Tour de France 2014

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Bravery Exists

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The studio smelt clean, but not clinical, looked modern with relaxed lighting and a cool ambience. Rap music boomed somewhere in the back: it spoke of an alien culture to me, another world. A studious thrum filled the air, a high-pitched chatter carefully marking ink on skin in the background. Businesslike.

I asked for Gold Frank, we waited and a head popped up. ‘Can I help?’ Introductions done, a mutual friend. Perching on the edge of a pool table we talked about script, freehand, ‘on the day we’ll just do it’ he said. Trust, I thought. Stripped off, a bicep exposed. Silently impressed. My card marked, deposit left, the flash just a memory.

So my first tattoo, a swift decision made after a long gestation. Wednesday arrives, but the nerves don’t. A late appointment gives my mind plenty of time to work its magic, to no avail. In the pre sitting interview, we discuss what I want and where I want it. He gets down to sketching it out on paper. Freehand curves, traditional methods. Brush pens, red, orange. Biro sharpens the image, tight curves are carefully but swiftly drawn, transferred on to carbon. Transferred onto my skin, it feels cold and smells of alcohol.

The preparation of the equipment takes some time. Meticulous and clinical. The method is reassuring and fascinating. Pots of ink set in vaseline anchors, needles cracked out of pristine packets, bright shiny heads, diamond textured glint in the light. Laid on the bed, the cold vinyl against my skin, I remark. ‘You’ll soon warm up’ comes the knowing reply.

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Clingfilm wraps the resting pad and the silence in the studio before the needle starts is heavy with anticipation. ‘This your first?’ he asks, ‘Yes’ I say, ‘any tips?’ A pause ‘just lay still’. He begins his work, under the lights. I focus on the leaves barely hanging on to the branches outside the window. It’s hard to describe the pain, so conscious was I dealing with it at the time. I can see why people get addicted to this pain: it ebbs and flows, stops and starts, it scratches, burns, sears, tickles. The artist is expert, moving quickly, wiping, seemingly aware of pain thresholds.

I lose track of time; the two-hour session is a blur of concentration and realisation that my skin will never be the same again. The bare bones of the script is worked on and the design takes shape, ‘I’ll do whatever I think when I’m doing it, see how I feel’ he’d said. There is a bond of trust between artist and sitter, unusually for me I am quite relaxed about the end result. It’s out of my hands and I quite like that freedom.

My left eye waters with the pinching pain, palms sweat coldly. He was right: I did warm up. During cool interludes, I steal brief glimpses of the emerging ink amidst swollen red flesh and smeared blood. I have pins and needles in my right arm, quite literally and in turn, loud rap music throbs in time with the dancing of the needle. The main outline was the hardest to bear, the shading a breeze by comparison and at last came the fine detailed work which brought another dimension to the pain, exquisitely short and sharp.

And then, at once, he was finished. Seemingly satisfied with his endless filigree of curves, the artist sets down his needles, cleanly wipes the inside of my arm and invites me to take a look in the mirror. I’m elated, the complex and delicate artwork serves its fleshy canvas properly. Photographs are taken, iPhones at the ready, Instagram images posted.

The vast inky wound (for it is so) is wrapped in cling film and taped top and bottom with masking tape. The instruction is to slather the tattoo in Bepanthen (nappy rash cream, finding a new market clearly) and keep it out of water. I tentatively pull on my jacket, the tight leather sleeves  make me wince. The balance is paid, a handshake and I’m out of the door into the darkened streets, drinking in the cool autumn air.

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Time on my hands

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Last week we visited the wonderful Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds. Don’t worry, I’m not going all Fred Dibnah on your ass but I will be singing the praises of industrial revolution heavy metal, incredible artistry and bygone age.

Armley Mills sits unassumingly on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal in a part of the city that has seen better days. Clearly it was once at the heart of the action, but things have moved on and the enormous mill complex still sits proudly, elegantly even; a potent symbol of the birth of the city that now exists: all modern and hoity toity, forgetful of its past.

This proud mill is home to an eclectic collection of industrial revolution evidence. Enormous weaving machines still trundle, doing the job they were designed to do over a century ago, solid printing presses stand frustratingly still, evidencing Leeds’ heritage in this industry. Huge iron beasts sit in their rust waiting patiently for their time to come again. Unknown histories dwell in the machinery, a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of a city famous for forgetting its heritage as quickly as possible.

