Travel tips for Japan (mostly Tokyo)

We’ve just got back from our second trip to Japan. We spent 9 nights in Tokyo before going to Fuji Rock Festival (in Niigata Prefecture) and finishing up with a few days in Osaka/Kyoto.

A few people said to me they’re thinking of going to Japan soon so I thought I’d put together a few tips we’ve picked up along the way (mostly about Tokyo). If you’re going to Japan, I hope they help; if you’re thinking about going, DO IT!

I’ve split this post up into two parts: the important (boring) stuff like weather, trains and money; and fun stuff such as where you can drive go karts on the streets of Tokyo, buy vinyl records, or find an all you can eat KFC.

The Important stuff

Summer in Japan can be sweltering 

Being a Queenslander I wasn’t worried about going to Japan during Summer. How hot could it be? Answer: VERY HOT. It was humid with temps in the high thirties for most of our trip. Admittedly this was during a record-breaking heatwave that hospitalised 70,000 people, but still, if you don’t like humidity, avoid southern Japan in July or August (which is also typhoon season).

Take cash everywhere

Last time we were in Japan (2013), hardly anywhere accepted credit cards, and finding an ATM that took Australian cards was like a real life game of Where’s Wally. Weirdly, many of the ATMs were only open during business hours. Things have improved a lot now, but there are still lots of places that only take cash, so it’s a good idea to always have at least ¥10,000 ($125 AUD) on you.

The trains are excellent (but confusing)

Japan’s railways are fast, efficient and ultra-punctual (make sure to experience the shinkansen or bullet train). They can also be confusing. The Tokyo route map looks like someone threw a bowl of Spaghetti at a map, while major stations can be disorientating labyrinths of train lines, platforms and exits.

To get around Tokyo, get yourself a Suica card (and a JR Rail Pass if you’re doing lots of long-distance travel), map your journeys out in advance with the Google Maps app, and allow double the time you think you’ll need to change trains. Be careful which train you get on—we once got on a ‘Rapid’ instead of a ‘Commuter Rapid’ and ended up missing our stop by 40 kilometres…

English isn’t as widely spoken as you might expect

Surprisingly, English is not as widely spoken or understood in Japan compared to many other popular international destinations where English isn’t the primary language. People in Tokyo and other major cities will usually know some English, and English signage is generally good in tourist areas, but it’s good to have the Google Translate App installed on your phone.

Convenience stores are your friend

While you wouldn’t buy a sandwich from a convenience store in Australia unless you’re trying to test your body’s resistance to salmonella, Japanese convenience stores sell cheap and tasty pre-packaged meals including bento boxes, noodle bowls and rice balls. They usually have microwaves too, making it a convenient way to get a cheap meal.

Airbnb and Uber in Japan

Uber is only in Tokyo, but there’s no need to use it. Trains cover most places you’ll need to go, and if you do need to get a taxi it’s actually not a horrible experience like it is everywhere else on earth. The taxis are clean, and the drivers are polite and won’t rip you off. Install the JapanTaxi app (iOS, Android), and try to have the address of where you’re going written down in Japanese.

As for Airbnb, there are lots of good places to stay (our Airbnb in Osaka was the best place we stayed in), but a recent new law saw the removal of about 50,000 listings, so before you book check with the Airbnb that they have permission to operate.

The fun stuff

Weird and whacky things to do

I recommend spending a night in a capsule hotel, go-karting on the streets of Tokyo, and visiting a cat cafe. Other cheap and fun things to do include getting photos at a Japanese photo booth (¥400 or $5 AUD) and wandering through Don Quijote, which is sort of like a 24-hour all-in-one Costco / Chemist Warehouse / Reject Shop and a great place to buy cheap little gifts for people. Oh, and if you’re in Osaka, there’s an all-you-can-eat KFC

There is good coffee if you go looking for it

Hot canned coffee (weird, right?) and drip coffee are popular in Japan, but there’s an increasingly good speciality coffee scene too. Kannon Coffee based in Nagoya is excellent, and the coffee at Kamon Hostel in Osaka was really good too. You will find good coffee if you look hard enough for it, otherwise, Japanese Starbucks is at least better than Starbucks in most countries and will serve up a passable cup of coffee with a smile (and free Wi-Fi).

