Thursday, June 20, 2013

The original Jersey Boy: James Gandolfini 1961-2013

Talk to any actor famous for a particular part and they will, more than anything else, do their level best to divorce fiction from reality. Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy even named his first autobiography I Am Not Spock to get some distance from fans who found it hard not to think of him as the pointy-eared Vulcan.

James Gandolfini - who died today at the age of 51 while on holiday in Italy - was a serious actor, with the Broadway chops to prove it. But when The Sopranos came along in 1999, and effectively rewrote series television drama as anyone had known it, Gandolfini breathed life into one of TV's greatest characters.

Gandolfini's casting as the show's focal point - a New Jersey mob boss balancing suburban family life with the complex politics of his business - appeared to be an uncannily perfect fit. And as the series progressed, through six seasons, it became clear that creator David Chase had produced something extraordinary. I would even argue that The Sopranos was television's greatest ever series. And Anthony John Soprano its greatest ever character.

Gandolfini was born in 1961 to Italian-American parents in Westwood, a town in north-eastern New Jersey and close to where he was living up until his death. After graduating in communications from New Jersey's Rutgers University, Gandolfini moved to New York and working as a bartender, amongst other jobs, until his acting career took off with a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992. The following year he appeared in Tony Scott's True Romance as Virgil, an enforcer working for Christopher Walken's mobster Vincent Coccotti. It was a part that drew attention to Gandolfini when The Sopranos began casting.

There was, of course, far more to Gandolfini's canon than just Tony Soprano: at 6'1" and a substantial frame, Gandolfini filled the screen with presence in films like Get ShortyThe Mexican and most recently in Zero Dark Thirty as a Pentagon general.

This was a role he'd played before, in Armando Iannucci's big screen version of The Thick Of It, in which Gandolfini stole the show as a thunderously profane, Norman Schwarzkopf-style general who puts the equally potty-mouthed Malcolm Tucker firmly in his place for possibly the first time ever.

However, it was the role of Anthony John Soprano, crew boss in the fictional DiMeo crime family (said to be based on the real DeCavalcante family of New Jersey), who grew up in Newark's tough Ironbound neighbourhood the son of Johnny Boy Soprano before enjoying the comforts of life at 633 Stag Trail Road, North Caldwell in Jersey's considerably more upmarket Essex County.

The Sopranos was more than just another crime show. Part Shakespearian drama, part Greek tragedy, like The Godfather's depiction of the American dream, it depicted the American dream as suburban life.

Yes, it riled some Italian-Americans for being yet another portrayal of crime in their community, but it also held a mirror to modern day America, of modern American family life.

And that was the premise of Tony Soprano: a modern American dad balancing family life and 'family life', with random violence and moral ambiguity ever-present throughout.

"The Sopranos was ambiguous to the point where, to this day, I'm not really sure whether it was a drama or a comedy," it's creator told Vanity Fair last year.

If it was a comedy - and there were numerous funny moments (the best being the episode Pine Barrens, with Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti lost in the New Jersey woods) - it was certainly humour of the darkest shade.

Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano drove that darkness to its core. Through all six seasons it's there, played out in the Soprano kitchen, at the 'Bing or Satrale's, at Vesuvio, and most critically in Dr. Melfi's counselling room.

"We lost a giant today. I am utterly heartbroken," Lorraine Bracco - who played Melfi - said today at news of Gandolfini's death. It's a sentiment that has been shared by many.

"We're all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family," a statement on the HBO website for The Sopranos said. [James] was a special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect.  He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility.  Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time.  He will be deeply missed by all of us."

Since The Sopranos ended Gandolfini tried to put a little distance between him and his best known alter-ego. Acting, however, and particularly roles like Tony, had been useful. Last year he told the Associated Press that acting had become a means to deal with an inner rage.

"I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he said. "I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he added. "I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much."

Sopranos creator David Chase said today: "[James] was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes."

Those sad eyes. In Tony Soprano, truly the window of the soul. And in James Gandolfini, a brilliant actor whose life has been cut so short. RIP.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Never Let Me Down. Again: Depeche Mode live in Paris

Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode/Facebook

If you know your Bowie you'll know that the second half of the 1980s wasn't exactly a bright spot for The Dame. I'm being polite here, of course, because as most Bowie fans know, the creative highs of the 1970s, and the commercial vibrancy of Let's Dance were unceremoniously reversed by the albums Tonight and the presciently-titled Never Let Me Down, and it's supporting horror, the Glass Spider Tour.

