BREVIEW: Regina Spektor @ Symphony Hall 05.08.17

Regina Spektor @ Symphony Hall 05.08.17 / Michelle Martin – taken for Express & Star

Words by Paul Gallear / Lead pic by Michelle Martin – taken for Express & Star

A man, younger than I am but around the same height, is wondering around the streets of Sheffield, slightly lost. He has recently started university and is still unfamiliar with his surroundings.

Shuffling through the snow, he passes The Leadmill – a long-established music venue in the city. ‘TONIGHT: REGINA SPEKTOR’ proclaims the poster by the door. Amazed at his luck he calls around all of his newly-made university friends, trying to find someone to go to the gig with. Either no one is available or they are unwilling to take a risk on a last-minute invitation to an unknown gig. Undeterred, the young man queues that evening in the chilly northern air to try and get a ticket on the door. His luck is in.

It was 20.02.07 and that was the first time I saw Regina Spektor live, touring her 2006 album – Begin to Hope. Ten-and-a-half years later I again had the chance to see her in concert, this time touring her seventh studio release – Remember Us to Life. Nothing would be left to chance this time; I had signed up to the mailing lists and was ready with my unique verification code when the pre-sale opened at 9am.

I managed to secure prime seats a mere six rows back (not too close, not too far) and just off-centre in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, a larger and more prestigious venue than The Leadmill. Hosting the likes of Marina Medvetskaya’s Saint Petersburg Classic Ballet and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Symphony Hall claims to be ‘widely considered one of the finest concert halls in the world’ and their website lists an impressive set of acoustic specifications (all of the venues on Regina Spektor’s six date UK tour are more up-market than they were a decade ago). Sporting my by now vintage Soviet Kitsch album T-shirt from the Sheffield gig, I survey the stage: a black Steinway & Sons grand piano, a monikered drum kit, a cello, a guitar, and a keyboard. Can that be the same piano stool as last time? Am I dreaming? Musicians can be creatures of habit.

Despite this being a show without support and having a tightly-scheduled start and finish time, Regina Spektor takes to the stage half-an-hour late. The room is not quite sold out, but the anticipation has built and Spektor enters stage right to rapturous applause and cheers. She and the band burst into ‘The Calculation’.

Full disclosure. Some of the tracks from Regina Spektor’s latest album haven’t struck a great chord with me; it is the album I have listened to least frequently. The opening half of tonight’s set is, as you’d expect, laden with these new tracks (such as ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Tornadoland’ and ‘The Light’) which are performed to an enthusiastic audience. I even find myself enjoying these songs live in a way I hadn’t enjoyed recorded. But during these early numbers I pick up on a buzzing sound which is surprising from a venue that boasts about its acoustics – I would have expected perfection.

The set is diverse. Regina Spektor is of course always present, but she is either backed by the entire band whilst she plays piano and sings, or abandons the piano and sings more like a pop star with a backing band. Her playing has few audible mistakes and the cello playing is, I’m reliably informed, very good. For other tracks, such as ‘That Time’, she abandons the piano all together and picks up the guitar. But for me some of the best and most successful tracks are when the band leaves and Spektor plays such song as ‘Après Moi’ unaccompanied (how many songs can you name which feature three different languages?).

The quiet nature of the audience between songs is not something I’m used to (being a frequenter of more rock-orientated concerts) but Regina Spektor manages to hold the atmosphere. That’s not to say that she is entirely silent in these short gaps. “Do you have a train to catch?” she sasses when an audience member calls for ‘Samson’, a track which would be played (inevitably) as part of the encore.

There is even an endearing moment of humour at the beginning of ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’ a favourite track of mine from  Begin to Hope, when Spektor forgets her own lyrics; cue a great moment of audience interaction as she calls out for prompts. But I do get the feeling that a lot of these songs have stories behind them that I would have loved Regina Spektor to have gone into, giving us a little insight into her life and writing process.

Nor does she forget where she is; giving a nod to the Birmingham audience by mentioning that local boy Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O fame) had been a producer on her album Far, Spektor bursts in ‘Folding Chair’ – a bouncy crowd-pleaser.