God’s nectar: Pocari Sweat

Thirsty? Drink Pocari Sweat. Feeling hot? Drink Pocari Sweat. Hungover? Drink Pocari Sweat. What is it you ask? Well it’s an “ion supply drink” according to the bottle, but I’d describe as being a slightly salty, slightly sweet sports drink with a hint of lemon/grapefruit flavour to it. It’s refreshing and addictive. It has a blue and white label and you can buy it anywhere.

Tokyo is a paradise for record collectors 

Tokyo’s record stores are amazing, offering huge varieties of second-hand records impeccably packaged and graded at much cheaper prices than in Australia. If you’re into vinyl, it’s definitely worth paying for extra baggage and spending a day crate-digging. The best place to start is the cluster of Disk Unions in Shinjuku (each catering to a specific genre). If you have more time, check out this exhaustive guide here.

If you like sport, go to a J-League game

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Sumo, but we did see the Yakult Swallows (baseball) and FC Tokyo (J-League soccer) play. Definitely recommend the soccer—the fans never stop singing, the football is good quality, and you can get a cold beer without having to leave your seat. Plus with the likes of Iniesta and Torres plying their trade in Japan you might even get to see a footballing superstar play. Find out how to get to a game here.

Duty free shopping is everywhere

Take your passport everywhere, because more and more stores are offering duty free shopping to tourists (which means you don’t have to pay Japan’s 8% consumption tax on purchases over ¥5000). Just look for the tax-free shopping sign and present your passport at the register. Speaking of duty free, the range of alcohol at Tokyo’s Narita Airport was pretty ordinary, so if you’re looking to buy Japanese whiskey or anything else, do it before you get to the airport.

Review: Fuji Rock Festival 2018

Naeba Ski Resort, Japan, July 27-29, 2018

The Japanese invented Instant noodles, square watermelons and the Nintendo 64, but those things are nothing compared to their ultimate creation: Fuji Rock Festival. It’s a festival utopia… a festival that isn’t a fashion parade or about getting the most Instagram likes… just people listening to great music in stunning surroundings.

Nestled amongst the forests, creeks and mountains of Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture (no snow as it’s the middle of Summer—speaking of which,  we were in Japan during their hottest day ever and nearly melted), this year’s festival had a hip-hop flavour with N*E*R*D, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone on the line-up.

The big attraction though was Bob Dylan, performing his 101st show (!!!) in Japan. You’d think after that many concerts the Japanese would know how bad he is live and stay away in droves, but more about Bob and his crap live show later.

My wife and I had planned a trip around the festival and after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong and Tokyo we set off on the bullet train on Friday morning to arrive in time to see Years & Years take to the main Green Stage. At every festival there’s a band that exceeds your expectations and at Fuji Rock it was Years & Years. Singer Olly Alexander is a captivating frontman with a voice that hints at Justin Timberlake and eighties Michael Jackson. Their synthy dance pop songs are ludicrously catchy—the type you feel like you’ve known forever even when you’re hearing them for the first time.

Next up is Mac DeMarco. An Australian festival favourite, I’ve been out of the loop so I’m keen to catch-up and see what he’s all about. Every westerner at Fuji Rock seems to be in the Red Marquee as he emerges to the Star Wars opening theme. DeMarco’s live schtick is hard to describe… I guess you could call it manic slacker-dude playing dad-rock-meets-jangle-pop (he jokingly calls it “jizz jazz”). The super chill ‘Salad Days’ and ‘On the Level’ are highlights, but the most memorable song is the last one: a cover of sixties Japanese pop song ‘Sukiyaki’ (the only Japanese song to top the US charts), complete with cameo from a maraca-shaking, beer-swigging, cigarette-smoking Post Malone.

The first headliner of the festival is N*E*R*D, fronted by the seemingly ageless Pharrell Williams. Poor Pharrell is fighting a losing battle with his voice from the get go, and big parts of the set felt more like a live mix-tape of songs he’s produced and collaborated on over the years (the likes of ‘Drop it Like it’s Hot’, ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’), but they keep the energy levels high to close out the Green Stage.

