Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A Mike Oldfield Moment

The weather. We are all preoccupied with it. It is our favourite topic. It never fails to come up, usually at the beginning or the end of a conversation. Indeed, it is sometimes the only topic that comes up. We are usually not very informed about it, and a lively discussion about the subject is rare, but noone likes painful silences. Better talk about the weather.

Some people talk about the weather for a living. They make whole careers out of it, are famous TV personalities. They host talkshows where the subject is always the weather, and the guests all belong to the demographic known as "the elements". They call these shows weather bulletins.

Our preoccupation is entirely one sided: the weather doesn't care one jot about us or our concerns in return. It is indifferent and indiscriminate. It will rain on fairytale weddings and shine on skinhead parades. It will storm at open air concerts and be calm during ocean races. It isn't fair, and it isn't considerate. Weather isn't good or bad. Those are subjective labels, and the weather is anything but subjective: it just is.

As I stood contemplating this, I could feel the next trickle of cold water running down my neck. The plastic bag I was using to try to shield myself from the pouring rain hadn't been made for this purpose and was letting me know that most emphatically. Three hours we had been standing in line outside the Amsterdam ArenA, waiting to get in to see U2 (see previous post). There hadn't been a cloud in sight, and the sun had been burning fiercely down on us. But as the time for the doors to finally open approached, so did ominous dark clouds, bringing copious amounts of rain. And so, as the next batch of rain drops found a hole in my plastic defense, I was struck by what in very select company is known as a Mike Oldfield Moment.

Mike Oldfield is an English multi-instrumentalist who is most well known for his debut album Tubular Bells, which came out in 1973 on the then little known Virgin Records label. It was a true sleeper hit: it made little impact on its initial release, but after it was featured in the high profile film The Exorcist, it skyrocketed to the top of the charts, launching Richard Branson's Virgin empire along the way. None of Oldfield's subsequent albums have ever matched its success, let alone surpassed it.

In the late eighties, Oldfield was beginning to chafe under his contract with Virgin Records, who were insisting that he call his next album Tubular Bells 2. It hadn't escaped their notice that the popularity of Oldfield's albums had been declining steadily over the last few years, and they theorized that naming a new album after his most succesful one would perhaps buck the trend. Oldfield was having none of it, however, and after releasing two more albums under names that resembled anything but Tubular Bells, he acrimoniously left Virgin. As a last jab at Virgin, the first thing he did at his new label, was release an album called Tubular Bells II.

The third sibling, Tubular Bells III, saw the light of day in 1998, and this is where our story begins. The album was to have its world premiere on September 4th at Horse Guards Parade, which is a large parade ground off Whitehall in central London. Yours truly and two friends bought tickets for the event and departed for a quick visit across the channel.

English weather is touch and go at best, and pretty much ignores the seasons when it comes to the amount of rain or sunshine one is to expect at any time of the year: I have had washed away July's, and sun drenched Octobers. As it turned out, September 4th, 1998 was a beautiful day in London. Clear blue skies, the sun shining benevolently down on us. We enjoyed the sights and as evening approached we made our way to Horse Guards Parade in high spirits.

No sooner were we standing in line before the entrance, though, than dark clouds started to gather at the horizon and began moving our way at an alarming speed. The first drops of rain started falling by the time we passed through the entrance. As we were trying to locate our seats, which were somewhere at the back of the grounds, this turned into a steady drizzle.

If that wasn't a downer, then the fact that our seats were simply not there definitely was. The seating area that they were supposed to be in lacked one row: ours. We checked with an attendant, and he informed us that the entire row had been taken out to make more room for cameras. The attendant told us not to worry and gave us replacement tickets, assuring us that these seats were much better than the ones we had before.

He wasn't exaggerating, because after we installed ourselves on our new seats, we realized that we were now seated in the grandstand, right in front of the stage with the best view in the house. This was the area for the VIPs and guests, Mike Oldfield's three young daughters among them, who were in the row directly behind us! So while we weren't exactly basking in the sun - it had by now really begun pouring down - we were at least basking in our new found glory.