Many shudder still at the premise of these shows, yours truly included. It was an artistic implosion, intended to be part rock show, part theatre (though it would inspire plenty to do similar. Yes, Pet Shop Boys, I mean you), and preposterously overblown (viz. Toni Basil-choregraphed performance dance, excruciatingly long Pete Frampton guitar solos, and precious little material from before 1983).

My mate Danny and I went to the second of the two Glass Spider shows staged at Wembley Stadium, unprepared for any of this. Princess Diana was in the audience that day, notably sans Charles. As a devotee of the fine arts, she probably got it. We didn't.

What we did get was the British summertime outdoor concert experience of torrential rain. Now, here was where we thought we had the edge, as I'd brought with me - and, miraculously, was allowed into Wembley with it - a large golf umbrella. Don't ask me what I was doing with a golf umbrella when I didn't then and haven't since played golf, but as the heavens opened, it became a highly practical accessory. And a magnet for two comely young ladies who asked if they could shelter underneath with us. Of course they could. And then one of them threw up copiously over my brand new, now-formerly bright red All Stars. At least it bought us an exclusion zone on the Bakerloo Line ride home.

Which brings me to Depeche Mode at the Stade de France, the clear Parisian equivalent of Wembley and, like all other concert-hosting stadia, about as useful for the enjoyment of music as installing an expensive sound system in a car with a gigantic, permanently open sunroof. Except that Depeche Mode are actually quite good at filling the enormous concrete doughnut.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is my first shock of the night. Although my 74,999 fellow punters know it already, and from the off make it clear, Basildon's Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher are here to deliver an infectious fusion of dance and rock via the racks of synthesisers (albeit now they're dinky little MIDI keyboards) that have been their hallmark, and an industrious, Bonhamesque German drummer by the name of Christian Eigner.

Opening with Welcome To My World and Angel from the excellent Delta Machine album, released in March, Ver Mode are here to trade off the adoration of a largely 40-plus crowd who are simply happy to see them, somewhere in the distance, obviously. The Stade de France stage is vast (just as well as Springsteen and the E-Street Band will be there at month's end), dominated by elaborate screens at the back showing arty Anton Corbijn videos.

Gahan is an energetic whippet of a performer. Not quite Freddie Mercury, but not far off, shimmying about the stage, wiggling his arse at every opportunity and twirling his microphone stand around like a cross between Rod Stewart and a drum majorette. This is a man who has died twice, technically speaking. That's how much of a showman he is.

Depeche Mode/Facebook
Next up is the moderate 1993 hit Walking In My Shoes, which brings the second shock of the night: Gore walking on stage with a vintage Gretsch guitar strapped around his neck.

For the rest of the night he changes guitars with every song, presenting an impressive array of six-string classics as if Richard Hawley was backstage handing over his personal connection.

The more concentrated, muso of the band, Gore is, of course, still the very essence of 1980s electronica, replete with silver skirt, bright blue nail varnish and matching eye shadow (get over it - this is nothing worse than Twister Sister or Mötley Crüe used to wear).

He is no axe hero, mind, but for the unreconstructed like me who still think of Depeche Mode as fey Essex boys stabbing one-fingered at synths on Top Of The Pops, seeing Gore stride the stage, pumping power chords into the crowd, brought previously restricted appreciation for a band who clearly are a lot more than my preconception dictated.

Since the opening song, the audience - including the wheezy types with the notes from Matron on the sides - are on their feet and bopping away. Bravely, this is no hits jukebox. Delta Machine provides the framework for the set, contributing seven tracks that intermingle with four from Violator, two each from Ultra and Playing The Angel, and four off Songs Of Faith And Devotion (including the Gore-fronted Judas and Heaven, in which he demonstrates a strong singing voice that, for artistic quality, is better than Gahan's throatier rawk'n'roll croon).

The lack of big hits rarely diminishes the audience frug, which only intensifies with the twanged guitar riff (I still can't believe I'm using those words…) of Personal Jesus, and a large number of marketing types in the audience mistakenly sing "Reach out, touch base" during its chorus.

