May 242015
 

I was won over to Liverpool Sound City a couple of years ago, with it’s innovative mix of music festival, conference and the creative opening-up of regular and hidden music venues across the city. I could book into a hotel then dodge between bands, coffee shops, and shopping. Chilling out and exploring some amazing temporary venues, like Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, or a run-down car park that had been turned into a performance space.

This years Sound City Festival has a new format though, and it’s taken away the joy and the pleasure that made this a unique festival.

Firstly, getting to the new site down on Bramley-Moore Dock, is a major pain. There are no regular buses that service this part of Liverpool. There is a train service that runs nearby, or a special bus service, but otherwise it’s a good half-hour walk away from the Pier Head.

The site is now a self-contained festival with restrictions on what you can bring in, and bag searches to get through the gates. In the past the major venues operated a bag-check policy, so it’s not much different, but the big difference now is that the site is locked-down, and once you are in you can’t get out. So if you don’t like wraps, burgers, noodles or pizza then you are pretty limited in what you can eat.

It sounded worse than it looked!

It sounded worse than it looked!

There are few places for sitting and chilling out. A couple of wooden pallets have been set-up for people to sit on, but otherwise its hard to find a space among the rubble and the hard-standing dock-sides. This isn’t a space to relax. Quite literally it’s an industrial dock, with metal railings erected to keep people in or out.

Being on the banks of the Mersey seems a lovely idea, and when the sun is out it’s pleasant. But once the weather changes and the wind whips-up, then there’s no protection from the harshness of the Irish Sea.

These are small complaints though, compared to the quality of the sound of the festival. Whoever chose the locations for each of the stages and tents never gave a thought for the way that they would sound. The central area around the North Stage is surrounded by five other stages. The bleed of noise from each of them is overwhelming and exhausting.

The main stage sounds anodyne and insipid as most of the sound is whipped-off by the strong winds in a vast riverside open space. This is not a natural amphitheatre that would enhance the delicate nuance of the performances. Instead it’s a harsh, post-industrial concrete landscape that is unforgiving to anything but the most brutal sounds.

The Baltic Stage should be more interesting than it is, as it’s inside a warehouse. But by blasting the sound systems to their maximum it’s generally impossible to hear anything of the performances. I measured 100db on my phone sound meter. I’m sure people left with permanent damage to their hearing.

I thought I would be writing about the bands and the music, but the environment and the sound management of this festival is so poor that I can’t really tell if the bands that I’ve heard and seen have been any good. It’s become just another boring rock festival. I won’t be coming back next year.

Apr 012015
 

The past year has been one of curriculum development, in which I have primarily focused on the leadership and delivery of the modules TECH1002 and TECH3022, supervising project students, and supervising the delivery of TECH3026. This involved:

  • TECH1002 Social Media & Technology – this year I have further developed lectures, workshops and assessment activities to support learners understanding of digital mediation, network culture, digital identity and collaborative media. This year I introduced the DMU Commons Wiki as part of the module activities in order to promote and test collaborative learning practices and skills. I have further developed the use of blogs as part of the role of a social media practitioner that learners are modelling. I have strengthened the approach to the examination and the expected requirements for associated reading.
  • TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production – this year I have introduced and developed a focus on digital capabilities, digital activism, digital literacies, and digital sociology (netnogtaphy). Engagement with social media has centred on a campaign to raise awareness about processed food, sugar and carbohydrate rich diets. Learners participated in a social media project to support a campaign directed through the www.noquartergiven.co.uk site. Learners worked collaboratively using the DMU Commons Wiki http://wiki.our.dmu.ac.uk and other social media tools.
  • TECH3026 Creative Media Entrepreneurship – while I failed to win support for the continuation of Seed Creativity Ltd running this module, I am satisfied that the operation and standard of delivery of this module will produce satisfactory learner engagement and progression.
  • TECH3010 Project Supervision – there has been a low turn-out from learners at the regular supervision sessions I held.

In addition to the above teaching duties I have contributed to the validation of the BA Communication Arts course, by writing three templates for modules based on Community Media. I have continued to build my external academic profile, both in terms of research, teaching & learning and support for external community media. I am an active blogger and social media user. I am an external examiner at Liverpool John Mores University. I am a council member of the Community Media Association. I have asked for an extension to my PhD registration so I can continue to collate and write material. My submission deadline is now expected to be the end of September 2015. Following advice from the (now former) Deputy Dean I have continued to refraining from engaging in administrative initiatives and management activities in order to focus on academic work and the completion of my PhD, and to maintain a satisfactory and work-life balance.

