The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall

The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall, London, February 1, 2020

This is North London. But tonight, it might as well be the Catskills in Upstate New York from which the two original members of The Felice Brothers, James and Ian, originate. After a string of different lineups over the years, the latest band members, Jesske Humme on bass and Will Lawrence on drums, join the two brothers. Together they play us through an affecting and lively collection of folk-roots-rock-style compositions. 

There is something endearing about a band of musicians who seem like they came straight from the lumberyard and will be going back home to their porch rather than to a fancy party at a private members’ club. Hardworking, blue-collar people who happen to play music in their spare time, That’s the vibe coming from the stage, and it’s refreshing.

For most of the songs, James sits behind his keyboard while Ian sings lead in the middle of the stage, but James almost steals the show with his appealing honey-voice and whenever he gets up and showcases his very mobile accordion playing.

The most moving moment of the evening is also the shortest song of the night, Nail It On the First Try, sung by James doing double duty on the accordion with Ian on keyboards. The song is a change in gear from the rest of the set’s tunes, and it makes me wish the song was longer. Such simple beauty. Such haunting lyrics: ‘I’ve never been so scared in my life, but then again, I’ve never died, I think I’m gonna nail it on the first try.’

The raucous and lively Penn Station makes for a great showstopper – an ultimate sing-shout-along anthem, the perfect soundscape for those revellers at the late-night bar ignoring the ‘last orders’. Luckily it’s not time for the last orders yet. Ian comes out for an encore, alone at first, singing the excellent Ballad of Lou the Welterweight before the rest of the band join him for the last song, White Limo, which makes for the perfect anarchic, chaotic ending to a wondrous concert.

What a fabulous band The Felice Brothers are. I never got to see them in their original lineup, but I hope there’ll be another chance to see them again somewhere down the gravelly, rocking road.

The Felice Brothers setlist
1. Holy Weight Camp
2. Jack at the Asylum
3. Aerosol Ball
4. Let Me Come Home
5. Wonderful Life
6. Salvation Army Girl
7. Whiskey in My Whiskey
8. The Kid
9. Nail It on the First Try
10. Special Announcement
11. Love Me Tenderly
12. Days of the Years
13. Plunder
14. Silver in the Shadow
15. Rockerfeller Druglaw Blues
16. Lincoln Continental
17. Frankie’s Gun
18. Penn Station
Encore
19. Ballad of Lou the Welterweight
20. White Limo

Brothers Moving, The Islington

Brothers Moving, The Islington, London, January 21, 2020

It’s hot in the tiny backroom of this Islington pub conveniently called The Islington. We’re around 50-60 people in here at tonight’s sold-out concert. It’s cold outside, bitterly so. But in here, there’s warmth and no sign of bitterness. This gig is a party that could just as well take place on a summery beach at sunset, Union Square in New York on a cloudy autumn day or a field full of blooming flowers in spring.

Brothers Moving are no slouches. They have perfected the art of playing on streets and town squares, on mountain tops, at festivals or, like tonight, in a small pub venue in North London – any type of location imaginable. Their music is straightforward, on the verge of being predictable sometimes. Simple chords. A bit of rock and roll. A bit of blues. A bit of reggae. Finally, adding a sea shanty-vibe, with vocals reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Dr John. It’s a charming blend brimming with life, straightforwardness and extroversion.

The band consists of two brothers (I think there used to be a third brother in the group at one point): Aske (vocals, lead- and rhythm guitar) and Esben (vocals, rhythm guitar, kazoo) Knoblauch. Further members of the band are Nils Sørensen (bass, mouth-organ, backing vocals) and most recent member Leonard Kiel (drums), who is so new that tonight’s gig is his first with the band.

It’s also the band’s first-ever gig in London. At first, they mainly busked in San Francisco and later New York but have since expanded to playing in Russia, at the Grand Canyon, and now also a pub gig in London.

