Thursday 30 October 2014

Midge Ure: Return to The Arc

Midge Ure
The Arc, Stockton
The weekend brought a relatively swift return to The Arc for Midge Ure, following up his sold-out show of last year. Arriving on stage with a cry of ''It's good to be back!'' he launched into his latest solo acoustic set to the delight of a particularly animated audience.

There was the occasional piece of banter - quite often at the expense of X-Factor - and a little bit of shouting out from the audience too. ''****ing **ll!'' bellowed one vocal local yokel in praise after Midge hit the heights with Call of the Wild. ''Are you a critic?'' he replied; ''I have reviews like that...''

Anecdotes punctuated the songs, such as the one about the German interviewer who asked, ''Who is Lorraine?'' in reference to mis-heard lyrics from Fade to Grey (''Feel Lorraine'' instead ''Feel the rain...''). ''I couldn't imagine Steve Strange singing that...''

Midge invited everyone to join in with singing The Voice - ''but only if you know it'' - and later on he repeated the invitation for Hymn. Elsewhere he jokingly bemoaned the fact that despite ''desperately, desperately trying not to write love songs'' he often somehow ends doing so anyway. This was a precursor to the double hit of Light in Your Eyes and Guns and Arrows. 

It wasn't all about love, of course. It's interesting to note how the (unlikely) Ultravox song All Fall Down appears to be even more relevant now than it was back in the 1980s. There was even a very rare outing for Do They Know It's Christmas?, albeit a little early in the year.

Set List

Waiting Days
Call of the Wild
Brilliant (dedicated to Jack Bruce, who died on this day)
Fade to Grey
No Regrets
The Voice
Light in Your Eyes
Guns and Arrows
Man of the World
All Fall Down
One Small Day
Dancing With Tears in My Eyes
Love's Great Adventure
If I Was


Cold Cold Heart
Do They Know It's Christmas?

If anything, the set list - strong as it was, with it's mix of classic Ultravox, solo and cover songs - was a shade on the safe side, with just two songs from the new album, Fragile (the title track and Become) and even then they had to stick very close to Vienna in the set list, almost as if they were afraid to stand up alone. We could have done with more of the new songs, especially as Fragile has been in the pipeline for 12 years.
Come back soon, Midge!

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Yes2Chess Promotional Video

Towards the end of the summer term we took part in a day of filming at Brambles Primary Academy to promote Barclaycard's Yes2Chess project.

The short promotional video is now available for your perusal.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

The Beat

The Beat
The Arc, Stockton
The Arc pulled off another notable coup when they booked The Beat. It led to a particularly memorable evening with a real feel good factor.
The Style Selektors
First, we had The Style Selektors to warm up the audience, as they did at the ill-fated From The Jam concert earlier in the month. They ran through a lively set of Ska classics from the likes of The Specials, augmented this time by some from the Jam themselves.

The Style Selektors were energetic enough, but once The Beat burst on to the stage the tempo immediately cranked up several notches higher - and it stayed there approximately 100 minutes more.
Ranking Roger and Ranking Jnr never stopped dancing and running - from one side of the stage to the other, crossing in the middle, as they were both still singing.
The floor was absolutely packed with people, all dancing away. I've never seen The Arc so full and everyone was having a great time. Ranking Roger repeatedly stressed the importance of having a good time and he was definitely leading by example.

I'd definitely like to see The Beat again. In fact it's a case of the sooner, the better. What a fabulous, uplifting evening!

Monday 27 October 2014

Jack The Ripper

Jack The Ripper
A 21st Century Investigation
Middlesbrough Theatre

Trevor Marriott's talk on Jack The Ripper proved gorily instructive. The former murder squad detective has been investigating the infamous case of the Whitechapel murders since 2002 and he presented his findings and theories over the course of a two-hour talk. Numerous gruesome images were displayed on the big screen as Trevor guided the audience through the shocking series of murders.
Without wishing to give too much away, it is safe to say that many of the established ''facts'' can now be discarded as false trails and it is clear numerous of the well-known suspects can now be dismissed from the case. Even the stereotypical image of the Ripper - hat, cloak, black bag - is based on a falsehood (such a well dressed gent would have been mugged repeatedly on Whitechapel) and many other aspects of the case which have lodged in the public consciousness are equally fictitious. Indeed, separating fact from fiction was the great strength of the presentation and I found the whole thing very revealing.

