I’m So Bored With The USA to If War Should Come

“Some people don’t know how to walk on the pavement these days
Well it’s not that difficult, there’s hardly a whole host of ways”
L’Enfer C’Est Les Autres – Half Man Half Biscuit

IT may not look like it much of the time, but a lot of these posts start with a vague attempt to find a link with the tracks which have popped up on my iPod.

After all, the journey through the songs from A-Z is the supposed theme of the blog in lieu of any actual travelling.

Links can be tenuous, utterly missing (resulting the music being shoehorned in somewhere), a memory triggered by a song or any themes which pop up in the song title.

Which is where we were headed with this entry from The Clash to Public Service Broadcasting.

After all, if you cannot find a subject from song titles involving the USA to the threat of conflict via the ICU, changing someone’s mind, falling from grace with God, Ideology, ideas and, possibly most fittingly, idiots amid recent events, well you are not really trying.

But after feeding a CNN obsession and replanning the post amid unfurling events (long ago retreated into old West Wing episodes as a form of balm), we will go on about a real issue which has been driving me to distraction.

People’s inability to walk properly on a pavement or path.

There is a link to the music – this is the annoyance that crops up while listening to my iPod on my Government-sanctioned daily walks.

Designed to build some semblance of a return to pre-South America fitness (and waistline) and avoid spending my entire waking hours in the front room of my flat, the walks are part of an attempt to cover 1,000 miles on foot during 2021.

Slowly closing an early fall behind schedule, the daily distance will increase in length in line with the days and the walks provide the perfect chance to escape the four walls, get some fresh air and crank up the music in my headphones.

All socially distanced, of course.

At least until other people sharing the path decide the rules or general courtesy do not apply to them.

“Here they come, love’s young dream, arm in arm, approaching me
Now, I’m not looking for your smile, I’m just asking for some single file”
L’Enfer C’Est Les Autres – Half Man Half Biscuit

This is not a new annoyance.

People’s inability to spot and adapt to what is around them while walking never ceases to amaze at the best of times.

Throw in the restrictions of social distancing and it takes on whole new levels of frustration.

And that is before we start on supermarkets.

So in a bid to tackle the big issues of the day, here is the Travel Marmot guide to walking on the pavements – after all, there’s hardly a whole host of ways.

  • You do not have to fill the whole width of the path

Quite happy to stick to the edge of the path – which on icy days around here, risks sliding along the banks of a canal or river – leaving plenty of room for people coming the other way to hug the far side.

If only.

Walked two miles back along a canal towpath on Sunday with a stream of couples and groups coming the other way – just two moved from side by side to single file and one of them did that down the middle of the path, which rather negates the point.

They are the pedestrian version of middle-lane hogs, seemingly worried they might fall off the edge if they move from the centre.

  • Pay attention to what is ahead

One thing about walking is most of us do not go that fast. You do have time to move out of the way rather than plough on regardless or block the path.

  • Stop looking at your phone

This is not just a social distancing measure, my old walk to work – about 200 yards – rarely failed to feature at least one collision or near miss.

Remarkably, it can be even worse at weekends – and was again between lockdowns – as Gloucester Docks appears a hot spot for groups of men (almost exclusively), dressed in black (even more exclusively), staring at screens (often more than one) in search of Pokemon.

Thankfully, Pokemon appear to be obeying lockdown rules.

  • Walking in the road/mud/canal is fine, thank you

After all, you would not want to get those best shoes or white trainers dirty by veering away from the path to give somebody some room.

Your dog can walk in the mud. It is probably happier there than me.

  • That two-metre gap is not for you to fill

Not a walk issue, this one’s from the list of supermarket gripes (seriously, don’t get me started – my frustration in the aisles generally rises with my need to travel. Which is high).

That two-metre gap in the checkout is for social distancing (you might have heard of it) and to let people pass through.

It is not for you to take your place at the front of the queue.

And no, not all of us are polite enough to let you go keep loading your shopping onto the belt.