After Delta Machine's Goodbye, the stage inevitably empties, allowing the band a quick reviver out of sight, and the audience an opportunity to try out their concert whistles. Gore reappears to sing the always haunting Home, leading the audience on an extended segment of communal singing which, for all its good-nature, makes you thankful that the drummer wasn't allowed a solo. If nothing else, it warms up 80,000 voices for Halo, which brings a moment akin to Queen's orchestration of massed hand clapping at Wembley for Radio Gaga.

Depeche Mode/Facebook
And then we're transported back to the very beginning, to the debut album Speak And Spell, 32 years ago, and I Just Can't Get Enough. Currently being used to sell Volkswagens (which may explain its choice tonight), it is a merry flashback to teenage years and awkwardly-dressed school discos.

For a song that appeared the same year as The Specials' Ghost Town was highlighting the social blight of Thatcher's Britain, this song by a band from Basildon, one of the Essex communities that would later be cited as being the shining example of Thatcher's revolution, delivered a contrast of chinking, beeping, thunking synth froth. And it still does.

Concert encores are highly unpredictable. Some bands drift back on to do one or two hits (unless they have a tantrum and don't reappear at all), whereas others persevere with more tracks off the new album, just in case anyone's forgotten the real reason they're out on tour. For Depeche Mode, their transition to full-blown stadium rock band is complete as their five-song encore moves on to I Feel You, which crunches engagingly away in a manner that proves U2 aren't alone at this game.

There is a circular irony to the final song of the night, 26 years, almost to the day, after my horrendous experience at Wembley for the Bowie tour to support his Never Let Me Down album, Depeche Mode dig into Music For The Masses for Never Let Me Down Again. It is as grandiose, as sweeping and as epic as any unholy alliance of dance music and stadium rock should be, synth chords and rhythm combined, and audience whipped into a pants-swinging frenzy.

And with that, they're off. And so are we. Back to brave the horrors of the RER back to Paris. 74,999 devotees and one convert. Who at least, this time, doesn't have the congealed contents of a stranger's stomach to ruin the evening's memory.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Happy Talk

It is by pure coincidence, I swear, that WWDBD?'s final blog post of the 2012-2013 football season and this one, which is, technically, the first of season 2013-14, should both feature as its headline a Captain Sensible song title. But blame José Mourinho. As, indeed, we'll be doing for most things by the end of the season.

With, precisely, the very first answer to the very first question posed today at Mourniho's official Stamford Bridge homecoming press conference, the Portuguese deadpanned, in that Jack Dee scowl way of his: "I am the Happy One."

Instantly, we made the assumption that José was being ironic, a little knowing in his answer. Which, in fairness, was a response to the predictable reminder from the floor that during his original unveiling to the press, in 2004, he'd declared himself "Special".

In, literally, a word, Mourninho marked his card as a property the media would never tire of poking with a stick to see what came out. And thus it has been ever since. And, yes, as everyone else has remarked, life is a little more fun with José around. Ron Manager he is not. Isn't it?

Much of today's presser, as journalists call them, dwelled on Mourinho's temperament. Was he calmer? "Calmer? I believe so," he responded, calmly, as if a) he was talking about emptying the dishwasher and b) he was expected to burst into a Basil Fawlty-style rage at the question.

We all know of the crazy, non-calm things Mourniho has done in the past: appearing to poke Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova in the eye, celebrating goals by knee-sliding across the technical area and, allegedly, being evacuated from Stamford Bridge in a laundry basket to avoid getting caught by UEFA's secret police.

This was a rock star performance without the rock star pretensions. Musicians, when they host press conferences, have a habit of disappearing up their own arses, talking about the need to reconnect with this and get to the essence of that. Mourinho is resolutely not in that camp, although he did end the press conference, answering a question about his weaknesses, with:

"If I speak of them, I have to say I'm trying to improve them. You don't speak about weaknesses with your enemy, and my enemy will read the papers and watch television. We hide our weaknesses. Every player, manager has weaknesses. You have to try to hide them. So I'm not giving that chance for the enemy... with respect because, in sports, an enemy is not really an enemy. I know my weaknesses, not much... not many... but I try to improve and hide them."

So he's not talking about his weaknesses, then. Still, he managed to crank the cool level up to 11, even when his speaking about "boys" sounded more like a disgraced priest than a Ron Atkinson giving it the full "boys done good" managerspeak.

