A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #61: Festival!

Summer is over, as is our Summer of Directors – and this also means that the main festival period of 2022 has come to an end. The last few years, festivals have been greatly affected by the pandemic, and especially in 2020 and 2021 many of the big festivals were vastly reduced or didn’t happen at all. But this year they came back – and after our five big courses focusing on directors, from Jane Campion via Ida Lupino to Martin Scorsese, here’s a palate cleanser in which Alan, Julie and Matt talk about their own festival memories and experiences. Whether it’s the classic open-air music festivals of our youth, contemporary arts or local film festivals: what are our thoughts on the format? Do festivals change how we enjoy culture? What are our favourite memories? How essential are schedules and spreadsheets to the perfect festival experience… and just how damn middle-aged have we become while we weren’t watching?

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Down in the Ocean of Sound

Here’s the thing: on Monday, Elvis Costello and the Imposters were four musicians, while Death Cab for Cutie last night at the Kmplex 457 in Zurich were a band. It’s a surprise to me that the newcomers were the better act than one of my favourite musical artists.

I’ve learned from the net that people tend to avoid the Komplex for its bad acoustics, and I see their point, but Death Cab were so good that this didn’t bother me at all.

They were there for the music. Ben Gibbard barely uttered a dozen words between songs other than his almost shy thank yous. They played almost flawlessly. Some very few effects that give some of their songs their distinctive flavor came from a sampler (like the percussion bits from “Transatlanticism” or the nervous drum from “St Peter’s Cathedral”), but the rest was live craftsmanship, and very atmospheric. It helped that there were no seats, and maybe that’s what stopped Costello from performing better.


They knew what they were doing. The intro to “I Will Possess Your Heart” had the right mixture of sneak and speed; there was “Doors Unlocked and Open” letting you dangle, but pushing your forward at the same time; and I’ll be damned if “Soul Meets Body” wasn’t a perfect piece of pop – maybe it’s the rhythm, not too fast, not too slow, but just right. The song sounds careless, but it has such a warm tone that I can’t name one other song with that same warmth.

It looked like they didn’t really feel comfortable being on stage, and especially Gibbard keeps slinking around with his back to the audience, but they were there to play their stuff, so they threw everything they had into the sound. It worked really well. No extravagant show necessary.

Somewhat spellbound by the spectacular spinning songbook

Elvis Costello isn’t the easiest of persons – I kept that in mind last night while entering the Kongresshaus in Zurich. He’s just weird and nasty in some interviews and downright odd in others, and then he comes out and surprises you by being really tame and gentle. So if he announces his tour with the return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, I knew that it would take some getting used to. The stage was dominated by that gigantic colored wheel full of songtitles and little in-jokes such as “imperial chocolate.” There was also the Hammer of Songs and the Hostage of Fortune Go-Go Cage. At home, you get Mr McManus the musician; in here, you get Mr Napoleon Dynamite the entertainer.

When he came on stage, I realized the place was only two thirds full, and the applause was sort of lukewarm. No matter – Mr D started with “I hope you’re happy now,” and the go-go girl in the cage made it clear that the maestro was here to have fun. To me, the setting was a slight distraction from the music, and the music… I had a hard time to warm up to it in the first half-hour. I found “Turpentine” flat and uninspired. It was only when someone spun the wheel for “Tokyo Storm Warning” that I knew I had come to the right place. “She” was proof that there was a cupboard crooner in the house.

Besides Costello, there were Steve Nieve at the keys and Pete Thomas on drums, both longtime companions of the Attractions as well as of the Impostors. They did what they could, but there was no way for them to play some of the songs in a way that would have made them more distinct from one another. I had hoped for a rhythm section and some horns that would have played a gloriously loud “Bedlam” or “Needle Time”, but no. “Tramp the Dirt Down” didn’t stand out at all.


So I went along with what was there: a couple from the audience who didn’t know or didn’t want to tell if they were married, and to each other. (Mr MacManus: “Is there something you want to tell us?”) A good rendition of “Condemned Man.” And there was that folksy woman during some sort of “break,” yodelling and playing a small accordion. Was she local? No idea.

Then after that break, something happened. Elvis Costello came back alone and played an acoustic bit with “Jimmie Standing in the Rain”. That stuff worked beautifully, because here, the musician took over from the entertainer. I didn’t mind that he invited some more audience members and the go-go girls back on stage. And, of course, there had to be “I Want You,” which sounded not nearly as fucked up as it should have. I really would like to hear one live version of that song where it almost falls apart and breaks down. It works best when it barely works at all. It’s a song of its own kind.

Then he started to cheat. He wouldn’t accept requests for “Oliver’s Army,” even when it came up on the songbook, and played something else. It pissed off some people in the audience, but I had to smile to myself. That’s just typical, but what did you expect?

It was a good concert once it clicked. There were the typical imported bits, this time the Rolling Stones’ “Baby You’re Out of Time” and the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. Last night Mr D the entertainer was in a good mood, and I wish the musician Mr C would have tried to have as much fun as him.