  • Filming yourself breaking into a government building and posting it on social media is not a good idea

Oops, sorry, wrong list. Probably the same sort of people.

Soundtracking all this mumbling at passing walkers (and it is not always  as quiet as mumbling) has been a fair few highlights in the latest section.

We had one of last year’s best tracks with ICU from Phoebe Bridgers, rewound a few years for some ideas – three versions of Ideas as Opiates by Tears for Fears, courtesy of a bit of lockdown nostalgia downloading, and Idea Track by Idlewild – a regular visitor in Billy Bragg (Ideology) and Idioteque, one of Radiohead’s better outings once they went a bit… well, let’s just say post-OK Computer.

And then we hit the Ifs, which has been a pretty rich seam,

The magnificent If I Can’t Change Your Mind obeyed this blog’s rule of Copper Blue which says anything from Sugar’s debut album has to feature, while The Lemonheads (If I Could Talk I’d Tell You) and Jason Isbell (If It Takes A Lifetime) come close to similar outcomes.

We had some Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God), Wilco (If I Ever Was A Child), Leonard Cohen (If It Be Your Will), Belle & Sebastian (If She Wants Me) and If I Had A Hammer from American Music Club, who also popped up with I’ve Been A Mess.

Which you could say about a lot of people in the last few weeks.

It has taken us round the world, the close on 40 US states, almost round Africa, even closer to a full circuit of South America (although that was supposed to be a complete circle), A to If on my iPod and any number of detours along the way.

Let’s see where it takes us next – once the world expands a bit further beyond my flat.

 

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Best of 2020

Christmas has been a bit different for many people this year, even before the late changes to tiers and coronavirus restrictions.

Certainly the first one partially spent dressed in a sloth onesie for starters (and it was really warm) while there are even decorations up in my flat – the two things may be linked.

And this is the first for many years spent in this country – discounting those in Africa and South America – when have not been working right up to Christmas Eve and heading back into the office within a day or two.

What that means is there has been time to draw breath over the holiday period, to look ahead and back over a difficult year – and time to write the traditional Travel Marmot post on the year’s best music.

The first of two traditional posts – the second, state of the nation article may even be posted on (or near) New Year’s Day – that time has allowed it to take on a different look with top 30 lists of albums and, for the first time, tracks.

They have changed considerably, the relistening which has soundtracked the last few weeks in the home office bumping a few albums up the list and seeing several more tumble.

That reshuffling is likely to continue, particularly in the lower reaches, as albums fail to last the course of time or others receive more attention.

There is one big change this year – boys with guitars which dominated the last couple of years being replaced by a fair few female singer-songwriters at the upper end – although many familiar faces remain.

So here they are, the albums and tracks which soundtracked a year of working from home, an issue which definitely helped shape the upper reaches of these lists.

Albums of the Year

1 Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

“Some serious songwriting chops are enough to leave you wanting more… one to watch”

That was what this list said of Phoebe Bridgers when her debut album Stranger In The Alps was Discovery of the Year in 2017 and she has featured highly every year since – there was even the Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year category last year.

Those serious songwriting chops reached new levels with Punisher, a pretty clear winner of this list.

Despite being completed before the onset of the pandemic, it has a sense of claustrophobia and bleakness which fits the feelings of the last nine months without losing a sense of insight, warmth and even humour which ensures a listen remains an uplifting, fulfilling experience.

There are plenty of layers here which are still being unwrapped after multiple listens and different versions floating around – almost inevitable given her prolific nature – as best witnessed by the tracks on the Copycat Killer EP and slower versions of Kyoto, the upbeat single which she was convinced to speed up to prevent the album being too similarly paced.

One to watch, to listen to repeatedly and to savour.

2 Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

If Punisher has been holding on to top spot from release, Saint Cloud spent much of the year further down this chart before repeated revisiting has seen it rise and rise.

Katie Crutchfield’s previous solo work has always registered as worth a listen without making a huge impact.