Last for us on Day 1 is Post Malone, performing on the White Stage with just a DJ for company. ‘Better Now’ comes early in the set and gets a huge reaction, but with little else happening on stage the show largely rises and falls on Malone’s interactions with the crowd. A ‘shoey’ out of a random punter’s shoe gets a mixed response—applause from the Australians in the crowd, total confusion from nearly everyone else. Later, before ‘I Fall Apart’, a song about his ex, he gets the crowd to chant “fuck that bitch”, which just feels awkward in 2018. Malone isn’t a brilliant live performer, but he’s not a terrible one either and I’m fascinated by a bloke that gets ‘always tired’ tattooed on his face

Day 2 began with ex-Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr. Now that Morrissey has become a massive racist, Marr has become the de facto ‘good one’ from the Smiths. He has an early afternoon slot on the White Stage and plays a set of mostly solo songs before finishing with the Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now?’ and ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Ia big Smiths fanthought it was great. My wifewho absolutely hates the Smithsthought it was boring. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all Johnny. I thought you were great.

I wanted to see Superorganism but one look at an overflowing Red Marquee and I knew it wasn’t going to happen, so instead we headed to the Green Stage to see Japanese band “マキシマム ザ ホルモン”(the program and video screens didn’t have an English translation so we had no idea who we were about to see). They turned out to be Japanese nu-metal / metalcore band, Maximum the Hormone. Not the type of thing I’d usually listen to, but it was actually heaps of fun and perfect for the mid-arvo slot. No idea what they were saying, but it was cool with the female drummer’s sunny pop vocals contrasting with the more hardcore-punk style of the two main vocalists.

Dubstep isn’t my thing either, but with half an hour to kill we waited around to see Skrillex. There was so much light and sound emanating out from the stage that it looked and sounded like a UFO crash-landing in the Naeba forest. I’d stop short of saying it was “good”, but it was impressive. Having said that (and I know I’m getting a bit “old man pointing at cloud” here…) how much of it was pre-programmed by a computer vs him actually doing anything? No idea, but it kept me entertained until it was time to go and see MGMT.

As much as I love them (Oracular Spectacular might be the album of the 2000s), MGMT don’t have a reputation for being very good live. With their very first song interrupted by screeching feedback and confused pauses, I start to think the reputation might be justified. But thankfully they get it together in time for a triumphant ‘Time to Pretend’, during which they actually did a good impersonation of a decent live band. All in all, after a shaky start, they were pretty good, although it was interesting to see the Japanese fans seemed far more excited to hear ‘Little Dark Ages’ than by ‘Electric Feel’ which gets gets hardly recognition. But anyway at this point I am also grateful to be undercover in the Red Marquee as a typhoon (seriously…) hits the festival.

Back on the Green Stage, I expected Day 2’s headliner Kendrick Lamar to be the standout performance of the festival, but in the end he was just… pretty good? Lamar is a blisteringly intense live rapper, and the dancers, pyrotechnics and kung-fu interludes are cool, but it’s just a smidgen too slick and too choreographed. It didn’t help we seemed to be standing in a spot where the sound seemed to ear-splittingly distort at times, so I should probably reserve judgement until next time. ‘King Kunta’ was epic though, and I am still furious that Rubens song beat it to #1 in the Hottest 100.

The passing typhoon had moved out to sea by Day 3, leaving behind just a few showers as we arrived to see Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals on the Green Stage. I’d been told by a few people that Paak is a ‘must see’, and they are absolutely right. Paak is a super-talented and charismatic performer who spends half the set singing from behind the drum-kit and the other half with a microphone in hand, fusing together hip-hop, funk, soul sounds. Playing mostly songs from latest album Malibu, it’s one of the stand-out performers of the weekend. Nevermind Kendrick, Anderson Paak is where it’s at.

Paak makes way for the next Green Stage act, Jack Johnson. Ten years ago I haaaaated Jack Johnson. Boring music for boring people I said, and even had this INSANE rule that I wouldn’t date anyone who likes him (no idea why I was single for so long hey?). The irony being my wife loves him. Anyway I have to admit he’s crept into the odd Sunday morning Spotify playlist in our household and seeing him live at Fuji Rock I finally ‘get’ him—it’s pleasant music to sit down on the grass and chill out to. And sometimes that’s what you want from music.