If anything there was something muted about José today. Not quite caged animal, but restrained. Calm. He gave opaque reference to talking to John Terry about the future ("I know what he can give, so let's try to make him again the best player he can be"), gave nothing away about player acquisitions (beyond saying that it would be "normal" to bring in one or two) and spoke in somewhat glowing terms about how, since he departed British shores three of his "boys" - Steve Clarke, Brendan Rodgers and André Villas-Boas (later self-corrected to "not boys anymore") had moved on to take charge of the very teams that will be pushing Chelsea next year in their assault on Manchester.

That, is what makes next season such an intriguing proposition. One particular comment that stood out today is that when Mourinho first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, Arsène Wenger's Arsenal was the pace-setter. Nine years on, Wenger is the default elder statesman at the resident top end of the Premier League but with a reputation still struggling to maintain itself.

With the likes of Moyes and Pellegrini (himself due to be unveiled this week by Manchester City) settling in to their new clubs, and Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool champing at the bit, the competition around Mourinho will be far more intense than he's experienced in Italy or Spain. Not that he will be bothered. Because he'll be calm.

José's performance today was just like those Chelsea teams he nurtured to back-to-back league titles in his first two seasons at the Bridge: it was businesslike, a little boring and well defended. Unlike other managers - belligerent (Ferguson), mad (Strachan), paranoid (Warnock), indifferently Gallic (Wenger) - José projected his version of cool. Not cool in the Steve McQueen sense, but cool in sense.

Was he afraid of things coming unhinged again with Roman? "I hope I can go to the last day of the contract. If the club is happy and the club wants me to stay then I'll be more than happy to stay." You see? Calm.

But didn't it go spectacularly pear-shaped in 2007? "I read and keep reading that I was fired and we had a complete breakdown in relationship. At the time we thought it was the best for both of us [to go our separate ways]." Still calm.

And what about Andres Iniesta's claim that José "damaged" Spanish football while manager of Madrid? "I damaged Spanish football by being the manager that broke Barcelona dominance," he responded. Calmly.

It was a typical audience with the sports press, I suppose. Inane questions designed to goad the subject were dealt with without any noticeable signs of exuberance.

Have you changed? "Do I have a different personality? No, but for sure I have a different approach and perspective," without really saying what. Was he disappointed that neither Manchester United nor City had come in for him? "I am where I want to be - I wouldn't change it for anything." This was either glue-eyed rendering of the club Q&A or Mourinho's interpretation of Keith Richards' regular on-stage declaration: "It's great to be here. It's great to be anywhere."

Temperament aside, we learned very little today. Indeed, José did, very little. Throughout the entire 60-minute press conference his head hardly moved, his expression hardly changed. If he was happy to be there, it was impossible to tell. It wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that the blue touch paper is being kept desert dry. Because while ice may have been coursing through José's veins this afternoon, it's not why we can't get enough of the guy.

Ever since his return to Chelsea was first mooted, he has been talked of like no other returnee to a football club I can ever think of. Before he'd even been announced, officially, as the new first team coach at Chelsea, column inches - from the front to the back pages, stopping off at the Women's section en route - had been devoted to him.

With David Beckham retiring to add Miami to his collection of exotic operational hubs, and Sir Alex Ferguson stepping upstairs to start a new chewing gum mountain in the Old Trafford boardroom, Mourinho's return to centre stage in the English sports media has injected some much-needed fairy dust into the line-up of somewhat dull technocrats that pervade the game.

Anyone who has ever met real stars - and I'm not talking about about reality show wannabees in a Mayfair nightclub, but proper, rock'n'roll, Hollywood celebrities - know that part of what makes them a star is their aura. Plenty have said that of Bill Clinton. No jokes please.

Mourinho has that aura. But rather than being a smug looking show pony (not sure why Simon Cowell comes to mind there), he has the record to back it up: two Champions League titles, a UEFA Cup, two league titles each in Portugal, England and Italy, the Spanish title, and domestic cup trophies in all four countries he's coached in. And, as he pointed out, "At 50, I think I am still very young as a manager and I think it is like the beginning of a new period." I can't wait.

Read the full transcript of José Mourinho's press conference on The Independent's website here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Call off the search: Rodriguez at the Zenith, Paris

In our cynical, seen-it-all-before, want it now, needed it yesterday, over-savvy age, a film as profoundly uplifting as Searching For Sugar Man could so easily have been dismissed into the depths of obscurity its subject, Rodriguez, spent the best part of four decades.

