Saturday, August 1, 2020

Concert Live Streams - Oh How Fickle I Can Be!

In these times of no live music being possible due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it has been interesting to explore the various alternatives that have emerged.

Following the very late cancellation of this year's Country2Country festival in March, my friend and I made the decision to still travel down to London as planned. It was a good chance for us to have a proper catch up and an opportunity to have a weekend away in the capital. We spent some time pottering around Greenwich and had a look at the Cutty Sark, something I'd wanted to do for a while.

We got talking and both agreed that it would be good if we could still see some live music before the weekend was out. It was fairly obvious at this point what was about to happen with regards to the country having to go into lockdown.

I spotted a gig advertised at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham on the Sunday evening, so we made the decision to leave London earlier than planned and drove back up to Brum. The Magpies were a female folk group I'd heard promising things about and they did not disappoint. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gig and it turned out to be my final gig before the lockdown commenced at the end of March.

The Magpies - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham
15th March, 2020

It became apparent to me quite quickly that live music would not be an option for quite some time. This obviously caused great concern to many artists across the world, for whom playing live music provides a massive percentage of their overall income. Alternatives had to be explored.

One such alternative that emerged was that of the internet live stream. Using various platforms including Facebook and Instagram, artists could play live in real time and fans from across the world could tune in and watch. When I first discovered these streams, I thought they were brilliant. It felt like in the absence of live music and gigs, this was the best option. I tried my best to keep up with watching all the streams that my favourite artists put on. Facebook was my stream platform of choice. The main reason for this was that most of the streams on there could be watched back at a later date. This was particularly useful as a lot of the streams from American artists were broadcast at times of the day that were not always UK-friendly.

As the popularity of these streams quickly grew, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with all of them. Throughout the pandemic I have continued working full time and I just don't have the six or seven hours spare each day to watch internet live streams, as much as I would like to! I began to pick and choose more carefully the streams that I watched. Artists began to use virtual tip jars whereby fans watching the streams could donate money. This is something I have no issue with whatsoever - artists have a living to make in these strange times, just the same as the rest of us do. I have supported a few of the artists in this way and I have also bought some merchandise directly from artists. This was in the hope that by doing this I am maximising the amount that the artists receive, as opposed to buying from somewhere like Amazon.

After a while, I began to get a little bored with the live streams. The interaction between the fans and the artists just wasn't there. Comments could be posted on the live streams but mostly the artist wouldn't see them. Rightly, they were too busy concentrating on playing as the comments whizzed past on the screen at some speed. Obviously the performances were live but at times it didn't feel all that different from watching videos on Youtube. The sound and video quality was also very varied. With the sheer quantity of streams available, an iPhone stream just didn't cut it any more. It is probably an exaggeration, but it also felt like some artists were doing streams nearly every day. Less is definitely more. Always leave them wanting more!

I began to feel restless again - I needed something more. Something better. I was browsing a Country music group on Facebook one day and spotted an advert from a site called CES Virtual Shows for a live show featuring the group Steel Blossoms. They are a group I have liked for a while now. In fact I was looking forward to seeing them earlier this year in Birmingham before it was postponed until next year. The show was advertised as a free interactive concert on Zoom, very different to the other internet live streams out there. My interest was well and truly piqued!

Steel Blossoms - CES Virtual Shows Live Zoom Concert
12th June, 2020

Immediately these shows felt just so much more fun. Attendee numbers are kept deliberately low and it is so much fun getting to chat to the artists in between songs. There is also a chance to speak to the other music fans before the artists start to perform. This feels like a real gig! There is also the very real bonus of sitting in comfort on a sofa, having access to a clean toilet and best of all there is no queue at the bar! 

CES do a great job of finding a wide range of different artists, each gig is enjoyable in its own way. There is a chance to ask the artist questions between songs and this is very interesting and I've found out a lot more about the music industry.