And now we come to the Day 3 headliner, Bob Dylan. I saw Dylan back in 2007 and he was terrible. He’s still terrible. His voice departed him sometime during the Reagan administration, leaving behind a raspy spoken-word mumble in its place. Granted, he sounds slightly better than last time I saw him, but only in the same way it’s ‘slightly better’ to be punched in the face once instead of twice. During the 90-minute set he says nothing, and doesn’t touch the guitar once. Instead, he alternates between sitting and standing behind the piano, tinkering away to barely decipherable versions of his songs, many of them re-arranged beyond recognition. It is not a good sign when it takes half the song to even realise he’s playing ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ or ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. No one expects crystal-clear vocals or Springsteen-like energy from a 77-year old Dylan, but some vague acknowledgement people are paying money to see him would be nice. He might be a legend, but this is just a sad waste of time. 

I need something to wake me up from the Dylan-coma, and Vampire Weekend are just what the doctor ordered. They walk on stage to AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, immediately blowing away the Dylan cobwebs. The New York indie-rockers sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland with better guitar as they run through a hit-friendly taking in their biggest songs to date. Indie anthem ‘A-Punk’ is an obvious highlight, as too is a cameo from Danielle from Haim who joins for the last two songs, one of them a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are Back in Town’.  It’s unpolished and a bit rusty, but it’s a fun end to an enjoyable set as we rush off to catch CHRVCHES who are about to start on the White Stage.

The Scottish synth-pop group are the last act out on our Fuji Rock itinerary (The festival goes until 5AM each night but who the hell stays up until then? Not me, even if it means missing Sunday morning’s Avalanches DJ set), and have much of the Vampire Weekend crowd trying to squeeze in to see them. I’ve wanted to see CHRVCHES ever since their first album in 2014 so it’s good to finally see them. Two things stand out: one, Lauren Mayberry is very, very short,  and two, her voice is absolutely flawless. Every song sounds like an exact facsimile of the recorded versions. CHVRCHES sure know how to write a perfect pop song, and their catchy brand of synth-pop on songs like ‘Get Out’, ‘Gun’ and ‘Recover’ is the perfect way to end the weekend.

The next day we’re off to Osaka for the last few days of our Japan trip, taking with us memories of the best festival ever. The music was great, obviously (Years & Years and Anderson Paak were the standouts), but it was the atmosphere that made it—super relaxed with well-mannered festival-goers. It’s telling that the only annoying people in the crowd were westerners who had brought their shitty manners with them to Japan. It’s going to be hard to go to an Australian music festival ever again…

Fuji Rock Best & Worst

Best Act: Years & Years, Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals
Worst Act: Bob Dylan
Best Song: MGMT – Time to Pretend
Worst Song: Anything Bob Dylan performed
Best Cover: Mac DeMarco feat. Post Malone – Sukiyaki
Coolest Cameo: Danielle Haim with Vampire Weekend

Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Anyone who expected Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino to be AM 2 was always going to be disappointed. After all, this is the band that went from desert rock on Humbug, to 60s guitar pop on Suck it and See and arena riffs and hip-hop beats on AM. But while they’ve always gone from A to B via Z, they’ve really bamboozled us by releasing an album of lounge music from outer space. 

With no singles released ahead of the album, pre-release impressions were mostly limited to the cover art, which depicts a cardboard model of a hotel (built by Turner himself and inspired by the lunar Hilton in 2001: A Space Odyssey) sitting on top of a tape machineIt’s a shame that album covers nowadays are mostly experienced through a 5cm x 5cm square of pixels, because the cover on Tranquillty looks great emblazoned over an LP sleeve. 

Tranquility is a concept album that finds Turner sitting in a smoke-filled 70s era hotel on the moon in a dystopian near future, tinkling on the ivories and crooning his way through a sci-fi laced stream-of-consciousness exploring themes of technology (“I got sucked into a hole / Through a handheld device?”), religion (“Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call”) and politics (“The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”). 

Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

At times recalling Bowie, Bolan, Nick Cave and Phil Spector, Tranquility plays more like an Alex Turner solo record than an Arctic Monkeys album. The infectious hooks of past albums are gone; guitars and drums are used sparingly to make way for pianos and moon-landing era synthesisers (it will be interesting to see how this sound translates to upcoming scheduled shows at the O2 Arena and festivals like Lollapalooza).

This is a significant departure from the ‘Arctic Monkeys sound’ (whatever that even means), and fan and critical reaction has been mixed. Releasing it as a solo album might have dodged some of the criticism the album has received, but credit to Turner and the group for being bold enough to try something completely unexpected, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark.

