Tag Archives: Paradiso Amsterdam

The worship of music: Reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue

Ever wondered how it would feel to be in a rock band during the summer of love in swinging London? Well, for those of us not around at the time, reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is probably as close as we can get without having to get teleported back to Soho’s music scene in the late 1960s.

As one might expect, the novel deals extensively – yet not exclusively – with topics such as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (increasingly so, in this order). However, it builds and extends upon these classic themes, touching upon issues such as gender equality, (hetero)sexuality, emotional dyslexia, mental illness, perception and hallucination, the process of songwriting, as well as the inner workings of music business.

Carnaby Street, London, c. 1968 / H. Grobe

In his latest novel, Mitchell recounts the birth and rise to fame of a fictional four-piece psychedelic-folk-rock band called Utopia Avenue. As the story unfolds, the reader follows the band from their beginnings in Soho, London to their first – and final – tour of America (“an endless, world-class distraction, if nothing else”), with eventful detours in Rome and Amsterdam in between. While getting to know the the band members (and their manager), the reader stumbles upon several famous musicians and artists who interact with the band at various points throughout the book, such as Brian Jones, David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Francis Bacon, Sandy Denny, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Jerry Garcia.

Although the focus is primary musical and cultural, the novel also taps into the politics and activism of the late 1960s. Referencing anti-war demonstrations and debates about the Vietnam War, Mitchell also discusses the nature of radicalism, the demise of hippie culture, and the subsequent commercialization of anti-commercialism.

Still, Utopia Avenue is largely a novel about the mystifying power of music and its ability to enrich, transform and make sense of one’s life. To quote Jasper, the band’s troubled yet supremely gifted guitarist: “How music works is learnable. Why it works, God only knows. Maybe not even God.” While playing in Paradiso, Amsterdam’s hallowed venue, Jasper comes to a realization: “Worship still happens here, worship of music itself. Music frees the soul from the cage of the body. Music transforms the Many to a One.”

Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1979 / Hans van Dijk for Anefo

So can music actually change the world? The answer, once more, is given by Jasper: “Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring? […] Often, usually, they land on barren soil and don’t take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this.”

From cover to cover, Utopia Avenue is an immense joy to read. Its pages are sure to captivate music enthusiasts, as well as anyone with even a passing interest in the cultural and social upheaval of the late 1960s. An ideal companion would be Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles, which Mitchell also cites as an inspiration. And while you’re at it, you might also want to check out this cool playlist inspired by the novel. Enjoy the ride!

Godspeed You! Black Emperor & Xylouris White in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

It was one of those gigs where everything sounded just right. Already from the opening act, the -crowded- main hall of Amsterdam’s Paradiso was filled with music of both otherworldly beauty and great intensity.

The dynamic duo Xylouris White (consisting of Cretan lute player and singer Giorgos Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White) set the tone for the rest of the evening. An exemplary blend where tradition meets innovative forms and improvisational mood, the duo’s musical explorations took the audience on a journey from the Greek island of Crete all the way to Australia and New York.

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A real master of his instrument, Giorgos Xylouris comes from a celebrated musical family (his father is the Cretan singer and lyra player Psarantonis, and his late uncle was the legendary singer Nikos Xylouris). His virtuosity combined with White’s exceptional skill in complementing and conversing with his partner’s playing resulted in a technically demanding performance delivered with passion and rigor.

Following Xylouris White, the Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage to perform songs from their latest album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Using film loop projections to accompany their performance (as is customary in their live shows), the band created a unique atmosphere and went on to give a truly memorable show.

As is often the case when post-rock is at its best (think of Moqwai or Sigur Rós), the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor invites the listener to partake both mentally and physically in the live experience. This is made possible by the wide range of dynamics and extensive build-ups that create the necessary space for this kind of engagement, leading to powerful peaks and climaxes.

It is perhaps this quality of total absorption that lies in the heart of this music’s beauty and mystery – leading to a sense of deep satisfaction for both mind and ears.

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Thanasis Papakonstantinou in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

Who’s that again?

Born in 1959, Thanasis Papakonstantinou slowly emerged in the Greek music scene around the early 1990s. Influenced by folk and world music, he progressively developed his own style incorporating jazz, rock and electronic elements. This fusion has led to the creation of a unique and highly distinctive sound, establishing him as one of today’s most original Greek songwriters.

The prophet’s (hoarse) voice

The release of the album Vrachnos Profitis (‘Hoarse Prophet’) in 2000 was a turning point for Papakonstantinou’s career as a songwriter. Throughout the following years he turned increasingly experimental with regards to the production and orchestration of his records. Meanwhile, collaborating with major Greek musicians and singers has enabled him to enrich his sound and complement his own hoarse voice and limited vocal range.

His efforts have yielded some truly remarkable results, as testified by the aesthetic and artistic merits of albums like Agrypnia (‘Vigil’, 2002), O elachistos eaftos (‘The Minimal Self’, 2011), or his latest release Prosklisi se Deipno Kianiou (‘Invitation to Cyanide Dinner’, 2014).

Vigil in Amsterdam

Next to his low profile, modest media presence, and unpretentious nature, Thanasis is characterized by his relaxed stage presence and direct communication with his audience during his live performances.

This was also the case during his recent gig at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, which went on to last for more than 2 hours after an atmospheric opening with the highly evocative Agrypnia.

Shortly after the gig was over, Thanasis came down from the stage and performed a song by Greek composer Markos Vamvakaris (known as the “patriarch of the rebetiko”) to a small group of people that gathered around him to listen.

It was an intimate closing to a long evening full of enthusiasm, emotion and great music.

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Max Richter and Daniel Hope in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

From baroque to the present

It is always refreshing to hear a piece of classic stature in a way you would have never imagined possible. Such is the case with Vivaldi Recomposed: The Four Seasons, Max Richter’s fascinating reworking of Vivaldi’s timeless masterpiece (which has been through several creative transformations through the years).

Richter’s imaginative and highly idiosyncratic re-composition of The Four Seasons is indeed a unique achievement. Having infused Vivaldi’s work with postmodern and minimalist elements, Richter has at the same time managed to remain faithful to the music’s innermost essence producing a result of the highest standards, both aesthetically and technically.

Four Seasons in Paradise

On September 10, I was one of the fortunate Amsterdamers who had the opportunity to experience a live performance of the recomposed Four Seasons (for the first time in The Netherlands) by Max Richter, British violinist Daniel Hope and L’arte del mondo orchestra at Paradiso’s magnificent Grote Zaal.

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Given Paradiso’s tradition in bringing together the old the new, one could hardly think of a better venue for the occasion. Following an impressive opening by the vigorous Francesco Tristano and Alice Sara Ott piano duo, Richter and Hope gave a truly exhilarating performance which produced a highly enthusiastic response from the audience.

And rightly so: it is not every day that one gets to enjoy live the combined magic of Vivaldi’s captivating music and Richter’s innovative vision coming to life under the imposing windows of Amsterdam’s most celebrated music venue.

Richard Thompson in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

The multi-talented mr. Thompson

British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).

Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

A ‘folky’ power trio

His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”

With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à la Hendrix.

Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.