Caitlin Cannon - CES Virtual Shows Live Zoom Concert
27th June, 2020

Amid the absolute glut of web streams out there, it is has been such a breath of fresh air to find something very different. It has also shown how fickle I can be. I was so happy initially to have the web streams but I quickly moved on when something better came along. I don't apologise for this, we all have to make the best of the situation. I don't really think that anyone knows how long it will be until we can get to gigs in person again. Gigs are one of my main social outlets so the web streams and now these Zoom shows have kept me going and I hope they will continue to do so!

If live streams are the gravy. CES Virtual Shows on Zoom are where the meat is. The link to their site is below, check them out!

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Eva Cassidy - An Omission Rectified...

I was pleased recently to correct a glaring gap in my music collection. 

Before I get onto that, please indulge me whilst I drift off on something of a tangent.

I’m a fan of Doctor Who and in 2010 during the Matt Smith era, there was an episode where they travelled back in time and met the famous Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh. There is a beautiful scene towards the end of that episode where they bring van Gogh forward in time in the TARDIS to Paris. They take van Gogh to the Musée d'Orsay to show just how influential and important his work was and continues to be, recognition that sadly he did not receive during his troubled lifetime. It’s one of my favourite Doctor Who scenes, with the wonderful portrayal of van Gogh by Scottish actor Tony Curran. There is also a brilliant and uncredited guest appearance from Bill Nighy.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “This is all well and good, but what the heck does Doctor Who have to do with Eva Cassidy?”

I mention this as it seems to me that there are parallels with the life and career of Eva Cassidy. Outside of the north eastern states of the USA, she was largely unknown. She tragically passed away at the age of just 33, relatively unheard of in the music world.

As fine a singer as she undoubtedly was, she seemed ill at ease performing in front of a big audience. I get the impression that she just loved to sing but didn’t seek out fame and the pressure that this would have brought.

I am a big fan of Canadian country artist Whitney Rose, who summed up a similar attitude with the following message on Twitter this year:

A compilation album called “Songbird” was released in 1998, but it was two of her songs being played on BBC Radio 2 a couple of years later which really brought the music of Eva Cassidy to a much wider audience. On the recommendation of his producer Paul Walters, breakfast show presenter Terry Wogan played the music of this obscure American singer and the reaction was incredible. A video of Cassidy singing “Over The Rainbow” became the most requested video ever shown on Top of The Pops 2. On 18th March, 2001, “Songbird” went to Number 1 in the UK Album Chart.

Eva Cassidy’s music is timeless - it is a great pity that she was not more celebrated during her lifetime.  We are so lucky, however, that we have these recordings and can celebrate the legacy that she has left behind. I would not hesitate to tell anyone that she had one of the best singing voices of all time.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

My Favourite New Artists of 2020

Just to clarify from the start, these are not necessarily new artists. They are, however, new artists to me. 

I discover new artists in a variety of different ways. The excellent "Bob Harris Country" show on BBC Radio 2 has provided many of these over the years. Bob is something of a legend in the music industry and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of many different genres. He plays a fair mix of both traditional country and the more modern stuff. He is now most associated with country music and has an unerring knack of playing artists that I've never heard of, but end up really liking. He has done it time and time again.

I am also a regular user of Spotify and I've picked up several new favourites from playlists on there.

My newest source is the superb "Voice of a Woman" radio show which is on every Sunday at 6pm on Claremorris Community radio, a local community-run station in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland. The host Linda plays an hour of female artists every week, and I have found many artists that I like from listening to this show.

Several new artists have also come to my attention from reading the Saving Country Music website. This is a site that focuses more on the traditional side of country and publishes articles, album reviews and other information on country music. 

The other main source of artist recommendations is my friends. If I hear a song or an artist that I think a friend will like, I suggest that they give it a listen. My friends do the same for me. Everyone has different tastes when it comes to music and I feel like I know what my friends like to listen to. I take this seriously, only suggesting artists that I think they will really enjoy. Modern life is busy enough as it is, and I don't want to waste someone's time listening to music that they are not going to like.

One result of the Coronavirus lockdown has been that I have had more time to listen to music. Below I present (in no particular order other than being alphabetical) my favourite new artist discoveries of 2020 so far. I have also created a Spotify playlist featuring a couple of songs from each of these artists. Please see this link at the bottom of this page. I hope you enjoy it!

