Monday 31 March 2014

Further Reading

My reviews of Tactics Time by Tim Brennan and Anthea Carson (New in Chess) and Finding Chess Jewels by Michal Krasenkow (Everyman Chess) are included in the latest issue of CHESS Magazine (April 2014).

Ordering details are available here.

Friday 28 March 2014

The Proof: 100% The Proof

100% The Proof
The Proof
The Proof are a group of bluesmen with plenty of miles on the clock and numerous other bands on their respective CVs. Yet they have only been together since late 2012, when Roger Cotton teamed up with long time musical collaborator Paul Cox. The result is a debut album full of no-nonsense blues that has already gathered a plethora of five-star reviews.

Track List

I Got The Proof
Feel So Bad
Hard Road
Cold Cold Feeling/Since I've Been Loving You
Until The Well Runs Dry
Dangerous Man
Same Old Blues
Why Me
Can't Find My Way Home
Are You Made Of Gold
Some Kinda Wonderful

In addition to Cotton and Cox, The Proof have an impressive list of personnel: Mike Summerland (guitars - formerly of Blodwyn Pig and Georgie Fame's bands); Nigel Hardy (bass - credits include the work of Robert Palmer, Paul Jones and Phil Guy); Peter Stroud (drums - formerly with Mike Vernon), plus guest guitarists Micky Moody (Whitesnake), Snowy White (Thin Lizzy) and Charlie Fabert. See what I mean about their musical CVs?

I Got The Proof sets the scene, with it's persistent blues riffs and Paul Cox's tailor-made bluesy voice. Other stand outs are Why Me and Some Kinda Wonderful, both of which see the band really step on the gas on rock it out.

This is a strong album which blues fans should definitely give a try. I imagine The Proof are even better live, so watch out for their tour dates.

Find out more about The Proof on their official website.

Thursday 27 March 2014

The Riotous Brothers: The Tree

The Tree
The Riotous Brothers
A burst of guitar, a crash of the drums and The Riotous Brothers hit the ground running on Now More Than Ever, the pacy opener of their third album.

Featuring 10 original songs - with the writing duties shared by Mash Sonnet and Paul Long - The Tree embraces several offshoots from the solid trunk of the blues genre.

Track List

Now More Than Ever
Honey Not Vinegar
Me And You
Second Time Around
Something's Got To Change
Memory Of Our Love
Proving Too Hard
I Wanna Know

The first two songs sit firmly on the blues rock branch of the tree. The direction then shifts to the slower blues of Me And You, which is one of of the album's highlights. It's already doing well when special guest Paul Jones pitches in with a virtuoso performance on the harmonica, which takes it to another level altogether.

Other highlights include the smouldering Fever the melancholy, moving Something's Got To Change and the excellent Proving Too Hard, all six minutes and 10 seconds of it, which allows the musicianship plenty and time and space to really rock it out and shine.

With catchy guitar riffs well to the fore on each and every song, The Tree is a triumph that gets stronger with each listening.

Follow the news and tour dates over at The Riotous Brothers website.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

100 Mile House: Wait With Me

Wait With Me
100 Mile House
100 Mile House consist of husband and wife duo Peter Stone and Denise MacKay, plus multi-instrumentalist Scott Zubot (violin, viola, mandolin) and Tom Murray on bass. They are an award-winning Canadian folk group who are steadily attracting a wider following around the world.

Wait With Me is their third full-length album.

Track List

Last Call
Wait With Me
Show Me A Sign
Left Unattended
My Love
Just Because
We Built This Road
Breakfast TV
The First Time
Running Back To You

Peter and Denise share the vocal duties, with Peter often taking the lead and Denise joining in with the harmonies, albeit with the occasional role-reversal (on My Love, for example).

There's a good range of styles and tempo over the course of the 13 tracks, with two of them - Left Unattended and Arrival - being short instrumental snippets.

The stand-out tracks are the uptempo numbers, with Last Call and Rosalita being the pick of the bunch.

The vocals offer a very pure sound and the range of instruments impressive. In addition to those listed above, we encounter guitars, piano, banjo, drums and cello, all of which help to fill out the sound, creating a musical glow to match the album cover.

Further details and tour dates can be found over at the 100 Mile House website.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

20 Years Ago Today

They say nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but after exploring the archives here at Marsh Towers we have decided to start an occasional series peering back through the mists of time.

Back when Cleveland was still a county in the North East of England, the Cleveland Schools' Chess Association ('CSCA') organised all of the county's junior chess events. We had numerous tournaments each year (often held at the Southlands Leisure Centre) and we entered various junior county championships. Indeed, at the height of our county activity we had teams in the Under-9, Under-11, Under-11 Girls, Under-13, Under-18 and Under-18 Girls events. Our best girls were particularly active, as they played for the mixed teams too. We may have been the second smallest county in the country, but we liked to do things properly.

