Thursday, November 24, 2016

Allt Da Ghob

An Evening of Blues with The Simon Kennedy Band & Lins Honeyman & Band

The Souter Theatre in Perth's AK Bell Library played host to a blues extravaganza on Saturday night, courtesy of two local bands, The Simon Kennedy Band, and Lins Honeyman & Band. As Blues Bands go, they couldn't be more different, but between them they put on a fine evening's entertainment.

Lins Honeyman's band got things underway with a set of predominantly acoustic blues  (they have an electric guitar on several songs), featuring a mixture of Blues, Rock n Roll classics, and Honeyman's own compositions. Honeyman is a well known figure in the Perth music scene, having been gigging for many years in the company of an evolving line up of musicians. The current band: Honeyman: vox, guitars, harmonica, mandolin; Andrew McCully: lead guitar, double bass; Les Dalziel: keys, double bass, electric bass; Jon Assheton: drums, percussion, cahon, and Peter Oates: violin; has remained largely unchanged for a while now (Oates being the sole recent addition). Over time they have increasingly gelled as a unit and were on good form on Saturday night, presenting the bluesy-est set list they have performed in a while. Having heard this band range across a whole range of musical styles, I have always rated their blues-based performances as the pick of their output. Whether that is a fair assessment of their work, or simply a reflection of the fact that I love the blues, is hard to objectively judge!

Lins did a solo spot mid-show, which was well-received, and included a Shakespeare-inspired audience-participation singalong. It sounds improbable, but it worked! Other highlights included a bit of Blind Willie Johnson, some Chuck Berry, and a cheeky bit of blues comedy in the form of Keep Talkin', a humorous blues with a lyric that would bring a knowing smile to the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, who was apparently similarly afflicted! Two Feet Mama is another slightly tongue in cheek blues song which Lins wrote when he was quite young, but which has made a recent return to his live performances; alongside an idiosyncratic take on a certain Jungle Book number at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to the soul searching song 'Sertraline'. The first half finale from Lins and Co, was 'Stranger Blues', which has been part of their set for some years. It has sometimes featured Les Dalziel and Lins himself, on Hammond organ solos, but with Les occupied on double-bass duties, and Lins wielding the harmonica, they were joined onstage by Mirek Hodun from the Simon Kennedy Band, who added a unique flourish to proceedings. Yesterday night, I was at one of my kids school parent's evening. One of the teachers, who had also been at the gig said to me, "I just love Lins' band... they just get better and better!"
As they combined solid musicianship, with a unique and eclectic set-list, delivered with Honeyman's trademark wit and whimsy, in a rootsy acoustic blues package, it's hard to disagree with his assessment.

After the interval, Simon Kennedy led his band onto the stage. Once a four piece band, the new SKB lineup features the eye-wateringly good drummer Brian Macleod and keyboard maestro Mirek Hodun,
who's left hand has replaced the bassist! While the first half featured lots of chat, humour, and acoustic vibes; the SKB were a complete contrast; from the outset they were full of highly charged, very loud, high-energy, funky electric blues. Led by Simon Kennedy's technically stunning, melodic guitar lines, trading licks with Mirek's very funky Hammond, built upon the foundation of Macleod's scintillating grooves; they kicked off with a Freddy King instrumental which set the tone for the second half of the evening brilliantly. Mixing blues covers, like Cannonball, and the El Media Stomp with Kennedy's own writing they showed why they are a real force to be reckoned with in the contemporary blues scene; and why they have gained national radio airplay.

Kennedy's own writing is mostly up-beat, intense, and earnest; but his lyrics are uncommonly thought-provoking and profound. If you are a fan of the the endless cliche's which fill the charts, then Kennedy's lyrics are not for you. His songs, do not feature any of the usual hackneyed phrases which rhyme such banalities as "sitting at home" with "all alone" and "waiting for the phone". Rather, he probes the human condition, and its' many sided complexities - drawing deeply on his Christian faith for answers to the many questions he airs. All this in upbeat driving, funky blues on tracks such as "Show them it's True".

The SKB then delivered a staggering version of the soul song, "The Letter", popularised (though not written by) Joe Cocker. Beginning with an eerie guitar introduction which weaved a chunk of "Stairway" into it, the band later morphed into a blast of 'Smoke On The Water"! In between that they belted out a stonking version of the song itself interspersed with an amazingly entertaining drum solo from Macleod, and a organ-solo, singalong from Hodun.

The night came to a glorious conclusion when all the musicians crowded onto the small stage for a big blues jam, under Kennedy's direction. Everyone who had taken part (with the exception of Jon Assheton - as there were two drummers, but only one kit!) traded solos and brought the evening to a rip roaring conclusion. 