The set consists of acoustic compositions expressed through hard strumming and coarse singing. They also play a handful of cover songs, some of which I’m not sure whether they were on the original setlist or not. For instance, when Esben’s string breaks and while a roadie (or friend?) restrings it, the band plays what seems like an impromptu version of With a Little Help From My Friends (more Joe Cocker than The Beatles) before Esben gets his guitar back and they can start playing the next song as planned.

The guitar still needs a bit of fine-tuning, though. While Aske plays a solo on his guitar, Esben’s tuning adds a few off-notes that give the music a hint of avant-garde jazz for a moment until Esben is back in tune and the four musicians ease into the song as it should be played. It’s a great moment and an excellent example of what a tight band can do. Instead of taking a break while waiting to fix the problem, they play through it while simultaneously sorting it out, making the ‘problem’ a part of the performance. It’s endearing and the way it should be.

They hammer this point home a few songs later when it’s Aske’s turn to break a string. Conveniently enough, it breaks towards the end of the song, Can’t Deny, in which the lyrics go, ‘You can’t deny what’s happening here is so sad, so sad… It’s so sad what’s happening here’ – which he turns into a joke about feeling sad about the broken string. Aske strings the guitar himself while the others continue showing they’re a bunch of musicians used to playing in the street and dealing with whatever technical issues you might face while keeping going on. There’s no time to take a break in the street ‘cos you’ll lose your audience, so why not keep the music going while restringing and tuning back up?

Esben gets his kazoo out (this is not a euphemism) several times to great effect. The innate noise that a kazoo makes could get tiring, but he somehow pulls it off, partly ‘cos the music lends itself to that particular sound, as does his silly, madman personality. A touch of a ragged jazz show tune, Cab Calloway style, is part of this band’s musical uniform.

As I only know one of their songs in advance, the last one, Sorte sigøjner (one of the few songs that they sing in Danish), the only songs I’m familiar with are the cover songs: Minnie the MoocherWith a Little Help From My FriendsOne NightRoxanne and Satisfaction. All of them get the crowd singing along in perfect call-response style. But to be fair, most of their original songs also get the crowd singing. I seem to be the only one here who doesn’t know most of the tunes in advance.

All the covers are great, except Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones). I don’t think the band manage (or maybe don’t even want) to capture the raw, sexual energy that someone like Mick Jagger can bring to a song. The original song is so sexualised, and Esben doesn’t add the sexuality to the song that it needs to thrive. They somehow make a sexual piece asexual, almost comical, and that treatment of this particular song doesn’t work for me. Brothers Moving are at their best when they can be a little bit silly and goofy – the life and soul of the party complete with costume changes, as illustrated by Esben changing his sweat-soaked t-shirt after a few songs. However, it doesn’t make much difference as the second t-shirt gets soaked with sweat within a few more songs.

And this is symptomatic of the whole performance. No one can accuse Brothers Moving of being afraid to sweat and getting their fingers dirty. There’s barely a moment of standing still, especially Aske, and Esben look exhausted when the concert ends. It has been not only a concert but also an athletic effort. It’s a band with undeniable energy and thirst for life and eager to share their positive vibes with anyone coming their way.

Brothers Moving setlist
Not available

Easy Life, Rough Trade East

Êasy Life, Rough Trade East, London, January 16, 2020

It’s time for another Rough Trade East gig – a 1 pm lunchtime gig (‘the earliest Easy Life gig ever’) with quirky Leicester five-piece Easy Life, then a signing of their album, Junk Food

They are playing again this evening so they could take the easy way out and treat this afternoon show as a rehearsal for the concert they’ll be playing in about six hours. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it. The band treats us to 11 songs played with great spirit and full engagement by the band members, not least of all frontman Murray Matravers, who has dressed like a hotdog, a very smiley and chatty hotdog for the occasion.

I don’t know any of the songs, so everything is new to me. I certainly didn’t expect to witness a hotdog singing a song about how we misuse the natural resources of our planet (Earth) but what I soon find out is that an hour in the company of Easy Life is an entirely positive and life-affirming experience.

