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Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

Another me, another way

Another me 3

The self-portrait above was painted by an inmate of Vinney Green Secure Unit, a young offenders’ facility in Bristol. It’s part of “Another Me”, an exhibition of artworks by people incarcerated within the criminal justice system, currently on show in the Spirit Level rooms at the South Bank centre, below the Festival Hall. It caught my attention when I noticed that it had been curated for the Koestler Arts foundation by Soweto Kinch, the brilliant composer, saxophonist and bandleader. Anything Kinch is involved in tends to be worth your time, and “Another Me” is no exception.

At Koestler Arts’ building in Wormwood Scrubs, he went through 7,610 entries submitted in 52 categories from UK prisons and British prisoners abroad. His selection spans a range of media, from conventional painting and photography to wall-poetry, music of various genres (which you can hear through headphones), all ranging from the sombre to the defiantly whimsical. There’s a particularly extraordinary piece made from used nitrous oxide canisters found in various London locations — outside a school, an off-licence, a night club, a hospital — and labelled and framed in the style of Victorian museum objects under the title “Nitrouonites: Future Fossils”. As you walk around, you’ll hear the sound of drifting saxophones and electronics: a non-invasive but gently atmospheric sound installation specially devised by the curator.

Many of the works display great technical skill, but I was struck by the one at the top of this piece, a particularly eloquent and moving articulation of the exhibition’s theme. As another of the artists writes in a commentary on his own self-portrait, the title of show “suggest(s) so many possibilities, reflecting on past actions or future selves. It speaks of the masks we all use in our day-to-day lives. Our best selves, our worst. Perhaps most powerfully it suggests change is possible — there can always be another me, another way.”

* Another Me is at the Spirit Level exhibition space of the Royal Festival Hall until November 3. Soweto Kinch performs his new work The Black Peril at Hackney EartH on November 22 with an ensemble including the drummer Makaya McCraven, the bassist Junius Paul and members of the LSO, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (What?)

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik Vortex

When I first encountered Punkt.Vrt.Plastik two years ago in Berlin, I thought they were making the most intellectually challenging piano-trio music I’d ever heard. Their late-night concert, in a darkened auditorium, was an intense experience, highly rewarding but perhaps more impressive than enjoyable. At the Vortex last night, without changing any of the components of their music, they managed to reverse that response.

They are the Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, the Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and the German drummer Christian Lillinger, three of the most compelling young musicians in Europe. It was Eldh who explained their name to me: “Punkt means ‘dot’ in Swedish. Vrt means ‘garden’ in Slovenian. Christian represents the Plastik.” All clear?

There are no standard tunes, no Radiohead covers. Their original compositions, contributed by all three members, can sometimes proceed from the deliberate simplicity of a repeated single note, but they tend to emphasise the dense and knotty, which made the pronounced variations of density heard in last night’s performance all the more effective. It’s often hard to tell what is is written and what is being improvised; the occasional loose end left by these three virtuosi is a sign that spontaneous creativity is being exercised within the essential framework.

Draksler plays without affectation or stylistic gesture. The purity of what she does is one point of the triangle: the others are Eldh’s power and flexibility and Lillinger’s sense of space and timbre. At the end of their second set they returned for an encore: a version of Eldh’s “Life Is Transient” which glowed like a vision of rapture. It’s the closing track of their fine album, but last night’s reading showed how far they’ve since come in infusing a sometimes daunting complexity with human warmth. The prolonged ovation suggested that no one present will forget it quickly.

* The album Punkt.Vrt.Plastik is on the Intakt label.