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This resting place is home to iron steam giants, locomotives built in the city by firms long gone: engineering ingenuity and brute strength forgotten and unvalued. Wandering around this engaging and lovingly curated assembly, the question at the front of my mind was can this collection of yesteryear tell us anything about the city we live in today? Leeds was at the forefront of invention and ambition and the sheer effort and intelligence required to build and develop this technology surely inspires the inventors and innovators of today. I think there’s no difference between software developers working on a life-changing iPhone app and a steam engineer refining one of his engines. Maybe I’m going off on one, but take a visit and see for yourself.

There’s also currently a lovely temporary exhibition in Armley Mills featuring renowned Leeds Clock maker Potts Clocks. The Leodiensian horologists (now I am going off on one) are famous for providing pretty much all of the public clocks in the city and across the country. Their distinctive  trademark hour hand is easy to spot and there is much satisfaction to be gained spotting these elegant timepieces around Leeds. There is a melancholy but satisfying air to the ticking, whirring machinery, seconds and minutes marked off efficiently, as if they were insignificant, easy to retrieve.

Worth a visit, if you can find the time.

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Live at Leeds

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imageSo was Live at Leeds any good?

It’s been steadily growing over the past few years and for one reason or another, I’ve not actually attended. This year, I finally managed to get my ass in gear and get along to the musical takeover of Leeds.

First thing to note is that the venues are spread out. Although Leeds has a very compact city centre, there was only a handful of venues in walking distance of each other with the Brudenell Social Club ( my favourite venue in Leeds), the University and Leeds Met all a short cab ride or long walk away.

I don’t think this was a major issue but it did require careful planning if you wanted to see your favourite bands as logistics were an issue. We decided to stay pretty central with great venues like the cockpit, Leeds Trinity church, Milo and Wardrobe all hosting interesting, if obscure bands.

This approach would pay dividends, leaving our schedule in the flexible hands of the gods. I think at music festivals it is possible to plan too much – my experience is that is a schedule is rigorously followed then the serendipitous discovery of music is missed.

First up was xxx as Trinity church. A lovely venue this, where I’d previously seen BSP deliver a sublime performance, and it definitely produces a reverential atmosphere as one of the oldest churches in the city centre. Ethereal pop tunes wafted across the crowd and we decided that we should move on.

That’s another thing about music festivals: it’s all about the timing and unless the performer is smashing it, it’s always time to move on.

Next up was a random pick at Milo. The X Cat Trio billed themselves as ‘punk skiffle’ and someone said – perhaps it was me – its the yorkshire stray cats. This was enough for me and we crammed into what is probably one of the smallest venues I’ve ever been in. We found ourselves literally toe to toe with the band which was an exciting visceral experience. The trio bounced out rockabilly skiffle tunes for half an hour and it was the most fun I’ve had in a gig for a long time. It reminded me why I love live music and for me set Live at Leeds alight. Wonderful.

A short respite over Cocktails at Maven ( well worth a look if you get the chance) and we headed off to the Cockpit to see teenybopper combo The 1975. We were faced with near riot conditions outside the venue with a one in one out rule in operation, clearly this was a band people wanted to see. With our press wristbands we eventually managed to get in to a rammed cockpit. The 1975 are a perfectly serviceable pop rock band that we’ve seen plenty of times before and this seems to be the 2013 version. We left after a few songs so someone who wanted to see them could get in.

Time was marching on, but a gig goer marches on his stomach so we decamped to the Aagrah for a swift curry and catch up with friends. That’s the other thing to point out about LAL – you have to be the gig going equivalent of speedy Gonzales to get anywhere near seeing a lot of bands. The pace is frenzied and probably aimed at a younger, dedicated crowd.

As we tucked into lamb chops we shared experiences and planned our next gig. We opted for Leeds legend Mickey P Kerr at Milo. I’d first seen MPK at Leeds festival a few years ago on the unsigned stage and loved his eclectic mix of poetry (in the John Cooper Clarke vein), folk, rapping and hip hop. Upstairs at Milo was predictably rammed with folk who knew his stuff inside out and it was a cracking half hour with laugh out loud observations and gat tunes. Must go see him do a full gig next time.