County matches were expensive projects. Even back in the late 1980s and early 1990s a bus to the Midlands would cost the CSCA £300+ so it's easy to see how that would add up for the exploits of all of our teams. The CSCA was independent to the Cleveland Chess Association so we had to raise the money to fund all of our trips. Fundraising was a permanent challenge but one which we constantly rose to. Raffles at tournaments, chess discos, sponsored chess events in schools...we even held two sponsored 24-hour chess marathons (more on those another time).

Our most outrageous plan featured an evening of cabaret. All I had to do was find some acts, a venue and a marketing strategy which would convince 100+ people they would have a good time.

The venue problem was solved by chess enthusiast Graham Marshall, who negotiated well on my behalf with the Grand Hotel, Hartlepool.

The cabaret included singer Tessa Dollin (who went on to appear on the X-Factor), rocking duo The Boppas, a comedy turn by my brother Gary and me, and The Two Noels. Actually, Gary and I were the Two Noels as well, so we had two comedy turns, but we kept that quiet until the evening itself so as not to scare off the potential audience.

To drum up an audience, I bombarded all and sundry with advertising literature and carried tickets around with me at all times. The local press even gave us a mention (tucked away in tiny letters on page 26, just under the bit about local people being fined for not having a current TV license and that sort of thing - but a welcome mention nonetheless). Remarkably, just over 100 people had nothing better to do on the evening of 25 March 1994 and we had a sell-out on our hands. Time to increase the rehearsals!

Here are some photos from what proved to be a very memorable evening - one way or another...

The Two Noels were clearly the height of sophistication. Cravat, a copy of The Times and the longest cigarette holder in the whole of Europe.

'It's been a frightfully long time since we last met, Noel.'

'Indeed so, Noel. I have been in the South of France, finishing my latest book. It took me six months, you know.'

'What a frightfully slow reader you are, Noel...'
'But tell me Noel, why the South of France?'

'Well, my doctor did tell me I had to take things quietly.'

'Oh, what a pity, Noel. And you did so like soup.'

An unexpected start to the second half of the show. "Here's a little song dedicated to me, because I wrote it myself.'
'Who wants some more of this?'
How's that for a quick costume change?
The main theme of the second half involved Gary coming onto the stage as various 'members of the audience' as a precursor to a torrent of gags and punnery.
Marvo the Marvellous Memory Man - who has forgotten something important.
A magic trick - smashing the audience volunteer's watch to smithereens with a big hammer.
'What do you think you are doing!?'
'But you said *whispers*...'

'No I did not! I said - would you like to play some Glenn Miller music, in the mood!'

Tessa Dollin - future X-Factor contender
Curtain call. The Boppas are on the right.
Standing just behind me is either
Fintan O'Rourke or Billy Cook.
I know one of them didn't turn up,
but I can't remember which.
We had plans for a sequel the following year, but various factors worked against them reaching fruition.  But I still have a copy of the script and after 20 years I'm sure most people will have forgotten the jokes, so you never know...

Sunday 23 March 2014

Brassed Off

Brassed Off
Darlington Civic Theatre
30 years have passed since the dark days of the miners' strikes back in 1984. Divisive times, indeed; miners, families and whole communities were placed under incredible pressure. The government's 'dash for gas' - a preemptive measure in anticipation of their next round of coldly calculated action - meant they were to squander 200 years worth of gas reserves in a mere 30.

In terms of the theatre, it's hard to imagine how such a grim situation could lead to anything other than a very bitter play. Yet Brassed Off has an undisguised sweet and uplifting side, despite pulling no punches whatsoever.

The story distills the overall troubles of the miners into the singular tale of Grimley Colliery, which acts as a microcosm for the whole 'Coal Not Dole' era. As their lives descend into uncertainty and desperation, the villagers take pride in the one thing they know can still hold onto - the village brass band. Their flagging enthusiasm is lifted when Gloria - formerly a resident of Grimley before 'making something of her life' - returns and provides the missing musical link for the band, offering a catalyst for success. Yet Gloria has a secret, which threatens to split the community even further...

The sweet side of the play is derived through the art of character comedy. When a band member is happy to (secretly!) blow his savings on a new trombone while the bailiffs are removing his furniture, the humour has to be handled very carefully indeed. Brassed Off hits the comedy bullseye repeatedly. Anti-government quips brought spontaneous applause from the sizeable audience on a couple of occasions. People of the North East never forget.

