Sunday 30 June 2013

Mick Aston RIP

Mick Aston obituary
Popular archaeologist who raised the profile of his subject by appearing on Channel 4's Time Team

Christopher Dyer
Tuesday 25 June 2013

Mick Aston, who has died suddenly at the age of 66, was a leading academic archaeologist who attracted a large public following through the Channel 4 television programme Time Team. He was a popular success, in the sense that he made his subject understandable and enjoyable, but he was also well liked by viewers for his informal manner, forthright speech and genuine enthusiasm. His unkempt hair and beard, multicoloured sweaters and Black Country accent made him instantly recognisable.

Mick had collaborated with the television producer Tim Taylor on various programmes, and in 1994 they devised a winning formula for Time Team. Each week, a group of researchers spent three days answering an archaeological question. They employed a variety of techniques, including documentary research, aerial observation, geophysical survey, planning of earthworks, field walking (for surface potsherds), re-enactment and small-scale excavation.

The programmes worked because they challenged the audience by using a scientific method: a research question was posed, and evidence assembled to provide an answer. At the end of the programme, a solution to the problem was proposed. Viewers were drawn into the scholarly process as different interpretations were put forward and sometimes set aside in the light of discoveries. They enjoyed the debates and banter between the participants, and they relished disagreement.

The actor Tony Robinson was assigned the role of asking questions and summing up on behalf of the non-academic viewer. Mick's contribution was to insist on high academic standards, but to keep the content accessible, so that the viewers felt engaged by the unravelling of evidence. His manner was informal, and the programme avoided the patronising tradition of experts instructing the viewers. Most academic television programmes are well-illustrated lectures, but Time Team was a lively seminar in which anyone could join. For Mick, each programme was enjoyable and interesting, and he made sure viewers would share that feeling.

Some fellow academics resented his success on television, criticised his flamboyance and muttered about excessive playing to the gallery. However, many archaeologists, geographers and historians valued his academic writings and his company, and he was very generous in visiting fieldwork projects and attending seminars, where he gave good advice and encouragement. His popular fame did not diminish the respect with which he was regarded, especially among those involved in the archaeology and history of landscapes and settlements of the medieval period, his core interests. Many appreciated the way he raised public awareness, and they benefited, because non-specialists became familiar with archaeological methods.

Mick was constantly at work, and his conversation was mainly about academic matters. This may make him sound like an obsessive, but he had other interests, such as music and food. As a true product of the 60s, he distrusted the establishment, and adopted vegetarianism and naturism. He was essentially kind and generous, but strongly disapproved of snobbery, pretension, excessive formality and materialism, and he broke rules that he thought unnecessary: on occasion, he trespassed on private land in pursuit of archaeological sites, for example.

The son of Harold and Gladys Aston, he was born in Oldbury, now in the West Midlands, and attended Oldbury grammar school. His father, a cabinet-maker, was delighted with his son's educational success and especially when he was admitted to read geography at Birmingham University in 1964. Mick took some archaeology courses as a student, but taught himself more fully by enrolling on excavations.

Early influences included his thesis supervisor, Harry Thorpe, who researched past landscapes using traditional scholarship; Philip Rahtz, a brilliant digger leading an alternative lifestyle; Trevor Rowley, another geographer turning towards archaeology; and Philip Barker, an excavator of legendary sensitivity, and a leader in adult education. His contemporary James Bond, who shared Mick's interests but not his extrovert personality, worked closely with him throughout his life, and they complemented each other well, as the Holmes and Watson of landscape archaeology.

Mick began his career in 1970 as field officer for the Oxfordshire museum, Woodstock, from where he moved in 1974 to become the Somerset county archaeologist. Since his time at Birmingham, he had devoted energy to teaching adult education classes. This was almost second nature to anyone working in archaeology or local history because of the great public enthusiasm for those subjects. He moved into jobs as a full-time adult education tutor, first in 1978 at Oxford University and a year later at Bristol. He remained at Bristol University, mainly in adult education, but later in the archaeology department, and as professor of landscape archaeology from 1996 until 2004.