It was getting late now and we were flagging so more cocktails ensued and our gigging ended when we met with fellow Globetroffers for a final drink or two. I wished that we’d seen more bands but the ones we did see were excellent and in their own way a perfect snapshot of Live at Leeds. It got me in the mood for live music in small venues and to that end it was massively successful and it was great to see the city centre thronged with music lovers albeit the worse for wear as the day wore on.

Live at Leeds is a fantastic key component to the cultural life of the city and I’d love to see it grow further. It captures beautifully what Leeds is about from the commercial to the quirky, from the up and coming to the unsigned…we have plenty of corporate music opportunity now the arena has finally landed but LAL provides a vital stepping stone in the musical life of Leeds.

Machineries of Joy

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I’ve written many times about British Sea Power on this blog and I make no apologies about how much I love their music.

April 2013 saw the release of their 6th studio album Machineries of Joy (if you count the controversial soundtrack-only Man of Aran, which I do) and after a two-year hiatus where the band has concentrated on trialling new material and hosting the eccentric Krankenhaus club nights in Brighton, the band are back on the road touring a new album.

The album has been lauded by the critics perhaps slightly more than usual with phrases like ‘coming of age’ and ‘good to have them back’ and whilst this is always a good sign, the audience will be the judge of that. It;’s fair to say that BSP plough their own persistent furrow, doggedly avoiding anything that can be vaguely described as commercial.

Although their anti-cash-making instincts may have eluded them with Machineries of Joy.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t Thriller. It’s not an album that they can retire to the South of France on, in fact I doubt if they will be able to retire to South London on it. But there is a more grown up acceptance of who they are and a lush production job makes up for their earlier sparsely produced affairs. There’s a great mix of stomping rockers and melodious, large format tunes that deliver the most satisfying album since Do You Like Rock Music? Time will tell if this album can deliver above that (and I think it can) but what I do know if the new songs are a revelation live and this is usually where BSP and their audience get to know the new album.

Last week was the Leeds Met UNi gig and this is a thrillingly small venue with enough space to get a decent audience in and I’ve seen a good few BSP gigs there. This time seemed different somehow – yes they delivered familiar crowd pleasers Remember Me, Carrion et al – but only after we’d been hypnotised for an hour with mesmerizing, melodic tunes. Usually I’d be getting agitated that everything wasn’t kicking off, but not this time.

It almost seemed like they’d slipped into another gear: happy to be delivering raucous rock anthems to the faithful but alongside these they seemed to have more faith in their ability to inhabit the expansive spaces of Machineries of Joy. BSP has always about the contradiction of orchestral and full tilt guitar but these have often been at odds with each other, requiring different sets or in some cases evenings. But something has changed somehow, a small but discernible shift in the band that could open doors for them.

I’m looking forward to seeing what might happen at this next stage…

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Many thanks to Carl Milner for the superb selection of images – more here

Eat it don’t tweet it

One of the many hazards of being an avid foodie and obsessive social media type is the inevitable picture taking at the dinner table in restaurants. I’m keen to tweet and blog about my food (and those of you that follow me will no doubt know that) but I do prefer to keep the picture taking bit low key.

I understand that some foodie/social types like to keep the image quality at the top end but I do draw the line at DSLR kit in a dining room. Even the smaller point and shoot can be a pain. So the iPhone is the camera of choice for me, especially the later models like the 4S which has a very good camera on it, so much so that I now find no reason to carry my Canon Ixus around with me.

Even restaurants have got used to customers discreetly snapping away. The other evening I was trying to take a photograph of our stunning meal of Pyrenean milk-fed mountain lamb in Kendell’s Bistro, but the romantic lighting was not helping. The manager was alive to my photographic predicament and even offered to turn the ‘big’ light on for me. The lamb was seriously good, by the way.

Even with discreet iPhone cameras it can get out of hand if multiple diners are all snapping away and it’s interesting how more and more people are taking pics of their food, especially in nice restaurants. Somebody said to me recently ‘eat it, don’t tweet it’ which I took as a polite rebuke for my obsessional habit but do you know what? I’ll do both thank you very much.