As I mentioned, Regina Spektor ends her encore with perhaps her most famous and most enduring song, ‘Samson’ (after ‘Us’ that is, which was performed with aplomb just before exiting the stage for the first time). I’m not a fan of the trite modern assumption that artists will play always an encore at the end of the set, but nothing could have pleased me more than to have seen Spektor’s ruby-red shoes patter across the stage once more to retake their place on the piano’s sustain pedal. The audience are on their feet at the end of the show and it is thoroughly deserved.

Adding a band to her live shows, Regina Spektor has developed a more complex and mature sound in the last decade. But I can’t help wonder if something of the arty rawness and fun of her earlier performances might have been lost along the way. Spektor has come a long way since emerging from the anti-folk scene in downtown New York’s East Village, and she does concentrate on her work from the previous three albums rather than delving into her archives.

Back in Sheffield we stood in awe as Regina Spektor, bandless, thwacked out a rhythm on her piano stool using a drumstick; in Birmingham we sit as she and her band play through a largely flawless set. Though I don’t leave disappointed, I am greedy. I would like a second show, more stripped back without a band and with a smaller audience, during which she could reconnect with her roots. A boy can dream.

Thoroughly satisfied that my high expectations have been met, I leave the venue clutching a new t-shirt. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another decade to wear it to one of her concerts.

For more on Regina Spektor, visit

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BPREVIEW: Beyond the Tracks @ Eastside Park 15-17.09.17

BPREVIEW: Beyond the Tracks @ Eastside Park 15-17.09.17

Words by Damien Russell & Paul Gallear

Birmingham’s Beyond the Tracks festival is set to take over the Eastside City Park, outside Millennium Point, from the 15th to the 17th of September.

This new three day addition to the Birmingham festival scene has a stellar line-up and caters for an eclectic audience incorporating rock, britpop, dance, electronica and more. And it’s not just music that’s on offer, the festival website boasts a ‘great selection of gourmet caterers to suit all tastes and appetites’ as well as ‘a choice of well stocked and well staffed bars’ which, while not essential for the festival experience, will certainly be reassuring for some (me included).

Beyond the Tracks is one of the biggest city centre festivals this year and although there’s no camping, being just five minutes from Moor Street Station the transport access is good enough to take away the sting of the daily ‘commute’. For direct festival info, including more about getting on and off site, click here. For information and online bookings for all Birmingham city centre stations (Moor Street, New Street and Snow Hill) click here to visit

On Friday 15th September the gates will open at 14:00 and this is definitely your day if you like electronic music. Orbital, reunited and with a new track released this February, are the headliners – with Leftfield performing their 1995 album Leftism in full as part of their anniversary tour. There will be a DJ set BPREVIEW: Leftfield @ Beyond the Tracks - Friday 15th Septemberfrom electronica stalwarts Faithless, with Australia’s Jagwar Ma also providing a touch of psychedelia to the Friday night bill.

Beyond the Tracks opening night also sees the return of the Higher Intelligence Agency (HIA) to our city’s soundsytems, who will no doubt bring the old ambient/Oscillate crowd out from under whatever chamomile flavoured rock of lost serotonin they are currently resting – Birmingham Review’s editor included. HIA are also hosting an unofficial after party at Centrala on Friday night, for direct info click here.

On Saturday and Sunday the gates open at midday, with both days set to have a more rock-based line up. There are also a number of notable local names across the weekend, including Saturday’s headliners – britpop veterans Ocean Colour Scene.

Saturday daytime the event openers are Penkridge based indie-rockers Sugarthief, who have had an impressive festival run this year including Y Not and Kendal Calling. They are followed by ‘experimental’ Birmingham band Health & Efficiency who make me think of what indie would sound like if it were invented in the 80’s. Noise punk fuzz merchants Table Scraps are up next, who recently spoke to our own Ed King at their recent double a-side launch with Black Mekon at the Hare & Hounds – click here for the Birmingham Review of the gig, alongside links to the full interview.