Three priorities have emerged that I wish to take forward in both my learning and teaching activities, and in the support I can offer to colleagues in the Leicester Media School. All are associated with the idea of Social Learning.

Firstly, I wish to reinforce the practice of verbal instruction and note taking with undergraduate learners. There is a low sense of expectation demonstrated by new learners on TECH1002 that they are required to take notes in lectures and workshops. Many learners seem to have only a limited sense that they are expected to attend lectures and workshop sessions, and that when they do they are required to make notes. Subsequently, learners who do not attend, and who do not make note, are often the ones who struggle to perform at the required level, and often find it difficult to complete assignments independently. While this can be expected as part of the process of orientation and enculturation to different learning styles at Level Four, the speed at which learners make this change can be uneven, and for some, problematic. I will therefore trial the Social Learning approach, and test through the use of small-group discussions and ‘talk-aoke’ sessions, if learners can be encouraged to engage with informal discussion of the reading material associated with the weekly taught sessions. I will be looking for them to use appropriate academic language and concepts in these discussions, and to exhibit some fluency for the concepts that are considered. Learners will be given clear expectations that evidence of reading and discussion ought to be reflected in their blog and wiki posts. In addition, and as a fundamental principle of delivery, I will primarily engage in face-to-face interaction with learners. This face-to-face interaction will be clearly signposted as an alternative to email, Blackboard and other forms of electronic communication, and will stress the benefits of learning how to interact with tutors directly. The lab arrangements for the delivery of the social media modules are at present far from satisfactory, with no regular activity-base to work from that is dedicated to the development of a social-learning approach (i.e. café style seating, comfortable sofas, round table displays). It is a common occurrence for many learners from other courses to use the same rooms (often being the only place that the can access bespoke software), which puts additional stress on the learning sessions being developed here, and provides an inappropriate justification for a significant number of learners to consider being absent – i.e., that the room is full and they won’t be missed.

My second priority is to support colleagues in the Leicester Media School to develop the capability and use of social learning tools, and collaborative development/production tools. Often the general approach to communication within the Faculty of Technology is to cascade emails. This is a failing approach that doesn’t build knowledge communities based on collegiality, mutual engagement or transparency. Email and hierarchical management practices don’t allow for the shared and de-centred approach to learning, curriculum development and professional practice. By identifying and testing different models of social collaboration, learning and peer-based project work, it should be possible to iron-out many of the communication issues that are prevalent in a large organisation such as the LMS. With the aim to reduce operational log-jams, improve two-way communication, facilitate longer-term planning, allow for a more inclusive set of decision-making practices, and to build an identity around the core practices of the community of learners that make up the LMS. These peer-based learning and professional practice approaches are difficult to integrate within standard daily routines, but when established they will help to foster a ‘community of practice’ type approach and support a shared and collective intelligence ethos among colleagues that might otherwise go unrecognised, unreported and unsupported.

The third priority I wish to continue to support, is the work I have started in TECH3022, looking at social media as an advocacy tool for digital activists, ethnographic researchers and campaigners. Working with issues associated with the Obesity and Diabetes epidemic gives learners an opportunity to develop social media skills related to a platform of action and awareness raising that satisfies a clear social need; questions established social values, and, allows learners to practice creative forms of social media production. By questioning the prevailing culture of processed food and carbohydrate-rich food-like-substances, and by advocating the Low Carb ethos, learners have to demonstrate their ability to research, comprehend and situate a complex and controversial set of issues. Learners also have to be able to reflect on their own experience of food consumption, and generate insights that are relevant to the wider social discussion about obesity and diabetes, particularly as issues of weight carry a significant social stigma. As well as practicing creative approaches to producing engaging content that resonates with an audience of engaged participants, the social learning approach adopted here also allows for the clear demonstration of the impact of practical literacies, skills and know how (in this case food but with a reference to digital media), and how media/digital literacies might similarly be adopted and sustained on a grassroots and participant-led basis. There is considerable scope to develop a research platform within this topic area and subject, that can be linked with credible public services and advocacy bodies, as well as the LMS being seen to take a lead on a debate of significant public interest. [Prof Richard Hall has cited this as an example of good practice on his blog posted on The DMU Centre for Pedagogic Research http://cpr.our.dmu.ac.uk/2015/03/18/on-assessment-and-feedback-some-notes-on-student-as-producer/]