I had the privilege of being asked to take some photos of the gig, which was hugely enjoyable. One day I'll own a professional standard camera which can operate at high ISOs without producing this much 'noise'.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Notes: TOMMY: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes' Tommy is a huge book, which describes, in massive detail, every aspect of the experience and organisation of the British military campaign on The Western Front in The Great War. Its' 650+ pages contain chapters on recruitment, training, army structures, uniforms, trench life and warfare, military innovations, leave and entertainment, wounds, death and field hospitals, chaplains, communication, as well as the battles themselves.

Despite the fact that Holmes has an, at-times, rather pedantic eye for detail; this has been a profoundly sobering read. We paused, in our church for the two-minutes silence to remember victims of war this Sunday, almost exactly a hundred years to the day when the dreadful Battle of The Somme finally drew to a close. As we did so, I was almost at the end of this book, images from which pressed vividly on my mind. A century on from the war which was supposed to end all wars, the world looks more dangerous and volatile than it has in my lifetime. Putin seeks a renewed Russian Empire to the East, Trump has made noises about reneging on NATO commitments, leaving the Baltic States vulnerable and the possibility of a European ground war apparently more likely than at anytime since the early stages of the Cold War. Spending Sunday morning reading Holmes' accounts of the corralling of the teenagers of Britain into deadly trenches, then standing for a two-minute silence close to my two teenage sons was unnerving. I deliberately chose to read a WWI book during this centenary remembrance, and this volume is enormously  informative.

The book actually gets better as it goes on, some of the early chapters suffer from the repeated fault of being far too long, and overloading the reader with facts, at the expense of incisive analysis. One of the reasons that I have often struggled to read military history, is that the genre as a whole seems to suffer from this problem. All history writing contains facts; obviously! However, the best history writing has to be more than an archive of information presented in narrative form. The historian must analyse the vast reams of information, look for patterns and answers to debates, and then argue his or her point, using the information selectively; and footnoting rather than regurgitating huge amounts of data. To coin an unforgivably inappropriate metaphor, the chapter on military structures and reorganisations, was like wading through mud..

Thankfully, as indicated previously, the book improves as it goes on. The chapters on trench life and warfare were concise, and powerful. The discussions of military tactics and innovations were as well. Likewise the research and presentation of the life of the soldier away from the line, at play and at church, was also very well done, as were the sections on discipline, communication, the old and new army, horses, artillery, friendship, and aircraft. It is axiomatic that one of the major trends of the twentieth century was secularisation, from the high water mark of Victorian religiosity in the 1860s, through to the marginalisation of religious thought from the 1960s. There has been a long scholarly debate about both the causes of that process, as well as the starting point and rate of the secular advance. Holmes' analysis of the diaries of the trench soldiers, suggest that those who posit and early advance in secularism are closer to the mark - at least amongst this cohort of men. Fascinating too is his suggestion that the Catholic priests were more highly regarded chaplains than their Anglican counterparts, because Roman theology compelled them to wade through the battles to administer the 'last rites' to dying men in no-man's land, in trenches, and in shell-holes; often at huge risk to themselves.

Holmes makes a point throughout this work of debunking many of what he considers to be the myths which have grown up surrounding the Western Front, which he notes sometimes owe more to Blackadder than to historical fact. Such myths include the suggestion that the sons of the upper classes were shielded from loss, because the officers hid while the men went ''over the top'. This myth does not stand up to scrutiny at all, where the reverse seems to have actually been the case; with vast numbers of officers leading the fateful charges at Loos, Ypres, and The Somme et al. Likewise, Holmes is critical of the usual accusation that the planned advance across The Somme valley in the summer of 1916 (and the infamous worst day in the history of the British Army) was the result of sheer stupidity on the part of inept Generals. Holmes painstakingly points out that the battle was strategically necessary to stop German troops moving to other parts of the theatre where they could in 1916 have decisively overwhelmed several ill-prepared defences. 

Holmes also demonstrates that the appalling casualty rates on the opening days of that notorious conflict were not simply the result of a brainless attempt to overwhelm machine-gun fire by sending wave after wave of men to walk into it; but by a combination of the failure of the artillery barrage to clear the path for the infantry (of both enemy troops and physical obstacles), and of the army of of 1916 being totally unable to communicate effectively while in battle. Specifically, the infantry were supposed to advance on foot through areas of no-man's land, cleared of man and wire, towards German trenches behind a 'creeping barrage' of constant shelling. The line of devastating shelling was supposed to land only fifty or so yards in front of them, and the two lines were meant to advance in parallel synchrony. However, when the infantry were slowed down by the unexpected strength which the artillery had failed to knock-out, and by the deep muddy soil, they fell behind the 'creeping barrage' of covering fire. However, they had no effective means of communicating their actual position to the gunners behind the front line. The two repeatedly fell out of sync, leaving the infantry hopelessly vulnerable. The idea that fools in command posts were indifferent to such slaughter is also debunked, in truth, in mid-conflagration, they often had no idea what was going on in the line. 