BPREVIEW: Table Scraps @ Beyond the Tracks - Saturday 16th SeptemberAlso performing across the Saturday programme are The Americas, with their driving up-tempo rock (reminiscent of Tom Petty) describing themselves as ‘music to ride a motorbike to’. Then there’s Midlands based artfully crafted classic college-rock quartet Superfood and B-Town indie-pop rockers Jaws, both coming back to Birmingham after some significant success outside the city walls. The Twang, who are celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their debut album Love It When I Feel Like This, Maxïmo Park – touring following the release or their 2017 album Rick To Exist – and The Coral complete an indie side to the day’s line-up. To read Damien Russell’s Birmingham Review of Risk To Exist, click here.

For those still craving more following all that, there is an after party running from 23:00 to 03:00 at the O2 Institute featuring a DJ set from Maxïmo Park, Blast Off DJs and Dave Southam of Snobs – click here for more details or check out the banner ad below.

For those not exhausted by the previous two days partying, Sunday is a more eclectic line-up with artists such as Scottish 80’s alternative rockers The Jesus and Mary Chain – touring their new album Damage and Joy, Reading’s shoegaze rockers Slowdive – promoting their eponymous album (the first for twenty-two years) and Birmingham’s own Editors bringing the proceedings to a close.

Beyond the TracksBPREVIEW: Slowdive @ Beyond the Tracks - Sunday 17th September‘ final day will be opened by Dorcha – ‘a five piece Birmingham band of synths, strings, electronics and heavy beats led by composer Anna Palmer’. Then throughout Sunday we will see sets from Victories at Sea – described by The Guardian as ‘dolorous indie disco with a fresh spin’, Goodnight Lenin – who have recently announced they are recording their second album, and psychedelic industrial rockers BLACKASH.

I think it would be fair to say that there is something for everyone on the Beyond the Tracks bill and seeing big national names with current tours/releases lined up side by side with solid local acts is a pleasure. The organisers seem to have considered every act and made sure they all have a connection to the area or to the 2017 music scene – an attention to detail that bodes well for the wider event.

Speaking of the wider event, while information is a little sparse the promotional video for the festival (link below) goes into a little more about what non-music elements we can expect. There is the promise of ‘fine ales, imported lagers, craft beers, scrumpy cider shack, quality cocktails and fine wines & fizz’ for the drinkers, alongside the aforementioned ‘gourmet street food & snacks’ to soak it all up with and and keep you going.

Then for those moments when the music has got a bit too much, we have some ‘cabaret side shows and walkabouts’ for the grown ups. Not a lot on the programme for children though, with the Beyond the Tracks organsisers issuing the following statement:

‘The event is aimed at an adult audience. There will not be any specific children’s entertainment on site with the focus primarily on the music itself. That said, we are keen not to exclude anyone from the event so have not set an arbitrary age limit for this year. However, all persons do require a full ticket for the event regardless of age’.

But seriously, who under the age of… is going to be losing it to Orbital or The Jesus and Mary Train? Also worth noting Beyond the Tracks has a no re-entry policy and once you’re in, you’re in. Although with a line-up like this I can’t see why anyone would possibly want to be ‘out’.

Beyond the Tracks 2017 – Official Trailer

Tickets for this event are £54.45 for individual day tickets, £145 for a weekend pass, and £11 for the Saturday night after party at the O2 Institute. 

For more on Beyond the Tracks, including full festival details and online ticket sales, visit

BPREVIEW: Beyond the Tracks - after party @ O2 Institute 16..09.17

BREVIEW: BE FESTIVAL …Friday 07.07.17

Words by Damien Russell / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL

It’s day four of the Birmingham European Festival (or BE FESTIVAL for short) and having been lucky enough to interview the festival directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, I am keen to see how the event delivers the ‘dizzying array of entertainment’ that the programme has promised us.

As usual, I get lost walking through Birmingham (using whichever car park is cheapest has its challenges) but still make it in plenty of time and having been pre-warned that the event entrance is at the back of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, I wander round and in. The setting has been described in Wednesday night’s BREVIEW from Paul Gallear but I would add that the visual art exhibitions are largely all interactive and nobody is left without something to enjoy, be it bar, video or art experience.