As an album dominated by Turner, Tranquility is a record that rises and falls on the back of his wordsmanship. At times it hits the mark and listeners will buy into the concept (the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up during this creepily sung line on the title track: “Good afternoon. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino / Mark speaking / Please tell me how may I direct your call?”). But at other times lyrics like “kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob” (what?) will have you reaching for the nearest copy of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

Anyway, by now you’ve probabky worked out that this is not an album for people who’s enjoyment of Arctic Monkeys usually only extends to cherry-picking the best songs off Spotify. ‘Four Stars Out of Five’ aside, the cupboard is bare for casual listeners. This is an album that has to be listened to as an end-to-end piece of music, not as a collection of individual songs.

A four star rating to match the song name would have been neat, but I can’t quite get there. Ultimately, the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is three-star hotel. More of a Holiday Inn than a Hilton. Neither the penthouse nor the outhouse, Tranquility is ‘nice’ without being much more. 

Best songs:  Four Stars Out of Five, American Sports, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Concert Review: The Killers

Hisense Arena, Melbourne, May 6, 2018

You need to be a big band to fill an arena for a concert. To fill it two nights in a row you need to be huge. Three sell out nights… well, you have to be absolutely massive, especially if you’re a rock band in 2018. But that’s exactly what the Killers did over the weekend, filling out Melbourne’s 10,000 capacity Hisense Arena three nights in a row as part of their Wonderful, Wonderful world tour. 

As the crowd of mostly thirty-somethings file into the venue (having endured the tight security that’s seemingly now part of seeing a major concert in Melbourne), Jack Ladder & the Dreamlanders kick off proceedings with a  short set of Nick Cave or The National sounding songs that don’t cut through the crowd chatter at all. It just isn’t the right sound for a night like this.

Next up is Alex Cameron (who incidentally co-write five songs on Wonderful, Wonderful), with a sunnier indie-sound and cheeky faux-ego that is a much better fit. The crowd in particular like Cameron’s “saxophonist and business partner” Roy Molloy (more about him later). They only play five or so songs, but it’s enough that I make a mental note to listen to them later on.

Some party tunes to prime the crowd between Cameron and the main event would have been nice but instead we wait for half an hour before the Killers emerge, with Pink Floyd-ish instrumentals segueing into the brooding ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’. It isn’t the most obvious song for a band like the Killers to open with, but it works, building anticipation and hinting something big is about to happen.

The party starts for real with the next song, ‘The Man’. The Vegas Strip comes to Melbourne as confetti rains down and front-man Brandon Flowers struts around in front of enormous triangular video screens emblazoned with neon cowboys.

It’s all very impressive. This is a no expense spared production, with lasers, pyrotechnics and wall-to-wall video screens filled with images of everything from the Nevada desert to  geometric hearts and even boxer Mike Tyson.

As for the band, Flowers is a magnetic front-man with an incandescent smile and endless stamina marking him out as the rockstar love child of the Energizer bunny and a Vegas showman.

He fist pumps and prances around the stage all night, but it isn’t enough for some around me in GA who seem motionless and disinterested, even during  songs like ‘Somebody Told Me’. It’s no fault of the band. If the Killers playing a Hot Fuss classic isn’t enough to make you at least tap your foot, well sorry but I don’t know what to tell you..

The set has a real ‘Greatest Hits’ feel to it, with 14 singles from across all five studio albums featured. Obviously the new album is well represented, with five songs, but I’m particularly happy to hear a few older favourites of mine: ‘The Way it Was’ from Battle Born and ‘Read My Mind’ and ‘For Reasons Unknown’ from Sam’s Town (still their best album if you ask me).

During the latter a teenage fan from the crowd is invited up on stage to drum. It’s good fun and the crowd love it although I’m going to be selfish here and say I wish they’d got him up for another song instead of one of my favourites.

The main set comes to end with ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ and a giant “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” singalong as red, white and blue streamers fall down onto the crowd.

A few minutes later Flowers returns to the stage in a gold metallic suit and aviators (it’s like a mashup of George Michael and the Tin Man) for an encore that begins with ‘The Calling’ from Wonderful, Wonderful, a song that recalls the better parts of Queen’s Hot Space.