Teaching in adult education was Mick's central activity. He attracted many enthusiastic students, and his other activities flowed from his classes. His books included material from his teaching, and were written with adult students in mind. Having co-authored books on fieldwork (Landscape Archaeology, 1974, with Rowley) and urban landscapes (The Landscape of Towns, 1976, with Bond), he wrote what is still the best introduction to landscape studies, Interpreting the Landscape (1985). He followed this with Monasteries (1993), another book that satisfied both academics and a wider readership.

Inviting leading researchers to give lectures kept him in touch with a wide academic network and new developments. He was always anxious to communicate with a wider public. He gave radio talks in Oxford, and published attractive books about local landscapes in Somerset, but television was the key to a really large audience.

Mick played a less prominent part in Time Team after an episode of illness in 2003, and in 2012 he left the programme after criticising a reduction in its academic standards. It will end later this year, but the run of almost 20 years was a great achievement as a collaboration between an academic discipline and the mass media.

While Time Team was enjoying much popularity, with audience figures rising to 3m, Mick was drawn into a series of popular publications, such as Mick's Archaeology (2000), and he contributed a column to British Archaeology. At the same time he was leading a major project on the Somerset village of Shapwick, which over 10 years applied the range of research methods found in Time Team to a parish of 3,000 acres. This has resulted in two doorstep books: Chris Gerrard was mainly responsible for one of these, The Shapwick Project, Somerset (2007); and the other, more popular work, Interpreting the English Village (2013), was co-authored by him and Mick. In recent years Mick had been leading a team of volunteers researching the long-term landscape history of his home village of Winscombe in Somerset.

He is survived by his partner, Teresa Hall, a scholar of landscape history; and by a son, James, and stepdaughter, Kathryn, from his relationship with Carinne Allinson. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

• Michael Antony Aston, archaeologist, born 1 July 1946; died 24 June 2013

Saturday 29 June 2013

Richard Matheson RIP

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson obituary
Science fiction author and inspiration to Stephen King whose novels, such as I Am Legend, were adapted for film and TV

Christopher Hawtree
Tuesday 25 June 2013

Richard Matheson, the prolific American writer of fantasy, horror and science fiction, much of whose work has been adapted for TV and cinema, has died aged 87. Cited by Stephen King as the biggest influence on his own work, Matheson sent shivers down the spines of readers and viewers for decades, with such unusual novels and stories as The Incredible Shrinking Man and the much-filmed I Am Legend.

He turned his hand to pacy adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories for the film director Roger Corman, to the story and screenplay for one of Steven Spielberg's most effective films, Duel (1971), and 16 instalments of the popular and ingenious television series The Twilight Zone. For Matheson, horror was potentially everywhere: battlefields, suburban streets, a cellar, an aircraft cabin – even a library.

Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey, to Norwegian parents, and brought up in Brooklyn, New York. As a youngster he first set his heart on a musical career, but an avid appetite for fantasy sparked his imagination and fired his creativity: he was only eight when his stories appeared in a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle. He was transfixed by seeing Dracula at a local cinema and by his teens had the idea for the vampire story I Am Legend. After he graduated from Brooklyn technical high school in 1943, second world war service intervened.

He later described his experiences through the eyes of a common soldier in his acclaimed novel The Beardless Warriors (1960). A key scene catches the surprise and ambiguity that had become his trademark: "A little while ago, each side had done its lethal best to decimate the other. Now, the guns and cannons temporarily stilled, each carried off the victims of their contest. To Hackermeyer it was brutal ambiguity; the condition of war at its most unfathomable. He looked at the Germans with hostile eyes. Why were they doing this? Why had they come with a white flag and, in a polite conference, arranged to forestall the war until the battlefield was tidied?"

Solitary, bewildered men recur in Matheson's work, and he developed such trademark characters while working nights as a linotype operator in California. He had moved to the west coast after graduating in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949. He met his future wife, Ruth Ann Woodson, on a beach in Santa Monica; they married in 1952.