They play a set of catchy songs with entertaining lyrics, and they sound great – a mix of hip hop, r&b and indie-synth. Some of the songs remind me of Rex Orange County, and that’s not a bad thing. But more than anything, they’ve latched on to their unique tiny island, and their warm and sunny disposition betray their Midlands roots. No sign of rain or grey skies around this band.

Many of the songs have dark themes lyrically, but the music’s lightness balances out the darkness of the words. The audience is on point as backing vocalists on most songs, and the festive atmosphere increases whenever Matravers picks up a trumpet and joins in with keyboard player Sam Hewitt who doubles on saxophone. These brief horn-section passages bring a jazzy feel to the set, and it would suit the band if they did that even more. The very mobile drummer, Oliver ‘Cass’ Cassidy, uses every opportunity he gets to walk to the front of the stage to survey the audience. He also goes behind the keyboard for one song while Sam is on saxophone duty.

Easy Life looks like a band with an overload of ‘pinch me to check if it’s just a dream’ moments. Towards the end of the set, Matravers exclaims proudly, and a little bit confused, ‘Junk Food is in the fucking top ten – how did that happen?’ Easy Life finishes their set with their debut song, Pockets, which features the line, ‘I’m tryna to unlock doors with these musical keys.’ The answer to Matravers’ question is clear, this band’s ‘musical keys’ are opening doors all over the place, and their audience is receptive with open arms.

Easy Life setlist
1. Earth
2. Sunday
3. 7 Magpies
4. Nice Guys
5. Sangria
6. Temporary Love Part 2
7. OJPL
8. Dead Celebrities
9. Spiders
10. Nightmares
11. Pockets

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church, London, January 16, 2020

Patrick Wolf is a sick man. Braving the flu and a fever sweating through his pores, it’s a wonder he’s even here tonight. Employees have called in sick for less. But here he is, intent on getting on with the show – after all, as he says, the only gig he has ever called off was once when a cancelled plane prevented him from travelling.

We arrive early, as we know from a previous gig at this venue (with Erland Cooper) that the venue is small and there’ll only be seats for the first-comers. We wait in the rain for 30 minutes; then, we sit in our seats for about an hour before the gig begins. I will forever prefer concerts with numbered seats to avoid these kinds of queuing-waiting situations, but sometimes, you’ll have to grin it and bear it.

It’s not only the performer on stage who’s ill tonight. So is one of his audience members. Me. I am at the tail-end of a cold from hell and luckily the cough I’ve endured in the last few days has magically gone away in time for the concert. Illness aside, this turns out to be a great concert. This is the fourth time I’ve seen him live and the first time since 2012 at the Old Vic.

Has anything changed since then? Well, his physical appearance is different. I used to think of him as lean and lanky, but he’s beefed up since I last saw a picture of him. His hair hangs down like straggly threads that he repeatedly curl and pull during the concert. He’s dressed in a dark kind-of-toga outfit, and his appearance instantly makes me think of Anhoni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) – the resemblance, at least from the fifth row, is uncanny.

He pulls at his long, wiry hair throughout the concert. I usually wouldn’t write a whole paragraph about someone’s hair, but it gets to a point where I wish he would brush it behind his ears and just be done with it. It gets distracting after a while and makes you wonder if it’s all a studied pose or just hair hanging down inconveniently. Maybe it’s a nervous tick or some kind of ‘good luck’ ritual, like tennis player Rafael Nadal, who adjusts his hair before every ball of tennis he plays. But enough about hair.

My friend and I sit behind what we believe to be members of Patrick Wolf’s family, which results in him looking in our direction several times as if he’s singing to and smiling at us. Though it’s obviously his family members he’s looking at, it adds an extra sense of intimacy to some of the songs that he sings them seemingly aimed at us.

The concert begins with the overwhelming sound of a church organ playing on the level above and behind us. Everyone turns towards the sound, and moments later, Patrick Wolf enters the church from the entrance through which we all entered the venue earlier – let’s call it fashionably late. He walks towards the stage and sings with his dramatic baritone voice. Once safely on stage, he picks up his viola and starts playing and plucking away.

