Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

It’s soooo good: ‘Backroads’ by Lonely the Brave

League of Extraordinary BloggersSorry, bit late on this one but it proved trickier than I’d though. A week ago I simply said to myself right, the next time I think, “That is soooo good”, I’ll write about it. But that hasn’t happened until today – hence the delay.

I’ve not had a crappy week. In fact it was pretty busy; trips to London and Brighton, a one day music festival, gaming with friends. And while I saw some great bands, played some great games, saw some cool things, nothing really got the goose bumps going.

But today I wake up with a song in my head. I get up to start work, fire up YouTube and put it on. The song feels pretty old to me as they’ve been going a few years, but it’s only really getting out there now as the band’s album has finally been released after delays.

They seem to have recorded a video to it back in June, which has added even more poignancy to an already remarkable tune. I just sat back, watched it, then watched it again. And again. I thought, blimey, this is soooo good. So here it is – enjoy. Then enjoy it again, louder. You’re welcome.


Saw things that the rat saw
And my eyes couldn’t take them in
Just want to fall here silently
Into the arms of people I love
Under waiting stars as the ships come rolling in

But look at the way the faces turn
Eyes burn why (eyes burn why)
If you be the sky then I’ll be the bird
But look at the way the faces turn
Eyes burn why (eyes burn why)
If you be the sky then I’ll be the bird

So the power lines were leaning
And all was lost
Make a vow with the city lights
With your fingers crossed
You said I’d be a place and time
Said I’d be a man
Making eyes with a sea of lies
So you understand
That you’re raping on my dreaming
And you’re ruining my best made plans

The rat he turned and bared his teeth at you
The wake is calling, what you gonna do?
But your head’s gone
And it won’t be long
The rat he turned and bared his teeth at you
The wake is calling, what you gonna do?
But your head’s gone
And it won’t be long

So the sinners stopped and the villains turned
And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird
Let’s meet the mountains and see what they heard
And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird

And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird (x4)

Other soooo good offerings from the league:

It’s just not summer until…

League of Extraordinary BloggersFor me it’s just not summer until certain songs and artists suddenly start to become ear worms again, as if drawn through the ether back into my tiny mind by the sun.

They disappear as the leaves begin falling and if you asked me to write a top 10 bands I probably wouldn’t think of them. Then six months later, as the days get longer and sweatier, back they come from the sunnier recesses of my mind.

A great example is G. Love & Special Sauce. There’s something wonderfully summery about their sound, which is only exacerbated by his drawly vocals. It’s good vibes, chilled, sunny day music perfect for that festival feeling. The sound of people jamming late at night, but the sun still hasn’t quite gone down.

The music is funky and tuneful, a Philadephia sound laced with double bass and harmonica, but there’s more than a hint of funky hip hop in the mix too; it’s dancey, but not jump about like loons dancey – more wobbling about with a grin and a tap of your feet.

Another great example is De La Soul – a classic summertime band. They’ve got all the funk you need from a hip hop great, but without the ridiculous attitude problem. And its not the daisy age trappings that make them summery; its more of that classic laid back attitude mixed with a mellow party vibe.

The first time I heard ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ was amazing; I was working in a record shop in London and it was the year after Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions’ had landed. It simply shook up rap, but in the totally opposite direction. Suddenly there was cool rap that a) wasn’t ‘gansta’; and b) wasn’t shit.

But it’s not all about throwing your hands in the ay-a; all kinds of music makes me know it’s the summer again. Another classic for me is a taste of traditional, mainly because I spent the last twenty or so years involved with a folk festival. When I see the sun high in the sky of an evening, it’s easy for my mind to wander to drunken tented fields.

Of the many great folk closing bands, few beat Oysterband in my booze addled memories – and few songs have better closed a festival than ‘When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down’. Memories of jigging round fields to this always bring a smile to my face; even if the hangovers don’t. There’s an abandon in traditional artists you simply don’t get in other forms of music.

So yeah, for me it’s the music. Enjoy the weather – and the tunes :o)

Also check out these League members:

My pop culture road trip to… Seattle

image Growing up, I became obsessed with music. It started in my early teens with the perfumed pop of Duran Duran and Soft Cell, morphed briefly into brooding Goth before landing squarely in the UK indie alternative scene of the late ’80s.