A first novel, Hunger and Thirst, went unpublished for several decades. A short story, Born of Man and Woman (1950), attracted notice and became part of his first story collection, published in 1954, the same year that I Am Legend appeared. In this tale, the last man on Earth is beset by vampires. Partially soothed by whisky, music and the companionship of a dog, he reflects in a library on all the books on its well-stocked shelves, "the residue of a planet's intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing". It was filmed three times, as The Last Man on Earth (1964), as The Omega Man (1971) and, most recently, with Will Smith, as I Am Legend (2007).

In an even more intense book, The Shrinking Man (1956), Scott Carey is exposed to radiation and chemicals that cause him to grow smaller. He is pursued by a spider that appears bigger and bigger as he dwindles in size. Carey's terrifying situation was a variation on that era's preoccupation with man's identity amid the lonely crowd and threat of the bomb. Carey keeps faith – "a man's self-estimation was, in the end, a matter of relativity … he still had his mind, he was still unique" – despite his fear of a spider whose "pulsing egg of a body perched on running legs – an egg whose yolk swam with killing poisons". To Matheson's dismay, Hollywood added the adjective "incredible" for the title of the1957 film adaptation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, but the expanded phrase has entered the language and later editions of the novel were released under the new title.

In his account of horror writing, Danse Macabre (1981), King gives many pages to this short novel, which he thought redolent of its A-bomb era. He quotes Matheson as telling him the novel was partly inspired by watching a comedy film in which Ray Milland, leaving a flat in huff, accidentally puts on Aldo Ray's hat, which comes down past his ears: this set Matheson wondering what would happen if Milland's own hat had done so. Matheson said: "The entire novel was written in the cellar of the rented house on Long Island. I did a shrewd thing in that. I didn't alter the cellar at all. There was a rocking chair down there and, every morning, I would go down into the cellar with my pad and pencil and I would imagine what my hero was up to that day. I didn't have to keep the environment in my mind or keep notes. I had it all there, frozen."

Matheson also wrote thrillers in the 1950s, of which the best was Ride the Nightmare (1959). A Stir of Echoes (1958), again depicting suburban America, was his last fantasy novel for 12 years. Screen work regularly came his way from this period onwards. He contributed to Rod Serling's early 1960s television series The Twilight Zone, whose episodes twist towards ingenious endings. In the famous, much-parodied Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, a salesman, played by William Shatner, recovering from a nervous breakdown, sees in flight a creature "of a wide-pored coarseness" on the wing of the plane, which moves out of sight whenever other passengers glance its way. Matheson also provided five screenplays from Poe for Corman. Perhaps the best of these engaging low-budget works was a satirical take on The Raven (1963), with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price and newcomer Jack Nicholson.

When he heard news of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963, Matheson abandoned a game of golf and was returning home when he was continually tailgated by a truck. This inspired a long story, Duel, which he adapted for Spielberg's terrifying made-for-television movie. Spielberg added scenes for a cinema release, but Matheson preferred the TV version.

Other television films included The Night Stalker (1972) and a notable movie in which Dick Van Dyke drew on his own alcoholic struggle, The Morning After (1974). A Hammer work, The Devil Rides Out (1968), from the novel by Dennis Wheatley, gave much scope to a sinister Charles Gray as the leader of a satanic cult.

Matheson continued to write short stories, and also returned to novels with the gothic Hell House (1971), which became the lacklustre film The Legend of Hell House (1973). Bid Time Return (1975), in which a man travels through time to pursue the subject of a 19th-century portrait, was filmed as Somewhere in Time in 1980 with Christopher Reeve. What Dreams May Come (1978, adapted in 1998 into an Oscar-winning film with Robin Williams) revealed Matheson's growing preoccupation with psychic matters, and these were the subject of his non-fiction work The Path (1993). His work for children included the charming tale Abu and the Seven Marvels (2002).

Matheson is survived by his wife and their four children, three of whom became writers.

• Richard Burton Matheson, author and screenwriter, born 20 February 1926; died 23 June 2013

I normally find Charlton Heston movies too much to bear (with the notable exceptions of El Cid, Touch of Evil, Soylent Green, Will Penny, Planet of the Apes and Richard Lester's Three Musketeers films), this, the best film version of I Am Legend, is good too.