Caitlin Cannon

Ruthie Collins

Kree Harrison

Lauren Mascitti

Craig Morgan

Lorraine Nash

Zephaniah OHora

Katie Pruitt

Allie Sealey

Tessy Lou Williams

Of the ten artists in this list, 80% are female and all ten artists lean towards being more traditional. This merely reflects where my listening tastes sit at present. 

Please visit the below links for more information..

Finally, as promised here is the Spotify playlist featuring a couple of songs from each of these artists. Enjoy!

My favourite new artists of 2020

Friday, June 19, 2020

Concert Venues - Post #2 - "Sweat Box" venues

In the second of a short series of blog posts, I am going to continue to examine my thoughts on the different types of concert venues. 

Sweat Box Venues

There are several medium-sized, standing up indoor venues in the UK. A lot of these, but not all, currently come under the O2 branding - O2 Academy, O2 Institute, and so on. 

As with all the posts in this series, I am basing the opinions purely on the venues I have visited and my own experiences at these places. With just a couple of exceptions, I have found these venues to be less than ideal for taking in live music. I can't help but feel that the managers of some of these venues concentrate too much on extracting as much money as they can from their customers. This is to the detriment of actually providing a decent customer experience. 

Wildwood Kin - O2 Institute 3, Birmingham
7th November, 2019

In the depths of winter, I have been to concerts at some of these venues and it has been far too hot, even in just a t-shirt and jeans. Such is the number of people that pack into these venues, heating is rarely needed even in cold weather. The cynic in me wonders if it is just a ploy to sell more overpriced drinks - a similar tactic to pubs that provide salty peanuts on the bar. 

As someone who suffers from an undiagnosed, mild form of agoraphobia, I struggle sometimes in tightly-packed crowds of people. This doesn't result in any kind of panic attack as such, more a feeling of being distinctly uncomfortable. It's difficult to describe accurately. I'm positive that venues have capacity limits for health and safety reasons but it feels to me sometimes like not all venues abide by these rules. I remember last year at a gig at one of the O2 venues in Birmingham, I was stood right in the middle of the floor as a very large crowd anxiously awaited the arrival of the headline act. I noted the number of people in the venue, counted the number of emergency exits and concluded that it would be very difficult should the need arise to evacuate the place quickly. 

Earlier in this post I touched on the overpriced drinks. The bars inside the venues remain open throughout the entire night, including whilst the artists are performing on the stage. I'm going to write a post specifically about issues that arise from this so I don't want to go into it in too much detail here. It does cause problems though but I don't see venues changing this as it simply generates much revenue for the owners of the venues.

It's not all bad though. I have attended some splendid gigs at this type of venue. It's just that these tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. One excellent gig that comes to mind was at the Arts Club Loft in Liverpool in October 2019. I saw Striking Matches, supported by Tenille Townes, and it was superb. The crowd was really into the music of both artists and the bar was in a separate area at the back. This really cut down the extraneous noise that tends to emanate from the bar area at gigs.

Tenille Townes - Arts Club Loft, Liverpool
27th October, 2019

To sum up, these are generally not my favourite concert venues. They serve a purpose - they host live music but do not always focus on their customers. Obviously we have to go to the places where the tours visit, but I have travelled out of my way in the past to go to a nicer venue. I will continue to do this when we are able to see live music again in a safe way. Hopefully it will be soon.

Photos by myself, Chris Swinden

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Concert Venues - Post #1 - Large Arenas

Concert venues come in all shapes and sizes. Here in the UK, we have several massive arenas holding many thousands of people. There are also plenty of quirky, intimate venues which provide a somewhat different concert going experience. In a short series of blog posts, I am going to explore my thoughts on the different types of settings in which we can enjoy live music.

Large arenas

The very biggest acts are able to sell out the largest arenas our country has to offer, sometimes over multiple days. These days the tickets for some of these gigs are expensive and yet it can still be so difficult getting a ticket, such is often the demand to see the most popular artists. I recall trying to get a ticket to the Queen and Adam Lambert tour back in 2017 and ended up with a ticket two rows from the back. That was achieved by doing the stereotypical frantic F5 pressing on the website ticket page as soon as they went on sale.