In good time, the call is made that the doors are open and though the event has unallocated seating it’s a well-natured queue. As there are four acts on per night it is understandable that the stage we are presented with on entry is quite stark and devoid of props; clean changeovers must be key to the timing of each night. This does, of course, lead me to think about what clever uses of staging we can expect, and that to me is always one of the joys of what I would be tempted to term ‘lo-fi’ theatre.

The format of the night remains the same as the previous nights and we begin our four-act lineup with Claudia Catarzi’s 40,000 Centimetri Quadrati – a dance piece that begins with minimalist movement and sound, yet flourishes into a fully musically backed performance that uses the full extent of the stage. The stage itself contains only an approximately 8ft square boarded section; Catarzi begins her piece moving within this area with uncertain, almost unnatural movements – more automaton than dancer, at times using what I would associate with the circus skill Isolation.

As the piece develops Catarzi explores the extents of this confined space, expanding her movements and increasing her fluidity to match the build in sound and lighting effects – until, eventually, she breaks free of the 8ft square board and her movements are almost jubilant. The message seems clear to me and while the idea of breaking ‘out of the box’ is certainly not a new one, it has never been presented to me in such a format before; I found the piece captivating in presentation, clearly understandable and overall, very engaging. Something as I will freely admit is unexpected; dance is not a medium that has ever really appealed.

As is typical for BE FESTIVAL we are asked to leave while the stage is re-set and it’s an opportunity to reflect and discuss what we just experienced. No bad thing. As we re-enter the auditorium, ODC Ensemble are onstage and performing an almost ‘on-hold’ introductory part of their act which is a nice touch. The stage is almost split into thirds: musical equipment to the left, a table with a 3D cardboard cityscape in the centre, with another table containing a laptop, small camera and some other technological items beyond my comprehension on the right. Each section has its own performer and while they are separate to a degree, they interact in turn throughout the show.

ODC Ensemble’s show, REVOLT ATHENΣconcerns Athens and is thematically in three parts: Athens as presented to and seen by tourists, the darker Athens behind that and, the Athens that the people there live in/with. Deeply moving at times, we are reminded that this Mediterranean paradise has the same issues as any major city and in some cases, worse. There is a stark emotional transition mid-way through, as the recent riots and political unrest in the nation are presented ‘warts and all’, but it gets a bit surreal after this mid-point and to my mind loses some of the impact of the piece. If grunge were theatre this would be it; excellent concept, important message, Marmite execution.

And then we break for lunch; dining on the main stage of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre isn’t something I do every day so, quite looking forward to it, I wend my way in. The room is as I would expect – it’s mass catering and a bit ‘school dinner’ feeling, but done well enough. Plenty of salad and bread on offer, the main dish comes hot and the staff are attentive. None of the performers sit at our table, which is a bit of a disappointment, but nevertheless, hunger abated, we return to a stage which now contains an unusual array of objects: a small paddling pool, several jugs of water, a table with ping-pong equipment and juggling rings and a flip-chart on a stand.

This of course is the setting to What Does Stuff Do? performed by Robin Boon Dale, intriguingly advertised as ‘using innovative juggling, physical comedy and almost-philosophy’. And I’m certainly not disappointed. Dale is an engaging performer, eloquent and disarming, and his performance moves through a number of circus acts and prat-falls designed to display items and acts we can easily recognise, yet modified and taken out of context to challenge perception.

Dale moves through his act smoothly, dazzling us with his skills and making us laugh with his mishaps. I am never certain if any of these mishaps are actually accidental or if they are all for effect and that is part of the charm of the performance. Perhaps not the most emotionally challenging act of the night, I nevertheless feel What Does Stuff Do? is the most entertaining and Dale’s point is clear – every new scenario offers us a new opportunity to be who/what we want to be in the context of what is around us, which is a valuable life lesson in evaluating our actions. Dale describes himself and us all as ‘tools’ in the context of his philosophical point; never have I been called a tool in a more appropriate and enjoyable manner.