A cover of Men at Work’s ‘Who Can it be Now?’ is next, with Alex Cameron again returning to stage along with a now shirtless Molloy on saxophone, who for some reason increasingly reminds me of this video. It’s kind of fun, but for a band with much better covers (such as this or this), it does feel out of place in the encore.

Any doubts about the song choice are immediately obliterated the moment ‘When We Were Young’ begins. A pyrotechnic waterfall provides the backdrop as the crowd scream out the words before the arena lights up with lasers for—what else—‘Mr Brightside’. That one even manages to jolt the most comatose punters around me into life.

Flowers disappears into the night (it’s all a bit ‘Elvis has left the building’), leaving the last word to drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr (the only other original band member touring these days), who delivers a volley of drumsticks into the crowd—or as he calls them, “flowers”, this being the “third date” with Melbourne. All that’s left then is the now-traditional closing message: “oh… and remember to tell all your friends”.

With that, the house lights come up, a floor ankle-deep in confetti and streamers the only thing left behind from one of the greatest arena rock acts in the 21st century.

Setlist

Wonderful Wonderful
The Man
Somebody Told Me
Spaceman
The Way It Was
Shot at the Night
Run for Cover
I Can’t Stay
Smile Like You Mean It
For Reasons Unknown
Human
Tyson vs. Douglas
A Dustland Fairytale
Be Still
Runaways
Read My Mind
All These Things That I’ve Done
The Calling
Who Can It Be Now (Men at Work cover)
When You Were Young
Mr. Brightside

Concert Review: Stereophonics

The Tivoli, April 28, 2018

I actually met Kelly Jones once. OK so ‘met’ is a bit of a long stretch, but some mates and I did run into him and Paul Weller drinking wine together in the car park of a Toronto Hotel where they–and us–were staying for Virgin Festival back in 2008.  

Anyway, being the least cool person ever in situations like that, I was so star struck about bumping into Weller that I barely noticed or cared about seeing some bloke from Stereophonics. Weller was super chatty (and pissed),  posed for photos with us, and asked if we wanted Kelly in the photos. I think we were just too excited at being in the presence of the Modfather because we were all pretty much like “nah it’s alright”.

Anyway, fast forward ten years, and I now really like Stereophonics. I first saw them live at that Festival the day after, and they were really, really good. I’ve been a fan ever since. So Kelly, if you’re reading this (Do you reckon he’s one of my approximately 5 regular readers? Probably), sorry about blanking you that day.

Last Saturday at the Tivoli was my third time seeing them, and their first Australian tour in five years during which time they’ve released two new albums: 2015’s Keep the Village Alive and the album they’re currently touring, last year’s Scream Above the Sounds.

Like most things they’ve done over the years, those albums have had fairly mixed reviews. Critics have never really been fond of them; Mojo magazine once labelled Jones one of the worst vocalists in rock. Also not a fan is my wife, who gasped “God, what is THAT you’re listening to?” at me while I was listening to Decade in the Sun the other day.

My wife didn’t accompany me at Stereophonic’s Tivoli show on Saturday night, however Brisbane’s entire Welsh community seemed to be there, decked out in all manner of Welsh flags, rugby jerseys and scarves. Lush.

As usual for concerts with older crowds (at 31 I must have been one of the youngest people there), the venue was packed soon after the doors opened, and so support act Halcyon Drive had a near full house to play to.  The Melbourne three-piece made the most of it, playing a brand of drum-heavy electronic-laced rock which seemed to greatly impress the bloke standing next to me.

Shortly after, allowing just enough time of course for the obligatory 7 foot tall beanpole to stand directly between me and the stage, Stereophonics came on, opening with one of their heaviest songs, ‘Bartender and the Thief’before going on to deliver a two-hour career-spanning set featuring songs from nine of their 10 studio albums.

Sometimes when a band is as deep into their career as Stereophonics you can nod off during the new songs; thankfully that’s not the case here though, with the new songs as welcome in the set as the earlier material. ‘Chances Are’ and ‘Caught by the Wind’ from Scream Above the Sounds in particular strike a chord, both benefitting from the rasp of Jones’ live voice, elevating the songs above the recorded versions.

Naturally, the likes of ‘Local Boy in the Photograph’ and ‘Thousand Trees’ get huge full-throated singalongs from the adoring crowd, but the highlight for me was finally hearing ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ (the Mike d’Abo song made famous by Rod Stewart) as part of a short acoustic set. I can’t work out why, but after hearing it I had an overwhelming urge to get a job with a Slough paper merchant?