I am aiming to submit my PhD thesis for September 2015, and hope to continue to be associated with the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility afterwards. I will be submitting a separate IRP outlining this. Upon completion of my PhD I want to aim for Readership so that I can develop my research and publication paper output in issues around collaborative and community media. This will involve developing research projects that support community-based organisations who seek to build and sustain capabilities, skills, resources and awareness in the use of digital tools for social media production, social learning and social network development, either as communities of interest, identity, practice or locality. I aim to do this within the CCSR’s remit as a learning community that accounts for the use and deployment of computer mediated communication practices and their ethical and social consequences. I believe that this will support the aims of the Media, Design & Production Subject Group, as a community of practice itself, and the wider Leicester Media School, by fostering collaboration and engagement with partners in other academic communities.

May 042014
 

This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?

Liverpool's Anglican Cathederal

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.

It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.

Eyedress at The Kazimier

Eyedress at The Kazimier

For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.

Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.

Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.

Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.

Solids at the Kazimier

Solids at the Kazimier

What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.

A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…

We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.

Dec 302013
 

I set myself the challenge over the winter break of listening to Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s epic cycle of operas telling the story of the fall of the gods and the assent of free-thinking man. Or, to put it another way, how to avoid being corrupted by the power of technology and knowledge. Or to put it differently again, the fight between gods, men, dwarves, giants and dragons!

Opera is traditionally shrouded in social pomposity, but after listening to each of the operas and reading the stories, I don’t know why this is the case with Wagner? Where Peter Jackson coats his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit stories in cinematic spectacle, Wagner works on a much more psychological level. Themes emerge from characters who are facing dilemmas of personal challenge. This is not a world of certainty, but one of reflection. Everyone has a role to play, but only some are capable of breaking free from the predetermined archetypes that are laid out for us, and think independently. These themes emerge in both the telling of the stories and in the form of the music.

It’s my initial and very simplistic reading that Wagner is asking questions about how we deal with the world that we have been born into and encounter? Wagner is asking to what extent it is possible for us to manipulate other people that we encounter in our lives to our own ends? He is proposing that our human view of life is naïve. That our actions lead us to making reckless mistakes that cost us our ultimate happiness? Are we at the mercy of unseen powers controlling our lives, or are we in charge of our own destinies.

Perhaps most simplistically those who lust after power and control, according to these allegories, are doomed to die as a result of its corrupting influence. Though it seems to me that each of the protagonists and antagonists have a legitimate claim that justifies their skewed view of life. The dwarf Alberich is treated with disdain by the Rhinemaidens who guard the gold that frames this drama. His lust for power, wealth and control is unleashed when he steals the rock and forges it into the ring of power.

Wotan, on the other hand, is a figure of diminished and continually diminishing power right through the drama. His role as the king of the gods is to hold the balance of power and to ensure that the contract that are made are held to. The problem is that Wotan’s life has got just a bit too complicated. He wants to settle down in his newly built fortress, but he’s been tricked into paying a price to the giants that built it that he doesn’t want to pay. So he goes looking for an alternative to offer the giants. On hearing about the ring of power he undertakes an elaborate scheme to win the ring and to pay off his debt. Subsequently, the rest of the operas are about his efforts to undo this mistake, and the cost that it has on the gods and their all powerful position.

I can certainly see why so many people become fanatical about Der Ring Des Nibelungen – though not to the extent of the Nazis perhaps! It’s a story that is tied into mythology and deep-seated questions about humanism, autonomy and the challenge of the modern word, technology, knowledge and language. I’m looking forward to seeing some version on DVD, and finding out more about this festival of drama.

Dec 152013
 

I’ve decided to start a new winter tradition, and rather than indulge in the manic festivities and consumer-driven pile-up that takes place at this time of year around Leicester, I’ve decided, instead to go on a retreat and spend the longest winter evenings working through Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s masterpiece of ‘total theatre’, love, gods, betrayal and redemption. It would be nice to do this by attending a performance of the complete Ring Cycle, but alas trips to Bayreuth are beyond my means for the time being. So, instead, I’ve invested in a complete set of the Decca Der Ring Des Nibelungen recordings, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and performed by the Wiener Philharmonike. These recordings are proclaimed by many as the finest music recording of the Twentieth Century, so I’m expecting a lot.