The crowd, dripping with anticipation. Yours truly tying his
shoelaces in row 8, to the right of the girl in the yellow raincoat.
(click picture for a bigger version)

About the concert itself it is best not to say too much. Tubular Bells III is not exactly Oldfield's best album, and tonight he played it in its entirety. And out of a back catalogue which spanned the better part of twenty five years at the time, the only encores he managed to come up with were repeat performances of two songs already played that night. In the end the highlight of the concert turned out to be the fifteen minute excerpt of the first Tubular Bells album that was played as the opener.

This is what went through my mind as I was trying to stand very still below my plastic bag. The Amsterdam ArenA is no Horse Guards Parade, though. It has a roof, which does a pretty good job of keeping the rain out. We had standing places, so there was no danger of someone removing our row to make room for some piece of equipment. And finally, U2 is no Mike Oldfield. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big Oldfield fan, but it is unlikely I'll ever go out of my way to attend a concert of his again.

Next time, I'm aiming for another U2 Moment!

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Irishmen in Space - U2 Live 21 July 2009

Space Junk. That's what U2's Bono called the contraption looming high above the stage, its four huge legs supporting a gigantic circular video screen, and with a large oblong column pointing down from its center. The whole thing seemed to have come straight out of War of the Worlds, and I was fully expecting to be hit by a heat ray at any moment!

As it turned out, even without belligerent action from the black monster - known as The Claw in U2 circles - the temperature in the Amsterdam ArenA rose steadily to uncomfortable levels throughout the course of the evening. Or at least it did in the area where I was standing, which was located directly in front of the stage and separated from the rest of the hall by a circular walkway.

I had a sneaking suspicion that they miscalculated the number of people allowed in this closed off area, because we were packed like sardines in there. This did not help with the tropical conditions, which were further exacerbated by the fact that most people had entered the venue more than a little wet from having been lashed by the sometimes torrential rain the last hour or so we had been standing outside waiting to get in.

To stay with the temperature theme, the task of warming up the crowd tonight had been assigned to Snow Patrol, a band pretty well known in their own right. From the way their frontman got the crowd going, it was obvious the band is a local favourite. They certainly didn't leave me cold, even though I knew but three of the about eight or nine songs they played. This was Snow Patrol's second tour with U2 (after Vertigo four years ago), but I would expect them to outgrow the supporting stage soon.

At about nine thirty an ear deafening roar from the crowd welcomed the arrival of U2 on stage. The band launched straight into a handful of songs from their latest offering No Line on the Horizon. Not having previously listened to that album, this was my first exposure to the new material. All in all it left a very good impression, especially the powerful title track. Following this the band presented an overview of their career through some of their biggest hits but also some less obvious songs. Thus we were treated to such chart toppers as Beautiful Day, Pride and One, and more modest gems like MLK and Ultraviolet.

The band were in top form, with Bono the center of attention, as befits a charismatic frontman. He made good use of the walkway and the two movable bridges arching to it from the stage, and from time to time both The Edge and Adam Clayton were also seen traversing its perimeter. Even Larry Mullen, Jr. was given some respite from his confinement behind the drum kit when he got to take a turn along the walkway, hauling a conga with him. Some impromptu fun was had when it became obvious that he had miscalculated the time it took him to complete his walk: when he realized that he had to get back to his drum kit immediately but still had some distance to go, he broke into a run, a bashful smile appearing on his face. Throwing his conga into the hands of an onrushing roady, he all but dived behind his drum kit, where he arrived just in time to continue the song.

Attention was also given to U2's sociopolitical causes. South African bishop Desmond Tutu appeared on the video screen to deliver a message about the oneness of people and their power to change the world around them for the better. Bono also drew attention to the plight of Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been languishing under house arrest for many years.

After the dramatic With or Without You - my earliest recollection of a U2 song - the band closed the night with Moment of Surrender, after which we had to surrender ourselves to the push and pull of the crowd which began streaming inexorably towards the exits, and U2 had to surrender the ArenA to the Kanes and Frans Bauers of this world. Even so, U2 is still the biggest band of that world.

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Brugge, Bold and Burgundy

Today I went to Brugge (Bruges for those of non-Flemish or non-Dutch persuasion), a city in the Belgian province of West Flanders. It was my first visit, and what I knew about Brugge beforehand wasn't much: it was a medieval city like Gent and (parts of) Antwerp, and it had been a center of power in the late Middle Ages. What I didn't know, for instance, is that the entire city center is on the Unesco World Heritage list, and that it has only relatively recently emerged from a decline that's been going on for hundreds of years.