I Am Legend author Richard Matheson was himself a real legend
The man behind the best ever vampire novel was a major inspiration to innumerable stars of SF and horror

Alison Flood
Tuesday 25 June 2013

I am meant to be writing a blog about how I Am Legend, by the late, immensely great, Richard Matheson, is the king of vampire novels. But after finding my old copy on the shelf downstairs, I've become somewhat distracted, and would really rather just get on with reading it.

The image Matheson provides, at the start of the novel, of Robert Neville alone in Los Angeles, is one of the most chilling, the most believable, in post-apocalyptic fiction. Shifting from practical and unemotional, to lonely and furious, Neville sits in his barricaded living room, trying to ignore the cries of the vampires, "their snarling and fighting among themselves", coming from the other side of the walls. Later, "he went from house to house and used up all his stakes. He had forty-seven stakes". So deadpan. So unnerving.

Then there are Matheson's vampires – written in 1954, and so much scarier, so much more interesting and memorable and believable, than the hordes of pallid high–school students who keep springing up today (and than the mobs in the Will Smith film version). Ben Cortman, howling outside his house every night. The corpses who walk the streets. And that ending! I won't give it away, for those who haven't read it, because it is just so disturbingly brilliant – but I'll remind those of you who already love the novel of the spine-chilling last line: "I am legend."

And so was Matheson, to so many readers and writers. In my edition of I Am Legend, Brian Lumley is quoted saying "a long time ago I read [the book], and I started writing horror at about the same time. Been at it ever since. Matheson inspires, it's as simple as that." Ray Bradbury, no less, calls him "one of the most important writers of the 20th century", Stephen King has said Matheson is "the author who influenced me the most as a writer", and that I Am Legend was "an inspiration to me", while the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the novel "perhaps the very peak of all paranoid SF".

Last year, the Horror Writers Association named it vampire novel of the century, ahead of the likes of Salem's Lot and Interview with a Vampire; Anne Rice took her loss in good spirits, saying it wasn't hard to be beaten by "a man whose stories were inspiring me when I was still a kid writing everything with a ballpoint pen in a school notebook".

(I love, by the way, Matheson's acceptance speech for this award: he calls it "a rather dubious but interesting distinction", and speaks of how he first read Bram Stoker's novel during basic army training, on the toilet at night. "Why, I don't know. I was pretty tired, I should have gone to sleep," he said. "I enjoyed it at the time, never knowing I was going to write a book about vampires and certainly not that it would be derived from the idea I had when I first saw Bela Lugosi.")

Tributes have, of course, been pouring in for Matheson since news of his death was announced, with a particularly moving one from Harlan Ellison. "If there is anyone out there who didn't know I worshipped him, from his first story, Born of Man and Woman (which I read the day it was published back in 1950), to his second story, Witch War, on through every book – western, mystery, fantasy – for a supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges, then they haven't read my many encomia to Richard's singular top-of-the-mountain talent … Frankly, I am downsmashed," he wrote.

Steven Spielberg said that "Richard Matheson's ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel. His Twilight Zones were among my favourites, and he recently worked with us on Real Steel. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov."

"He was a giant, and YOU KNOW HIS STORIES, even if you think you don't," tweeted Neil Gaiman. The horror author Joe Hill wrote: "Never met Richard Matheson, but his stories have been life companions. Books are human souls, in analog form. Go read his."

What a sad year it has been so far for the passing of science fiction legends: Jack Vance, Iain (M) Banks, and now Richard Matheson. I'm going to take Hill's advice and carry on reading I Am Legend, with The Shrinking Man lined up next. RIP Richard Matheson.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Antoni Gaudi - 161 today

Now there's an achievement. Still has all his own teeth.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Courtroom Drama

Rereading the best courtroom dramas
Danger, opposition and reversals of fortune – courtroom dramas have all the elements of a perfect narrative. No wonder they have such enduring appeal

Louise Doughty
Friday 21 June 2013

In the summer of 2011, I sat through every day of a murder trial at the Central Criminal Court, at London's Old Bailey, as research for my new novel. Two women were on trial for the murder of a man. All three were alcoholics who, after a day of drinking, had ended up in the flat of one of the women where, in the small hours of the morning, the women had turned on the man and beaten, stamped and stabbed him to death.

