&N song)
9. Déjà vu (CSN&Y song)
2nd set
10. The Lee Shore (CSN&Y song)
11. Homeward Through the Haze (C&N song)
12. Sky Trails
13. Delta (CS&N song)
14. Janet (lead vocals by Michelle Willis) (Michelle Willis song)
15. Eight Miles High (The Byrds song)
16. Wooden Ships (CS&N song)
Encore
17. Almost Cut My Hair (CSN&Y song)
18. Ohio (CSN&Y song)