Similarly, the idea that mentally ill soldiers were routinely shot for cowardice (when they were suffering from what we would now consider PTSD) is examined. There were, of course, some instances where this was undoubtedly the case. However, Holmes is careful to paint a picture of an army struggling to understand such matters, in what was the very early days of psychiatry, and making huge strides in addressing the issue as the war progressed.

Having said all that, Holmes is not simply an apologist for the British Army, nor for the pursuit of The Great War in general. He is often critical of the war, the politicians, and the way in which the war was pursued; but in this book 'Tommy', he is very careful to critique these things in their social, technological and broader historical context. Many of the most stringent criticisms made of the Army are made (quite accurately) but with the benefit of both hindsight and a century of cultural changes; which were completely inaccessible to the protagonists.

Tommy: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-18, is a enormously informative read, introducing the reader to all aspects of this defining conflict of modern history. The four photographic sections inserted through the book are fascinating, and rather haunting too. If its' 650+ pages could have been trimmed to around 400, with less repetition and fewer lists of facts and more analysis and summary instead, it would have been less exhaustive a guide, but a more compelling one.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Carn Bhac and Glen Ey

Glen Ey is a delight. I have long meant to explore Glen Ey, having seen alluring photos of it in mountain guides, and seen it from afar, from the top of Beinn lutharn Mhor. I finally managed to explore it myself, yesterday, on my way through to Carn Bhac - the only one of that cluster of Munros west of Glenshee, which had so far eluded me. I had planned to get to this one earlier on this year - on my way to take part in a church event at The Compass Christian Centre in Glenshee. That walk though fell victim to an asault of incessant torrential rain, which made the prospect look nothing less than ghastly. This week we enjoyed a reversal of such fortunes, the dreadful weather forecast was changed to a decent one on Friday night - and so we packed and headed for the hills. In fact, the initial forecasts hadn't been totally wrong, it was simply that the heavy rain pssed through the eastern glens during the night, leaving the air wonderfully dry - but the ground like a swamp!

The starting point for Glen Ey looks complex on the 1:50 000 OS map, with paths going in all directions. In practice however, the village of Inverey, where the River Eye pours into The Dee, has a walkers car park with a clear wooden sign saying "Glen Ey". From there, the track is obvious, and winds its way alongside the river for five and a half miles, terminating at the ruin of Altanour Lodge. From there, walkers paths continue on into the upper reaches of the glen. Our mountain bikes convered the ground fast, over the track which is in pretty good condition. It's a ride which is full of interest all the way along. The river was swollen and charging down the glen, the base of the valley is typically glacial - flat bottomed and wide, but the track climbs significantly along its length. An uphill slog in though, means a fast escape from the hills at the end of the day! The flat valley floor is framed by mountains on every side, which seem to grow in stature as the track heads southwards into steadily more remote territory.

In wide, lonely Glen Ey, we met virtually no-one all day. The landscape is obviously not 'natural', in that the marks of mankind are in everything from the lack of trees to the deer management measures, shooting access tracks, and heather burning. On the other hand, it is positively a wilderness compared to 'bonnie Glenshee', one glen to the east of Glen Ey, which is a landscape mangled by the skiing industry, with its' cafe's, car-parks, bulldozers, fences, piles of earth and wire. 

We abandoned bikes at the ruins of Altanour Lodge, which are now hidden behind a protective fence. The track itself ends at a turning circle a few yards beyond the ruins, and a walkers path continues then forks. We took the right hand fork which should have taken us south-easterly onto the southern ridge of Carn Bhac. In practice though, the path forded the Alltan Odhar, which in spate was uncrossable. The warm overnight downpour had melted the first of the winter snows which in combination were charging down the sides of the hills. We were forced to turn westwards, staying on the North side of the stream until just underneath the summit of Carn Bhac, where we were able to cross the burn and re-join the path. We left a little cairn marking the point at which we left the track so that we could re-trace our route, it would have been very easy to have descended a long way - only to have ended up the wrong side of a rising torrent. This was a swampy, squelch of a walk, but there is a bit of a path; suggesting that we were not the first walkers to have been unable to cross the Alltan Odhar.

The summit of Carn Bhac is wide and rocky, with a semi-circular cairn, which was plastered with driven snow. The views from this solitary munro are impressive, of such distinctive things as the famous Lairig Ghru through the Cairngorms, the Angels Peak, Devil's Point and Beinn MacDui around it, the Morrone at Braemar; and Beinn a Ghlo to the South. All that was left, was to return through the squelch to the bikes and Altanour Lodge, and fly down the track to Glen Ey and the waiting car in the fading afternoon light.

On paper this was an easy day out. 16miles, of which 10 were bikeable. At the end of it we were both really tired - and glad to get home! It was just so good to be in the hills again, after so long.

All photos taken on my phone!