Having seen countless historic cities and buildings since I was a small child, I was prepared, well, not to be underwhelmed, but also definitely not to be overwhelmed by Brugge. The curse of experience is that the more you gain of it, the rarer become the instances when you encounter something that has the ability to surprise and profoundly impress you. Just ask Q. Of course, the upside is that you also learn how to experience something to the fullest, and this goes a long way to offsetting the lost sense of discovery. On occasion, tough, even a hard bitten explorer like myself can still be awestruck by a place.

Today was one such occasion, for Brugge exceeded all my expectations. It is a magical place. When you walk its cobbled streets you cannot be but enchanted by your surroundings. Tall houses with stepped facades alternate with gothic palaces, the spires of their corner towers accenting their architectural grandeur. Arched bridges span canals lined with brick houses, their window sills overhanging the water like washerwomen exchanging the latest gossip. There are quiet lanes and busy squares, and alleys leading to romantic courtyards.


One might be tempted to use terrible cliches to describe the city, such as that walking its streets takes one back centuries to a time when the printing press was still a recent invention, and noone yet questioned the divine right of kings to rule the land. This would be missing the point entirely, however, for Brugge is a city that is very much alive. People sleep here, work here, eat here. There are markets, strung out along the banks of canals. Shops, selling quality rugs, tapestries, furniture, ornaments, and art. Gastronomy and nightlife. There are lots of people from out of town, but this is no tourist trap. Brugge is genuine.

The reason that we decided to visit Brugge in the first place was the exhibition about Charles the Bold at the Groeninge Museum. Now, Charles the Bold, so nicknamed for particular prowess on the battlefield in his younger years, was the last Duke of Burgundy, a state within the French state incorporating most of present day Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as large swathes of France.

Charles had big plans: he wanted to become independent from the French Crown, and he wanted to create a German-Burgundian empire, with himself at its head, of course. It all came to naught when he died in 1477 fighting, of all people, the Swiss, leaving his nineteen year old daughter Mary as his sole heir. She had a grandson also called Charles who became the Holy Roman Emperor, thus finally accomplishing what his great grandfather and namesake Charles the Bold had originally envisioned: a pan-European empire consisting of most of the original Duchy of Burgundy and what is today Germany.

Of particular interest to Dutch people is the career of emperor Charles' son Philip: he became king Philip II of Spain and tried to subdue the unruly Dutch people. This led to a war known as the Dutch Revolt, and the eventual creation of the independent Dutch Republic. This chain of events was triggered by Charles the Bold's unhappy encounter with the Swiss at Nancy all those years ago: if he hadn't been killed there, Burgundy might have survived as a semi-independent state, and the Lower Countries might never have become property of the king of Spain, and therefore the Dutch Revolt might never have happened. So, one could say that if the Swiss hadn't sent Duke Charles on to greener pastures, the Dutch might never have won their independence. But they did, bless 'em! It's probably the reason we give them our money to safekeep.

Charles the Bold holds a special interest to me personally as well, because of his close links to the House of York, England's ruling dynasty from 1461 to 1485. The House of York was a branch of the House of Plantagenet, whose lives and times are among my favourite historical subjects. Charles' third wife was Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, the Yorkist king of England. When the latter had to flee England after his erstwhile ally Warwick the Kingmaker had turned against him, Charles gave him refuge in Brugge, and eventually aided him in regaining his throne.

None of this was explicitly mentioned in the exhibition, but I did find tangible evidence of this bond between Charles and Edward. A dear friend of mine recently said that I should be seeing, not looking. Well, today I did. High above the tombs of Charles and his daughter Mary in the Onthaalkerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw church were hanging a row of shields depicting the arms of members of Charles' chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece. Among them I spotted a shield with the familiar arms of the Plantagenet kings. After some examination I managed to decipher the text written on the shield as saying "Edouart, Roi d'Angletèr Et Seigneur d'Irlande". That could only have referred to Edward IV. I felt good about discovering that!

I drove home from Brugge fully intending to return soon. Not only is there much yet to discover, but it is also just a fantastic place to be. Brugge, ge hebt m'n hart gestolen!

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