But with her fifth album and her first since giving up drinking, she moves away from the indie toward Americana and really finds her voice.

Would work as the perfect soundtrack to an American road trip through wide open spaces, which just bumps that a further few places up the travel wishlist.

3 Drive-By Truckers – The Unravelling/The New OK

If there have been positives of the last four years under Trump’s Presidency, it has been the transformation of Drive-By Truckers from American band to American necessity, their anger and frustration at what was happening to their country spelled out in classic songwriting.

American Band was the Travel Marmot album of the year in 2016 and they returned this year with another delight – they just did it across two records at either end of the year which, combined, earn them another high placing.

Not everything works – Babies In Cages is just too obvious, lacking the depth of their best efforts – but when they get it right (Thoughts and Prayers, The New OK) it becomes clear why they have emerged as one of the most important American groups around.

Possibly bumped up a few places by The Unravelling being listened to (repeatedly) for the first time during 24 hours in a hammock crossing the Amazon.

4 Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump… on a wooden piano

It is not new – a 20-year-old album played on what seems to be an even older piano – but my blog, my rules and this new version of a true classic is the perfect reissue we never knew we needed.

On the back of one of the best Twitter listening parties hosted by The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess (surprise candidate for musical hero of the year), it spelled out what a great album it is.

And it is amazing just how well these songs have held up to both time and the stripped-back versions here – epic opener He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot is perhaps the one which works the least well.

Lovely stuff.

5 Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

Last year’s album of the year winners did not rest on their laurels, returning with the follow-up mid-pandemic.

For a while, A Hero’s Death was heading to the slightly disappointing pile but prolonged exposure revealed a step forward which was not only worth repeated listenings but also laying the foundations for a longer future beyond being the current darlings of guitar music.

These songs maybe lacked the initial clout of Dogrel, but more reflected the impact the success had on the band – songs which moved on relentlessly without ever taking the next step you expected (and which maybe would have come on their debut) and it is that sense of anticipation which adds life and promise. For now and the future.

It stands alone but also as a sideways, possibly slightly backwards step, to clear a path for what comes next.

6 Taylor Swift – folklore

The undoubted surprise entry in the upper reaches of this list and it is there for a simple reason – it is really, really good.

Dubbed her indie album, it undoubtedly benefits from its collaborations with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but this is Swift’s work, her songs supplying a pop edge to her co-creators’ backgrounds.

Any unwarranted doubts about her songwriting ability are dispelled by penning exile, the great Bon Iver song we have been waiting for over the last few years.

It is maybe three of four songs too long and the insistence on everything being lower case is frustrating (or is that just me?) but it stands up to repeated listening. Trust me.

7 Soccer Mommy – color theory

More lower case and another female singer-songwriter in the upper reaches, Sophie Allison’s second album takes a significant step forward from the promise of her debut.

The first new album which was played repeatedly on my return from travelling, soundtracking several long walks as lockdown took over our lives and somehow seemed to make total sense.

There’s a long, detailed explanation of the album being based in sections on colour but really, just listen to it and enjoy.

8 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions

If the upper reaches of this countdown belongs to female singer-songwriters, there remains a place for Jason Isbell.

Reunions leans like its predecessor The Nashville Sound slightly towards Radio 2 territory and polished mainstream more than the great double whammy of Southeastern and Something More Than Free which chronicled his new-found sobriety and move from a rock and roll lifestyle to domestic contentment.

But Isbell remains as good a songwriter as there is around and Reunions is never less than sharply observed and richly created.

9 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy

My move from jingly jangly indie to Americana is reflected in this list, but there remains a place for shimmering guitars.

The Australian band jointly topped this list two years ago (with IDLES) and their sophomore effort takes a step forward from Hope Downs without lessening the number of interwined guitar lines, harmonies and damn good songs.

The sound of the summer we never really enjoyed.

10 IDLES – Ultra Mono

One of the most anticipated albums of the year and, to be honest, among the most underwhelming.

If IDLES can ever underwhelm.