My plan is to work through one disk each evening and to read the libretti as I’m listening. I’ve started by watching the accompanying DVD of the Golden Ring, a BBC documentary by Humphrey Burton from 1965 that presents a fascinating account of the last ten days of the recording sessions for Götterdämmerung in 1964. Under the guidance of Decca recording producer John Culshaw, who pioneered the introduction and development of the emerging technology of stereo audio reproduction. The documentary is fascinating in the way that it gives equal respect to the recording engineers as well as the internationally acclaimed singers and musicians. The thrilling footage of the performances in the studio are equally matched by the idiosyncrasies of the engineers behind the mixing desk – sandals with socks and all.

What is immediately striking from the documentary is the complete dedication and focus that is literally poured into the recordings by everyone involved. Solti isn’t playing with a new technology here. He’s mastering it and building performances that are primarily designed to be heard on disk, rather than simply capturing a performance taking place in a concert hall. Each three hour rehearsal and recording session produces a fifteen minute segment of the complete opera. There are twenty-five recording sessions in all, none of which feels stuffy or snobby. The orchestra smoke and drink coffee in the intervals, and there’s a respect for the intentions of the composer that is generated in Solti’s physical immersion in the music, counterpointed by Culshaw’s urbanity as the recording team capture it all.

My second evening has been taken-up with listening and reading about Wagner’s use of leitmotif, which is a musical motif “defined as a ‘short musical idea … melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three’, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: ‘the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.'” My only prior experience with this style of musical structuring has been through the soundtracks that John Williams scored for Star Wars, but Wagner’s use of leitmotif goes way beyond compare. Wagner is a master craftsman, a genius tinged with a hint of madness. How Wagner constructed, apportioned and maintained the consistency of fifteen hours of this opera is astounding. No wonder it represents a lifetimes work. To be guided through its constituent components and to get to listen to the interleaving and overlapping themes and motifs will be something of a treat.

The next part of my journey is to start to make some sense of the story and the protagonists and characters that populate it. It sounds like a bonkers bit of storytelling, but if I can sit through The Hobbit, I’m sure I can listen to Der Ring Des Nibelungen and make sense of it – giants, dwarves, river maidens and all! I just hope that my neighbours don’t mind the noise so much, as I’m likely to be pushing the volume a lot.

Nov 212013
 

We were particularly impressed with Hull’s evidence of community and creative engagement”. These are the words of the selecting committee for the UK Capital of Culture that was announced on Wednesday and reported in the Leicester Mercury. Hull’s successful bid to be the next host city emphasised the down-to-earth nature of the city, with the campaign video, according to The Telegraph, emphasising the city’s ‘Golden Rules’:

Don’t go thinking you’re something you’re not; don’t go thinking that you’re better than anybody else, or that anybody else is better than you, and don’t shout about it, get on with it.”

As Leicester takes stock and thinks about why it’s own bid didn’t succeed, it might be worth looking at Hull’s golden rules and asking what can be learnt from this ethos and applying them in Leicester?

If you start modestly, and don’t go unnecessarily claiming to be a world-class city, as Hull suggested it restrains itself from doing, then what implications does this approach have that would benefit arts and culture in Leicester? If the judges where impressed with the level of ‘community and creative engagement’ in Hull’s bid, why did Leicester not represent itself well on this score? Would Leicester benefit from having an extended period of ‘just getting on with things’, rather than thinking that it has to be flag waving to get noticed?

If we take Hull’s advice and stop shouting and get on with things, what are the things that would want to get done? How would these things be done with the support of the grassroots communities in Leicester? Who’s voices and stories would we validate and recognise? How can Leicester develop a mindset that pulls together and blends the diverse range of life stories associated with the city at a time of considerable social and cultural challenge?

Lets not forget, however, that funding for local authorities across the region is about to be cut considerably again. Economic regeneration for Leicester can’t be pinned on a lack-lustre creative enterprise dream when the reality has been that demand for creative services has been sucked out of the economy since the collapse of the banks in 2008. If Leicester is to be realistic, it has to do more than just pin its hopes on the bones of a dead king bringing in a few quid here and there.

Perhaps its time to think about how alternative types of civic, cultural and sustainable commercial engagement can be valued? Forms of engagement that give voice to the unique and vibrant ideas and opinions that are crying-out to be heard in Leicester? Fostering a diverse community-led culture that generates stories and connections between people of all ages, races, classes and backgrounds won’t happen by itself. This needs to be supported – and let’s be honest – without spending even modest amounts of cash, because there are other priorities crying out to be fixed first (pavements, roads, playgrounds, care homes, and more).