There is no break between What Does Stuff Do? and Waiting for Schrödinger, our final staged act of the evening; Timothy and the Things enter the stage, backs to the audience to begin their predominantly dance related act. It’s never made clear who Timothy is and who are the Things, but as the first group performance which is not lead by one of the cast over the others, who is who is clearly not important.

The group move through a surrealistic show where interactions between them are designed to apply the Schrödinger’s Cat theory to a more realistic scenario. I find myself more affected by the surrealism of it than the message for much of the performance, I must admit. But the message is still there as we see cast members dealing with isolation, exclusion and vying for dominance before being pushed away.

Waiting for Schrödinger moves in ‘scenes’, and while each scene is well put together some of the transitions feel clumsy at times. The last slot of the night is always a tough one to have, tougher than the first in some ways, and while not a bad performance or a bad piece of work Waiting for Schrödinger unfortunately doesn’t quite top the bill for me.

Before it’s time to go home we take part in the BE FESTIVAL’s commissioned British Enough? ‘immersive experience’. The show begins and almost immediately I am put in mind of The Running Man by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) and George Orwell’s 1984 having a baby, and that baby growing up in Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room.

Moving through the previously inaccessible backstage areas of the theatre we are treated to a dystopian view of what entering the British Isles could be like, where immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers are forced to compete against each other (and the state) in an intense and disconcerting environment.

The performance by Kristina Cranfield and Foolish People is excellent and British Enough? is certainly immersive. I must admit, I had been expecting something more educational about our current situation than this extreme future representation and I can’t help but feel the piece ends a little weakly. But as a lover of immersive theatre I’m certainly not disappointed.

‘Groundbreaking’ or ‘artsy’ theatre can be a little hit and miss, and even though an event like BE FESTIVAL has a screening process for acts there’s still always a risk of something not being to your taste or even just being too unobtainable/obscure. But my experience of BE FESTIVAL 2017 is that while the programme pushes the boundaries of traditional performance, it remains vigilant in keeping things accessible to a broad range of people.

There are things I didn’t ‘get’ entirely and things I didn’t like entirely, but nothing alienates me entirely; as a new audience member, there was plenty that actively encourages participation and engagement. So if a challenging but accessible series of thought provoking acts sounds like something you would enjoy, BE FESTIVAL is an event to fix in your calendar for 2018.

For more on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit

BREVIEW: BE FESTIVAL …Wednesday 04.07.17

Words by Paul Gallear / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL

We can’t avoid Europe these days: it’s in our parliaments, our newspapers, and our consciousness; on our television screens, our news bulletins, and our ballot papers. And now it’s in our theatres too.

BE FESTIVAL (Birmingham European Festival) landed in Birmingham for its seventh year on 4th July, aiming to bring with it, according to their website, ‘a daring and innovative programme of boundary pushing theatre, dance, comedy, circus, music, visual and performing arts’.

And Europe is certainly here as I step into what feels like the service entrance to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (REP); a diverse mixture of people, speaking at least four different languages that I can detect, mingle in a raw, industrial backstage area of the REP. This space (the theatre’s ‘Construction Workshop’) acts as the hub of the festival. It has the Karma Bar with its own currency (The Karma), a stage for live music, a shabby-chic seating area of furniture all jumbled together, various banana-themed sculpture (Elizabeth Hudson’s Free Movement) and works by other artists to spot around the venue. The feel is edgy yet arty, middle class yet urban.

Soon we are asked to take our seats and are ushered around corridors which pass by dressing rooms and conference suites to the performance space. The crowd is full and the stage is bare, save for a telephone and a chair. Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, the festival’s directors (interviewed here by Damien Russell) take the stage for brief introduction and then the show can begin.

The SenseMaker by Woman’s Move of Switzerland is the first piece – the story of one woman (played by Elsa Couvreur) waiting for human interaction from an automated phone message and her increasing frustrations, bringing to my mind the increasing role technology plays in our lives and the way in which bureaucracy is perceived. The dancing, mixed with elements of mime and sign language, builds with increasing frenzy and keeps the audience and myself hooked.