There is enough in Ultra Mono to deserve this high placing – it has bounced around the fringes of the top 10 when putting the list together – but it is in danger of becoming too draining an experience for repeated listening.

When it hits its target (see below), it is as good as anything they have done, but relies too heavily on going for huge knockout blows when the odd body punch would get the message across just as well over the length of an album.

You do not need to shout to make yourself heard all the time.

11 Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
12 Porridge Radio – Every Bad
13 Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
14 Bill Callahan – Gold Record
15 Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started
16 Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
17 This Is The Kit – Off Off On
18 Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
19 Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
20 Disq – Collector
21 Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
22 Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques 
23 The Orielles – Disco Volador 
24 Taylor Swift – evermore
25 Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
26 Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
27 Boston Manor – GLUE
28 Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
29 Fleet Foxes – Shore
30 The Flaming Lips – America Head

Bubbling Under (or in need of more exploration)
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do
Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Times
Jordana – Classical Notions of Happiness
Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part
Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams – Aporia 
US Girls – Heavy Light

Tracks of the Year

Have stuck to albums on these annual lists before with maybe a passing mention of what was the track of the year, but if we can’t do these things differently this year, when can we?

1 IDLES – Grounds

“Do you hear that thunder?”

In a year when there has been plenty to get angry about, these lists are perhaps surprisingly lacking in fury, Bob Mould turns up the anger with Drive-By Truckers and Sufjan Stevens voicing frustrations in different ways.

IDLES had no hesitation in expressing their anger and on Grounds they packaged indignation as we entered lockdown and somehow foresaw some of the wider issues which would fill the following months.

And by slightly dialling down the scale of the backing – if not the intensity – they turned up the impact.

“Not a single thing has ever been mended, By you standing there and saying you’re offended”

2 Phoebe Bridgers – Kyoto
3 Drive-By Truckers – Thoughts and Prayers
4 Taylor Swift (feat Bon Iver) – exile
5 Phoebe Bridgers – ICU

6 Sufjan Stevens – America
7 Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
8 Phoebe Bridgers – I Know The End
9 Taylor Swift – the last great american dynasty
10 Waxahatchee – Lilacs

11 Porridge Radio – Sweet
12 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Cars In Space
13 Phoebe Bridgers – Halloween
14 Soccer Mommy – circle the drain
15 This Is The Kit – This Is What You Did

16 Bob Mould – American Crisis
17 Phoebe Bridgers – Chinese Satellite
18 Taylor Swift – betty
19 Waxahatchee – Fire
20 Drive-By Truckers – 21st Century USA

21 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Falling Thunder
22 Phoebe Bridgers – Garden Song
23 Soccer Mommy – bloodstream
24 Waxahatchee – The Eye
25 IDLES – Model Village
26 Sufjan Stevens – Video Game
27 Jason Isbell – Only Children
28 Waxahatchee – Can’t Do Much
29 Waxahatchee – Hell 
30 Fontaines DC – Televised Mind

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Best of 2019

THIS blog revels in its traditions, even it they are only a few years old.

And possibly top of that list is the New Year’s Day reflective post and its accompanying look back on the best of the previous year’s musical offerings – both of which will almost certainly not be posted until well after January 1.

Bucked that trend a little this year by publishing the new year address on the intended date, but the music one has had to wait a bit – partly down to a hectic few weeks on the road in South America, partly due to no power in the laptop and, to be honest, it is hot and it all seemed like a lot of work.

Better late than never, here is an abridged version of the Travel Marmot Best of 2019 – split the difference between the two posts and they are round about the right time.

It has all been a bit different this year, partly due to circumstances – been on the road for the last few months, so not had complete access to new releases or the traditional end-of-year trawl through the lists elsewhere.

Working on that, so the list at the end may earn a spot in the higher echelons or vanish without trace. Or get ignored once the new Drive-By Truckers album comes out.

And my music buying (well, downloading) was a bit different with a change of iPod leading to an increased used of Apple Music and the chance to fill in some older gaps in the collection.

