Sunday, 24 March 2013

My plan to become Amanda Palmer's Coin-Operated Boy

Amanda Palmer

There are some songs that you keep coming back to, and then there are the songs which keep coming back to you. The distinction is a subtle one but the difference between a tune you scroll through a playlist to find and a track you wake up yearning to hear or get excited about getting home and putting on. The Dresden Dolls' Coin-Operated Boy is one such track.

Filling the internet with further love for a band and a musician which last year received $1.2m in crowd-sourced funds from 24,883 fans might seem slightly pointless but the innovative and enthralling nature of this tune is too much to ignore. The song, released on The Dresden Dolls' A is for Accident live record in 2003, is essentially Amanda Palmer professing her love for a new-found coin operated boy - a prop that often features on stage with her. 

The live version I have begins with her telling someone to take off clothing and laughing and its a quirky, upbeat tone which prevails throughout. As the six-minute piano-led feast ensues Palmer explains how his "love without complications galore" puts the love of real boys to shame. She also explains in some detail how her "plastic fantasy" will keep her forever in the bedroom. Palmer's overt sexuality - she often talked about her bisexual love life prior to her 2011 wedding to Neil Gaiman and frequently appears on-stage in very little - allows her to weave an extra vigour into the track. She also uses repetition to sound mechanical and coin operated, as do the opening key strokes, which works well. 

But it is Palmer's versatility throughout which make this a simultaneously odd and engaging experience. Whether it's the squeal she lets out before she explains "I could even fuck him in the ass", the change in pace and tone when she explains that the "sad picture" she's painted is curious and, best of all, the laughter she breaks down into at the finale when the absurdity gets the better of her. 

By the end of the song, she has convinced me to seek the most severe plastic surgery since Leslie Ash got those huge lips and carve a slot in my arm from which Amanda can begin to operate me. I envisage my life, thrown in the back of tour buses, watching adoring crowds and being attacked each night endlessly. My joints would need oiling constantly and I'd like to have new clothes painted on me once in a while. 

While Palmer is a fantastic musician and the 36-year-old has made some great records both solo and with The Dresden Dolls, this remains a high point for the kind of character mainstream music is hideously bereft of. Often calling herself 'Amanda Fucking Palmer' she rubs plenty of people - including Nirvana producer extraordinaire Steve Albini who criticised her crowd funding approach - up the wrong way. But she possess the kind of care-free, incisive vigour that make her a performer you can't ignore. She's the kind of artist who receives the hero-worship this blog has perpetuated but is not afforded the credence for her superior musicianship other more earnest types get. Probably because she swears in her records. Tut tut.

If Palmer's world is one of passion, uncertainty and vicious opinion then sign me up. I wonder what two pence pieces taste like. 

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Homeboy Sandman live at Cargo, London

Appearing both fierce and charming simultaneously is a fine art few can achieve. But Homeboy Sandman, aka 32-year-old rapper Angel Del Villar II from Queens, New York, strikes this balance with the the aplomb of someone who, to be fair, probably had to hone those skills defending his rather posh name at school.

Homeboy Sandman at Cargo, London
The law school dropout is in fine form as he hits the stage at Cargo with a performance befitting this often ideal venue. Despite drinks prices that would make Richard Branson check his change, Cargo has carved a strong reputation for supporting both mainstream and left field hip-hop and its stylish sweatbox vibe works well for gigs like this. 

After a decent set by Wolverhampton hip-hop troop Paper Tiger, who have some decent hooks but perhaps try to do too much with too many instruments competing in their half hour set, Sandman takes the stage. From the off, he's a man on a mission to inject further life and a smile into a crowd more than happy to oblige.

Kicking-off with his irresistibly catchy landmark The Carpenter tune he shows he's here both to exult in the breadth of his range and lap up the praise of an adoring audience. His brand of hip-hop stretches from harsh lyrics churned across the top of a soulful underbelly to acapella treats as the thoughtful rapper unravels his thoughts. He has plenty of the ferocious character of his New York hip-hop forefathers but this is underscored by some intelligent themes which have won him a regular column on The Huffington Post's site. He is also able to draw on an interesting past which included stints as a teacher and a barman at the Lennox Lounge in Harlem where Shaft used to drink and from his father, a boxer from the Dominican Republic.