The questions that I’ve always had about the challenge of Leicester’s city of culture bid are pretty obvious:

  • Was there enough emphasis on grassroots support?
  • In what way could the social impact of community-led culture be enhanced in Leicester?
  • Was the bid shaped by a desire for economic regeneration rather than as something that iscreative, imaginative, challenging and inclusive?
  • Has Leicester done enough to invest in it’s cultural and community services in the past?
  • Did the bid rely on too many established events and entertainment formats without breaking enough new ground?
  • Would Leicester’s bid appeal to people from across the United Kingdom, Europe and internationally?

There are alternative ways of thinking about community approaches to culture in Leicester. Approaches that offer a different vision to the corporate, tick-box mentality that permeates much of our civic and working lives. This culture would need to offer the chance, at the very least, of being an alternative to the centralised and top-down approach that dominates, and would be one that is built, instead, as Henry Jenkins and others suggest, on “technical affordances that encourage iterative approaches to tasks, fluid roles and a lack of hierarchy, shared rather than owned material, and granular approaches to problem solving, network society encourages collaboration on projects by a ‘hive’ community. This community creates through an ‘on-going, perpetually unfinished, iterative and evolutionary process of gradual development of the informational resources shared by the community’” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 183).

Rather than thinking about Leicester’s cultural identity as something that can be branded and marketed in a temporary slogan, the emphasis has to be on the opportunities that people have to live, share and express their sense of identity through the things that they participate in. We aren’t drones who follow a pre-determined and centralised cultural message, so instead, lets trust people to invest in their own sense of expression and their own sense of identity, and build Leicester’s cultural confidence from the ground up. Remember, reputations are built and not bought.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

Jun 242013
 
Play

Here’s an interview I’ve recorded with Nathan Human about his new one-man play Fragments, which is playing at the Y-Theater in Leicester on Saturday 29th June.

“Lost in the attic are toys and memories. Somewhere amongst the dust Nathan thinks he may have lost himself. When a moment with his 5 year old nephew propels him on a series of adventures it becomes a quest to build his own future, and dens. A story about stories and losing things and always wanting to be Batman.”

Jun 192013
 

While I’ve been a long-term fan of the Pet Shop Boys, their transformation in recent years into a band that plays festivals has been most surprising. The theatricality of the present Electric tour is upfront from the start, yet the most engaging moments came when the audience was able to chant along with songs that are in danger of becoming stadium standards – It’s a Sin, Go West and West End Girls. And chant they did.

Electric is the latest international tour by the Pet Shop Boys, who have hit on a simple and adaptable format to their performances. Using front-projection, minimalist but distinctive staging, and a couple of dances who give the stage some kinetic energy. Electric is a neon blancmange sprinkled with multicoloured hundreds-and-thousands, and is closer to the early 1990s Performance tour than anything they have done for a while.

I don’t know many concerts that start off behind a screen projected with computer graphics of the band, overlaid with cut-up and scratched video montages of modern dance performances. The Pet Shop Boys have always eschewed pandering to the audience, and I don’t doubt that this full-on postmodern approach left many in the audience feeling displaced. Thinking they had come to a pop concert, instead they got a hyper-realist revisualisation of the stage as an early 1980s computer graphic display.

I’m not a fan of the O2 as a music venue, as it’s wide-open space and high roof dissipates the sound of the crowd and takes away the atmosphere of a more intimate performance. Likewise, the churning-out of the hits, and there are a lot of hits from a band that has been around for twenty-five years, means that key moments of intensity don’t have as much space to breath as they should. Lasers are clearly back in vogue though, and converted the cavernous space of the O2 from a de-industrial shed into a space of light and wonder.

That said, this isn’t a show that panders only to the greatest hits, though there are many, including Domino Dancing, Always on My Mind and I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing. There was a significant proportion of favourite album tracks and more recent, but perhaps less widely known singles. I’m Not Scared is a seldom performed track that was well positioned as a reminder of the song writing strengths of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. The surprise of the set was Invisible, from last years album Elysium, which has a less beat-driven intimacy, but really opened up the arena in a more expansive gesture.

While it shouldn’t work, Vocal, which will be the Pet Shop Boys new single, really caught the mood of the whole performance, which is difficult to do when it is the final track of the encore. An homage to youthful discovery, Vocal charts the intersection of a naive hedonistic enjoyment of music and dancing, and the more mental rationalisation and intellectualisation that trys to explain what it’s about. Vocal was a clear favourite, despite the vast majority of the audience never having heard it before.