Although the theatre was not full, the audience was certainly more sizeable than the one which recently greeted both Sikes and Nancy and Dr Feelgood. Maybe, down Middlesbrough way, Jack The Ripper is simply more popular than Dickens and rhythm and blues.

Please head for Trevor's official website for further details and tour dates.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman
The Sage, Gateshead
Seth Lakeman put on a great show at The Sage as part of his Word of Mouth tour. The venue was packed out and it was a very appreciative audience that met Seth and his very hard working band.

The evening started very well with Kim Churchill playing a very strong set in his role of support act. He somehow managed to play guitar, drums and harmonica - and sing - all at the same time. The queue to meet him during the interval stretched all the way down the corridor - easily the longest I have seen for a support act. He would return to join in with Seth and the band later in the evening.

It's the first time I've seen Seth, although I've seen his brother Sam several times with Cara Dillon.

The core of this evening's set list came, naturally, from Word of Mouth, which was released earlier this year to great acclaim. It's a strong album and the songs came across very well indeed on the live stage.

Most of the set was played at a frantic pace, building to a double-header hoedown for the finale, which had most of the audience on their feet and dancing the night away.

This was a very impressive and highly energetic show. Seth Lakeman has now been added to the ''must see again'' list.


Saturday 25 October 2014

Chess Reviews 248: ChessBase Magazine 162

ChessBase Magazine 162
The jubilant Chinese players grace the cover of the latest issue if ChessBase Magazine. Their smashing success at the Tromso Olympiad was well deserved and Russia, the pre-tournament favourites, even managed to finish out of the medals leaving Hungary and India to take silver and bronze respectively.

The Olympiad receives excellent coverage here, with a plethora of annotated games and video presentations. The most enjoyable of the latter comes in the form of Daniel King's 'Game of the Day' features.

As usual, I recommend reading Rainer Knaak's editorial piece. The theme this time is an investigation into the possible reasons Russia - fronted by former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and still the top seeds - fail to win Olympiads. Rainer examines five percipient key points. It's a reminder that ChessBase Magazine doesn't just offer important, topical games - the written word is worthy of scrutiny too.

The other major highlight in this issue is the coverage of the Sinquefeld Cup, won by Fabio Caruana ahead of a stellar field that included Magnus Carlsen. This was a fabulous success for Caruana. Arguments will rage over the status of the event, from the historical point if view. Was it the strongest tournament ever played? Traditionalists will be appalled at the notion and will doubtless cite counter-evidence based on AVRO 1938 and other such classic events.I doubt Caruana will mind either way.

The ''secret'' of Caruana's success was simply to play moves of a consistently high level throughout every one of his games. His efficiency and desire to invariably head for wins instead of settling for draws will bring the inevitable comparisons to Fischer. Playing through the games via ChessBase, when one can easily summon numerous engines to world alongside the magazine's annotations, brings out the finer detail of the games. It's easy to explore alternative variations to see what could have happened. The engines usually refute - brutally - virtually every variation one tries, but the assessments also make one realise just how strong the world's elite players are, as the majority of their moves still skip through the engines unchallenged.

Here's a interesting sequence from one of the tournament's key games.

Caruana vs. Aronian
Is Black's e5-pawn really weak? The direct attempt to prove it so with 29 Nxe5 Nxe5 30 Qxe5 fails to impress after 30 ...Rxf2, uncovering an attack on White's queen by the bishop on g7. Caruana plays an altogether more impressive sequence.

29 Na5! Nxa5 30 Nxe5! Nb7 31 Nxg6! when he was able to start pushing his e- and f-pawns, with a building advantage (1-0, 50).

So, what of the World Champion? It was interesting to see Caruana exploit Carlsen's errors, starting with being able to achieve rapid equality as Black against the Bishop's Opening. Later on, the game was decided when Carlsen lost his footing under pressure.