Despite a few technical problems here and there, some instruments that need tuning and Wolf leaving the stage for ten minutes because he’s unwell, he sings and plays like a trouper. He’s so talented that a few hiccups won’t present too much of an obstacle. Though some songs sound unfocused, Wolf’s singing is mostly brilliant, and he plays his chosen instruments (guitar, autoharp, viola, piano) splendidly. It also seems to help him that his sidekick, Jack, is there. Aside from playing the piano, bass and organ, his mere presence seems to support Wolf enough to get him through the show.

Since Wolf doesn’t have a new album to promote, the gig is a hearty blend of older(er) songs. Tristan comes early in the set, but it isn’t the best version I’ve heard of this song, just played on viola. I think this song works best with a strong backbeat that tonight’s version lacks, and not just plucking away on a stringed instrument. Having said that, I understand a musician’s urge to experiment with different ways of performing their songs.

Other songs, like Bluebells and Bermondsey Street (one of my favourites), are spot on in their beautiful execution. Wolf plays a moving and fragile Pigeon Song with romantic lines about going alone to the cinema and stealing food from Electric Avenue (in Brixton, South London).

Wolf gets emotional when he introduces a song that he associates with his mother, who passed away. He strums the chords of a song by Sandy Denny, Who Knows Where the Time Goes? and manages to sing a couple of verses before he stops himself. At first, it looks like it’s too emotional for him to sing it, but he says he’ll have to leave the stage for a few minutes because he’s unwell and will be back to play some more songs. No one could fault him for stopping the concert at this time. Still, about ten minutes later, Jack returns to the stage and starts playing an introductory piano piece before announcing Patrick Wolf back to the stage to very appreciative applause. 

The duo plays a few more songs, including one with Jack back on the organ. Patrick plays the last couple of songs solo on his viola. An alternative version of one of his dancier, more commercial songs, The Magic Position. This is not a song I like very much in the recorded version but stripped down like this, the song has more depth. The clapping along from the audience doesn’t add much value to this song, but if clapping along feels supportive for the performer on stage, who am I to complain? The fact that Wolf’s voice has gotten croakier during the concert adds to the song’s urgency. After finishing The Magic Position, Wolf tells us, ‘That’s what that song sounds like when you have the flu.’ 

I don’t know how Patrick Wolf felt about tonight’s gig. It can’t be fun singing and playing and performing while ill. Maybe he got through on adrenaline (and Lucozade). Perhaps his love of playing music and being on stage is a comforting remedy in itself. Regardless, by the look of it, St Pancras Old Church was full of satisfied customers after tonight’s concert.

Patrick Wolf setlist
(Note: This is the setlist as intended but some of the songs were played in a different order and a couple may not have been played)
1. Ghost Song 
2. Teignmouth
3. Tristan
4. Jacob’s Ladder
5. Watcher
6. Blackdown
7. Hard Times
8. Bluebells
9. Bermondsey Street
10. The Days
11. Wind in the Wires
12. Damaris
13. Paris
14. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Sandy Denny cover – incomplete)
15. Theseus
16. Wolf Song
Encore
17. The Sun is Often Out
18. Augustine
19. The Magic Position

Oslo, Norway

It’s a few days after Christmas, and most of Oslo town is closed. Since I’ve mainly been here before in the light, bright warmer months of the year, being here on the flip side of summer is a cold and dark experience. Arriving in the evening on December 26, my three travelling companions and I walk from the train station and through the city’s Main Street, Karl Johans gate, which leads upwards and towards The Royal Palace (‘Slottet’), the official residence of the King and Queen of Norway.

We walk past the palace where people have laid flowers and lit dozens of candles in memory of Crown Princess Martha’s former husband, Ari Behn. He sadly killed himself over Christmas – a story that’s taking up all the front pages in Norway right now.

We continue into the darkness of Slottsparken, a public park surrounding the palace and walk through the park to the other side before reaching our destination, our guest house (‘pensionat’) for the next two days, Cochs Pension. We chose to stay there because it’s featured in the book, Halvbroren by one of Norway’s most famous novelists, Lars Saabye Christensen. The hotel is also across the road from The House of Literature which isn’t open while we’re here but sounds like a great place for literary events. 