If you get the chance to see Electric at some point over the summer you will have to travel to Europe to do so. Lets hope that this show is brought back to the UK so we can get a second chance to work out what it was all about.

May 312013
 

Are we spending too much money on ‘official’ arts venues and creating spaces in which only ‘officially sanctioned’ work can take place? I’ve just found out that the Cornerhouse gallery in Manchester is being merged with the Manchester Library Theatre as a “major contribution to the arts in Manchester, the UK and internationally”.

I’m increasingly worried that radical and alternative voices are not going to be heard in the UK, as a more corporate approach is imposed. Is it right that the first question that an artist is asked about their work is how does it enhance the ‘brand’ of a city or venue? This kind of thing is great for the prestige of the city leaders, but there’s always a line drawn that defines the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’. I wonder who the new outsiders are going to be?

May 272013
 

The third day of any music festival is always the tricky day. The initial burst of excitement, eagerness and exuberance have been tempered by late nights, a few too many beers, and a weariness that no matter how good the bands are going to be, you’ve had your fill, and the lift-off is just that little bit harder to achieve. Leicester’s Handmade Festival was well placed to keep the interest levels high by having a strong line-up in venues that felt intimate and distinct. There’s none of the push-and-shove from the festival organisers that big corporate festivals get. By day three of a corporate festival we too often become victims of the grinding-down of corporate sponsorship, gated entry, lunatic marauding teenage cliques, and the requisite army of festival ‘volunteers’ herding people around.

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Pop-Up Cinema Handmade Style

Sunday afternoon saw Leicester bathed in sunshine for once – it’s starting to feel like a rare event. The first stop was the Handmade Cinema at Wygston’s House. This was a gathering of short film enthusiasts, using a venue that is rarely open to the public in Leicester, but which could certainly play a more prominent role in the cultural and creative life of the city. A pop-up cinema is a great idea, and with some curation and introductions to the films, this could become a regular event for sure.

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Silent Devices

The first band I wanted to see was Silent Devices, who have been Leicester based for the last couple of years, and could do with a really big push. There was a lot to enjoy in their short’ish set. Silent Devices are well suited to a longer-form performance style, building-up and drawing-in the listener through carefully developed layers. Lead singer Josh Coyne has a resonant vocal presence that intimates depth and keeps the atmospherics grounded.

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Leicester’s Guild Hall

The Guildhall in Leicester is another venue that proved to be inspired. I doubt it’s hosted so loud an event in years. The grandness of the building gave the performances of The Demons of Ruby Mae and We Three And The Death Rattle a gothic appeal that suited their alt-rock status. Once I was back over at Firebug it was Tall Ships that really lifted me out of my day-three-stupor. Without being bombastic or self-important, Tall Ships managed to engage the Firebug crowd with a set that steadily built around a polyphony secured by some smart on-the-fly sampling. Reality is very cruel, however, and as Tall Ships worked their way to the crescendo of their last track, the power to the PA died. I don’t doubt that Tall Ships made many new fans though.

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Tall Ships

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Sulk

A quick run across to the Cookie Jar and I caught the last fifteen minutes of Sulk. Sulk are a bit like stepping-back into a Madchester/Shoe-Gazer moment. Watching this London-based band, with a keen sense of thrashing guitars and miserabalism, was right up my street. A few more people at the venue would have given Sulk a chance to shine a little more. My final stint was back at Firebug and Dutch Uncles, who gave a warmly received set in a packed, hot and sweaty venue.

So I’ve enjoyed spending the last three days wandering about Leicester. hearing new bands, seeing some old venues that really open up the city in an affirmative way. This is the second city-festival I’ve been to in the same month, and I don’t doubt the potential that city festivals like these have to become regular events that encourage grass-roots participation. Sound City in Liverpool ran Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I wonder if a future Handmade Festival would benefit from trying the same trick? Are there any more under-used venues in Leicester that could be opened-up? Are there opportunities for parallel festivals to be grouped around the main music festival? Can we make more of the photography and creative arts that take place in Leicester? Can the strong spoken-word and literary communities in Leicester find a place and be part of the events? The potential for alt-cinema, alt.music, alt.culture alt.art, or indeed alt.anything, could be the steps that Leicester needs to take in order to win a higher profile for it’s culture and arts?