For a while it was a very English thing for me, but around 1988/89 that got turned on its head by grunge. I was working in a London record shop at the time and remember talking to the Southern rep about the next big thing. It was something different, and wrong, every month but hey, he had to get it right one time; and that time was Sub Pop.

LameFest UK (Nirvana, Tad, Mudhoney at the Astoria, London) was a blistering experience. It was as if someone had taken the energy and excitement from punk or metal, and added feelings and desperation to replace pomp and bullshit. My music had just grown balls. That first Peel Session from ’89, kicking off with ‘Love Buzz’, still sounds fresh and vital today.

My love affair with the Seattle grunge scene was fittingly short lived. By Nirvana’s epic Reading show in 1992 I was tiring of that thump thump thump, my record shop education having opened doors to everything from traditional folk to hip hop. But it still hurt when Kurt suddenly decided his time was up a few years later.

But the list of important Seattle bands is a lot longer than you’d expect from an otherwise unremarkable, unfashionable American city. Ray Charles in the ’50s, Hendrix in the ’60s, grunge; then Band of Horses, Foo Fighters, Fleet Foxes, Sunny Day Real Estate, Kenny G… There’s always one.

While I’ve been to hundreds of gigs and festivals and have bought 1000+ CDs over the past 30 years, the anti-romance of Seattle has stayed with me; it has a scruffy, unkempt quality I can relate to. So you can keep Liverpool and New York, Manchester and Austin; Seattle is still my musical Mecca.

This love affair has been rekindled in recent years by the remarkable output of Seattle radio station KEXP. I found it quite by accident while surfing YouTube for something to listen to. I don’t even remember what it was I found; and it says a lot that the radio station stuck in my mind more than the music. Here I was, watching a live HD radio session with fantastic audio. I was hooked – it remains the one thing on YouTube I’m subscribed to.

So here’s to Nirvana, and to KEXP, and to everything else that’s musically magnificent about Seattle. I’ll make it there one day; let’s say it right now – before I’m 50, I WILL go to Seattle. And of course it helps that it’s a couple of hours from Canada – a country I’d love to spend some time in. Until then though, I’ll keep it tuned to KEXP.

More (possibly slightly more exotic) League of Extraordinary Bloggers’ road trips:

YouTube: Five amazing full live sets

I’m happy to still buy CDs and then turn them into MP3s, but I have no interest at all in subscribing to something such as Spotify. Alongside a mass of music on my shelves and on my iPod, there’s YouTube – the home of so many great videos including some amazing live music sets. Here are five I keep going back too.

The Weakerthans  – Live at The Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg 2009

The Weakerthans brilliant concert album Live at The Burton Cummings Theatre has a version that included a DVD of the whole show – this is it. You’ll find no better testament to the idea that the truly great bands always perform better live than in the studio.

The Jam – Live at Bingley Hall, Birmingham 1982

As far as I can tell this is a bootleg that’s been available on video and then DVD over the years, but is now available through the glory of YouTube. It catches the most important band in the history of mod at their peak.

LCD Soundsystem – Last ever show, Madison Square Garden, New York 2011

Almost four hours of the genius that was LCD Soundsystem live. Much of the footage for award winning documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits was taken from the show. And no, I’n not going to give you a track list…

Beastie Boys – Live at the SECC, Glasgow 1999

A 45-minute MTV special that perfectly captures one of the great live bands at their peak. Spoiler alert – they finish with Intergalactic and Sabotage, but if you’re not bouncing around the room to openers Super Disco Breakin’ and Flute Loop its official – you have no soul.

George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic – Live at The Summit, Houston 1976

Much of this concert is available on 1986 album The Mothership Connection, with the whole concert later released in 1998 on video. You can find it on DVD now, if you look hard enough – or you can sit back enjoy the biggest funk/costume show on earth for free here.

Suggestions for the next set of five welcomed – comment below!