Almost without exception, the large arenas are multi purpose and they host a wide variety of events, only one of which might be live music. More often than not, in my experience it hasn't been great from an audio and visual point of view. Unless you're lucky enough to get a ticket close to the stage, I've quite often ended up having to squint and watch the artist on a video screen. If the arena does not have a video screen then it becomes more of a listening experience, still enjoyable but I do like to be able to see the artist performing as well as hear them.

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Wembley Arena, London
1st February, 2020

I’m no sound expert at all and I appreciate how difficult a job it must be for the engineers at a large venue, especially as each artist will have different setups, bands and equipment. It must be a very tricky job for them to get it exactly right with such a wide range of different performers. This is especially the case at a festival like County to Country at the O2 Arena in London, where there are multiple artists on the same stage in the space of a few hours. The sound quality can be very variable, but this is not just restricted to one venue. I have attended amongst others Manchester Arena, Birmingham Arena, O2 Arena and Wembley Arena and they have all had their issues.

I have made peace with the fact that if I want to see the big acts, inflated prices and less than perfect sound and sight of the artists will be something I will have to deal with. From a financial and logistical point of view, why would an artist play in a 1,000 capacity theatre when they could be performing in front of 20,000 people over several evenings?

This post may come across as somewhat negative and, as a whole, I don’t want it to come across that way. After all, my top two gigs of all time – Chris Stapleton and Ashley McBryde – were both in the O2 Arena, London.

Chris Stapleton - Country to Country Festival - O2 Arena, London
10th March, 2019

I do fear that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it may be some time before large arena gigs are possible.

Photos by myself, Chris Swinden

Monday, June 1, 2020

My Favourite Singing Voice Of All Time

I could talk about music for hours. I make no apologies for this. When I'm with like minded friends, now and again the obvious questions do come up for debate over a pint or two. Topics including best band, favourite ever concert, nicest live venue, and many more. There is one that requires very little thought on my part - favourite singing voice of all time.

As a child, my parents inexplicably allowed me to play with some of their records. One in particular that piqued my interest had a brown cover with gold writing on it. Using the hifi system in our house, I figured out a way to transfer what was on the record to a cassette tape. Playing this tape on my Sony Walkman kept me occupied during many 90 minute trips from Cheshire to West Yorkshire to see my grandparents in the early 1990s.

My parents and I don't share very many favourite artists but one very glorious exception to that rule is The Carpenters. I remember my Dad saying to me, "With all the great singers, you can hear every word". I think that it was a comment about music in general, but it very much applies to the voice of Karen Carpenter.

The majority of my music listening nowadays revolves around female artists and singer-songwriters. There are many that are amazingly talented but for me, none come close to the voice of Karen Carpenter. The purity, clarity and pained beauty in her voice is for me what sets her apart from so many others. She had a relatively soft voice, not powerful in volume but it was so strong in terms of conveying raw emotion. All this from someone who I suspect might have been happier being behind a drum kit, chipping in with some backing vocals now and again.

Sir Elton John described Karen as having, "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime”. British artist Rumer has been said to have a singing voice reminiscent of Karen and, having listened to several of her songs, I can definitely detect a likeness. I have been planning to buy a ticket to see Rumer live in Birmingham, a concert which has now been rescheduled for March 2021.

Karen's tragic passing at the age of just 32 came in the early part of 1983, roughly eighteen months before I was born. From a purely selfish point of view, this denied me the chance to ever see Karen singing live. Interestingly, I will never be able to see live any of my three favourite voices of all time. Elvis Presley died in 1977, Karen in 1983 and I was only 7 when Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991. Perhaps this is part of the allure? I can listen to albums and watch videos as much as I like, but to be in the presence of them performing is only ever going to be something that is in my imagination.

Karen Carpenter image:By Billboard Publications Inc (now owned by Eldridge Industries)(Life time: Published before 1978 without a copyright notice) - Original publication: Billboard MagazineImmediate source: Special Section page 24, Public Domain,