Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Stones hit Cardiff

Kitted out for action
Yesterday, Clare and I spent the day visiting an aunt in hospital in Exeter, another city in the throes of having its commercial heart rent asunder by redevelopment. Fortunately it has an effective Park and Ride scheme which brought us within a mile of our destination. It might have been half a mile, but our bus driver's ability to relay useful information nowhere near matched the sociability of Cardiff Bus employees. Nevertheless our visit was not marred by delays or queues of traffic in any way, and we arived home in time for us to eat together, then for me to don my new hi-viz jacket with St John Ambulance shoulder flashes, and 'Chaplain' written on the back and left pocket, and head for the Millennium Stadium.

With St John's First-Aiders
The Rolling Stones were giving a concert, and a team of St John Ambulance volunteers from all over South Wales was on hand to support the professional paramedics and Council employed security stewards in the hundreds to ensure eveyone had a safe and enjoyable evening. Lack of fitness and work pressure has meant that I haven't done a pastoral tour of the Stadium in support of First Aiders on duty for the best part of a year. Every time I do, I come away promising myself I'll do this more often. The teams are welcoming, and there are always unusual engagements with people of all ages who are there, volunteers of duty, only because the event is on, whether sport or pop music, and their vocation is to be among those who are, as the St John publicity strapline puts it 'The First to Care'.

Doing a tour of ambulances on duty when there's an open air event in Coper's Field behind the Castle, or around the Civic Centre is a lot easier. The security screen and the location make it more accessible, since all this happens just half a mile from my calm grassy privileged doorstep in one of thirty remaining residences closest to City Hall, the Law Courts and Central Police HQ. It goes with the job. We don't deserve a such place with Cardiff's urban elite. I'm still amazed at how often (4-5 times a year) the streets serving the heart of the Capital's posh administrative quarter are transformed into a plebian playground, with funfairs, stages and sound systems so loud that the air in our secluded section reverbrates until after midnight. Longer standing/suffering residents say it used to go on until the wee small hours ... I wonder, given how regulated and 'safe' much of this 'fun' is in practice.

Millennium Stadium in business
The audience was 'all-age', in the sense understood by ambitious clergy who want to gather the whole of their flock under one roof at one time for a one-size-fits-all liturgical experience. Babies in wheelchairs with mums, dads, aunties and uncles and grandparents were in evidence. Since I became a grandfather, of course, all grandparents seem to have gotten younger. The football pitch part of the arena was covered by seating, save for a central channel which linked with the stage ... a section of stage travelled fifty yards out into the arena, demonstrating the high quality of contemporary wireless technology sound systems.
I also noticed, since my last Stadium visit, fellers hanging out in the service area several storeys of concrete below ground availing themselves of powerful ubiquitous wireless access technology to send emails and surf the Web with their laptops. A new phenomenon. It struck me because it's only fifteen months since a WiFi hotspot was set up in St John's church to overcome the difficulty of accessing external signals through four foot thick stone walls. And here we were 20 feet under concrete, and people were getting usable signals. Or were they just writing offline and posing?

The show itself
The Stones' produced polished entertainment. The stage, as well as the mandatory video screens and long catwalks into the audience, had four tiers of boxes above stage for privileged participants to watch the show at £500 a throw, unless you had a mate in the biz. A hugely sophisticated piece of marketing, exportable to any part of the world, in a fleet of huge trucks. The commodity? Globalised entertainment, backed with CDs and DVD sales of performances. Four stars, a backing band of another dozen, then scores in the stage crew, marketing and finance people running into hundreds, on top of all the Stadium employees, bar staff, security, and the thirty odd St John's volunteers. This truly is entertainment as heay industry, very impressive in its organisation as well as its technology. Like other heavy industries, it was best experienced behind ear plugs.
Mick Jagger's act was formidable, considering he's my age. But then, he is skinny, and earns his living through all the gymnastics he performs as part of his musical interpretation. I detected some quite rough playing from the orginal band, within the framework of the polished backing band and singers. However the audience seemed to know all the tunes ... well I also knew two thirds of them. However, I never managed to master all the words, so I still don't know what most of them are about, even after watching the videos meant to interpret/promote their songs. I can say this without feeling ashamed nowadays.

Uncomfortably the same
It was a good fun evening, nothing scary, predictable really. I saw Mick on TV, years ago. This was my first time to see him live. Some people I listened to heard him live 20 years ago as well. What struck me was that his energetic (meant to be) provocative body language hadn't changed much in forty years. The songs were still unsentimental, just as frenetic, slick, delivered more with the passion of a gymnast than an artist, if consistency is a benchmark, stuck in a past we may fancy re-visiting, but in reality have outgrown. A bit like some kinds of High Church ceremonial.

Gimme Blues not Circus
When I think of Clapton, BB King, Chuck Berry, I recall artists growing old, still moving on musically, full of self-depreciating humour. Something of the richness of their journey is expressed in communication with their audience. If anything, Mick and co are great rock 'n roll circus, not Blues, alive and well, like Gospel music always ready to deliver the old stories, fresh, relevant, personal and timely to the here and now. I didn't come away wanting more, that's for sure.
I love 20th century pop music as much as I do opera. Thankfully opera isn't circus either. When we go to a Welsh National Opera performance of any kind at the Other Place (the Millennium Centre), I can guarantee it'll disturb or inspire me more thoroughly. Whether I know the work or not, the art of interpretation delivers a certain freshness with whatever music is on offer - yeah, a bit like Gospel and ... the Blues.
As my old mentor Professor Hollenweger used to say, people most need Good News, not Good Olds.