From a Trail of Dead to Polly Paulusma, via a Ferocious Dog

I haven’t written about music for ages, so looked back through my gig going year to date. Since my last gigs post back in January, I’ve been to just five gigs in five months – and there are no summer festivals on the horizon for the first time since the 80s. What on earth is going on?

While I still love live music, I’ve fallen out of love with going to gigs on the train or seeing things I see as overpriced; as well as now avoiding gigs I’m not sure about when before I probably would’ve taken a punt on them. I also seem totally incompetent at staying up to date with who is playing when – how could this have been easier before the internet?

Apathy has, of course, played its part – along with other interests taking up much more of my evening time. The fact these tend to involve going somewhere local with a bottle of wine, rather than on a train with a £30 bar bill at the end, is another deciding factor. But, that said, the gigs have all been corkers. I should get out more…

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, with Lonely The Brave

Trail of Dead aren’t a band I know well. I was impressed by the early stuff, saw a couple of great gigs and then slowly drifted away as my interest waned. The last time I saw them was with Rival Schools at Electric Ballroom in Camden and while they rocked, the sound was dodgy and the atmosphere never sparked.

Two years on and we’re in a sweaty Portland Arms, Cambridge with Trail of Dead jumping around like loons on stage and god knows what coming out of the speakers. It could’ve died on its ass right there, as the soundman failed completely to deal with the room, but a combination of enthusiasm both on and off the stage kept the atmosphere high enough for the sound to catch up.

Make no mistake, this was the kind of gig they could’ve done on auto pilot – and many bands would’ve. But Trail of Dead were in their element, sparked by the tiny room rather than insulted and firing on all cylinders. By the end you felt like you’d been to ‘one of those gigs’ – a sweaty, chaotic reminder of how awesome it was to see them in the early years.

Support came from Lonely the Brave, who seemed strangely subdued – but were wonderful all the same. Finally Cambridge looks to have found another band that will rise above the local curse and make a few quid out if this music thing. It seems a long time since the wonderful Broken Family Band said goodbye in 2009, but these guys are worthy successors of the ‘one band from Cambridge’ tag.

If you don’t know them, Lonely the Brave make a great big fucking rock sound brimming with melody and craft. The vocals are big enough to stay atop the wall of sound, which is impressive in itself, while the lyrics are thoughtful and accomplished. But don’t be distracted – the biggest thing here is the fucking ROCK. It’s marvellous – and that’s from someone who doesn’t ordinarily like ‘the rock’.

Polly Paulusma, with Annie Dressner

I remember falling in love with Polly Paulusma at Cambridge Folk Festival many moons ago, before some rotter swished in and married her. She’d been teetering on the brink of the big time, but put family first – and why not? The lure of fame may be behind her, but she seems happy on stage and still has the assets that got her all the attention in the first place – which is great for us, as we get to see her down the Portland for a fiver rather than in an enormodome for fifty.

Lets face it, there’s a lot of singer-songwriters out there and the vast majority of them should be lowered into a big vat of meh. But for me, Polly is one of the few who really strike a chord with me (no pun intended); she plays beautifully, her voice has an ethereal yet powerful quality and the lyrics always have just the right mix of honesty and believability without being clichéd – plus there’s a nice edge of humour on occasion too.

It can all get a bit hippy dippy at times, but the between song banter is lovely and overall it’s a great set – even if she didn’t play my favourite (One Day). I’d certainly recommend first album ‘Scissors in My Pocket’ and I’m now going to track down more of her stuff myself.

Support came from Annie Dressner, a former New Yorker now living in Cambridge (and married to friend and cracking singer-songwriter Paul Goodwin). She’s another performer that’s more interesting than the average, and another with an ethereal quality to her voice – but this time with a resonance that recalls an old favourite of mine Mazzy Star (Annie’s definitely more upbeat, folky and twangy though).

Annie’s been making some waves and building a strong reputation over here and on this showing it’s easy to see why. She plays subtle, heart-felt and personal songs that demand your attention, while you can see a real progression in her song crafting on recent EP ‘East Twenties‘. If you like folky singer-songwriters, you should definitely check it out.