If you still haven't seen Searching For Sugar Man, I won't completely spoil the full enjoyment of it here with the details, save to say you would have to be a terminally miserable bugger not walk home from a screening of Malik Bendjelloul's utterly heartwarming documentary, about Sixto Rodriguez, with a smile on your face and, for a couple of hours at least, the feeling that all can be good in this world.

Which is really what brought French fans of all ages out for the second of three nights in Paris to see the Mexican-American folk singer who released just two albums, in 1970 and 1971, which sank without trace elsewhere, but managed to maintain the democracy movement in South Africa.

When the tour dates were first announced, I - along with almost everyone else buying tickets, I suspect - almost felt a sense of duty to attend.

At 70, and in less than perfect health or wellbeing, on the principal of 'soonest given, soonest given away', this was to be our only opportunity to share in the phenomenon captured in Bendjelloul's deservedly Oscar-winning film.

Searching For Sugar Man successfully presented Rodriguez as something between a cult and national folk hero in South Africa. He was characterised as a guitar-strumming Mandela, imprisoned by the injustices of music industry greed and his own self-questioning of a system that had not only deprived him of the riches of his contemporaries, but had denied him further opportunities to exploit the songwriting talents clearly audible in those two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality.

Thus, the opportunity to put money into the bare coffers that have kept Rodriguez in near breadline poverty for all these years, has - admittedly - induced a somewhat pious spirit, but also one of genuine warmth from the crowds that came to the enlarged school sports hall that is the Zenith.

There is a palpable sense of affection from the audience as the near-blind Rodriguez is helped onstage by one of his daughters. This is no affectation, no James Brown gimmick. As the night wears on it's clear that Sixto's eyesight is so poor he can hardly find the microphone in front of him.

Clad in black, from floppy hat to toe, Rodriguez and band launches into Climb Up On My Music, affording his backing musicians the first opportunity of the evening to let loose like a carefully restrained Doors-style wigout.

Only Good For Conversation follows, with the line "My statue's got a concrete heart, but you're the coldest bitch I know!" given an extra-special vibrancy. With Crucify Your Mind next, Rodriguez has already worked through three of the songs that have made his two albums belatedly acclaimed for their lyrical and melodic colour.

It is, sadly, on this third song of the evening that the health issues that forced Rodriguez to cancel two dates last week in Spain and Portugal come to the fore. His voice is clearly struggling - despite cups of some medical beverage - and he only draws attention to this by attempting a cover of I Only Have Eyes For You.

What may have appeared to be a one-off frog in the throat continues through the evening. To their credit - and with the exception of one or two idiots - the audience demonstrates remarkable tolerance, even encouraging Rodriguez to carry on.

Alternating between covers (including a brave stab at La Vie En Rose) and his own material, the crowd's affectionate encouragement carries him through each number, even when it appears the set list Rodriguez is following is in his head, and not necessarily the set the band are meant to be following.

Sugar Man earns rapturous appreciation, as does I Wonder, the anachronisms of its words being lost totally in the waves of goodwill being thrown stageward. Other acapella or guitar-accompanied covers, like the standard Love Me Or Leave Me and even Unchained Melody, suffer badly but are kept afloat by the crowd's determination to see Rodriguez through it, it being a surprisingly good cover of Like A Rolling Stone, a knowing choice for a man inevitably described as "the Chicano Dylan".

It would be wrong to dwell too much on the malady of the evening. For anyone else - and especially an A-lister - the crowd would have revolted and demanded their money back long before the encore. But Rodriguez is a truly fascinating figure in musical history, who could have walked on stage and repeatedly read out a bus timetable for an hour and still had the crowd willing him on to the end.

Perhaps I'm too generous in not viewing Rodriguez objectively: there are plenty of other performers in or about their 70s - the Stones, McCartney, Roger Waters - still out there performing to the highest standards. Perhaps, too, we came to the Zenith to celebrate the character's backstory, rather than the character today. Perhaps we came to take our hats off to a humility that maintained Rodriguez through his years of obscurity, eeking out a living doing manual labour, apparently unperturbed by what might have been. But if nothing else at least we can now say: "we found the Sugar Man".

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Roses grow on you: the Stone Roses, live at La Cigale, Paris

They came from the north, they came from the south. They came for the day by Eurostar, they came for the evening by Metro.

Their hair may have been greying, their kids may have been at home, doing homework under the au pair's supervision, they may have been squeezed into adidas tops, they may have been mostly the same nationality, but they were all disciples convening to celebrate the resurrected, if you will, to jog on the spot, primate-style, to one of the greatest British rock bands ever to produce just two albums before disintegrating.

