Saturday, 27 December 2014

Music of 2014

Another year-end, another year-end list. 2014 has been a busy year for me, music-wise, and producing a 'best-of' selection has once again proved to be a challenge, due mainly to the quality of the music out there.

According to my iTunes library I've got around 160 albums with a 2014 release date, and sorting out the cream from the crowd has been quite the head-scratcher, as there have been so many offerings that deserve a mention. I could've managed to whittle things down to at least 60 stand-out albums, but in the end I decided to be ruthless, and draw up a Top 30. Over the course of writing this post the order and content has changed, and I'm sure I will leave some excellent material 'on the cutting room floor'.

Before I get to the main list, though, here's my thoughts in my 'other' categories, as I look back on this magical musical year.

Gigs of the Year
3= Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Sheffield City Hall
3= Peter Gabriel: Back to Front - Sheffield Motorpoint Arena
2   Yes: 3 Album Tour - Sheffield City Hall
1   Lazuli/ Moon Safari - Sound Control, Manchester

Live Album of the Year
After much deliberation, a tie between
  Sanguine Hum - Live in America
  Moon Safari - Live in Mexico

Discoveries of the Year
Charlotte Church's EP 'Four' (and the previous 3) - the one-time choirgirl and enfante terrible can do Prog!
A Formal Horse - eponymous debut EP is a revelation. Ones to watch in the coming years
Cheeto's Magazine - Boiling Fowls is just brilliant, bonkers prog: and they're giving it away!

Non-Prog Albums of the Year
Black Vines - The Return of the Splendid B*stards. Earthy, bluesy, mucky rock from Barnsley, and great live!
And a trio of jazz albums that have really entertained:
  Go Go Penguin - v2.0 (Mercury Prize nominee)
  Bill Laurance - Flint A beautifully atmospheric offering from the Snarky Puppy keyboardist
  Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here Energetic, inventive, live-recorded fusion that simply leaves me gob-smacked! (See below!)

Disappointments of the Year
Three albums that I was expecting more of and which failed to impress:
Anathema - Distant Satellites: seems to lack the spark of Weather Systems and We're Here Because We're Here
Asia - Gravitas: the departure of Steve Howe seems to have lost what little progressive edge they had left
Yes - Heaven & Earth: enough has been said on this album. The live shows of old material seemed to work, but not this. Perhaps it's time to stop?

So, to my Top 30:
30. Elbow - The Take Off and Landing of Everything
29. Fractal Mirror - A Garden of Ghosts 
28. A Secret River - Colours of Solitude 
27. John Bassett - Unearth
26. Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope
25. Knifeworld - The Unravelling
24. Decameron - Decameron: Ten Days in Ten Novellas - volume 2
23. Druckfarben - Second Sound
22. Rosenkreutz - Back to the Stars
21. Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of Pripyat

20. Heliopolis - City of the Sun
19. Resistor - To The Stars
18. Simon Godfrey - Homeland
17. Pink Floyd - The Endless River
16. Opeth - Pale Communion
15. Kaipa - Sattyg
14. Howard Sinclair - The Light Broke In
13. Jeff Green - Elder Creek
12. Tony Patterson & Brendan Eyre - Northlands
11. Cosmograf - Capacitor

10. Bjorn Riis - Lullabies in a Car Crash. The Airbag guitarist gave us a great guitar-driven collection, again demonstrating his strong Gilmour influences.
 9. Tin Spirits - Scorch. Carrying on from the wonderful 'Wired to Earth', this longer collection of pop-tinged prog is a delight.
 8. The Enid - First Light. A couple of new songs, and some fantastic reworkings of some of the band's classic repertoire showcasing the wonderful voice of Joe Payne.
 7. IQ - The Road of Bones. A return to form for the neo-prog stalwarts, full of the songmanship and musicianship one expects from this band.
 6. The Gift - Land of Shadows. 2014 was an excellent year for all the artists on the outstanding Bad Elephant Music label, but this collection stands out for its breadth, sweep and lyricism.
 5. Dave Kerzner - New World. A December release, but already a classic. This debut solo release from the former Sound of Contact keyboardist channels the classic sounds of Genesis and Pink Floyd to wonderful effect.
 4. Lazuli - Tant Que L'herbe Est Grasse. A band with a unique sound, boundless energy and a great stage presence, they have produced another stunning set of songs. Not being able to understand them doesn't stop me loving these guys!
 3. Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here. A jaw-dropping collection of big-band jazz fusion, showcasing world-class musicianship with a love for life and total abandonment to the moment. All the songs performed and recorded live, and available on DVD to fully expand the experience!
 2. Abel Ganz - Abel Ganz.This Scottish four-piece don't produce albums very often, but when they do: WOW! The 'Obsolescence' suite and 'Unconditional' stand out, but there's nothing weak in this collection at all!