The Wonderstuff, with Ferocious Dog

While I like to moan about travelling to gigs, some bands are worth it simply for the company; and one of those is The Wonderstuff. The guys who still follow this lot around the country may have lost their hair over the years, but they’ve not lost any enthusiasm – or drinking ability. The kit bags and hitching signs may have been replaced with family saloons and Travelodges, but the energy remains.

So off I plodded to Nottingham’s Rock City for Wonderstuff gig number eleventy billion (and I’m miles (not Miles) behind many people), more to have a beer with friends than to worry too much about the bands. It wasn’t full, so the atmosphere wasn’t quite what it could’ve been, but they played the usual cracking set – despite the loss (again) of Malc and my continued reservations about Erica’s playing style; for me, the band still needs a fiddler, not a violinist. She’s clearly a brilliant musician, but for me she’s in the wrong band.

Caveats aside, if you were once a fan and haven’t checked in on them for a while, The Wonderstuff are still every bit the blistering live band they’ve always been. Come on, you owe yourself a night out; so get your wallet out and treat yourself to a ticket for Sleigh the UK in December, with Jesus Jones and Pop Will Eat itself in tow.

Perhaps one reason why the atmosphere didn’t quite click for me on the night was that I was still reeling from my first blast of Mansfield band Ferocious Dog. They’re a six-piece folk rock band that are unashamedly Levellers inspired – but with everything turned up to 11. I was blown away – these guys are fast, rocking and infectious and if there’s any justice they’ll become the hit on the festival circuit they deserve to be.

They’ve got a bunch of gigs coming up and I’ll not be missing them. I picked up both their CDs on the way out of the gig and have been playing them a bunch – I can guarantee you that if you like the Levs, you’ll fall in love with these guys instantly. Don’t believe me? Have a listen.

July is looking good already; tickets are in the bag for Half Man Half Biscuit, The New Mendicants (Joe Pernice and TFC’s Norman Blake) and Fight Like Apes – plus there’s still The Pharcyde and Jesus Jones to wax lyrical about.

But with my move to a gig-less town now going ahead at the end of the month, things may dry up dramatically – unless I start counting karaoke and covers bands…

What was that, sonny? Carter, Neds, Cud, Citizen Fish, Levellers, Poppies, Stuffies, Jesus Jones, ABC & The Human League

Nothing has cheered me up more in the last decade than the slow, arthritic march of my favourite bands of the eighties and nineties back onto the stage. 2012 wasn’t the best, but it certainly wasn’t far off; here are my highlights. Awesome photos are brought to you by the BlackBerry Bold, courtesy of booze…

5th: Carter USM, Neds Atomic Dustbin & Cud

The Pauper's Grave 'BOOM' experience.

The USM Pauper’s Grave ‘BOOM’ experience.

In recent years this annual pilgrimage to BrixtonAcademy might’ve been number one, but unfortunately this time things conspired against us.

We got in early to see Cud, but support band sound won the day and a half empty room failed to create an atmosphere.

Even the frilly shirt/tight trousers/beer gut combo and some, erm, unique dancing from frontman Carl Puttnum couldn’t save the day, despite them playing several of my old favourites (Hey Boots is still a winner).

Neds followed and led with Kill Your Television – but the sound was even worse. You could barely work out what it was in the first half of the song. The sound slowly improved, but I was never a big fan and we just got bored – and then realised the slightly sloping floor we’d been standing on had done some serious damage to our backs.

We were both feeling it, Zoe worse than me, so we tried to find a flat vantage point. But as the place filled for Carter it proved tough – especially with Zoe being vertically challenged – so we tried to get on the balcony.

A polite (yet fruitless) conversation later, and only half way through the set, it became clear Zoe wasn’t going to make it through so we just left. We did catch Prince in a Pauper’s Grave before we left though; a song that, when played live, will put pretty much any gig into a top five.

4th: The Human League

Look, on yonder hill - it's The Human League (I think)!

Look, on yonder hill – it’s The Human League (I think)!

Again, this is a band that would often be higher up my list but we’ve been a bit spoilt by their shows in the last couple of years: first the triple bill with Heaven 17 and ABC, followed by the Dare Anniversary Tour.