It has also been a bit different music wise.

Last year’s list had a fair amount jingly-jangly guitars and female singer-songwriters (one of whom features again), but this year the top spots are taken by what John Peel described as “white boys with guitars”.

Or, to be more accurate, Irish boys with guitars.

Album of the Year: Dogrel – Fontaines DC

Not been this enthused by a new act for a while. Not everybody’s cup of tea – one person exposed to Hurricane Laughter moaned about them shouting at her – but this is literate, passionate, powerful and catchy as any guitar music of the last few years.

And it’s just bloody good, Boys In The Better Land probably edging the song of the year title as well.

Don’t believe me? Six Music named it album of the year and have come to trust them over the last few years.

And still jealous at someone seeing them twice in a week without me.

The Other Irish Album of the Year: When I Have Fears – The Murder Capital

Not as polished, not as convincing as their Irish counterparts, but there’s plenty of promise.

One friend who saw them at Swn Festival in Cardiff described it as being in at the start of something which feels important. He may be right.

Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year: Better Oblivion Community Center

Two years ago it was her haunting solo debut Stranger in the Alps, last year it was her all-female supergroup Boygenius, this time Phoebe Bridgers makes the top end of the list with her side project with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.

Dylan Thomas was close to being song of the year and is the highlight of an album which has grown on me through some long days on the back of a truck.

Worth A Listen/Still Exploring

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Bill Callahan
Thrashing Through The Passion – The Hold Steady
Inferno – Robert Forster
i,i – Bon Iver
I Am Easy To Find – The National
Girl – Girl Ray
Ode To Joy – Wilco
The Talkies – Girl Band

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Have It All to Heavenfaced

THIS post was supposed to be about something else. But every time writing got delayed or interrupted, events conspired to render the proposed subject out of date.

Lost somewhere in the mists of time is a post about trolls and Twitter intolerance, be it related to Brexit, journalists, Six Nations rugby… anything which somebody was not a big fan of or knew nothing about so opted to criticise and attack rather than simply ignoring and moving on with their own life.

But then something came along which, given the subject and history of this blog, could not really be ignored.

We need to talk about Ryan.

If everything had gone to plan, the highlight of this weekend was not supposed to be Gloucester winning at Northampton (no matter how thrilling that was, especially with the enforced tactic of playing much of the game with no specialists in the back three).

No, the main event inked in for this weekend was a trip to Birmingham to watch Ryan Adams.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to this A-Z blog will have noticed Adams crops up as much as anyone, partly due to my love of his music and partly because of his ability to churn out stuff – certainly in his younger years when he needed a touch of quality control.

He rates among the top three gigs on my list (all by acts beginning with R and all, bizarrely, in South Wales), so news of a first new album for a while – well, three throughout the course of the year – and a few live dates had me at a keyboard the moment they went on sale and paying rather more than my normal gig budget.

And then the New York Times published an in-depth report containing allegations of sexual misconduct against Adams, their sources including his ex-wife, actress and singer Mandy Moore, and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who had hinted at her relationship with Adams in the wonderful Motion Sickness.

Moore claimed Adams had stifled her own musical career, saying she was not a proper musician because she did not play an instrument, while there were a string of allegations that he “dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex”.

The report also contained allegations Adams had exchanged sexually inappropriate messages with a teenage girl with the FBI confirming they were launching an investigation.

Strangely, neither the rapidly-delayed album nor the gig looked as inviting – the clamour for refunds adding to the pressure before the tour was also cancelled.

Even if it was not, doubt there would have been too many in the audience – certainly not me.

Plenty has been said and written about the articles, not going to dwell on them. If true (they remain allegations), they are despicable and Adams deserves everything that comes his way. It’s not just a male-female thing, it’s simply right and wrong.

If you want a female fan’s perspective, check out this blog post outlining anger and disappointment which was tweeted into my timeline and rang a fair few bells.