 1. Andy Tillison Multiplex - Electric Sinfonia No. 2. Noted for his work with The Tangent and Parallel or 90 Degrees, Andy has returned to solo working and has produced a simply awe-inspiring masterpiece of proggy jazz fusion. Listening to this work it is difficult sometimes to recognise and appreciate that this is the work of only one musician, and that every note and sound is created on keyboards. A stand-out piece in a stand-out year!

Thus we wrap up 2014. 2015 promises, among others, new material from The Tangent, Steven Wilson & Big Big Train, and the long-awaited live shows from BBT. Should be another great one!

Monday, 1 December 2014

What a weekend!

Over the last few years I've managed to get to a lot more gigs than I have in the past 20, due in equal measure to having a little more disposable income due to children growing up and becoming independent, and the resurgence of my preferred genre of Progressive music. So far this year I've managed to catch Clive Nolan; Camel; various bands including Focus, The Enid, The Flower Kings, Panic Room & Fish at HRH Prog; Genesis tribute band Mama; Yes; Rick Wakeman; Andy Tillison; Jeff Green & The Watch. Some good, some excellent, some outstanding.

But this last weekend was an overdose of awesome! It began with a trip over the Pennines (something which, as a Yorkshireman, I try to avoid if possible) for my first visit to Manchester for the double-header of Sweden's Moon Safari & Lazuli, from France. Both were bands with whom I was somewhat familiar, but that familiarity didn't fully prepare me for the delight of their live show.

Moon Safari opened in the somewhat cramped surroundings of 'Sound Control' - so cramped in fact that neither of the bands could fit all their equipment & personnel on the stage. Their music is generally a joyous celebration of life, full of lyrical beauty, musical dexterity and stunning 3-, 4-, 5- and even 6-part harmonies. The set included live standards such as 'A Kid Called Panic', 'Heartland' and the epic 'Lover's End Part 3 - Skellefteå Serenade', a 25-minute paean to their hometown in northern Sweden, alongside the a capella charm of 'Constant Bloom'. A beautiful, energetic and emotionally-charged performance, which thrilled the 70-odd of us who had made the show.

Moon Safari
They were followed by Lazuli, a band I find difficult to describe other than as unique and mind-blowing. Led by the charismatic Dominique Leonetti (guitars & vocals) with his brother Claude on Léode, a purpose-built one-handed kind-of guitar/ synthesiser which gives the band their unique sound, and the powerhouse of Gédéric Byar (guitar), Romain Thorel (keys & french horn) & Vincent Barnavol (drums & marimba), they produced a wall of thumping, North African inspired, francophone rock that left the room breathless yet wanting more. For their encore they gave us their '9 hands round a marimba', a wonderful piece of timing and musical dexterity, which for a time morphed into 'Solsbury Hill'.

Which links in to the final part of the weekend, which was Peter Gabriel's 'Back to the Front' concert at the Sheffield Arena. A 2½ hour aural and visual treat, with material from his early works (including a storming rendition of the aforementioned 'Solsbury Hill', and an absolutely stunning version of 'Family Snapshot', probably my all-time favourite of his), some newer material, including what he described as a 'work in progress', and as a climax to the show a full reworking of his 1986 album 'So'. Ably supported by the original 'So' touring band, Tony Levin (bass), David Rhodes (guitars), David Sancious (keys) & Manu Katche (drums) and vocals backed up by Jennie Abrahamson & Linnea Olsson, who also acted as support act, this was a musical tour-de-force which left the crowd longing for more, yet ready to go following a heart-rending finale of 'Biko'.

