For a couple of days this past week, I was working in Norwich. This coincided with the annual CAMRA beer festival in the city and my colleague and I decided to wander along to sample an ale or two (or three, or four, or… well, you get the idea). This was my first visit to a beer festival, even though I profess to being a fan of real ale and like trying different ones. I was a little surprised by the payment method used. On entering the hall, you purchase a “starter” kit – a pint glass (used to hold whatever drinks you decide to try) and a number of “tokens”, basically a perforated sheet of paper made up of a number of stamps worth 10p each. Each beer then has a token value for either a pint or a half and you hand over the relevant number of tokens for whatever you are trying. This means that all cash is held in one place in the hall and, to my mind, could work better. At the end of the evening, my colleague and I had a small number of tokens left – less than £1’s worth but unspendable unless we went back and bought more and, even then, only by careful planning of which drinks to try. The drinks themselves were priced similarly but not all the same – between £2.20 and £2.80 per pint, if memory serves. To my mind, this whole system would work a lot better if the drinks were all priced the same – say £2.50 a pint, £1.25 a half – and tokens were to the value of £1.25, meaning 1 token per half pint bought. Much easier to work out than counting out twenty-eight small paper tokens once you have had a few drinks.
That aside, it was a pleasant evening. We tried seven different beers, after working out that the pint glasses were also marked with half pints so we didn’t have to buy a pint every time. It felt a bit strange drinking halves all night but we soon got used to it. Being honest, I don’t think I could remember which beers I tried even if I were to look through the event’s programme booklet, but I enjoyed all but one of them to one degree or another.
On the way back to York I heard on the radio of somebody who had received eighty different beers for his 80th birthday and has, so far, tried over 750 different British beers. That’s a record worth going for, in my opinion. I really must start recording which ones I have tried.
A few days ago I finally finished Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy – Redemption Ark (2002) and Absolution Gap (2003). I’m not going to write full reviews of them, partly because I didn’t make any notes while reading them and partly because I couldn’t say too much more than I have in past reviews. Although I read these slowly (normally a sure sign that I’m not enjoying a book) Reynolds writes excellent science fiction. These books are so full of ideas that it is practically impossible to read them quickly. Sentient spaceships; pigs genetically altered to be almost on a par with humans (much like David Brin’s Uplifted dolphins); humans genetically altered to be more than human; doomsday weapons; the death of planets; the death of suns; messages from the future; a whole religion based on an accident; mighty cathedrals slowly moving across the face of a moon in order to be constantly underneath the parent planet; far future galactic collisions and, perhaps most challenging of all (for me anyway), the concept of Brane Spaces – multi-dimensional spaces layered on top of each other. All these and much, much more are used to stunning effect to tell the story of a small group of characters, but much larger group of people, against a backdrop of interstellar destruction being wrought against Humanity by the ancient Inhibitors.
The third book, in particular, as the story rushes towards its conclusion, shows how Reynolds uses different styles within one trilogy. Absolution Gap tells its story across three different times and two different planets and the interstellar space in-between. At the end of the trilogy, the Revelation Space universe has been irrevocably changed with many of the locations used in the series being destroyed or totally changed.
At first, I was a little disappointed with the end – a huge, galactic scale war was ended off-page, almost as thought Reynold’s had backed himself into a corner and needed a Deus ex Machina device to enable him to complete the story. After a bit a musing, however, I realised that the large scale story had always been in the background. The story I was reading was more to do with the various members of the smaller casts – always involved in the war but only really on the periphery (well, apart from starting it all off in the first novel). Then the ending made sense. I believe that there are a number of short stories and another novel set in the Revelation Space universe, which add to and expand the overall story. I will be looking out for them when my “to read” pile is a bit more manageable.
Since finishing the Reynolds books, I have been trying to get through some smaller, easier to read books in order to boost my total for the year. I’m not going to review them but I have recently just completed a handful of the Doctor Who novels put out by the BBC a while back. I was buying them as they came out but stopped after a while, while the Doctor portrayed was still Paul McGann. The few I have just read are variable to say the least but, in the light of the new version of the TV series, it is vaguely interesting to see the direction that the books were going in, portraying the Doctor as a fallible half-human.
Finally, notes on a couple of the CDs I bought recently. Again, I’m not going to write full reviews but just give some general thoughts.
First up is Asia – Live in the U.S.A. (recorded November 1992 at Chestnut Cabaret, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). This was the seventh show of the Aqua (fourth album) tour, featuring Geoff Downes (keyboards), John Payne (vocals, bass), Vinny Burns (guitar) and Trevor Thornton (drums), with a guest appearance from Steve Howe (guitar). This is a fabulous live recording, the sound is raw and you feel as though you are actually standing in the audience as, at times, you can hear people chatting in the background (thankfully between songs rather than during). Originally, this was one of a three part “official bootleg” series and lives up to that name by not appearing over-produced or tidied up to any great degree.
Apparently, the Chestnut Cabaret was a night-club with a stage for live bands. I have seen it described as a mid-sized room. It no longer exists but sounds as though it could have been a good place for live shows – during the encore of this performance Downes is heard commenting that it’s 01:15 and people are still wanting more. Asia are one of my favourite bands (I plan to write more about them when I’ve had a chance to properly listen to their latest release) but this is the first live album I’ve bought by them. While definitely a product of it’s time – big sounding, keyboard-led prog rock – limited by the size of venue, I consider it to be a very god addition to my collection.
At the other end of the venue scale is Roger Waters’ In The Flesh tour from 1999. Originally planned to be held in small venues, tickets sold so well that many shows were upgraded to much bigger locations, despite Waters’ apparent disdain for stadium concerts. This two-CD recording is one of those annoying types that, instead of being a genuine representation of a single concert, takes bits and pieces from a number of shows and links then with crowd sounds. Not that you would know from listening to it. I only realised when reading the accompanying booklet.
Without delving too much into the politics and personalities of the members of Pink Floyd (another of my favourite bands), I was a little surprised by how much this concert sounded like a Pink Floyd show. I’m not an aficionado and haven’t heard a great deal of the solo releases by either Gilmour or Waters but I did see the recent (shortened) airing on BBC4 of the former’s Gdansk show which, although featuring some Floyd songs, was definitely a Gilmour concert. Waters’ In The Flesh shows seemed to me to almost channel Floyd and, being honest, most of the tracks on the album are Floyd songs.
Apart from Waters himself, the band comprises of Doyle Bramhall II (guitar, vocals), Graham Broad (drums), John Carin (keyboards, lap steel, guitar, vocals), Andy Fairweather Low (guitar, bass, vocals), Andy Wallace (hammond, keyboards), Snowy White (guitar) and Katie Kissoon, Susannah Melvoin and P P Arnold (vocals). The more musically-knowledgeable may recognise more names from that list than I did.
Overall, a good live album just, tinged with a similar disappointment to finding out that Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous wasn’t a true live album.