Are you experienced?*

When your eldest daughter (who is a Classics undergraduate) mentions something about being excited to be going to an amphitheatre and seeing Arbeia, your first thoughts are that she is planning to do some field work at the end of term in Roman South Shields.

I say first thoughts, because that word “excited” should really have given the game away.  There was another explanation.  Her friend Neil who she works with when home from Uni and his band; Wood & Wire were playing a gig in South Shields in an open performance space naturally called The Amphitheatre.  They were sharing the bill with another band called Arbeia.  Which is why I found myself on a windy seafront with camera in hand.APW_4172

I wondered initially how much company I would have, but the place soon filled up, and being a free gig attracted a pretty mixed audience; kids with bikes and ice creams contrasting with those who’ve seen it all before; grey men in grey clothes mixing with those who were more overtly rock n roll.

Now this was never going to be top drawer concert photography.  An open air gig in full daylight, with large windows behind the band that at times needed a full two stops of exposure adjustment, and no electric lighting.  Consequently as the musicians moved backwards and forwards under the raised promenade that they were using for shelter in case of rain, so they moved from intermittent sunshine to flat shade.  Thus the fading light of the day, and what to me seemed like a strange piece of programming, meant that for me it was a show of decreasing returns.

Arbeia are a talented bunch of passionate musicians, but as headlining act didn’t really grab my attention.  For me there’s a difference between listening to a band’s music and then going to see them live.  You want some degree of spectacle, and Arbeia’s appearance at the end, when the light had dulled and they had nothing to compensate with, meant that for me they dulled too.

Wood & Wire were the sandwich filler, and played an interesting set including the Beatles‘ Helter Skelter, a song seen by many as a precursor to Heavy Metal, and by Charles Manson as a coded prophecy of race war!  An interesting contrast to their own song Protector of Man.  I enjoyed their set, but their inexperience showed.  Regular guitar changes from semi acoustic to SG copy, necessitated retuning after virtually every song, which meant that every time they built momentum, it was swiftly lost again.  You can get away with this if you have a front man who can entertain the crowd while your guitarist makes these changes, but when that front man is the one concentrating on retuning someone else must take the mic; I know, I have played in a band that suffered in the same way.  (Where are you now Primary Colours?!)  Peter Gabriel‘s stories are loved by audiences, but they also serve a purpose to distract from more mundane activities.

What made this more noticeable was that Wood & Wire were preceded on stage by a guy who wasn’t even billed to appear.  A solo singer songwriter with stage presence, immediately likeable songs, and who of course benefited from the early evening sunshine.  Jonny Boyle should have been topping the bill.  When you look at his history, it becomes obvious why.  And visually he looked the part; Ray-Bans, black T-shirt, and a battered acoustic with pin-up decal that could tell some stories of its own no doubt.

Maybe I just appreciated an artist who was like me a little older than the kids.

*Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?

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In Them Thar Hills

A little inland from Whitburn lies another village on Sunderland’s northern fringes; the village of Cleadon, whose name, like the Buckinghamshire mansion Cliveden, points to its location amongst cliffs.  In Bucks those cliffs have been cut by the nearby Thames, in South Tyneside the name refers to Cleadon Hills, a limestone ridge dividing Wearside and South Tyneside that was once a series of islands in a prehistoric sea.

Though I had no idea of their geological origins there were a pretty cool place to play when I was young.  A couple of miles walk from home, and remote enough from shops to justify packed lunches, they were a location made for adventures.

Their elevation made them an obvious choice for kite flying, the wartime pillboxes (now demolished and overgrown with gorse) were a ready-made inspiration for such un-PC games as Japs and British, and for some their remoteness from home made them a safe location for illicit drinking and early attempts at smoking.  I recall one particular occasion when with Martin Burlinson and Stephen Jude I took a brand new pair of running spikes to try out on the plateau atop the hills.  That I lost them that same afternoon did not win me friends at home!

Though not of great height, their location as the tallest point for miles around makes gives them clear views towards Tyneside in the north and Wearside to the south, so it is believed that the Romans at nearby Arbeia in South Shields may have stationed a look out post here.  If that is true then no visible signs remain and the site is dominated by two much later structures.

The first is the shell of a 19th century windmill, similar in design to those nearby in Whitburn and Fulwell, its working life curtailed by a storm after fifty years of service, then used for artillery practice during the first world war.  Its workings removed and its timbers long since rotted away, its masonry nevertheless stands proud.

The second structure is altogether more ornate, for an Italian bell tower rises to the west of the windmill.  The campanile holds no bells however for this is in fact a chimney, part of the water pumping station sited 100 feet below the tower’s apex.  Pumping stations with their accompanying reservoir were other sources of attraction for young boys as potential sources of frogs and newts.  Cleadon’s defences were impenetrable however, its high walls not only difficult to overcome on entry, but preventing a speedy exit if caught trespassing!

The area has always been a popular spot for equestrians; my daughters both learnt the basics nearby so it was not surprise that I should meet two women out for a ride today.  Unfortunately the 70-200mm lens that I had fitted was not built for including both, except at distance, and it was a challenge to fit both horse and rider in for either of the pairings.  This then is Lucy on her mount Trooper (not the quality I would like to do justice to such a beautiful smile, but that was the trade-off for backing away to include Trooper).

From such a lofty vantage point I wonder if she spotted my running shoes?

Welcome to McElderry Country?

To the native Celts it was Caer Urfa.  When the Roman’s sought to fortify the mouth of the Tyne with a fort, they called it Arbeia (“place of the Arabs“), a name which could have been reapplied in the 19th Century when a Yemeni community was established there.  To us it’s South Shields.  Or just Shields.

Shields lies about 5 miles north from me, and though dwarfed by nearby Sunderland is the largest town in South Tyneside.  Like much of the region its history is entwined with coal and ships, and like many it has had to face the decline and eventual passing of these industries.  Seeking to reinvent itself as a tourist destination Shields and its environs branded as Catherine Cookson Country, though after 25 years of association with the prolific writer, who was born in Shields and drew on the history of the area for inspiration, the council have recently abandoned the brand.

The sands South Shields 1903
The sands South Shields 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the signposts for Cookson Country have been removed, ostensibly because the gritty realities of her books aren’t something we want to be associated with any longer, and replaced with a sunny beach scene somewhat reminiscent of a 60’s postcard.  Shields is a resort town now and rather like Amityville in Peter Benchley‘s Jaws is keen to play up the sun, sand and sea, and play down the pit heaps and poverty (though thankfully not shark attacks!)

As a brand Cookson wasn’t tied to the seasons, but I wonder, for what percentage of the year do the golden sands of South Shields beach resemble these new road signs?

It’s mid-May, and whilst not high summer, we should be seeing temperatures averaging in the high teens.  My car told me it was 9.5 today. And very wet.

The dunes were deserted, as was the shoreline but for two young lads sprinting for shelter in the greyness.

No one playing football, though three determined individuals did fight the elements.  (You’ll get your balls wet boys!)

An amusement park out of season is a sad and shuttered place, but it seems worse when those same shutters are down at this time of year.

On the plus side you wouldn’t have had much difficulty in finding a table at Minchella’s Ice Cream Parlour!

Amidst all of this dreek misery the show must go on, and so I found Allan updating one of the visitor noticeboards nearby, and his eyes were able inject a little colour into the day.

Still it could be worse; and as Shields-born Python Eric Idle put it:

Always look on the bright side of life…