This was a great show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, but only when the songs were great. The stage setup was cool but a little lacklustre, while the performance was as good as we’ve come to expect – unfortunately there was a little too much filler.

Highlights included the usual ‘Dare’ classics (Sound of the Crowd, Things That Dreams are Made Of, Seconds), Lebanon and Love Action, while you can’t argue with an encore of Don’t You Want Me and Electric Dreams.

But there were too many of the feeble singles (Louis, Open Your Heart) and some average newer ones (which I understand they have to play) – but nothing from ‘Travelogue’ or ‘Reproduction’? Upsetting, but it was still a good night out.

3rd: Levellers & Citizen Fish

Citizen Fish, all growed up.

Citizen Fish, all growed up.

Another good night at the Corn Exchange started with something I’m not sure I could ever get used to – Citizen Fish on a posh stage.

Having said that, they were great; they got a pretty lukewarm reception when they came on, but their UK style punk ska soon won people over.

I’d still rather see them in a dingy pub, but they were roughly a million times better than the shitty support bands you often get at this type of show.

The Levellers themselves were right on form, mixing up a strong set of classics and some interesting new material. The encore was a bit of a disaster though; some weird sing-a-long-a, audience on the stage idea that I bet they wish they’d never dreamt up. Still, it was a good night as always.

Joint 1st: ABC

Martin Fry and some other people.

Martin Fry and some other people.

It was simply too difficult to choose between these two completely different experiences, as both perfectly recreating an equally important part of my musical upbringing.

ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ album was one of the first I bought (on cassette, woohoo) and remains a classic to this day.

While I can understand why people don’t like it, to me it’s a flawless reminder of more innocent times. So when they announced a one-off 30th anniversary show with the Southbank Philharmonic at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, conducted by Anne Dudley (who was key in the original orchestration), I was there.

I met up with an old friend, Steve, for the gig and we had a blast. It was great to catch up with a few beers beforehand, while him putting some Champagne on expenses for the interval certainly helped too.

When they came on, I was a little concerned. The orchestra sounded great, the seats were comfy, but the first half of the show was a little underwhelming; people didn’t bother standing up as a string of old but largely uninspiring tunes rolled by. When Smokey Sings was great, as were …Zillionaire and Be Near Me, but too many mediocre songs were picked seemingly because of the orchestra (Ocean Blue, SOS, First Time).

But after the interval, as the orchestra played the intro, it all changed. It was louder, fuller and the whole audience was on its feet in about the first four bars of Show Me – and very few sat down from there on in. The album was played to perfection and the night was worth of every penny of the entrance fee.

This is at least the second time they’ve performed Lexicon of Love with an orchestra and if you have any love for the album, and they do it again, I’d thoroughly recommend it. That said I probably won’t go and see them again though, as I’d rather keep this as my abiding memory of a great LP, so perhaps it was counter productive!

Joint 1st: PWEI, The Wonder Stuff & Jesus Jones

Jesus Jones - see, I do go up the front...

Jesus Jones – see, I do go up the front…

So what could equal that, I hear you ask? Well, only a bunch of early 90s grebos of course!

Not only were Pop Will Eat Itself back, again, this time it was part of a travelling indie circus with Midlands neighbours The Wonder Stuff and old indie pop chart regulars Jesus Jones.

A mini Christmas tour saw the trio taking in four cities, but also saw me struck down with my now traditional gig flu. I can’t seem to go near an old school indie London gig without getting the lergy. This one was worse than usual, meaning I missed the first show (in London) but did at least make it to the rest in body (if not in full force).

Jesus Jones were a real surprise for me. I’d seen them a few years back and it had sounded really weak live, but these shows recreated what they had back in the day perfectly (even if Mike’s cold meant he didn’t really sound right until Birmingham). It was truly crowd-pleasing greatest hits stuff too, although it felt a little empty without the wonderful Victoria.

It was also great to catch up with keyboard monkey Ian. We crossed paths a lot back in the day, via work (Our Price) and girlfriends (one of his ended up with me at college, while one of mine ended up with one of the Jones’ for a while). Small world and hopefully we’ll now keep in touch – good ol’ Facebook.