Carlsen vs. Caruana
31 Nh2? (31 Qh2 looks more passive and compliant, but it should last longer) 31 ...Rd1+ 32 Rxd1 Qxd1+ 33 Nf1 Qxf1+ 34 Kh2 Qg1+ 0-1 (due to the potentially dangerous e-pawn falling after 35 Kh3 Qe3+). As Carlsen didn't have the most successful Olympiad either, it all should encourage Anand in their forthcoming title match.

In amongst all of the regular ChessBase features there's the usual amount of thought provoking opening surveys. This time they cover the following:

Stohl: English Flohr-Mikenas Variation
Rotstein: Old Indian with 2.c4 d6 3.Nc3 Bf5 4.Nf3 c6
Antic: Benoni Fianchetto Variation 11.Bf4
Havasi: Modern Defence 4.f4 a6 5.Nf3
Krasenkow: Closed Sicilian
Postny: Sicilian Paulsen 6.Nxc6
Szabo: Sicilian English Attack
Müller: King’s Gambit à la Quaade – Part 1
Breder: Ruy Lopez Four Knights 4...Nd4
Kuzmin: Queen’s Pawn Game 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bf4
Marin: Nimzo-Indian 4.e3

Three surveys are presented as videos, namely:

Ftacnik on the Anti-Grünfeld: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.f3
Marin on Bird's Opening:1.b3 Nf6 2.Bb2 e6 3.e3 b6 4.f4 Bb7 5.Nf3 Be7 6.Bd3 c5 7.0-0
Shirov on the Reti: 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Bg4 3.Bg2 Nd7

ChessBase Magazine 162 keeps up the high standard we have come to expect. I'm already looking forward to the next issue, which should dissect the Carlsen vs. Anand title match in admirable fashion.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Yes2Chess: New School Year, New Training

Teesside Barclaycard Training Day

The first Teesside Barclaycard training day of the new school year had two aims: preparing the new intake of volunteers for their first expeditions to our local schools and extending the chess knowledge of two groups featuring last year's volunteers.

The Yes2Chess project - which made an excellent start last year and it shows every sign of building on its considerable success in 2014-5 - has two prongs: volunteers, working alongside CSC tutors, and the Yes2Chess online tournament.

I have taken over the Teesside training role from John Foley this year. John is a very hard act to follow, which is partly why my training day was very different to his in many ways!

The two morning groups brought together the new volunteers. We ran through the history of the Chess in Schools and Communities project, explained about Yes2Chess and introduced various chess pieces via the traditional mini-games. 
We also spent some time explaining how things work (and why they sometimes don't) in schools, starting with the arrival and search for the external school bell.

The afternoon sessions offered extra tuition to last year's volunteers, including some simple checkmates (both as group exercises and on individual worksheets) and tips on how to finish off games when one has a large advantage.

Matt Allan - Champion of Chess for Teesside Barclaycard - hosted the event and took part in one of the afternoon sessions. Here he is mastering the King, Queen and Rook vs. King checkmate, with the pressure from the onlookers keeping him full focused on the task in hand.
All of the volunteers were very keen students and I'm looking forward to working with them again very soon.

Here are a few more images from a busy day of chess.
Kate finds the checkmate!
Kevin finds another checkmate!
Hard at work on chess puzzles.
For further information on Chess in Schools and Communities, please head for the official website.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Bridie Jackson and The Arbour: Aboard the Endeavour