The spoken word/singing is no less impressive, combining a bewildering array of languages and sources such as Jethro Tull, Rammstein, Nicki Minaj, yodelling, and Eurovision, all with the constant of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ bursting through exuberantly at the crescendo. It is an excellent performance, a funny and triumphant start to the evening that leaves me hopeful of a great night.

A quick change of set (during which the audience is asked to leave the theatre) takes us into the next act, Portraits and Short Stories by Panama Pictures, hailing from The Netherlands. The stage has expanded greatly and now features platforms, ramps, a pole, a trampoline, and a rope, but no props. An old man sits alone.

This modern dance piece aims to ‘explore the relationships binding families and different generations together’. Five more men enter, aged 20 to 60, and all the players begin to interact with each other and the set. A visually busy performance combines elements of parkour, circus skills, pole dancing, ballet, trampoline, acrobatics, and rope work. It bristles with sensuality and physicality. The diverse and changing nature of relationships between people is captured in the movement of the players – now tense and posturing; now gentle and loving. The intensity builds as the routine becomes more daring and more frenetic. Portraits and Short Stories sees the best reaction of the night, with more than one audience member on their feet. And very well deserved. After two strong opening acts I have high expectations for the second half of the show.

After an interval for a meal served on the REP’s main stage, the third act of the night – Marco D’Agostin from Italy, performs Everything is OK. Again the theatre has changed; the enlarged space remains but the platforms and trampolines have been cleared away to leave a stark, white space.

An explosive and fast-paced monologue, touching on rap, song, speeches, and movie quotes, bombards the audience with a plethora of hard-to-follow references in a number of different languages. As promised in the programme, D’Agostin is out to ‘challenge our ability to compute endless information’. He then bursts into his equally wide-ranging dance routine which covers a myriad of styles. The peaks and troughs of energy are matched with the subtly-changing lighting and the austerely beautiful music. Everything is OK, although similar to The SenseMaker as a combination of dancing and lyrical content, is not as captivating and lacks the humour. I find it difficult to engage with the long dance routine, though I admit dance is not a subject I am very familiar with; the audience response, whilst still good, is also more muted.

All change again for the final act of the evening. The Casa Da Esquina Company from Portugal presents Ricardo Correia in My Country Is What The Sea Doesn’t Want, and a more crowded stage, featuring filing cabinets, a desk, and a suitcase.

Correia is the main focus of the piece, relating his own story of immigration and those of other people he has interviewed. Sara Jobard stands at a desk, providing occasional visual content through a small video camera, maps and an array of props set out on the table before her.

The show is funny and engaging – mixing various media such as photography, videography, physical theatre, and audience participation – but it fails to stick to a coherant narrative and the characters aren’t clearly delineated. The video link seems to suffer from technical problems too. The message of My Country Is What The Sea Doesn’t Want is clear and noble but disparately presented. I am, however, left with a an emourmous amount of sympathy for Correia and those portrayed in his work.

The night continues back in the hub, where The Brave Sons of Elijah Perry have just taken to the stage to provide ‘a Mississippi boat-load of energy’. But alas, with my last train departing, I have run out of time to watch them just as I have run out of space in which to review them.

At BE FESTIVAL tonight, the first half of the show was the stronger of the two. At times it all felt a little chaotic (I’m still not sure why we had to leave the theatre between each act, nor why I had to show my ticket each time I reentered) but perhaps that reflects the backstage-feel the event strives for. BE FESTIVAL promises an eclectic mix and it certainly delivers, and although not everything is quite to my taste such a wide-ranging bill is bound to have something to please almost everyone. The space at the REP is certainly well used by both the festival and the performers and all of the acts managed to convey to me a sense of the purpose of their work with minimal use of props.

There is a clear message of hope and celebration of the diversity of Europe coming from BE FESTIVAL and I leave feeling enthused by most of what I have seen. The night overall manages in its ethos to reflect Europe and its vagaries as a whole; some parts are strong and some parts are weaker, but it is diverse, exciting, funny, tragic, exuberant and, most of all, worth hanging on to. We can’t avoid Europe these days, and nor should we.

For more on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit