Wednesday 29 June 2011

Ron Sexsmith at the Sage, Gateshead - review by Terry Kelly

Ron Sexsmith
The Sage, Gateshead

MAKING the move from minor to major star can be a tricky business.
Thankfully, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has the talent to satisfy old and and new fans.

Following the most successful album of his career - this year's Long Player Late Bloomer - and being the subject of an acclaimed documentary, Sexsmith is finally playing to big audiences.

But although he played a blinder at The Sage, there were signs that making that transition is still a work in progress.

Fancy stage lights and billowing dry ice were unnecessary showbusiness window dressing and it wasn't until My Heart Talking and Believe It When I See It that the show really took off.

A brilliant short story writer in song, the attractively awkward Canadian treated us to Strawberry Blonde - packing a lifetime into a few verses - and even moved to the piano for a haunting version of There's a Rhythm, from his 1995 debut.

Digging out gems from throughout his 16-year album career, Sexsmith shone on old and new material, with Seem To Recall from 1999's Whereabouts, Gold In Them Hills from 2002's Cobblestone Railway and Nowadays and Every Time I Follow from his latest offering proving that he never lets the songwriting quality control slip, no matter how many people are listening.

Terry Kelly

Monday 27 June 2011

Gene Colan RIP

Gene Colan, the comic-book artist best known for The Tomb of Dracula and his work with characters such as Daredevil, Batman, Iron Man and Howard the Duck , died Thursday in New York after battling liver disease and cancer.

The work of the Bronx, N.Y., native spanned 67 years and crossed multiple comics universes, with credits for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Eclipse and even Archie. His moody, atmospheric style stood in stark contrast to, say, the cosmic bombast of Jack Kirby or the kinetic realism of Neal Adams.

In 2009, Colan illustrated a Captain America issue titled “Red, White and Blue-Blood,” written by Ed Brubaker. The book won the 2010 Eisner Award for best single issue.

“Gene Colan was like no other artist of his generation,” said Jim Lee, comic-book artist and co-publisher of DC Comics. “His ability to create dramatic, multi-valued tonal illustrations using straight India ink and board was unparalleled. The comics industry has lost one of its true visionaries today.”
A post on Colan’s website said the artist was “a fighter to the end, making plans on leaving the hospice” and pricing a VW Beetle.

- Noelene Clark

See also:

Sunday 26 June 2011

Peter Falk RIP

Peter Falk
Peter Falk, the American actor who died on June 23 aged 83, is best remembered for his portrayal of the shambling, cigar-smoking detective Columbo in the television series of the same name.

Throughout the seven year long series, Falk came to share many of his alter ego's traits. Where Columbo would badger suspects unremittingly for a clue to their crimes and would waste their time with seemingly pointless questions, Falk would badger studio bosses for better quality scripts, and became notorious for his time-wasting wrangles with producers in order to win directors more shooting time.

The Columbo scriptwriters William Link and Richard Lewison admitted that in later episodes they based most of the character of Lieutenant Columbo on Falk himself. "Let's face it," Link recalled, "Peter was scruffy and forgetful, but at the same time he was charming and had a very good brain."

Columbo was a success as soon as the first episode was screened. The programme defied all the conventions of television detective drama. The viewer saw the murderer commit the crime, there were no car chases, no sex or violence, and Falk often did not appear during the first 20 minutes of the programme.

The success of the series rested with Falk's performance in the lead role. He invested the shabby, preoccupied detective with so much credibility that the show became one of the most successful detective series in the United States.

Although Peter Falk tried to revive his film career in the late 1970s when Columbo ended he never enjoyed the same success in films as he had done on television. After ill-fated projects such as California Dolls (1981), which featured a female wrestling team, Falk returned to television in a revival of Columbo.

"I held them off for 11 years," he remembered, "but my wife was sick of having me around the house, she said if I didn't go back to work she was leaving me." Unlike the uxorious Lieutenant Columbo, Falk's relationship with his second wife, the actress Sheralyn Danese, remained unpredictable. So frequent were their numerous break ups and reconciliations that they were known in Hollywood as the "Fighting Falks".

"She makes me laugh," Falk said of his 23-year-old wife, "but if I had to say what we had in common I guess it would be that we both like the colour blue."

Peter Michael Falk was born on September 16 1927 in New York City, but was brought up in Ossining in the shadow of the infamous Sing Sing Prison. His parents owned a general store and assumed that Falk would join the business on leaving school.

"I probably would have done too, except that I lost my eye as a kid," Falk recalled, "I wanted to succeed in everything after that to prove I was as good as everyone else." At school Falk became "a straight A student" and a fervent participant in all sports, particularly baseball and basketball.

In 1946 he attended Hamilton College briefly before trying to enlist in the Marines. "I memorised the sight test," he recalled, "but they wouldn't take me, so I joined the Merchant Marines instead."

Falk trained as a cook and spent three years sailing around Europe and South America. In 1951 he enrolled at Syracuse University to study for a bachelor's degree in Political Science and went on to take a Masters in Public Administration. On graduation he began work as an efficiency expert for the budget director of Connecticut.

In 1953 Falk began to develop an interest in acting. Distinguishing himself from fellow efficiency experts Falk divided his time between working for Governor Lodge and rehearsals with the Mark Twain Maskers. While working on an assignment as business manager of The White Barn Theatre, Falk met Eva LaGalienne who owned the theatre and who persuaded him to try acting.

"I wanted to act professionally," Falk recalled, "but I was scared, actors seemed such geniuses to me. Then when I heard them talking in the canteen I thought 'they're just like me, I could do that'." Falk made his acting debut as Richard III in a White Barn production before leaving for New York to pursue an acting career. He arrived in 1956 and within six months was cast in his first professional role as Sagnarele in Don Juan.

Throughout the late 1950s Falk appeared in numerous off-Broadway productions including The Changeling (1956), The Lady's Not For Burning and Purple Dust (both 1957). He made his Broadway debut as the young Joseph Stalin in The Passion of Joseph D (1964).

His film debut came in 1958 in Wind Across The Everglades and followed it with a small role in The Bloody Brood (1959). In his first two years in Hollywood, Falk won considerable acclaim for both his film and television work. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Abe Reles in Murder Inc., a documentary-like treatment of the Mafia in the 1930s.

The following year Falk was nominated for another Academy Award for his role in A Pocketful of Miracles. He won neither of them. Later that year he did win a less prestigious Emmy Award for the role of Aristedes Fresco in The Price of Tomatoes.

During the remainder of the 1960s Falk worked consistently in numerous film and television productions.

He was interchangeable as either a thug or a policeman in television series such as The Untouchables, Naked City and The Twilight Zone, and played similar roles in films such as The Balcony, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (both 1963) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964).

Between 1965 and 1966 Falk won considerable popularity in the role of the barrister Daniel O'Brian in The Trials of O'Brian. Falk's performance as the dishevelled but brilliant lawyer brought him to the attention of Link and Lewison, who were looking for an actor to play Lieutenant Columbo.

At first Falk turned the series down. He felt that he was doing too much television and that he was becoming typecast as either a lawyer or a policeman. After much wrangling with the producers Falk finally agreed to do a pilot for the show and Prescription; Murder was made in 1968.

The film was a success and Falk began rehearsing the first series of Columbo in 1970. Columbo differed from every other police series on television in that the hero was an ordinary man who was unfit, worried about his wife, had a pet dog and wore ill-fitting suits. The producers of the series worried that viewers would tire of a show with complex plots and little action, and repeatedly tried to introduce elements of sex and violence. Falk made himself extremely unpopular by fighting these decisions and insisting on maintaining the quality of the original scripts.

Falk differed from other television actors because he demanded time to rehearse a scene. He became notorious for his regular arguments with both scriptwriters and producers. "Peter was a pest," recalled William Link, "he had strong opinions about our scripts, he wouldn't accept any change in the standards at all. In the end we let him write a script of his own to prove to him how hard it was."

Richard Lewison recalled that shooting, which should have lasted 12 days per episode, easily stretched to 13 or 14 days. "We knowingly used Peter's intransigence to gain more shooting time," Lewison remembered, "through his endless arguing he bought us much better quality shows."

Falk eventually left the series in 1977 after complaining that the quality of the scripts had deteriorated. He returned to his film career with a series of comedy roles in The Brink's Job, The Cheap Detective (both 1978) and The In-Laws (1979) playing both criminals and detectives.

In the early 1980s Falk's film career faltered when he made the unwise choice of accepting the lead in The California Dolls (1981) as the manager of two female wrestlers. But in 1989 Falk returned to the role of Lieutenant Columbo for one last series of films. He remained as eager to discuss production quality as he had been in the 1970s and refused to do the series unless he received the substantial fee of $600,000 per episode.

"It's not the money, it's the principle," he insisted. "I want them to know that I'm serious about the project and that I won't accept anything substandard."

Falk retained the battered raincoat and cigar which had been his trademark. He remained as shambling and preoccupied as in the earlier programmes, but critics began to complain that Falk's mannerisms had become formularised. Accusations that Columbo had become predictable confirmed Falk's fears, and he declined another series.

Peter Falk married Alyce Mayo in 1960. They adopted two daughters, and divorced in 1976. In 1977 Falk married the actress Shera Danese, who guest-starred on the Columbo series on numerous occasions. She and his adopted daughters survive him.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Last night's set list

At The (refurbished) Habit, York: -

Never Be Anyone Else But You
Fourteen Days
Tell Me Why
Teach Your Children*
Only Love Can Break Your Heart

* A drunk near the door (not me) demanded a CSN song so, feeling somewhat intimidated, I gave him Teach Your Children. The place went nuts.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Don McLean at the Sage, Gateshead - review by Terry Kelly

AMERICAN troubadour Don McLean is much more than American Pie.

A near-capacity crowd at The Sage last night enjoyed seeing the acclaimed singer-songwriter exploring his extensive, 40-year back catalogue.

McLean covered all the usual bases - Vincent, And I Love You So and Crying included - but it was good to hear him reviving more obscure numbers such as the brilliant Oh My What a Shame, from the 1972 Don McLean album, and La La Love You from 1974's Homeless Brother.

Another highlight was Irish weepy The Mountains of Mourne, from his 1973 covers album, Playin' Favourites.

With no support act, fans had the chance to wallow in a full evening of McLean's music, but the first half was a little sluggish in places, with some cracks revealed in the vocals of the 66-year-old New Yorker.

Things brightened in the second half, when McLean's son and daughter joined him for some solo spots and brilliant harmonising.

From then on, it was a cruise to the finish, with American Pie producing loud applause and a fitting standing ovation.

Terry Kelly