Bridie Jackson and The Arbour
HMS Bark Endeavour, Stockton-on-Tees 
17 October 2014
As Bridie Jackson and The Arbour continue to become more popular and more appreciated - as evidenced by last year's triumphant Glastonbury appearance and their almost constant touring ever since - there are two things they definitely not forgotten: their propensity for innovation (remember the Banoffee Pie and Walled Garden events?) and an appreciation of their firm North Eastern roots. The pairing of these admirable characteristics brought to Stockton's riverside towards the end of last week.
HMS Bark Endeavour
It had been some time since I last boarded HMS Bark Endeavour. On that occasion, over a decade ago, it was for a much different event.
Previously, on the Endeavour...
In a way, it is typical of Bridie and The Arbour to play there; a mysterious show aboard a famous ship on a very dark Autumnal evening. Space is tight below decks. A small number of tables and chairs, dotted around the room, were unable to cater for the seating arrangements of the entire audience, some of whom bunched together on uncomfortable benches and the rest of whom chose either to sit on the lower deck or dimply stand. Support came in the form of folk trio Little Mirrors, who are soon to start work on their debut album.
Little Mirrors
Bridie and The Arbour were, of course, fabulous. There is still nothing at all to match their unique music (see how other reviewers scrabble around to liken them to unlikely candidates; sometimes a natural force denies the prison of the pigeonhole). 
The darkness of The Arbour's music is at odds with their genial personalities. Musicianship and vocals are never below the exemplary mark. The famous bell plates feature less in the repertoire than used to be the case, but the effect is still as strong and unusual when they do make an appearance. I felt genuinely honored when, towards the end of the set, Bridie dedicated the famous Scarecrow song to me.
The strong set list drew heavily from the New Skin album, with a couple of covers to add the element of surprise.

Set List

Please Forgive Me My Human Ways
Diminutive Man
Fearless (Pink Floyd cover)
Cry Me A River (Justin Timberlake cover) 
Sandgate Dandling Song (traditional) 
All You Love Is All You Are
We Talked Again
One Winter Evening

There was just one thing wrong with the evening - and it's a growing problem at concerts and other events. It seems that numerous people simply cannot differentiate between being at home watching TV and being at a live event. Here, as at so many places, a small minority conspired to spike the enjoyment of the majority with endless, inane chatter. Perhaps a variety of alcohol had loosened tongues (the bar remained active throughout the evening), or perhaps there were other reasons, other spectra. I'm starting to think venues need to take a proactive approach to the growing noise problem although it seems unlikely they will.

Here are a few more photos from the evening with which to conclude this review.

Head for the official Bridie Jackson and The Arbour website for further news and tour updates.

Monday 20 October 2014

Devon Allman: Ragged and Dirty

Ragged and Dirty
Devon Allman

Devon's 2013 Ruf Records debut - Turquoise - was featured here back in February 2013. Since then, he has been very active as part of the Royal Southern Brotherhood supergroup and he freely admits the experience has raised his game.

''I have to say that playing with Royal took my career to a new level. It's given me more confidence and a new found love for the music. I'm delighted that there's a new shot of fire in my music.''

Track List

Half The Truth
Can't Lose 'em All
I'll Be Around
Midnight Lake Michigan
Ten Million Slaves
Blackjack Heartattack
Back To You
Times Have Changed
Ragged and Dirty
Leave The City

Ragged and Dirty offers a wide range of styles under the umbrella of the blues. Half The Truth kicks things off with a great riff and a hard rocking sound and elsewhere there's ballads (such as Leavin'), soul (I'll Be Around), funk (Traveling), a protest song - albeit a fast-paced one rather than an acoustic warble (Ten Million Slaves) and even an instrumental (the atmospheric Midnight Lake Michigan - at nine minutes and 31 seconds, the longest track on the album).

Turquoise was a fine album, but Ragged and Dirty has moved things up a stage or two further for Devon Allman. The range of styles, the musicianship and the gravelly, bluesy voice see him firing on all cylinders.

For all things Devon Allman, head for his official website.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Elaine Paige

Elaine Paige
50th Anniversary Farewell Tour
The Sage, Gateshead
I first saw Elaine Paige back in 2009 and it looks like this week's show at The Sage was the last chance I'll ever get to see her again.

The sense of looking back on a career spanning half a century was enhanced by numerous photographs and video clips being displayed on a large backdrop screen and by various anecdotes from Elaine herself.
There were costume changes along the way too as she sang her way through 50 years of career highlights.  Icelandic tenor Gardar Thor Cortes made a number of guest appearances during the show - half of them as duets, half of them to let Elaine leave the stage to rest and change.

The show started promptly at 7.30 p.m., without support, and was in two parts (each one lasting approximately an hour). We were treated to fabulous renditions of a host of old favourites, such as Memory and I Know Him So Well.

The Sage was packed to the rafters for this very special occasion. Here are a few photos from a memorable evening.