An amazing weekend, demonstrating that inventive, entertaining music is still alive. Long may it continue!

The light show for 'Red Rain'

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Howard Sinclair - The Light Broke In

One of the things that I love about social media is that it puts me in touch with new people and new music. I've lost count of the albums that have been recommended to me by folk that I only know through groups of Facebook, and I've been delighted to make new acquaintances and friends through these channels.

One such new friend is Howard Sinclair who has, coincidentally, just released a new CD of original music which I took a chance on and bought. And I must say that it is quite a little gem of an album!

"The Light Broke In" is a collection of 10 songs written by Howard or in collaboration with Wednesday S, which are together a wonderful way to spend 45 minutes of your time. Mainly guitar-driven, this is an album of light and shade, sometimes folky, sometimes bluesy, and thoroughly entertaining! And the cover art, by Mark Wilkinson, is quite stunning!

It opens with 'Autocorrect', a jaunty, jangly folk tune which explores the ways in which people and things try to interfere with your life when you don't want them to, and don't when perhaps you do, and features the robotic tones of Kim Seviour at the start and end of the song. 'My Drunken Guitar' begins with slightly stuttering, stumbling guitar picking (in keeping with the title), and has a certain melancholy despite being quite up-beat musically, building to a surprising and splendid electric guitar solo towards the end. 'Last Out of the Valleys' is a song about spreading your wings, exploring new horizons and leaving the disappointments of the past behind you, and has a delightful bluesy feel to it. 'Bid The Dark So Long' opens a capella, in a brooding kind of way that reminded me of Tracy Chapman's 'Behind The Wall'. This is a surprising little song in that the melody of the verses doesn't quite go where you expect it to, though the chorus has more of a conventional feel to it. 'Let It All Go' is another up-beat song to end the first half of the disc, with the added delight of a mandolin solo (or more of a duet with the guitar).

The second half kicks off with the hauntingly beautiful 'Bedsheets and Bad Luck', a cut-down song of simply Howard on piano and a little cello, and Kim Seviour on vocals, delving into the depths of insomnia, guilt and possibly the contemplation of suicide (?). As a counter to this, the title track follows with its up-beat tale of a woman's life transformed by the light of love - a touching piece of work. 'Lazy Sunday Morning' is a wonderful slice of lazy blues - certainly more bluesy that 'Last Out of the Valleys' - with screaming organ and wailing guitars. 'See You on the Brightside' is a dark, moody song about coping with depression. It has a Johnny Cash kind of feel to me, a blackness like the dog itself, enhanced by the droning double bass in the background. The album closer lifts the mood again: 'What Comes Next'  puts its travelling hat on and presses on to a new beginning with confidence and a smile.

Howard is supported throughout not only by Kim, but also by a talented bunch of musicians: Becky Baldwin on basses, Paul 'Gibbo' Gibbons on drums & percussion, Patrick 'Patch' Sanders on guitars, Jonathan Edwards on keyboards & Si Wright on trumpets & backing vocals.

These are songs of change and transition, covering a range of emotions and situations, light and dark. I have to say that, for me, it gets better with every listen. Give it a listen yourself here - I believe you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Methodist Stationing - some reflections (part 2)

In my earlier post on this topic I outlined the journey and the procedures I had followed leading up to the first meeting of the Methodist Church's Stationing Matching Group. That group has now completed its first meeting, over the course of 4 days, and I can say that the results for me and for the churches I currently serve were mixed.

As I stated previously, SMG met from 3rd to 6th November to consider 'matches' for 112 ministers and around 150 appointments. The way they do this is a little complex but is felt to be fair by those involved, and the general feeling is that the whole process is immersed in prayer from start to finish. At around 5:00 p.m. on 6th November I received a phone call from my Chair of District to inform me that a match had been made; that it was with one of the appointments 'on my list' - one that I had identified as being of interest to me; and I was invited to visit the Kendal Circuit with a view to becoming their Superintendent minister.