The writer shares a few mutual friends with me, one in particular who regular readers will have heard a lot about in recent posts given that we lost him last year.

Adams soundtracked plenty of memories for me as the soundtrack to one break-up in particular, plus several other personal moments and, most recently, a key memory of a friend lost far too young.

Not sure Nick knew too much about Ryan Adams – the overlap in our musical tastes were certainly elsewhere – but his wife was a fan and Oh My Sweet Carolina has always been a great, bittersweet reminder of a sweltering week in Charleston for their wedding. And it’s a great song.

Which raises the question – is it still acceptable to listen to his music?

Think it is going to be a long time before scrolling through the iPod or reaching for a CD sees me hover in the Adams section, but what happens if one pops up – as it is very likely to do in the near future heading through my iPod from A-Z?

A few have – none in this particular section from Foo Fighters to The National – and it is hard to listen to songs, many of which are so familiar, when the first thing that springs to mind is what you have just found out about the artist.

The fact he could be a bit of a dick came as no surprise – numerous reports of pre-Madonna behaviour (as one reporter once wrote) long circulated around Adams. But if you are going to stop listening or watching people because they are dicks, your choice of entertainment is going to diminish a fair amount.

While not listening to Ryan Adams will affect many people not one iota, the case of Michael Jackson is a bit different – and he was cleared of any allegations that got as far as court.

And do you avoid all Kevin Spacey films? The Usual Suspects (which has other connotations) and the excellent Baby Driver were both on TV not that long ago. Is it OK to watch them? After all, Spacey was just one part (albeit significant) of both.

Suggest there is no right answer to this one. There will be those who feel it is impossible to listen to Adams at all. Personally, will not be picking him out by choice but when he pops up along the way from A-Z, not going to turn away.

Would place doing something to tackle the sort of behaviour of which he stands accused as a far more important response.

As I said, there was no sign of Ryan Adams in the latest, pretty short, chunk which took us to the 4,700 track mark on the journey through my iPod (which looked to have surrendered as it refused to turn on for a few days – right up to the point when given one last chance to behave on the way to the Apple shop to be checked out).

We had a couple of classics from Echo and the Bunnymen – two versions of Heads Will Roll and Heaven Up Here – and a pair from The Smiths (The Headmaster Ritual and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now).

And sticking with the selection of ’80s classic, we stopped off in Heartland from the oft-overlooked classic Infected album by The The.

  • The observant may have noticed there is no playlist on this post, courtesy of a rather nifty update from WordPress which somehow makes it impossible. Will have a play with that, until then, enjoy the videos.
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Adios Amigo to Golden Dream

BY its very nature, this blog spends a fair amount of time paddling around in nostalgia.

There’s plenty of new stuff making waves along the way – and maybe, just maybe, introduce you to through the links – but the default position is ankle deep in the past.

Be that music or the memories, stories and feelings it stirs when held up to my ears (think we might have gone far enough with that metaphor).

And that’s fine. Been great rediscovering forgotten gems, unearthing a few  missed through the years and seeing how classic tracks have plotted the soundtrack of my life.

But maybe diving too deep into the musical past is not always a great thing.

The soundtrack since the last entry (far longer ago than intended) has been littered with a lot of new stuff, helped by a catch-up through A-G in the journey through my iPod – some it very new, some of it stuff from the last 12 months or so which needed the compulsory listen to ensure nothing was missed.

By contrast, a couple of live outings have rolled back the years. Even decades.

Echo and the Bunnymen were my first proper gig at Gloucester Leisure Centre  in my teenage years, to which they provided a large chunk of the soundtrack.

They were, along with REM, my band for many, many years, but for some reason had somehow missed seeing them live again. Partly due to lack of opportunity, but largely turning down a couple of chances as we all got considerably older.

Never been a big fan of just seeing bands for old times’ sake. And somehow didn’t want to mix those wonderful memories of seeing the Bunnymen way back when with a risk of disappointment at what they have become.

Right up to the point when a ticket to see them live dropped in my lap as a Christmas present.