As good as they were they weren’t a match for the Poppies (natch). It took them a while to get the crowd up in Liverpool, but in both Leeds and Birmingham PWEI were right on form – and the crowd responded in turn. I think it’s fair to say the new line-up is now accepted and established, so long may this incarnation continue.

It was also fun to see all the former members (Clint included, before he got thrown out…) dancing to them in the guest area in Brum; a clear sign the baton has now been passed with any animosity set aside. Although I wonder if Fuzz now thinks he’s in the wrong band…?

Talking of which, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve seen a bit too much of The Wonder Stuff in recent years. Don’t get me wrong: the good songs are some of my favourites of all time, while live they’re still a fantastic force to be reckoned with. It’s just the between song banter and new ones are doing my head in. I need a break.

It didn’t help that they were obviously concerned with how loud, and winning, PWEI were being as ‘support’. Both the Leeds and Liverpool Stuffs sets were way too loud, distorting and over generally compensating for their comparative lack of beef.

But I don’t want to end on a down note. Their Birmingham set was brilliant and they closed to rapturous applause every night, proving without doubt there is plenty of life left in all of these old dogs…

…which is lucky, because next year’s repeat Christmas shows (with the same line-up) have already been announced. I think I’ll just hibernate until then.

It’s been a month since my last confession…

I realised yesterday that it has been more than a month since my last blog post. This isn’t good. so what the bloody hell has been going in?

I’ve been thinking about it today and frankly can’t think of a good reason why I haven’t posted anything – so here are some crappy (but honest) reasons:

I’ve been playing a lot of board games

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my last post was talking about my trip to Essen. While I love yakking about board games (and the sound of my own voice) I enjoy playing them a whole lot more and I’ve had a lot of opportunities in the last few months.

I’ve now played all my Essen purchases, so will probably bore you to tears about those in a blog post soon. And I still haven’t written about our board gaming weekend trip to sunny Eastbourne, which was tremendous fun too.

In fact, having clocked more than 50 plays in both months, October and November 2012 were my highest ever board game playing months (yes, I record all my play. What?). That’s an average of three games played per day, math fans – not bad, but not conducive to getting much else done.

I’ve been around (as it were)

Talking of Eastbourne, Zoe and me also went to Brighton for a long weekend. And I was in London more than usual (It’s tough at the top), as well as some so-far unsuccessful house hunting in Ely and St Ives (but not Chatteris – one for the Half Man Half biscuit fans).

We’ve put our flat on the market, but are asking the top-end prices so aren’t holding our breaths. The flat is lovely, so we should get it (or close to it), but we’re in no rush so it could take months. Anyone want to buy a fl.. I mean, penthouse suite?

And then, after a real musical drought, there was a raft of great gigs. There will be a post about these before Christmas, with a bunch more terrible ‘from-near-the-back-on-the-left’ BlackBerry quality pics to go with it – I spoil you, I really do.

I’ve been playing a silly computer game

In the last few months I’ve also been enjoying an MMORG – but not The Secret World that I wittered on about just a few months ago.  While I loved that game it simply didn’t ignite with my friends, who slowly drifted away, leaving me to wibble around on my own.

Yes, I could’ve joined someone else’s cabal (guild) but I’ve found in the past it’s pretty crappy playing with strangers if you’re not a regular – which I simply wouldn’t be. So sadly I cancelled my account at the end of October.

However, a few friends then started talking about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes – an old-ish Sony game that has gone ‘free to play’. I didn’t hold out much hope for it, as the graphics and movement aren’t up to much, but on further investigation it’s actually a lot of fun. While the fighting is bog standard MMO fare, both the crafting and diplomacy are pretty original – more of those soon too, I expect.

I’ve been tired

It’s true – guess I’m getting old. Wine and board games aside, most of my evening is spent watching TV box sets (West Wing, Sopranos, Northern Exposure, Eureka, X-Files, Haven, Stargate, Fringe, Warehouse 13…).