I have to say that my first response was one of delight, then a certain amount of trepidation. Superintendency is a huge responsibility in the Methodist Church, and although it is something I've considered for a while now, the prospect still makes me a little nervous (maybe that's a good thing). The following morning the Circuit Steward from Kendal phoned to arrange a visit, which was to take place a week later. In the meantime I checked out websites for the churches, the circuit and the District, and was sent details of the itinerary for the visit, and of the manse in which we would be living.

Meanwhile the appointment I will be leaving had discovered that, unfortunately, they had been unsuccessful in the first stationing round - not through any fault of their own, but simply because by the time they were 'called' all the available ministers had been matched. This caused a small amount of despondency in some, but there is still a good chance that a match will be made in the second round at the beginning of December. We continue to pray that the right person for this appointment is found, and hope that SMG will deal equitably with those appointments like ours which remained unmatched after round 1.

So, the day of the visit arrived. We drove up from Sheffield and met the Circiut Stewards in a lay-by just off Junction 36 on the M6 for them to drive us to the manse, where we met with them and the circuit staff for a chat before having a tour of the house. We then drove to the larger of the two churches I would have charge of, Stricklandgate, where we met with members of the local invitation committee over lunch. It was great to see that one of that committee was the local Rural Dean, an indication of the strength of local ecumenical cooperation in Cumbria. After lunch we met with members from the church for a conversation (not an interview) which was wide-ranging and challengeing but which felt in no way intimidating (to me at least). In fact my overwhelming feeling afterwards was one of feeling 'at home' and 'comfortable' with the people there. We then set off to walk through the town to visit the other church in my (potential) charge, a small mission chapel known either as Fellside Methodist Church or The Job Pennington Memorial Chapel. Again, we felt at home here. Finally we drove out to one of the outlying villages in the Circuit, Levens, to meet another member of the Invitation Committee, before heading home after a long, tiring but positive day.

The whole day of the visit was very well organised, and it gave me and Jude space and time to take in just what the appointment would mean for us (albeit in outline). It was a very positive experience, and as we drove home we were very quickly of a mind as to how we would respond should an invitation be issued. We had been told that the Invitation Committee were to meet the following day at 4:00 p.m. At 4:30 my phone rang with an invitation to take up the post of Superintendent of the Kendal Circuit, an invitation I was delighted to accept.

To be honest, I can't wait! (And bookings for B&B are being taken!)

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Lamb - 40 years on

On 18th November 1974 Genesis released an album that was to be a turning-point in the life and history of the band - The Lamb Lies Down of Broadway. The band's first double album, it fits into the often uncomfortable and much-maligned category of 'concept album', having running through it the narrative of the story of Rael, a Pueto Rican street punk from New York city.

Genesis were no strangers to story in their songs: their repertoire up to this point had been strewn with tales of wolves (White Mountain); nymphs & demi-gods (The Fountain of Salmacis); futuristic genetic engineering (Get 'em Out by Friday); and London gang warfare (The Battle of Epping Forest) to name just a few. Indeed, one of the strengths of their music is its narrative style. This, though, was the first time that they had committed themselves to tell a story over the length of an entire album.

This was a bold decision by the band, particularly in the aftermath of relative commercial success with their previous collection 'Selling England by the Pound', which had spawned their first - albeit minor - hit single "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)". But what emerged was a musical and theatrical tour-de-force which would remain a firm favourite with fans over the decades which followed.

The story is essentially one of the search for identity and for meaning in life. Rael's journey through the strange underworld, into which he mysteriously disappears, is one which explores matters of religion, psychology & sexuality as possible keys to understanding our nature and purpose. To help us hold the narrative frame in mind, Peter Gabriel provides us with a short story in the sleeve notes which more prosaically relates Rael's adventures than the lyrics of the songs. I remember first encountering this tale as a 15 year-old and being both baffled and captivated by it.

