Holy Moly and the Crackers

Friday night saw me embracing something new while also reliving my youth, in a way. My friend M is a huge fan of the ban Holy Moly & The Crackers (whose song Cold Comfort Lane was featured in the film Ocean’s 8). She saw them at Alphabetti previously, so persuaded me to get a ticket to go with her when they played the Riverside. I’m glad I did – the gig was an absolute corker, the band – who I discovered were local – played their hearts out and the place was rocking. They are coming back on tour next year with a new album, but you better not beat me to tickets.

It was also interesting to see the new Riverside. In my youth I was a regular, and went to see bands as short-lived as Menswear (who were supported by Travis!), as well as more long-lived artists. Now that whole area of town seems to have been turned into luxury flats, the venue has relocated to the old Fish Market on the Quayside. It’s a gorgeous space, and a nice integration of old and new, with lots of neon and a well-laid-out interior (plenty of seats to chill out on before the gig) but something about it jarred. Maybe because I spend a lot of my time not only in theatres but thinking about making them more inclusive spaces. Maybe that’s made me oversensitive (certainly my female companion said nothing). But I couldn’t help noticing that, despite hosting a mixed gender band and a very mixed crowd (and having plenty of women’s toilets), the decor felt very much designed for the male eye: it felt a very gendered space.

Giant pictures of musicians adorn the walls: men look cool, women look sexy. (There are a few female musicians featured, but they are the traditionally hot looking ones, such as Debbie Harry). A giant Pulp Fiction Patricia Arquette reclines in her bra against one wall; upstairs, a woman clad in knickers and fishnets has her back to the camera, showing off a God Save the Queen jacket. Rock quotes – all by men, at least that I saw – are painted throughout. It adds up to a subtle sense that it’s a space for men, that music is male, and that women get to take part providing they look good enough.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sexy pictures, of course, or boudoir design, but I’m also not sure that a 21st century venue should feel so squarely like it’s aimed at the blokes. Should it?

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Crocodile shoes and canaries in a coalmine

So, it’s been nearly three months since I moved back to Newcastle – moved home, as I am getting used to saying – and while at times it has been stressful (and expensive – so, so expensive), I’m also convinced more and more that I have done the right thing.

I’ve loved reconnecting with family – my Sunday nights at my cousin’s are now a highlight of my week, not least cos she stuffs me full of beer and great food and I only have to stagger round the corner to get home – and with old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen for decades.

I’m still getting used to my neighbourhood – I miss having a Co-op and a coffee shop at the end of my street – but I like my new flat, and being handy for the Metro, although I still turn up everywhere early because I can’t quite believe I can get to town in 10 minutes rather than the ‘everything is an hour away’ London commuting experience. I love having more space (fitted wardrobes! A spare room!).

My hopes that moving North would enable me to plug into the local arts scene in a way that I never felt I could down south have so far proved wonderfully true. I have been welcomed with open arms by people in the theatre scene, having meetings with the kind of folk I would have previously dismissed as Too Busy and Important For The Likes of Me. I’ve already been to six of the region’s performance venues and seen nearly a dozen shows, and I’m enjoying exploring more offbeat work and ventures. I’m hoping at some stage this involvement will become more participatory – I’m already mooting doing some readings – but at the moment, I am happy just to observe, and enjoy connecting with a bunch of interesting, passionate people.

All of that, really, was what I expected – or at least hoped – to get from my move. A life rich with connection, friends and family, culture and arts, and less focused on the punishing reality of just slogging to make ends meet as a working class freelancer, without a partner or the Bank of Mum and Dad to help out. I’m thrilled by it – it’s gone better than I could have dreamed – but also not entirely surprised.

What has caught me more off guard are the ways in which I am not just reconnecting with others, but with myself. My accent still wanders liberally from one end of the UK to the other – from Newcastle to Glasgow with some Ireland thrown in for good measure – and I still find myself regularly shocked by how cheap the drinks are.

But there are moments when familiarity hits me so hard I’m thrown. I’ll walk down a street I don’t remember, but realise I know where I am going. Words and phrases I haven’t used since childhood are slipping into my conversation. I find I have fully-formed opinions about neighbourhoods I wasn’t aware I knew existed, and can tell by the lightest variation in an accent from which side of the river someone stems.

Talking to a director the other day (get me, now), we were discussing the specificity of cities. We’d both lived in Glasgow, and found it culturally similar to Newcastle, but were also both acutely aware that each city has its own flavour, its own quirks and beliefs and habits. And lately I have been thinking about those specificities, the things you only ever really know if you live somewhere, a culture you have to inhabit to understand.