All almost seven foot of Homeboy Sandman command each tune as he stalks the stage in London, spitting each tune like the words just came to him. He spins personal mantra Whatchu Want From Me? into an audience-participating mantra which anyone passing by on Shoreditch High Street might have mistaken for a shady rally kicking off down one of its back streets. 

Perhaps the most enthralling moments come between tracks when he stops to make an observation or a daft joke although he often stops himself short of their conclusion in faux-embarassment despite them beginning interesting tales. 

Homeboy Sandman is not a new whippersnapper to the scene - last year he released his fourth album on the spectacularly consistent Stones Throw label - but his profile could and should be a lot higher with the tunes, guile and wit in his armoury. With performances like this, that could soon change.

Video: Homeboy Sandman pontificates on milk in the UK

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Ennis needs to be removed from emotive Don Valley debate

The closure of the Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield revealed on Friday was met with understandable anguish from the world of athletics and beyond. The South Yorkshire stadium, built for £29m to host the World Student Games in 1991, is to be bulldozed in September just a year after its most high profile user, heptathlete Jessica Ennis clinched gold at London 2012 in the only athletics stadium larger than it in the country. With the word 'legacy' increasingly ridiculed as the chaotic debate over the future of Olympic Stadium rages, the decision is a bloody smash to the jaw for all those who had thought the under-appreciated sport would be sacrosanct in the eyes of UK councils for the next few years at least. 

On a simply mathematical level, the decision by Sheffield's Labour-run City Council appears the only option. The stadium costs £700,000 a year to run and a £1.6m repair bill was looming over the 25,000-seat venue. With local authorities and charities' budgets tightened by a Coalition Government with arts, culture and sport low on their shopping list amid a huge deficit, the reality of the situation is that the stadium was not viable. Moreover, while most large venues struggling to make ends meet in the UK have diversified into money-spinning concerts amid a spurt of reformations in the last 10 years, the Don Valley has struggled to rival the 13,500-seat Motorpoint Arena in attracting acts. 

One of the main reasons the decision has riled so many people is, of course, Jessica Ennis. Sheffield's golden girl, who made me and so many others proud to be associated with the city last summer, was first spotted as an athletic talent at a summer camp at the stadium when she was 10. Ennis' crowd-drawing ability is not in doubt as anyone who witnessed the crackling atmosphere on the morning of her first appearance at the Olympics or the 20,000 fans who turned out to see her given the keys to the city seven months ago will attest. She still trains at the stadium two days a week and her presence would doubtlessly attract hoards of fans to meets there when the outdoor season begins. 

However, Ennis is now 27 and few would bet against her retiring after the Brazil 2016 Olympics Games, a proven champion and a living legend as well as doubtless a model and pundit following her career. Ennis tweeted her dismay at the Don Valley's demise last week and said she had "great memories" of the stadium while her coach Toni Minichiello expressed anger. Sheffield City Council needs to look at what a stadium for the future looks like. At the moment, the stadium is empty for 23 hours of the day, used only by the likes of the Hallamshire Harriers club in the evenings or, until last year Rotherham United. Schoolchildren rarely use the facilities despite the attention given to the impact of the Olympics on the younger generation. The council has proposed to refurbishment of the nearby dilapidated Woodburn Road stadium in Attercliffe which was closed 18 months ago as a compromise. 

Observers will be watching the refurbishment project closely to see how outwardly the local authorities bang the development drum. If the potential gold medallists of tomorrow have walked out of the door with the Don Valley's closure, then it would be a great shame. The decline in number of great British athletes has long been in discussion - despite Ennis, Farah and Rutherford's golds in London, the six track and field medals was just about on target. Much like in tennis, a few individuals have masked a wider dearth of talent in British athletics from strong heritages in long distance running and triple jump. There are a multitude of reasons for this including cuts in National Lottery funding as well as lucrative wages in other sports such as football. However, this weekend's European Indoor Games shows we still have plenty of young talent.

Ultimately, the key is that athletics, whatever the effect of the Olympics, does not regularly draw crowds large enough to justify a 25,000 seater stadium. Likewise, the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is rarely anywhere near full. In reality, a smaller venue with other functions such as gigs as well as facilities such as gyms and swimming pools - a discipline Sheffield excels in - would be much more appropriate. Furthermore, the English Institute of Sport, a £24m facility opened in late 2003, also offers great opportunities to develop talent.

South Yorkshire is one of the key hotbeds for British athletics and, with careful planning and a heavy dose of realism, it will remain so.