But this is not just a story: it is a rock album, a collection of songs & tunes. Have they stood the test of time over the passing 40 years? Well, many of them featured in the band's live set for a number of years after the release of the album, and Steve Hackett has included a number of the songs in his recent 'Genesis Revisited shows to great acclaim. Others too are taking this music and making it live for today: the late Jeff Buckley and, more recently, Tin Spirits have covered 'Back in NYC', and I had the great pleasure of attending the Italian band The Watch's performance of the entire album (except for The Waiting Room) at Maltby last month, which was really excellent.

Sadly there seems to be little if any chance of the 'classic' line-up of Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett & Rutherford reforming to play this material live again, but 'The Lamb' will stand for many years to come as one of the classic albums of the early Progressive Rock era, a defining statement of a derided but now resurgent musical genre.

I said at the start that this album was a turning-point for the band. It was the last album that Peter Gabriel would make with them, and though it would be a truism to say that from this point Genesis were never the same again, it might be said that they were never as good again either. The band still continued to tell stories, but never, to my mind, with the same air of experiment and adventure as they had up to and including 'The Lamb'. Perhaps as a parting shot, this was Gabriel's best way to say 'goodbye'.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Methodist Stationing - some reflections (part 1)

There comes a time in every Methodist minister's(*) appointment when a decision has to be made. This decision may be made by the minister themselves, or by their congregation(s), yet whoever makes it it is not an easy call to make. That decision: should I stay or should I go? Earlier this year, I made the decision, and after what will be 11 years in my current post I will be moving to 'pastures new' next August. But where to?

At this time of year those of us who are moving (either of our own volition or through a decision of our Circuit Meeting) find ourselves faced with the unenviable task of summing up ourselves and our ministry in two sides of A4. Those profiles are then collated and sent to the circuits who are searching for a new minister, who have themselves drawn up profiles for the appointments they are seeking to fill, which are sent to the ministers 'on the move'.

The bare statistics this year are that just over 150 appointments are in search of 112 ministers, which means that roughly one in four will likely have to find alternative means of providing ministry from September 2015.

This is the first time I've been through this process in 11 years, and although the system is more or less the same as it was back in 2003, there are one or two changes. The content expected in the profiles is different, with (I think) less room for a personal statement than before from the minister, and the process of 'matching' ministers and appointments has changed, in that appointments for Superintendent ministers are no longer dealt with separately as they were in the past.

Ministers and circuits have roughly two weeks to peruse the lists of available options. Their task is to come up with a list of five possible matches - appointments and ministers whom they consider may be workable prospects - with a back-up list of a further five or so, which they then discuss with their District Chair and Lay Stationing Representative. The principal deciding factor in compiling these lists tends to be the geographical restrictions (for perfectly good reasons) which ministers put on their intinerancy. This task may be a little easier for ministers, as they only have their own and their families' considerations to bear in mind: my observation is that the local church where I currently serve found this process a little frustrating, having to balance their own needs and preferences alongside the wider circuit ones, and they did feel slightly shut-out from the process. This may be more of an issue for larger circuits (of which Sheffield is certainly one) than for more compact geographical areas, as smaller circuit Leadership Teams have the potential to better understand the local church context, and to have its views and aspirations heard and represented.

Once these lists have been agreed upon, the Chair then takes them with them to the Stationing Matching Group (SMG).

During the compilation of these lists, circuits and ministers are discouraged - nay, forbidden - from contacting prospective matches to a) express interest or b) ascertain further information about the individual or appointment. Circuit & church websites may be perused, and no doubt social media profiles, blogs etc, but no approach, formal or informal, is permitted prior to a match being made. This did prove to be a little frustrating from my perspective, as there were one or two items in some profiles where I would have liked to have asked for clarification. Prior to this current way of working circuits and ministers were able to exchange information, which a) helped to clarify some issues which the space available on the profile didn't allow for and b) indicated that circuits/ ministers were interested in each other, which helped a little in the discernment process, I think. Maybe consideration could be given for some exchange being permissible in these early stages, which would probably mean that profiles would need to be made available a little earlier than at present.