(A Glaswegian friend of mine once said it’s impossible to explain to an outsider the horror of the phrase, ‘’ExCUSE me, pal’ which sounds harmless but usually means you are at best going to be tapped for cigarettes, at worst mugged, and so you should always head off in the opposite direction when you hear it).

Sometimes the things you think are unique to you, are actually culturally ingrained. In the Biscuit Factory this weekend, enjoying their gorgeous art, I was looking at some bird sculptures and casually remarked that my mum would never have images of birds in the house, believing it unlucky. ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a mining tradition,’ my companion blithely assured me – and something I hadn’t even ever wondered about fell neatly into place.

Sometimes, you forget how engraved certain things are in your local culture consciousness until they are surfaced by other people. Say the phrase ‘She’s lyin’’ in an Geordie accent to anyone of my age and we instantly have the Jimmy Nail earworm Ain’t No Doubt stuck in our head for the rest of the day, when most people will barely be able to recall it.

And the other day when I wore my fancy, shiny Brighton boots to the ballet, one of the ushers stopped me and said, ‘wye, they’re a right pair of Crocodile shoes, aren’t they?’ And I was so shocked I stopped on my way to my seat. Oh God, I thought, they are, aren’t they? They really, really are…’

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In which Baby Bushka blows me away

Last night saw me in Ouseburn again, an increasingly cool part of town that, while dominated by student accommodation, is also host to some great venues, including Ernest, The Biscuit Factory (home, remember, of the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich I have ever had). Our destination was Cobalt Studios, a lovely laid back venue that hosts a series of cultural events, and which tonight was the location for Kate Bush Night.

I loved the vibe immediately: friendly staff, dressed for the evening in an array of strappy dresses and / or flouncy sleeves (the men included – there were several guys rocking frocks in a crowd where efforts to dress up ranged from minimal to spectacular). Neither drinks nor tickets were expensive, and though the place could do with more toilets – couldn’t everywhere – they are gender neutral single stalls, which at least means the blokes are stuck in the same (very friendly) queue rather than being able to waltz past a line of waiting ladies, and also adds to the inclusive vibe. Kitchsy decor struck just the right note, with benches, comfy chairs and sofas scattered around. And while most people might not notice, the fact that the venue is on the ground floor, with clearly visible, easily accessible exits and is small enough that even when busy it doesn’t feel overwhelming made me more comfortable. I spent too much of my youth in firetrap basements or claustrophobic clubs to want to revisit that experience now, and I like places that you know you can get out of quickly if you or one of your party is prone to anxiety and occasionally needs a fast escape.

A roster of local bands before the main attraction did make the evening a long one – though admittedly that is likely just me, who nearly always wishes everything was over five minutes after it starts – the mood was buoyant, and the bands were good. But my energy was definitely starting to wane a bit when the headliners came on – who then proceeded to utterly blow me away.

It’s been argued before that in some ways tribute bands can give you a more authentic experience of the artist you love than the artist themselves: you are, after all, guaranteed to get all the hits, rather than be subjected to the dreaded ‘and here’s something you haven’t heard before from our new album’ syndrome, and are less at the mercy of the vagaries of an artistic temperament. There is also less of a barrier between performer and audience: after all, you are all there for the same reason, the love of the music that is being performed. (When I saw Absolute Bowie in Brighton, it was in the company of someone who had seen the man himself in concert and who unhesitatingly proclaimed this a better gig.)

It also gives you access to a time machine of sorts – especially important when your beloved star is a chameleon whose look and style is constantly evolving. Kate Bush is 60: magnificent as she is, she’s likely not going to be wanting to don the same costumes and do the same moves she did when she was 20, just as the Bowie of later tours had abandoned his jumpsuits and capes. Tribute bands allow us to relive those moments in an artist’s history that are crystallised in our minds – even if it’s only from a Top of The Pops appearance glimpsed in our parents’ living room – in a way that is hardly ever possible with the actual person.

And Baby Bushka nailed it. An eight-strong, all-female troupe of incredible talent and bags of charisma and cool, this American band split lead duties between them, each tackling the songs most suited to their persona, and doing so with energy and aplomb. The setlist was tackled with plenty of artistic interpretation and humour, but never aimed at either Ms Bush or her fans, rather marvelling at the fact that even her most outre moments were touched with a sort of genius. Even I – the woman who spends even her favourite gigs mentally working through a checklist of ticked-off hits so I can gauge how much longer I have to stand and how early I can go home – would have been happy to watch more of them, and was on my feet roaring with the rest of a delighted crowd.

They are touring the UK at the minute – and funding the whole process themselves – so if you get a chance, go see them (check out their Facebook page for details). I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.