In court, the facts as they were presented left little doubt as to what had actually happened; forensic science has advanced to the stage where a blood-splatter expert can tell a jury what position a victim was lying in according to how far their blood flew up a wall. The issue was whether both women were equally guilty of murder. The jury was obliged to decide this on the basis of law; which act, during the attack, had led to the victim's death, who had undertaken it and were the women jointly responsible? But there is another question that may or may not have the same answer: whose fault was it really? The law is one thing, but where does moral responsibility lie?

Through the ages, novelists, dramatists and screenwriters have had the freedom to explore these moral questions, and to show how the law and human morality are sometimes aligned and sometimes in direct conflict.Aristotle's Poetics emphasised the importance of physical suffering and peril in plot. Courtroom dramas have that aplenty in the fate of the victim and the danger – imprisonment, or the death penalty in some countries – in which the defendants find themselves. He also talked about the importance of logical progression, of an action being a direct consequence of the preceding one. But the most crucial element of tragedy as he saw it was peripeteia: reversals of fortune.

Peripeteia summarises the progression of a murder trial, like the one I witnessed, perhaps better than any other single word. At the end of any prosecution counsel's opening summary many observers assume it's an open and shut case. The defence's job is to overturn that presumption; and so, with the summoning of each witness to the stand, in the presentation of each piece of evidence, the opposing counsel has the right to challenge our views. A courtroom drama is not just the reversal of fortune of one character according the verdict, an individual's downfall in the Aristotelian sense: it's a hundred smaller reversals strung out along the line of the narrative like pegs on a washing line.

In describing his idea of a perfect narrative form, Aristotle would have loved to have had examples of modern courtroom dramas at his disposal. The beauty of such dramas, and what makes them so compulsive to read or watch, is that the two theories of what has happened are in direct opposition: there is a thesis followed by antithesis but there can be no synthesis. It's guilty or not guilty.

Twelve Angry Men is the most obvious example of the tension between those opposing forces. Reginald Rose's drama was first broadcast as a television play in 1954, then became a stage play, and in 1957, the classic film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda as the juror faced with a group of his peers keen to find the defendant – a young man who has allegedly killed his father in a fit of rage – guilty … in about two minutes flat. During the course of the next hour and a half, Fonda's character throws reasonable doubt over one piece of evidence after another, reversing each of the men's assumptions, until they reach the opposite verdict.

Twelve Angry Men is an unusual courtroom drama in that it takes place almost entirely in the jurors' debating chamber – we learn little about the background of the jurors and never discover whether the persuasive skills of the main character have saved an innocent youth from the electric chair or released a vicious killer. Most examples give us more background: To Kill a Mockingbird is often referred to as a courtroom drama, but in the novel the trial of Tom Robinson does not begin until more than halfway in and takes only a few pages. What comes before, and follows, is Harper Lee's portrayal of a small town in the south beset by the endemic racism of 1930s America. In the courtroom itself, as Atticus Finch struggles to free the wrongly accused man, it is clear that what is at stake for Robinson and his attorney is emblematic of what is at stake for the wider community. Prejudice itself is on trial, the unfortunate Tom its innocent victim.To Kill a Mockingbird
For any contemporary novelist or dramatist constructing a courtroom drama, this is the first problem: backstory. Restrict your setting to the courtroom and your audience's knowledge of what happened is, like the jury's, confined to the evidence they hear. Modern audiences want more. They want to know where their sympathies should lie, and they want the truth, despite Jack Nicholson's famous snarl at Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (1992), "You can't handle the truth!" The writer has a choice. He or she can either have a long lead-up to the trial, as Lee did, or begin the work in the courtroom, with flashbacks to what "really" happened.

The potential for peripeteia – not to mention dramatic irony – is obvious, but it gives your flashbacks a weighty responsibility if they have to provide backstory at the same time as the kind of revelation that normally comes within the present action of a drama. The BBC series Accused takes this approach, with each episode a self-contained story centring on one character in the dock – the flashbacks telling us what led him or her to be there. By the time the verdict comes in, the viewer is well on their way to making up their own mind about what the verdict should be.