And now I and many others wait for the first meeting of the SMG, which takes place from 3rd to 6th November. Will I be paired up with any on my list? Last time I went through this process that did not happen in the first round, and consequently the match which was made did not work. The subsequent pairing has been one of the most productive of my over 20 years in ministry, so I have confidence that things will work out, and as a local Church we will be holding a 12-hour prayer vigil for the process on the first day of its meeting. In just over a week I will know... watch this space for further thoughts.

(*) I'm using the word 'minister' throughout rather than 'presbyter' as the former is, I think, more generally understood.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Questions of Democracy

Democracy - rule by the people - is at the heart of Western society. It is cherished as the most equitable form of government, and much effort is put into seeking to proselytise others to its cause. But do we fully understand it?

Yesterday the people of Scotland engaged in an exercise in democracy, as they were asked to respond to a simple question: did they still wish to be a part of the United Kingdom, or was it time for them to become an independent nation (again)? They decided by 55% to 45% to stay within the Union, much to the relief of the political establishment in Westminster and financial markets across the world.

One thing that struck me about the referendum was the way in which it captured the imagination of the Scottish people, in that 85% of them actively participated in the vote. Such a turnout has not been seen in UK politics for well over 60 years, and bucks the trend of apathy that seems to be sweeping through domestic politics. This got me thinking: why would this be the case?

Was it that this election was about an issue that most people could relate to and understand - a matter of national identity?

Was it that this election was about a single issue? This has proved successful in other elections, be it Martin Bell standing against the cash-for-questions sleaze, or UKIP making immigration the scapegoat for the nation's ills.

Was it that this election was more firmly about an issue rather than individuals and personalities, in a way that national elections increasingly are not - a fact reflected in the Leaders' debates during the 2010 election which led to the relative success of the Lib Dems. People tend to talk of voting for the party leader, rather than that party's particular policies: I'm not conscious of the 'Yes' campaign putting too much emphasis on Alex Salmond over against the principle of independence.

Referenda, being single-issue plebiscites, perhaps have a tendency to be better supported than other such polls, though it will be interesting to see, if and when the tentatively-promised 'in-out' referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU happens, whether we see anything like the figures we saw in Scotland.

There does seem to be an increasing apathy towards organised politics in the UK. Turnout for the last General election in 2010 was 65.1%; for the last Local Government elections only 36%; and for the election  of Police & Crime Commissioners a pitiful 15.1%. South Yorkshire will be holding a by-election shortly for its PCC, following the resignation of Sean Wright in the wake of the Rotherham Child abuse scandal: will the voters make an effort this time? We'll see.

From the time I turned 18, in that momentous year of 1979, I have always voted, and have always urged people to use their own vote. Compared to many countries, we have an enormous privilege in being able to have our say in the running of our nation and local communities. But in recent years I have found it increasingly difficult to decide where to place my 'X' on the ballot paper, and I recognise that others are showing their frustration with the system by simply opting out. There must be a way that we can find to enable more people to engage with the political process, but at the moment I'm at a loss to know what it might be, and I'm not sure whether the constitutional reforms hinted at by Cameron this morning will be the answer.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

One Circuit for Sheffield: how goes it?

Just over a year ago, and after much discussion and deliberation, the Methodist church in Sheffield amalgamated its then eight circuits into one 'mega-circuit' covering the whole of the city, as well as parts of north Derbyshire around Dronfield. For anyone unfamiliar with the ways of Methodism, a circuit is a geographical grouping of churches around a team of ministers for the purposes of mutual support, encouragement, mission and worship. The 'new' Sheffield Circuit (how long will we continue to call it 'new'?) brings together 64 congregations with an ordained staff team of around two dozen and other lay staff in pastoral, missional and administrative roles.

The principal reason stated for bringing this huge edifice about was to enhance and enable the mission of the church throughout the city. How has it gone so far? What does it look like from the perspective of one of those ordained ministers?