The Stone Roses, for it is they, are on the heritage trail, pure and simple. With no new material to promote (though John Squire has hinted at "three or four" new tracks in the works), this congregation of disciples at La Cigale in Paris is a continuation of what began in 2011 with their unexpected but much savoured reformation.

For a band that collapsed amid catastrophic acrimony following the tour for only their second album, the Roses were greeted in Paris last night as if they'd been going solidly for the last two decades. To be fair, they do perform as if they've been going as long.

The music is built around the little-altered formula held together by Mani's subtly intricate bass work and Reni's cleverly understated drumming, John Squire's guitar - a contribution comparable to Johnny Marr's in The Smiths - and Ian Brown's mainly flat vocals (some things will never change, it would appear).

In total, it's an infectious chug that keeps the calf muscles properly exercised for the better part of 90 minutes. And it is wildly appreciated by the 1000-strong crowd, noticeably Anglo-French in its composition, but with a significant bias towards the Brits - local expats and day trippers alike.

Fools Gold, I Am The Resurrection, Waterfall, She Bangs, Made of Stone, Adored, Ten Storey Love - like artillery shells on a battlefield they thud into the wildly receptive crowd, one after another, with little fanfare from the band.

Brown's stage presence is a curious one. Clearly the prototype for Liam Gallagher, albeit without the ridiculous school playground thug demeanour, Brown seems to studiously avoid overstating his role as the band's lyrical and vocal outlet. When not singing, he's conducting the crowd with a pair of shakers, as if a sorcerer waving a pair of wands to command even more wild frugging from the floor.

The interaction between bandmates, too, is minimal. Perhaps this is nothing more than the unspoken respect four very old friends have for each other, or the possibility that a fragility remains even now in their relationships after so much discord.

Whatever is keeping it intact is doing so well. In principle it's rock - with Squire's numerous flushes of Jimmy Page-like strutting spotlighting how good a rock guitarist he is - and sometimes its just hard-edged dance music.

Whatever it is and whatever it was last night, it was something ragged and perfectly formed at the same time. The Roses may have set the bar high for their generation with the famous Spike Island concert, and their Manchester homecomings last year at Heaton Park reignited the flames of adulation that had licked at the Roses' boots for the latter 80s and early 90s. Squeezed into the pocket confines of La Cigale, what the Roses lose from not having a tens of thousands massed before them is more than made up for by the 1000 loving every single minute of it.

Monday, June 03, 2013

And so begins the great summer of music

That, if I'm very much not mistaken, is the sun in the sky. A long-lost friend offering a warm embrace. And to make things even more agreeable, it has appeared on the stroke of June.

Here in Paris, where until last week, coats, scarves and your own breath was still visible in the cold morning air, the sense of relief is palpable. Waiters once again have the opportunity to ignore even more customers, now that tables are being spread out on the pavements.

The beginning of June contains a more meaningful commencement for WWDBD? -  the start of the summer gig season.

Tonight it's the Stone Roses at La Cigale, one of those delightfully compact, turn-of-the century theatres near the sin spots of Pigalle.

Of course, it will be no Spike Island, and there's a good chance that at least one of the Roses will fail to turn up, such is the delicacy of their reunification. I doubt, that would bother tonight's crowd, as long as whatever band Ian Brown gathers together plays though the Roses' incredible two album.

The Roses never really took in France, so La Cigale will, tonight, have a distinctly British, beered-up, football ground vibe to it. Fellow expats - mainly in or approaching middle age - will be primate-dancing alongside Eurostar-hopping Brits amazed they can see the band up closer than they would in arenas across the Channel.

And then Tuesday it's the musical phenomenon of the last 24 months. No, not an evening of Gangnam Style, but Rodriguez, the 'Chicano Dylan', who disappeared in 1971 after releasing just two albums, only to be tracked down to his rundown Detroit home by two South African musos with a filmmaker in tow.

The resulting film, Searching For Sugarman, was one of the most moving and uplifting films I've seen in many a year. Discovering the enchanting re-released Rodriguez albums (and hopefully filling his criminally deprived coffers) has introduced me to a songwriting talent whose talent , both of his original time and relevant now. 

