Grumpy in Glasgow

6 Feb 2012 in General, Robert Livingston Blog

Forget policemen and doctors, you really know you’re getting old when some of the regular contributors to ‘Grumpy Old Men’ are younger than you are. My home town of Glasgow regularly brings out my inner grumpiness. I spent most of the first half of my life there, but I haven’t lived in the city since 1983. So I return to it with all the prejudices of the ex-pat: how could they build that, have they still not repaired those pavements, why are the streets so filthy? And so on.

Last week’s flying visit to catch part of the closing week of Celtic Connections offered the opportunities to sadly confirm one grumpy prejudice, and happily explode another. In recent years, few cultural topics have prompted more grumpy tirades from me than the refurbishment of Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, known as ‘Kelvingrove’ for short. As a youngster I was taken there on regular visits by both my mother and my primary school, and, once grown up, our very first flat of our own looked directly down the street to its outrageous facade. So, I had a lot invested, emotionally, in the reopening of Kelvingrove in 2006, after the largest refurbishment in its history. In the event, I hated what had been done to the collections so much that I’ve never been back since. For me, it was as if someone had scrawled graffiti on the surface of a great and much-loved work of art.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached my first visit to the new Riverside Museum, the posh new home (and name) for what I’ve known, all my life, as the ‘Transport Museum’. Not least because, since the opening last summer, there had been quite a few negative comments in the press about aspects of the displays. Judith said to me, as we entered, ‘save the analysis for over lunch’, but she needn’t have worried, as I’d no need to suppress my grumpy side. I loved it. We spent four hours there, and I was entertained, enchanted and enlightened.

At the same time I can fully understand those who’ve complained at how some of the displays make it difficult to really enjoy the objects—the ‘Arnold Clark’ wall of cars, three high, for example, or the ring of bicycles, suspended in mid air, and half of them upside down. But I decided early on in my visit that the Riverside Museum is really a ‘Wunderkammer’, and as such has gone right back to the 17th century origins of the museum concept. Rather than present a taxonomic or consistent account of, say, the development of the tram or the internal combustion engine, the Riverside tells a series of discrete stories, and on the whole it tells them well. I’m usually wary of the use of videos in museum displays—not least because they can date so quickly—but here I thought they were mostly very successful, thanks in large part to the sensitive creativity of media company 55° .

I was particularly moved by two links to my childhood. First, seeing the boat used for fifty years by the remarkable father and son, Ben and George Parsonage, to pull bodies, living and dead, from the Clyde as officers of the Glasgow Humane Society. George was one of my art teachers at Whitehill Secondary School, and the video in which he describes how his father designed and made the boat, and how they worked together as a team, is a piece of archive footage that will never date. And then, just before we left, in the recreated ‘Main Street’ (which is, I admit, a bit cheesy), I found the interior of the Italian Cafe of my childhood, The Rendezvous in Duke Street, and sat again in one of the booths where, fifty years earlier, I’d have been enjoying wonderful vanilla ice cream with the most lividly red raspberry sauce imaginable. Bliss!

Our chief reason for coming down was the annual Transatlantic Sessions gig at Celtic Connections. We’re passionate fans of the programme, have never missed an episode of all five series, and indeed have watched many of them several times, but we’d never previously made it to the live version. And it was also our first chance to hear live one of the world’s great musicians, Dobro-player Jerry Douglas who, together with the great Aly Bain, is music director of both the series and the concert. And it didn’t disappoint. Sixteen superb musicians, almost three hours of music, not a single number that was dull or weak, and a unanimous standing ovation from a packed Royal Concert Hall. And the great thing about TS is that it never stands still. Alongside stalwarts like Bruce Molsky and Eddi Reader, the line-up featured mesmeric chanteuse Ruth Moody from the Wailin’ Jennies, and the astounding Raoul Mola, previously of the Mavericks, who has a voice that combines the power of Frankie Lane with the seductive charm of Tony Bennett. All in all, a truly great evening.


Except for the sound. We watch the TS programmes with the music channelled through our hifi, and we have one of the accompanying CDs. We know, therefore, the care with which the sound for TS is always balanced to bring out every line as part of a euphonious whole, by a superb team that includes my old Third Eye mate, Alan Young. But in the Royal Concert Hall, close your eyes, and you could have imagined that the musicians were playing at the other end of a very large aircraft hangar. It was aural mush. Worse than that, the sound was sometimes downright distorted. Canadian singer Tim O’Brien was first up, and the harshness of his amplified voice boded ill for the rest of the evening. Aly’s glorious sweet violin tone was often stretched out, and Jerry’s subtle accompaniments, with little riffs and phrases, often leapt rudely out of the sound mix.

I’d write this off as an unfortunate one-off, were it not that the same thing was true of my last visit to the Concert Hall, two years previously, to hear the Trilok Gurtu Band. In both cases I had a near-ideal seat in the middle of the stalls, so if the sound balance wasn’t right there, I doubt it was right anywhere in the hall. That this needn’t be the case was proved the following night when we went to hear the truly wonderful Omar Sosa and his band in the Old Fruitmarket. Now, this was many decibels louder than the TS gig, but the sound projection had pin-point clarity, and it was also an absolutely integral element of the music-making, as critical as the baseline or the rhythm. The result was that, despite being so much louder and in a more confined space, it was never tiring to listen to, whereas at TS I was torn between wanting the performances to go on all night, and longing for the aural barrage to end.

How can musicians of such world class skill and sensitivity accept such a distortion of their artistry? And why do audiences put up with it? Surely we haven’t become so aurally bludgeoned that we don’t notice? And of course this doesn’t just apply to this one venue. Crude amplification is too often the curse of live music-making. Enough is enough, I say! It’s time for both musicians and audiences to form a new CAMRA—the CAMpaign for Real Amplification. After all, the original CamRA was, I imagine, started by a bunch of grumpy old men.

© Robert Livingston, 2012