This technical problem can be overcome, but there is a more pressing one that taxes writers to their limits: the denouement. Here is where it becomes apparent that the use of peripeteia comes at a price: if your drama has been a series of reversals – or revelations of any sort – you have to decide at which point they will stop.

All narrative forms have their own question mark hanging over them. In a romance, the question is, will the lovers get together at the end or not? Leave that hanging and your reader will not be happy. In a courtroom drama, there can only be one of two verdicts: guilty or not guilty. Woe betide the author who tries to cop out by ending their book as the foreman of the jury rises.

Classical ideals require a beginning, middle and end – that justice be done and the gods punish the guilty appropriately: Oedipus must be blinded, and by his own hand. Modern audiences like a twist in the tale and a guilty or not guilty verdict doesn't quite do it without one final reversal. In Jagged Edge (1985), the viewer, like the defence attorney played by Glenn Close, is pulled this way and that over the question of Jeff Bridges' guilt: did he kill his wife in a vicious ritual killing? Once he is found not guilty we have been given too many hints about his inner darkness to feel that all is resolved. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was experienced enough to give us a twist.

In his 1963 cold war classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le CarrĂ© stages his dramatic denouement in an East German courtroom where the disillusioned spy Alec Leamas learns the true nature of his mission behind the Berlin Wall. "And suddenly, with the terrible clarity of a man too long deceived, Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick." That moment is intensely pleasurable because it is not only the moment that Leamas realises he has been used by the British Secret Service to save his arch-enemy Mundt, not destroy him – it is the moment the reader also realises this.

To allow oneself to be twisted this way and that by peripeteia is one of the great pleasures of courtroom dramas. But there is another, darker pleasure. In Barry Collins's play Judgment (1974), a Soviet army survivor of the second world war stands alone on the stage, telling the story, based on a true one, of how he and his comrades were imprisoned in the basement of a remote monastery by German soldiers and left to starve to death. In real life, the soldiers were discovered, but only after they had survived several weeks of incarceration in the dark by drawing lots as to who among them should be killed and eaten by the others.

The survivors were shot dead by their own side, lest their tale demoralise the troops, but in Collins's compulsive monologue, he has one survivor tell the story of what happened in that basement at the trial. As his horrific tale exerts its grip, the audience realise they are judge and jury, and the soldier says to them at the end: "Comrades, I await your judgment." Collins's drama makes apparent the real and arguably reprehensible pleasure of a courtroom drama for the audience: the indulgence of the human need to be judgmental. Our enjoyment of the perfect story form obscures our darker pleasure: that of being the bystander outside the police tape, the tut-tutting newspaper reader, able to walk away from a real tragedy shaking our heads, both safe and smug.

Saturday 22 June 2013

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

Ron Sexsmith
The Sage, Gateshead
19 June 2013

BRILLIANT Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith remains one of the best-kept secrets in rock music.

His melancholic songs, blessed with great melodies, reach places other artists can't even imagine.

But his fan base isn't huge and this obviously bothers the engaging singer-songwriter, judging by some of his between-song comments at The Sage.

His 2011 album, Long Player Late Bloomer, was a more high-gloss affair than usual and won him many new fans.

But while his latest album, Forever Endeavour, apparently hasn't sold well, it's again filled with Sexsmith's trademark songwriting excellence.

Two songs from the new album, the similarly-titled Nowhere Is and Nowhere To Go, proved some of the highlights of his latest Tyneside appearance.

But it's also fair to say that Sexsmith took a while to get warmed up.

This may have been down to the sore throat he was apparently suffering - at one point comparing himself to Joe Cocker - but he appeared disengaged for the first five or six numbers.

It was only when Sexsmith sat at the piano for Right About Now and Secret Heart that the show really took off.

He also performed a lovely duet with his long-time drummer and musical partner, Don Kerr, on Listen, before harmonising with the rest of the band on a delightfully ramshackle Me, Myself and Wine.