Whether or not Sixto Rodriguez can carry it off in the enormous shed that is the Zenith in Paris remains to be seen. But as an opportunity to commune with the nearest pop has got to the actual Second Coming, Tuesday should be an event to remember.

Two weeks hence and my first ever live experience of the band Smash Hits referred to always as "Ver Mode" - Depeche Mode, playing  the vast Stade de France.

The last gig I saw there was the Black Eyed Peas. Viewed from a corporate box over what would be, in its normal use, the half-way line, they could have actually been peas, such was distance to the stage. There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to stadium concerts: when you find yourself staring up at the video screens more than looking at the small and indistinguishable figures on stage, you probably should have stayed at home.

The Peas, as I recall, were only visible from my box thanks to them wearing stage costumes illuminated by LED lights. I doubt that Bruce Springsteen will need such gimmicks to be seen at the same venue when he plays there on June 29.

He is The Boss for a very good reason: this is what he does. His concerts are four-hour marathons, celebrations of fist-pumping, denim-clad blue collar rock. He invented the modern stadium rock experience, despite what U2 might claim. Such venues take a rare talent to truly make them fill out, but my expectations are high for a long evening of the sound of working class New Jersey brought to a mixed used stadium on the northern outskirts of Paris.

Facebook/Bruce Springsteen/Jo Lopez
Into July and the live experiences continue with The Who, continuing the current penchant for bands to tour entire albums by bringing Quadrophenia in its entirety to the Palais de Bercy.

Written as a rock opera in the first place, it was almost designed to fill cavernous venues like this, although whether Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend can, even at their tender years, still give it the maximum R'n'B remains to be seen.

Anyone expecting the fireworks of The 'Orrible 'Oo's heydays is clearly mad, but after seeing them last year at the Paralympics closing ceremony, I'm going to be blissfully accepting of all but the most disastrous of performances. It's The Who after all. So shut up.
Nowhere near as deafening will be Hugh Laurie, who brings his affectionate and highly proficient take on jazz-tinged New Orleans blues to the Grand Rex theatre in Paris in July.

With two excellent albums under his belt - Let Them Talk and Didn't It Rain - he has already demonstrated just how accomplished a blues performer is on a previous tour. This is not actor indulging himself, but an authentic take on the live sounds that pour out of Bourbon Street bars any given night of the week, which should sound just as foot-stomping in the environs of a classic old Parisian theatre.

Over the last few years I've enjoyed some great evenings in Montreux's Stravinski Auditorium, the principal venue of the annual Jazz Festival. Solomon Burke, BB King, Jimmy Cliff, Noel Gallagher, Booker T & The MGs, Van Morrison, Naturally 7, The Crusaders and, probably, one of the best gigs I've ever experienced - Lenny Kravitz in a sweaty July night of rock and funk.

This year the festival will be without its charismatic founder, Claude Nobs, but it will go some way to make up for his tragic absence by featuring Prince on the weekend of July 13. While London's Hyde Park will be rocking to the Rolling Stones, What Would David Bowie Do? will be in the Stavinski Auditorium for the pocket-sized legend to deliver, what I hope will be a very special evening indeed - especially if it is anywhere near as good as his performance during The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame all-star tribute to George Harrison in 2008. Possibly one of the greatest solo guitar performances I've ever seen.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Doctor What?

Pictures courtesy of the BBC

Those who remember the BBC's "anarchic" 80s comedy The Young Ones may recall its final episode which begins with Rick, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil very bored indeed in the garden on the first day of the college summer holiday.

"I'm bored and deserve to die! This is the end. Armageddon!" declares Vyvyan, adding the Sex Pistols' "No future!" for good measure. He then pulls out a hand grenade, removes the pin and waits for the bang. It doesn't go off. "Bastard!", he exclaims. 80s comedy, eh?

Summer is, mostly, boring. If you're of school age, it's six weeks of amazing adventures, which actually soon becomes two weeks of bucket-and-spade time followed by four weeks of kicking a football against the garage.

If you're the sports editor of a national newspaper, it's three months of idle speculation about which manager is going where, and what players are being bought for silly amounts by clubs with more money than sense.

Showbiz editors rarely get such a summer as they're too busy pouring over pictures of papped celebrities turning pink on a beach, and then calling it news because a) they've "dramatically" lost weight and friends are now "concerned", b) they've "dramatically" put on weight, and friends are now "concerned", or that they're wearing clothing of such skimpiness that they have "left little to the imagination" (note to newspapers who do this - if you keep saying that items of clothing leave little to the imagination, our imaginations will soon get the message. OK?).