But I’ve been tired due to reading/writing a lot for work too, which means writing in the evening hasn’t been too appealing. Instead I’ve been trying to design a card game (which is as hard as I’d imagined), but then a friend gave me his novel to proof read and that’s got me thinking about my aborted efforts in the same arena…

And, in truth, I’m not well. Nothing terminal, but permanent. And as I’m stupid and don’t manage it well, I get a bit knackered more often than I should. But as someone so rightly said (roughly), ‘Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, totally worn out and screaming, Woo Hoooo what a ride! I wanna go round again!’

So as I was saying, it’s been a month…

Yippy i-Yay motherfucker! Here’s hoping Willis takes on Apple with a vengeance

(NOTE: Since the time of writing it would seem Mrs Willis has allegedly denied this story, while some are claiming the original story’s premise isn’t even true if you read the iTunes terms and conditions. I’m not sure which I struggle most to believe – that The Daily Mail got a story wrong (say it ain’t so…); that Mrs Willis actually uses Twitter; or that anyone has ever read the iTunes T&Cs. Gotta love the interweb eh?)

News reports today suggest the world’s premium bald action dude, Bruce Willis, is set to take on his toughest assignment yet: taking the shine off the big Apple.

I’m not sure how many of you may know this, but it turns out all those ethereal tunes you’ve downloaded from Apple’s little corner of the interweb aren’t actually yours at all – you’re just borrowing them.

It seems our Bruce wants to hand on his multi-thousand-dollar collection of Appley music files to his kids when he passes on (not that I think he can actually die, unless it’s at the hands of Chuck Norris); something any person with an ounce of good in them would of course deem perfectly fair and right and good. But not the iGuys.

When you pop your clogs, all those tunes go back into the possession of good ol’ Apple, which can freeze your iTunes account while dancing on your grave and blowing raspberries at your weeping family (not that it would, of course). And yes, that also includes your iApps, iBooks, iKitchensinks etc.

Of course, while sickening, it’s hardly surprising. Despite Steve Jobs’ tidy beard and fatherly smile, we all knew all along that Apple wasn’t exactly a force for good; it’s a profit hungry multinational corporation that charges way over the odds for well designed (if technically a bit shonky sometimes) products we don’t need. We only have ourselves to blame when it bites us on the ass.

Luckily, for a change, I’m not a victim of this crime of capitalism. And the reason is, ironically, I’m just way too much of a capitalist to buy into the idea of ‘paying’ for music, in the form of fresh air, if the musicians aren’t there performing it. I want a damn thing, damnit.

While being a big fan of my iPod Touch – in fact I’m currently in the process of considering upgrading to a newer model despite their shoddy treatment of Bruce almighty – I simply can’t stomach the thought of putting my hand in my digital pocket to buy an MP3. Hell, I won’t even subscribe to Spotify. I’ll burn a CD, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

I was born in 1970, which means I grew up into the dying embers of scratchy (yet prurdy) vinyl, the slow painful whir of cassette and the shiny, special goodness of the CD. For me, the CD was the pinnacle of recorded music: smaller than vinyl yet still round and loveable, it was skippable, durable and lasted forever (well, ish).

I do tend to move with the technical times, but for me – when it comes to buying MP3s – it simply wasn’t advancement. I understand digital game downloads and streaming cinema, but music is to own, to cherish, to pour over the lyrics of, to admire the art in, to alphabetise, categorise and fill endless shelves with.

I hope with every sinew that Willis takes on the might of the greedy bloody Apple – and hope just as much that it backs down and feels thoroughly ashamed of itself. But I also hope this makes a few million people start to get their arses back out to gigs and to independent ‘record’ shops, to start listening to live music and buying CDs.

The world is invariably a better place thanks to the internet and other digital and technological advancements. But as with everything you can take things a little too far – and for me, iTunes music is that lazy, soulless step beyond.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2012: Five artists you shouldn’t miss

I’ve been attending the Cambridge Folk Festival every July for 20 years now, while I’ve been lucky enough to write the editorial for the programme for the last 10 of them. This has put me in a very privileged position, getting to see the line-up and hear CDs in advance as well as getting free tickets (and a good camping spot, pictured).