The night finished with Stereophonic’s now-traditional set closer, mega-hit ‘Dakota’ which featured stage-invading Welshmen and the biggest singalong of the night to close out the evening. They may not be to everyone’s tastes, but for fans Stereophonics in 2018 remain at the top of their game.

Setlist

The Bartender and the Thief
Vegas Two Times
Mr Writer
Chances Are
Catacomb
Same Size Feet
Have a Nice Day
Caught by the Wind
Maybe Tomorrow
Superman
100MPH
Geronimo
I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio
Handbags and Gladrags (Mike d’Abo cover)
Step On My Old Size Nines
Graffiti on the Train
Mr and Mrs Smith
Traffic
A Thousand Trees
Just Looking
Local Boy in the Photograph
C’est La Vie
Dakota

Concert Review: Paul McCartney

Suncorp Stadium, December 9, 2017

It seems like the world has gone to the dogs these days. Don Burke has been outed as a sex pest, the president of the USA drinks 12 diet cokes a day, and there are lunatics out there doing stuff like this. Stop the world please, I want to get off.

On Saturday night though, the world was good again as I joined 40,000 of my closest mates to see Paul McCartney perform at Suncorp Stadium as part of his One on One tour. Walking back up Caxton Street after the show, I had a thought: thousands of years of human history and I got to be alive at the same time as Sir Paul freakin’ McCartney and see him play live. Maybe things aren’t so grim after-all.

I’ve been waiting for this concert ever since I first got into the Beatles (easily the greatest band ever despite what some killjoy hipsters claim) back in high school. Lots of people had been waiting even longer–McCartney last played Brisbane with Wings in 1976, and hadn’t been back since (the New World Tour visited Australia in 1993 but skipped Queensland… tsk tsk, Paul).

The wait finally came to an end on Saturday, with the instantly recognisable opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ signalling the start of a three-hour, 40-song journey through the McCartney songbook, spanning from the Quarrymen through to 2015’s ‘FourFiveSeconds’, with 26 (!!!) Beatles songs and half a dozen Wings songs along the way.

Speaking of Wings, the concert proved again just how good their best songs were (just ignore this atrocity). An explosive ‘Live and Let Die’ (literally explosive... there were enough fireworks and flames shooting out of the stage to defeat ISIS) was arguably the highlight of the night, while songs like ‘Band on the Run’ and ‘Jet’ went shoulder to shoulder with the Beatles classics.

Each Beatles song made Suncorp Stadium a time machine back to 1960s Liverpool. Paul’s band have been playing with him for 15 years, and they’ve nailed the Beatles sound in a way that would make George and John proud. Paul himself sounds pretty damn good for 75 as well. He might not be able to reach the odd high note but he’s still got it and sounds better than many performers decades younger.

There was plenty of Liverpudlian humour and story-telling throughout the night. At one point he pulled out a ukulele-George Harrison’s ukulele, no less-telling us how George gave it to him before plucking his way through an emotion-charged ‘Something’.

There were shoutouts to other characters from the Beatles universe as well. John was there in spirit with a snippet of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Here Today’, the song Paul wrote for him after he died. ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ was prefaced with a story about how the Beatles gave the song to the Stones to record – it became their first hit single. ‘My Valentine’ was dedicated to Paul’s current wife, Nancy, while Linda was eulogised with the gorgeous ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’.

Songs like ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ took us right back to the early days of the fab four, Sgt Pepper songs got the live treatment they always deserved, while the crowd became a choir for ‘Hey Jude’ as a sea of waving mobile phone torches lit the stands up like a starry night.

Strangely, while most of the crowd were singing along during ‘Hey Jude’, the bloke behind me (who seemed permanently pissed off all night) looked about as stoked as someone queuing at the post office to pick up a parcel. You don’t have to go apeshit mate but at least tap your foot or something to show you aren’t clinically dead. PS. standing up during the encore isn’t a war crime.

But that’s enough talk about Mr. Grump. A monumental eight-song encore finished the show, beginning with ‘Yesterday’, taking in ‘Get Back’, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ (complete with an impressive pipe band), the near-metal ‘Helter Skelter’ and concluding with ‘Golden Slumbers / Carry the Weight / The End’ from the Abbey Road medley.