In terms of the ordinary, day-to-day life of the local congregations for which I have responsibility, very little seems to have changed. Life and ministry goes on pretty much as it did before. There have been some different faces leading worship on occasions, but otherwise very little else is different. From my own perspective, I have preached in a number of different churches, as far north as High Green and as far south as Coal Aston.

One of the priorities of the new circuit has been to conduct a full and comprehensive review of all of the worshipping communities within the circuit over the course of 3 years. The first phase of this is drawing to a close and we wait to see what proposals come from this. I hope that this does not simply degenerate into finding reasons to persuade chapels to close - to 'rationalise our resources' - but that it takes bold decisions to enable the life and mission of the church to flourish where it can within the city by ensuring that the necessary resources are provided where and when they are needed.

For those 'involved' in the life of the circuit, there have been some obvious changes. Meetings are bigger (and have been considerably longer at times, due to residual business from the previous circuits), which can at times stifle debate and discussion, but new ways of doing business are being explored which hopefully can address this. Communication - particularly making those who have previously been involved in the strategic planning in the circuit as members of the Leadership Team aware of what is being planned/ discussed/ thought about - has been patchy at best, and many of us have felt disconnected from the life of the circuit. This is being addressed, and we wait to see how effective it will prove in helping the whole circuit to feel that it is involved in the future direction of the circuit. Much business, it seems, is still being driven by the four Co-Superintendents, though this may simply be my perception.

My primary concern with this large circuit is that it may very well lead to local churches becoming more detached from one another, as the 'centre' becomes large, nebulous and distant: that we will lose our essential Methodist connectedness in all but name. 'Circuit identity' has always been an issue throughout my 25 years of ministry, and this can only be exacerbated in a larger grouping. Our corporate acts of worship, to wave farewell to, and to welcome, ministers have been inspiring times, but there is a need to ensure that behind that celebratory facade there is an underlying unity holding it all together.

We have come some way in the last 12 months to beginning to achieve this: let's pray that we continue, otherwise this will simply become another machine draining resources from local mission rather than investing those resources in the life of God's Kingdom.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Greenbelt 2014

Two years attending the Greenbelt Festival, and already I feel like a veteran! Two years: two venues, and two different yet similar experiences.

Last year's festival was held at Cheltenham Racecourse, and this had been the venue for a number of years. For many of the 'regulars', it felt like home, and the move to (literally) pastures new was a big wrench for some this year. Boughton House, near Kettering was, though, a perfect setting for this weekend of art, music, justice and spirituality. Perhaps the only downside to this beautiful greenfield site was the lack of anywhere where you could go to get really warm.

My approach to events such as this is not to try and do too much (it's very easy to do that, as the programme is so varied and full), and I set myself the goal of trying to get to listen to a couple of the speakers and a couple of the musical items, and anything else would be a bonus. It was a particular thrill to sit at the feet of American Pastor, theologian and prophet Brian McLaren - and to have an albeit brief conversation on two occasions, and also to hear first-hand from the challenging Nadia Bolz-Weber about the things that she is doing with her congregation in Denver, CO, 'The House for All Sinners and Saints'.

Sunday morning at Greenbelt features the huge open-air Communion, and this year's was a very moving occasion, as we sat and shared in groups around the massive Glade stage area, having listened to stirring testimony from Mpho Tutu and Becca Stevens. The juxtaposition of the corporate and the intimate is always moving.
Communion in the sunshine

Musically the big draw this year was the appearance on Sunday evening of Sinead O'Connor, and the Glade was absolutely packed for a performance full of energy and passion (though maybe the sound balance could've been a little better: from my vantage point at the back of the arena, safe in the environs of Greenbelt's own pub, the 'Jesus Arms', it wasn't always easy to make out what she was singing about.)