As the night progressed, Sexsmith seemed to grow in confidence, Deepens With Time being one of the real high spots of the gig.

But the self-deprecating Canadian still couldn't resist adding that he wrote the song for country superstar Faith Hill, who failed to record it.

This slightly chip-on-the-shoulder aspect of Sexsmith's personality could now usefully be ditched from his stage act.

Least That I Can Do, which closed the show, was as good as it gets, Sexsmith's soaring vocal filled with real soul.

While he may never pull in as many fans as The Boss, Ron Sexsmith's quality songs can stand comparison with anyone in rock music.

And songwriting quality, rather than chart action, is what really matters for his devoted fans.


Thursday 20 June 2013

A sacred watering hole

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York (The Elderly Brothers): -

Walk Right Back
Sea Of Heartbreak
Crying In The Rain
Bye Bye Love

A busy night with a wide variety of players and musical styles. For The Elderlys this was their first showing in 3 weeks and there was no time for rehearsals! Hence the somewhat 'safe' set list. Successfully winged it (I think). The last turn consisted of double bass, accordion, concertina and guitar. A member of the audience joined in on table-top percussion (he had some drumsticks with him). They did a sort of zydeco version of The Man Who Sold The World - one for Jim, but he wasn't there!

Neil wows the O2 with Red Sun

The "ooohhh" at the start is Da in shock at hearing a song not played since 2000.

James Gandolfini RIP

James Gandolfini, master Soprano, dies at 51
Heart attack suspected in death of much-loved actor who starred as gangster family head in The Sopranos

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles
Thursday 20 June 2013 

The actor James Gandolfini, who played mafia boss Tony Soprano on the hit TV series The Sopranos, has died of a suspected heart attack in Italy. He was 51.

Colleagues and fans expressed shock after news broke late on Wednesday. "It is with immense sorrow that we report our client James Gandolfini passed away today while on holiday in Rome, Italy," said his managers, Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders. "Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply."

Tributes flooded in for an actor who won three Emmys and showed that being fat, bald and playing thugs was no impediment to charisma.

"[James] was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that," David Chase, who created The Sopranos, told "He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times: 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone."

Gandolfini had been due to take part in the Taormina film festival in Sicily this weekend. Mara Mikialian, a spokeswoman for HBO, the network that made The Sopranos, told Reuters the cause of death might have been a heart attack.

Gandolfini was set to star in a new series for HBO, Criminal Justice, one of several projects in the works. His film credits included Get Shorty, The Mexican, Zero Dark Thirty and In The Loop.

A New Jersey native, Gandolfini worked as a truck driver, bouncer and nightclub manager in New York before he went to an acting class with a friend and got hooked.

"I'd also never been around actors before," he told Time magazine, "and I said to myself: 'These people are nuts; this is kind of interesting.'"

He made his Broadway debut in a 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

The following year he played a philosophising, brutal hitman in the film True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino, which paved the way for his lead role in The Sopranos, the gangster family saga that ran for six seasons from 1999. It swept awards and has been voted the best television show of all time.

Tony Soprano's struggles with his relatives, henchmen, psychiatrist and, above all, himself anchored the show and created a new type of anti-hero. described his portrayal of Soprano as "the schlub we loved, the cruel monster we hated, the anxiety-ridden husband and father we wanted to hug in midlife crisis".

Joseph Gannascoli, who played Vito, said: "James is one guy who never turned his back on me. He was the most humble and gifted actor and person I have ever worked with."

Tony Sirico, who played Paulie, said the late star was one of his best friends. "He was there whenever I needed him. Not only did he help me with my career, but also in life, God bless him. He and I were always helping the troops, we even went to combat zones to visit the marines."

Hollywood took to Twitter to mourn its loss. "I'm truly heartbroken ... he is one of my all time favourite actors. Tragic loss," said Jonah Hill.

Colleagues and acquaintances said Gandolfini had been in high spirits and full of plans – including one for a tattoo. There had been speculation about a Sopranos movie involving the fictional family's Italian origins.

The actor is survived by his wife Deborah Lin, who gave birth to the couple's daughter in October. He also has a teenage son from a previous marriage.