For a while, looked like might miss it – the band cancelling the gig due to a clash with the Champions League final, rescheduling to the one night when work rather gets in the way before an outcry from fans forced a return to the original date.

And it was enjoyable. If you don’t relish Ian McCulloch singing the likes of The Killing Moon, Seven Seas or Villiers Terrace – the song which always ended any C90 compiled for anyone else – backed by an excellent band and string quartet, you are missing some sort of musical gene (it’s what stops me getting most heavy metal).

But… there was always a but hovering in the air. McCulloch always was a difficult soul and whether it was his natural personality or resentment at missing his Liverpool side in action, there was an element of going through the motions about it all.

As good as the band were, they were shunted right to the back of the sizeable stage as McCulloch took centre stage – largely motionless – with Will Sergeant almost skulking off stage right.

And the set list was bizarre. A strong start with old favourites – let’s face it, that’s what most the audience of a certain age wanted to hear – drifted into mid-gig malaise and every time they got us up again with a classic, it was straight back down with some newer track.

There were no quibbles with the set list at the second gig in close succession, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott rattling through The Housemartins’ and Beautiful South’s back catalogues. The music was highly enjoyable – far more so than expected.

But in the middle of Westbonbirt Arboretum, it was all a bit odd.

The long, slow-moving queue to get in was frustrating (especially seeing late arrivals, including at least one regular reader, benefit from them eventually opening extra entrances while the original queue watched on) , meaning most of support act Billy Bragg’s set was witnessed from afar and through a fence while trying to get in.

Judging by some of the tutting at his politics, a few were in no rush to get in.

And when we did get in, with limited space around the back and sides, it was into Dante’s middle class circle of hell.

Tickets were not cheap, so did wonder why some people were there. Not for the music, that’s for sure. Far more for the chance to sit and have a picnic – suggest M&S and Wzitrose enjoyed a huge soar in profits as they must have sold out of dips, nibbles and finger food. And wine boxes.

One group in front of us, apparently four couples, were sat in a circle from which they barely moved throughout.

The women did get up a couple of times to start dancing when a song they knew came on, only to stop halfway through to take some selfies and then wander off to the loo.

The men sat and talked, only stopping occasionally to pass out some more drinks and to cut up some limes to go with them.

Actually, that’s not fair. Two of them did stand up, almost on top of a seated couple who had staked out a prime spot, so they could compare tips on their golf swings.

The eight of them would have had exactly the same evening (without the queue and traffic) if they had sat in the garden with a CD on in the background.

Sure a lot of people there didn’t realise music came without interruptions from Chris Evans and the traffic news.

Musically better than expected (not necessarily my normal taste post-Housemartins, but Heaton has written a surprising number of great songs) and a fair few additions to the bad gig etiquette list.

Certainly not a Billy Bragg audience – as one woman showed who talked relentlessly just behind us, moaning about him covering that nice Kirsty Maccoll’s New England.

He has been a fairly constant presence live – seen him in four difference decades – and throughout this A-Z journey through my iPod. And he popped up again in this recap, courtesy of the collection of tracks he put out last year. Politically inspired, surprisingly enough.

The bulk of the catch-up – from Michael Head to Snail Mail – can be split between the traditional end-of-year download binge and new stuff.

Phoebe Bridgers cropped up a few times on the former having made it in to the top three of my albums of last year. Certainly no need to reconsider that one and remain slightly obsessed.

The new stuff has not been quite as much as planned – the January idea to get something new each week never got out of the month – but there’s been some decent stuff.

Let’s Eat Grandma, Snail Mail, Goat Girl, perhaps surprisingly Buffalo Tom and old faithfuls Half Man Half Biscuit are all threatening this year’s best-of lists.

But early, clear favourite for top spot is Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever.

Thankfully, the music is a fair bit easier to cope with than the name and delivers a large enough helping of jingly-jangly guitar to wash away any lingering anger sparked by fellow gig-goers.

 

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