Those last words from ‘The End’–“and in the end / the love you take / is equal to the love you make”–has there even been a better lyric to finish a concert with?

It’s 24 years since Paul last came to Australia. If he waits that long again, he wouldn’t be back until he’s 99. I know it’ll likely be the first and last time I’ll ever see him. I am happy with that. Number one on the concert bucket list, seeing Paul McCartney live: completed it, mate. 

Setlist

A Hard Day’s Night
Junior’s Farm
Can’t Buy Me Love
Jet
All My Loving
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling
My Valentine
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’ve Just Seen a Face
In Spite of All the Danger
You Won’t See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
Blackbird
Here Today
Queenie Eye
Lady Madonna
FourFiveSeconds
Eleanor Rigby
I Wanna Be Your Man
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Something
A Day in the Life / Give Peace a Chance
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
Hey Jude
Yesterday
Get Back
Mull of Kintyre
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Helter Skelter
Golden Slumbers
Carry That Weight
The End

Album Review: Noel Gallagher – Who Built the Moon?

If you listen to Noel Gallagher’s third solo album hoping to hear ‘Wonderwall’  or ‘If I Had a Gun’ redux, you’re going to be disappointed. There is nothing like that on Who Built the Moon?—there are no stadium-filling anthems, no recycled Oasis offcuts… nothing for the parka monkeys.

Instead, you will find sounds including a ringing alarm clock, a French musician playing a pair of scissors, and a tin whistle sampled from an obscure sixties pop song (“don’t try and Google it, it’s beyond obscure, you’ll never find it”, says Noel, but dig deep enough and you will).

Some of Noel’s most interesting music has come when he’s deviated from the script and tried something different (his collaborations with the Chemical Brothers or the piano-driven ‘AKA… What a Life!’ to name a couple of examples). While he teased us with flourishes of experimentation on his first High Flying Birds records, both still had Oasis’s fingerprints all over them. On Who Built the Moon? he’s broken out of the shackles completely to create something entirely different.

Much of the credit for this lies with the album’s producer, David Holmes (an Irish DJ and Producer – you’ve likely heard his work on film  soundtracks such as Ocean’s Eleven and Logan Lucky), who persuaded Noel to enter the studio without any songs in tow, and to build the album from a clean slate. Writing and recording this way allowed Holmes to put Noel back on track whenever he ventured too close to familiar sounds.

In a recent interview Noel told Rolling Stone magazine how he would sometimes play songs in the studio, only to have Holmes to stop him and say, “That sounds a bit like Oasis… try something different.” It seemed to work, with Noel recalling that, “Eventually, something different would come.”

The result is an album that is rich, diverse and intriguing, but not as immediately accessible or enjoyable as its predecessors. It is an album that needs time invested in it before it clicks. Thankfully, when it does the pay-off is solid.

The album opens with ‘Fort Knox’, a surging, psychedelic instrumental that Noel has likened to Kanye West’s ‘POWER’, before ‘Holy Mountain’, a song more contagious than the bubonic plague which sounds like Plastic Bertrand singing Ricky Martin in the style of Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ (I told you this album is different!).

The unexpected influences don’t stop there, with Noel also citing inspiration from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Can and Blondie. Touring with U2 has obviously rubbed off, too — the gorgeous ‘It’s a Beautiful World’ (complete with a spoken word French monologue) has some serious Acthung Baby! vibes, while another highlight is the New Order-esque ‘She Taught Me How to Fly’, complete with guitar notes that Bernard Sumner would be proud of.

The record-crate digging and experimentation doesn’t always work, though. Different’ isn’t always synonymous with ‘good’, and there’s the occasional miss,  like the plodding ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’.  Similarly, while the two instrumental interludes on the second half are pleasant enough (and do work well in the context of the album), part of me wonders if another ‘If I Had a Gun’ might have added more to the album.

To that point, one of the best songs on the album is one of it’s more conventional Noel Gallagher songs, ‘If Love is the Law’, a joyous affair resplendent with sleigh bells and strings.

Ultimately, Who Built the Moon? is a better album than the sum of its parts suggest. It isn’t Noel’s best collection of songs. But as an end-to-end piece of music, it is his best solo record to date and a resounding success.


Best songs:
Holy Mountain, She Taught Me How to Fly, If Love is the Law