I was intrigued to see how the play would handle the obvious problem; how to enable the cast to replicate an entire brass band? Simple! Bring in one of the authentic local bands, in this case the Durham Miners' Association Brass Band.

Brassed Off is entertainment with a serious message, capable of provoking laughs and deeper thoughts in equal measure. Ultimately, the characters in play have to decide on what really matters in life and in some cases that requires a big shift in their thinking.

It is not for the sensitive, featuring, as it does, robust industrial language and adult themes such as a terminal illness, an attempted suicide (shockingly portrayed) and a brief glimpse of nudity.

The Touring Consortium Theatre Company will be back later in the year with a highly anticipated version of Regeneration, a timely adaptation of Pat Barker's famous trilogy on the Great War.

Saturday 22 March 2014

The Stranglers

The Stranglers
Ruby Anniversary Tour, 1974-2014
O2 Academy, Leeds
The Stranglers rocked the Leeds O2 with a pulsating two-hour set as they continued to power their way through their triumphant Ruby Anniversary tour.

At the start of the tour, JJ Burnel had sounded the battle cry over on the official Stranglers website:

True to his word, The Stranglers played long and loud last night.

Nine Below Zero were there as the opening act and they had everything turned up to 11(+11) too.
They presented a completely different slice of songs from their extensive repertoire than they did just one month ago in Saltburn; this time, the blues was put on ice as the rock side of things was allowed to flex its unfettered muscles.
The set list included storming renditions of Stop Your Naggin', Don't Point Your Finger At The Guitar Man, Three Times Enough, 11+11 and, in a tribute to the terminally ill but eternally inspirational Wilko Johnson, 20 Yards Behind.
Nine Below Zero never fail to entertain. I'm sure they won a few more fans last night.

Half an hour later, The Stranglers burst onto the stage.
Full of energy, they kept up a frantic pace for the full two hours of their set.

Two of the original Stranglers - JJ Burnel (bass and vocals) and Dave Greenfield (keyboards) - were present, but drummer Jet Black was unwell and handed the sticks to Jim McCauley for the evening (not for the first time on this tour; indeed, Jet's performances have been few and far between). Former front man Hugh Cornwell, of course, left the group in 1990; Baz Warne now plays guitar and shares the vocals with JJ Burnel.

The celebratory nature of the tour is emphasised by the set list, which included just about everything one would expect, including No More Heroes, Peaches, Golden Brown, Nice 'N' Sleazy, Duchess and Something Better Change.

Video backdrops displayed numerous photos of the band from across the decades, plus clips from their videos and other images. There was always a lot going on and plenty to see.
It was an impressive gig, played with power and passion. After 40 years of touring and recording, The Stranglers are definitely done yet. They are fully entitled to enjoy laughing as long and as loud as they like.

Here's a few more images with which to finish.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Country To Country

Country To Country
O2 Arena, London
15 March 2014
The C2C festival traditionally features a dazzling array of country music stars over two packed days. I was there for the first day of the festival and very enjoyable it was too.

'Whispering' Bob Harris was on MC duty. Appearing humble and proud, he was clearly delighted to hear the stars say how happy they were to be playing at the festival, and how London was now the 'new home of country music'.
We were treated to four excellent acts, with just a short break in between. It added up to approximately six hours of musical entertainment (not to mention the pop-up acts that had appeared virtually non-stop in the main part of the dome throughout the day).
Martina McBride was first up. She is a class act and we could have done with more than a 45-minute set. In amongst a pick of her own songs, she played a great new version of Suspicious Minds, from her forthcoming covers album.
The surprise package of the evening was undoubtedly Dierks Bentley. His energetic set was a real crowd-pleaser and I'm looking forward to exploring his back catalogue.
I'd originally booked my ticket on the strength of an appearance by the Dixie Chicks. They haven't done a lot together over the last few years so it was good see them back in action.

Set List

The Long Way Around
Truth no.2
Goodbye Earl
Sin Wagon
Cowboy Take Me Away
Wrecking Ball
Lubbock Or Leave It
Ready To Run
Wide Open Spaces
Not Ready To Make Nice
Hopefully there will be some new music from the Dixie Chicks in the not too distant future.

The Zac Brown Band were the headline act and they powered their way through the lengthiest set of the evening - about one hour and three quarters worth - with a determined statement of perception-busting modern country music, encompassing and positively embracing detours into rock and metal.
We were also treated to the world premiere of the video for the new Johnny Cash single, She Used To Love Me A Lot. It looked and sounded great on the big screen.

The countdown has already started towards the 2015 festival...!