This summer, in Britain at least, showbiz editors and, for that matter, online betting sites, will be whipping themselves into a frenzy over the identity of the next star of Doctor Who (an occasional feature which, along with speculation about a new James Bond, is the closest Brits get to the Vatican appointing a new Pope).

Because, within minutes of news escaping on Saturday night that Matt Smith would be stepping down in December, at the end of the show's 50th year, the speculation began in earnest. Already names like Idris Elba, John Hurt (who cryptically appeared as 'The Doctor' at the end of the latest run), David Harewood from Homeland, Harry Potter's Rupert Grint, and Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman, are being tipped.

There have even been ridiculous suggestions that Tom Cruise should do it, as well as, bizarrely, David Beckham. And, maddest of all, Simon Cowell, although one can imagine most Doctor Who viewers actually willing the Daleks to exterminate him back to the grammatically torturous Britain's Got Talent on ITV.

However, the maddest suggestions of all have come from newspapers suggesting the next Doctor should be a woman. Odds have even been shortened to 20/1 on Dame Helen Mirren getting the gig, or Twenty Twelve's Olivia Colman or Zawe Ashton from Channel 4's Fresh Meat.

This is a touchy subject: suggestions that a future James Bond could be played by a black actor have met with howls of disagreement, not from racists but traditionalists who still see Bond as the Ian Fleming ideal - tall, dark and white. That the role is currently being played by a short blond man has shown some tolerance. But the traditionalists do have a point. The character was designed a certain way.

I know we're dealing with the creative industry here, darling, and that if Ken Branagh wants to remake Henry V as a modern day battlefield epic he damn well will, but does everything have to be turned upside down and inside out just for the sake of freshness, creativity and interest? Would you recast Mary Poppins with a bloke? Should we remake The Diary of Anne Frank as The Diary of Anton Frank? Should the Wonder Woman reboot star...OK, you know where I'm going with this.

When he first appeared in 1963 - in a fragile world still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy 24 hours earlier - the Doctor was a strange and even sinister character, a grumpy, grandfatherly time traveller escaping his home world in a hot-wired time machine.

William Hartnell played this character to distinction. Over the years - as Hartnell gave way to Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee (my 'first' Doctor), Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and all the rest - the character evolved into something more whimsical, right up to Smith today. That no female actor has been cast up until now probably does have something to do with television's inherent sexism - the Doctor's long line of comely assistants (shout out, there, to Nicola Bryant as Peri) hasn't been any accident, any more so than the real star of Baywatch was never the beach or The Hoff.

And while, I'm sure, a female Doctor would give the scriptwriters all sorts of licence to go off into directions never before travelled by the previous eleven incarnations, wouldn't it just feel wrong?

Since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, its showrunners Russell T Davis and latterly Steven Moffat have boldly gone where no British teatime sci-fi show has gone before, wonderfully testing the Daily Mail's anti-BBC intolerance by introducing the bisexual Captain Jack Harkness character and the bizarre lesbian relationship between Madame Vastra, who appears to be a lizard, and Jenny Flint, a Victorian Londoner. OK, different. Brilliant, actually. Quite properly, the fact that these characters are gay never becomes a focal point, although there are one or two reactionary journalists amongst the British tabloid press who might deem this to some form of pinko BBC PC subversion.

In addition, they've given Doctors Ecclestone, Tennant and Smith some strong female co-stars - Billie Piper's Rose Tyler (one of the best 'human' characters in the series' history), Catherine Tate's gobby Donna Noble, not to mention Alex Kingston's cross between Indiana Jones and Alien's Ripley, River Song. But the idea of making the Doctor female is just mad to me.

The fact that, according to The Sun, "Sources said several female stars are in the running to be the show’s 12th Time Lord", suggests that this is more than just an early summer silly season story. In fact, it sounds more like the kind of BBC political correctness that had moved half its staff from London to Salford to be more representative and have more sports presenters read out the footy results with a Northern accent.

If some sci-fi writer wants to go ahead and create a female time traveller, or a male nanny who flies across London by umbrella, or dramatise the story of a teenage Dutch boy who hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, go ahead, with my blessing, and fill your boots. Just don't put a lady Doctor in the TARDIS. Apart from anything else, we now know the TARDIS is a she, and that wouldn't be good for the chemistry.