This is the last year I’ll be doing the programme notes. I’ve had a good innings but my heart wasn’t really in it this year, while the fluid nature of the work (thanks to artists and their management being of variable usefulness in terms of hitting deadlines) doesn’t fit well with full-time work (I used to be freelance, so more flexible). Also, the job tends to take over Easter and as my other half works in a school (and we’re not keen on high summer for a holiday) it pretty much wipes out our best getaway opportunity of the year.

I expect I’ll continue attending the Festival though. It’s one of the most famous and long running folk festivals in the world and attracts a diverse and impressive line-up each year. Looking back, I’ve seen the likes of Steve Earle, Joe Strummer, Julian Cope, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, Christy Moore, Nick Cave, Jimmy Cliff, James Taylor, Buddy Guy, Dr John… and that’s just male solo artist highlights.

On top of that it’s well run and friendly with good food, good beer and a beautiful setting – not to mention regularly cleaned toilets (man, I’m getting old). So as a farewell to the programme notes, I thought I’d pick out five great acts from this year’s line-up: tickets are still available, ladies and gents – and no, I don’t get a cut, more’s the pity.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich

There’s a lot of this kind of stuff about, and I’m not claiming our Benjamin is breaking any moulds here, but this is beautiful singer-songwriter stuff that. I think he manages to just stay on the right side of ‘produced within an inch of its life’, creating just the right atmosphere to match his whimsical style of lyrics.

It’s also great ‘sit in a tent on the grass  in the early evening after drinking all day’ music, which suits his Thursday early evening billing. And I can’t help thinking he’s got the talent to be out of the Cambridge folk Festival’s budget in the next few years.

Treacherous Orchestra

I’ve seen a lot of bands doing dance folk over the years and doing it very well – from the late great Martyn Bennett to Shooglenifty – and there’s no better way to end a folk festival night. But the best I’ve seen has to be Treacherous Orchestra and they’re back at Cambridge this year.

Young, enthusiastic and ridiculously talented, they play the bollocks off every tune in their repertoire and if you have a folky bone in your body it’s impossible not to get swept along with the pure joie de vivre of it all.

June Tabor & Oysterband

Singer June Tabor rose to folk superstardom in the 70s, first in collaboration with Maddy Prior (as ‘Silly Sisters’) and then with guitar virtuoso Martin Simpson, as her incredible voice made her one of traditional music’s finest talents. Oysterband rose to prominence in their current incarnation in the late 80s, gaining a well deserved reputation as boisterous political folk rockers.

These unlikely collaborators came together to release an album of traditional and contemporary music in 1990. Entitled ‘Freedom and Rain’ it remains one of my favourite folk albums, haunting covers of Lou Reed and Billy Bragg sitting perfectly alongside traditional tunes such as Bonnie Sue Cleland.

Last year they got together again to record the follow up, Ragged Kingdom. It’s equally eclectic and equally good, traditional interpretations sharing the stage with Joy Division and Bob Dylan. Oysterband are always awesome live, and the addition of June Tabor can only make it something special.

Nic Jones

One of the most remarkable English folk singer-songwriters of the early 70s, Nic’s career was tragically cut short by a serious car accident in 1982. He was left with serious co-ordination issues and was barely able to play the guitar and unable to play fiddle, while also suffering brain damage. His public appearances have been few and far between and he did not appear on stage again until 2010, singing three songs at Sidmouth Folk Festival.

However, he will be appearing at a select few festivals this summer, including Cambridge, singing his songs for the first time in 30 years accompanied by his son Joseph on guitar. Now in his 60s, he was one of the great finger-picking guitarists of English folk’s finest period and seeing him live is an opportunity not to be missed.


Spiro are a great example of a band I would never have heard of if it wasn’t for the festival. And, if you’d described them to me, I wouldn’t have even considered listening to them. But my word, these guys make a sound that’s truly breathtaking.

Original, beautiful and cinematic, the Spiro sound blends folk dance music with minimalist classical to create unique, rhythmic melodies. There’s a droning quality to it that seems unreal and just makes me want to close my eyes and nod my head like some dumb hippy.  See what I mean about making it sound crap when describing it? I’m really selling it to you, aren’t I? Just play the damn video.