According to Google, Cochs Pension is a 2-Star hotel; nothing fancy but safe, clean and warm – and our room has a lovely view over the northwest side of Oslo. We can also look down on the restaurant on the corner, Lorry, which, as it says on its website, is ‘one of Oslo’s oldest restaurants,’ with a history dating back to the 1870s. One of the dishes on their menu is a traditional Norwegian fish soup and lots of other classic options of Norwegian cuisine. 

After dropping off our bags, we go back into town and arrive at the Christmas Market just as they’re closing down for the evening. We go in search of something to eat.

With most restaurants closed until the next day, we have limited choice; we consider the junk food option, the Nordic burger chain, Max, but end up in a tiny hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant called Dalat Cafe, which turns out to be an excellent choice. After dinner, we search for an open bar, but that’s hard to find on a Christmas holiday, so we call it a night and walk back to the hotel for a good, early night’s sleep.

The next day, over breakfast in a small cafe, ten minutes walk south of our hotel, we decide to get out of town for the day. More precisely, we want to go to the north of the city centre, since we know that there are snowy conditions outside of town. After breakfast in a bakery/cafe, we take the T-bane Metro line Number 1 the thirty minutes or so to the outskirts of northern Oslo and get off the train two stations past the famous ski jump ramp, Holmenkollen, at Skogen station. We step out into a winter wonderland. People are skiing and sleighing and having the kind of childish fun that snow inspires even among adults. We haven’t brought any skis or sleighs, so we’ll have to make do with strolling, though I get enthusiastic enough to sit down on the top of a small hill and let my thick winter coat be a sleigh for a short moment. Wheeee! To be a child again, if only for ten seconds.

After a long walk in the snow, we return to the city centre where it’s been snowing a bit for the few hours we were out of town, leaving a thin layer of snow on the ground. We take a tram to Frognerparken, also known as Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is a nice park for strolling and serves as an outdoor museum with over 200 sculptures in bronze granite cast iron, all done by the same artist, Gustav Vigeland. Some are dramatic, some are cruel and violent, while others are erotic or funny. It’s a brilliant collection of sculptures, including an angry boy, a naked man balancing four babies in his hand and on his foot, and lots more.

Though we’re tired and cold, we want a drink before going back to the hotel. We walk past the bar, Angst, but an empty cafe signalling ‘anxiety’ doesn’t feel so inviting right now. Instead, we end up at the bar at Hotel Bristol.

At least there are about a handful of other patrons there, though there are more staff at work than customers. Afterwards, my companions go to another bar. I’m too tired and cold, and I also have fish soup on my mind, so I have dinner at Lorry. I relish the hot soup, and equally, I take delight in the fact that I only have thirty seconds to walk back to the hotel after dinner.

The following day we wake to white city streets. The snow has grabbed hold of the city streets and the thin, white layer has grown thicker overnight. I have a plane to catch in the afternoon, but we have time for a walk through the snowy Oslo streets in the embassy district, where all the big houses look extra fancy in the snow.

Later, we do one final walk down Karl Johans gate past the Christmas Market on our left and the nearby Nobel Peace Center – which I visited years ago – on our right. I say goodbye to my companions (who will stay a day longer) and continue towards the train station from where I’ll get a train to Oslo Airport, Gardermoen, about half an hour from central Oslo. As I reach the harbour, I walk past Oslo Opera House with its remarkable structure that resembles an iceberg and is built for people to walk upon the roof. But I don’t have the time for roof walking on this occasion – I’ve got a train and a plane to catch.

Oslo can be lovely to experience in winter, but I confess I prefer warmer days, so I think the next time I return will be in the summer.

Stats
Population, Norway: 5,300,000
Population, Oslo: 697,000
Currency: Norwegian krone (NOK)
Warmest month: July (average 17.7C)
Coldest month: January (average 2.9C)