But Sinead wasn't my musical highlight. That accolade went to the Malian band Tinariwen, who closed the show on Monday evening with their particular blend of Saharan blues. What gave their performance that extra 'something' was the fact that by that point it had been raining solidly for nearly 24 hours and the site was quickly dissolving into a mud-bath. Saharan blues in pouring rain - wonderful!
Tinariwen in the rain

The music, the teaching, the new foods to try (I don't know many other places where Goan Fish curry and Tibetan beef stew are readily available), the camping, the opportunities to meet up with old friends and to make new ones, and the chance to have ones views and opinions tested, challenged and changed, all make Greenbelt an event which has quickly and firmly established itself in my calendar. Why not join us next year?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Yes - Heaven and Earth

I've been a fan of Yes's music for the best part of 40 years, particularly the material from what is deemed to be their 'classic' period, and was therefore delighted when they announced that the current line-up of the band would be performing perhaps the three greatest examples of their art - 'The Yes Album', 'Close to the Edge' and 'Going for the One' - at venues across the UK earlier this year. The show in Sheffield was excellent, proving that this material still has a freshness about it, and that the latest incarnation of Yes could still produce some sublime music together.

With news of the tour also came word of a new album being produced: news which heightened my anticipation for the coming year. How would the new material stack up against the classic repertoire? And how would it compare to the recent 'Fly From Here', which had met with a mixed response from critics and fans alike following its release in 2011.

When I reviewed 'Fly From Here' someone commented that Glass Hammer's 'If' was a better Yes album. If they were correct, would the inclusion of Glass Hammer's vocalist Jon Davison to the band in place of the short-lived Benoit David produce something more to the liking of the fans? From many of the reviews that have already appeared for this new album it would seem not to be the case, and I'm still struggling to understand why.

Davison has writing credits for all but one of the songs, therefore his imprint is on the music from the off. The opener 'Believe Again' promises much for the rest of the album, and there is much in this song for Yes fans to latch on to. The Yes Choir is evident and Davison brings much of Jon Anderson's style to the lyrics and delivery, but I felt there was more of an Asia fell to the song overall than a Yes one. Sadly that promise fails to materialise as the album proceeds. 'The Game' is just flat pop-rock, reminiscent for me of early Police, and 'Step Beyond', the second Howe/ Davison composition after 'Believe Again', really disappoints with its twee, twiddly keyboards and flat rhythm: it simply lacks substance and is too long. 'To Ascend', which gives Alan White a writing credit alongside Davison, is a safe ballad with some nice interplay between guitar, bass and strings and the spirit of Jon Anderson in lyrics which speak of 'the eyes of a child', whereas 'In a World of our Own' seemed to me to be an out-take from Squackett's 2012 'A Life Within A Day'. 'Light of the Ages' offers some slightly more inventive drumming and guitar work which is a lot more evocative of the classic Yes sound in its opening couple of minutes, and I was beginning to think that maybe things were looking up. Sadly the song quickly loses the plot. 'It Was All We Knew' is the only track not to feature Jon Davison as a writer, being a Steve Howe composition. It opens with the feel of Stealer's Wheel's 'Stuck in the Middle with You' mixed with the tune of 'My Grandfather's Clock', has some nice harmonies throughout with Davison not so prominent in the mix, and a pleasant rocking riff mid-way through. The final track, and the longest at 9:03, is 'Subway Walls', the only song for which Geoff Downes is given a writing credit. It opens with strings reminiscent to me of some of Karl Jenkins' work, and is overall the nearest to progressive rock that this collection gets: if the rest of the album could have reached this standard, we might have had a very different animal.

My overall impression is, sadly, one of intense disappointment. 'Heaven & Earth' doesn't leave me feeling uplifted in the way that some Yes music can and does. The recurring word seems to be 'flat': this is uninspiring and on the whole uninspired music, with little invention evident. The long(ish) songs that bookend the set show glimpses of what might have been. Maybe the band were too keen to get something out there and should have spent a little more time working on their ideas, though I appreciate that the constraints of touring limited the amount of studio time available. There is talk of more new material being around and a further album/ albums to come from this line-up. I hope, if that is the case, that they will give the material the time it needs, otherwise (and it saddens me to write this) it may be time to call time on this seminal progressive band.