Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 Review of the Year

Indicative of the times we live in, this was a bad year for me for attending concerts/plays and albums purchased etc, but that doesn’t mean I don't have plenty to say about it!


So, let me start with gigs. I can’t remember when I last saw so few concerts in a calendar year, and it wasn’t just recession related – there really weren't that many I was bothered about. I only saw a few Dylan shows, and have reviewed them independently on the blog, so just to reiterate it was a pretty good year for the now septegenarian performer.
The setlists have improved (marginally) but it’s the quality of the performances that really hit home this year. And it’s mainly visual. Audio wise, he continues to do (mainly) interesting things with what’s left of his vocal chords, but visually he is out front of stage now for over half the show, mainly without guitar, and is moving around and throwing shapes as only a 70 year old Bob Dylan could (or would) do. It’s hard to explain how this works and how it so dramatically improves the show, sorry but it really is a case of ‘you had to be there’(barring, that is, the somewhat lacklustre October Dublin show). It's not all visual though, the music is good too, and the shows are well worth downloading.
Dylan’s support act on the winter tour was Mark Knopfler and it was interesting to see a few of the Knopfler sets, even if every night is identical. It may seem obvious - but the most interesting thing about his show is his guitar playing, especially as he plays very few Dire Straits songs and mumbles the lyrics. Charisma wise he trails a long way behind his tour-buddy Bob, but he made up for this with his nice guitar contributions to Dylan’s sets (usually on the first 3 or 4 Dylan songs of the night) and in his perfectly timed hand-gesture during a moving tour-closing ‘Forever Young’. Again, there’s an element of you had to be there, but here’s a link to a decent youtube of that moment (it happens in the final verse)
The Dylan shows were the only ‘big’ shows I saw, and were my favourites of the year. Runner-up was definitely Gillian Welch in the Grand Canal Theatre, also reviewed on this blog at the time.
Probably my 3rd favourite show of the year was a very enjoyable performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony in the National Concert Hall. I’m not particularly expert on classical music, but his symphonies just have so much going on, and in a live setting you can get completely lost in them. Oh, and classical music is great value! In Dublin anyway..
Earlier in the year, before she became an 'arena-artist' I saw Imelda May in Vicar Street and it was great to see her strong rockabilly show in this small, and local (she was born and raised a few streets away) setting.
Another artist I saw in Vicar Street was Richard Thompson, only the 2nd time I’ve seen him, and as expected - the show was funny, literate and choc-full of great music. All from one man and a guitar, which is not usually my favourite format. Mind you, having said how good this show was, I would still love to see Richard sometime with his band, knowing that he is as good electric as he is acoustic.
Oh yes, and Paul Brady also played a really good show in the same Dublin venue back in April, showcasing the variety in his back catalogue with no little style and vigour.
The other band I enjoyed a lot this year was the Waterboys who I saw twice, once supporting Dylan in London, and then on their own at the atmospheric Tall Ships festival in Waterford. Both shows were very good and I must say I’m torn between their Yeats show and their ‘standard’ show. 2012 bodes well in that the band plan to do a compromise show, doing a set of Yeats songs, followed by a set of Waterboys songs.
Finally, just to mention some of the other acts at that Dylan festival show in London – the Waterboys shone brightest, but also of interest were sets from Christy Moore (not as good as normal due to a poor sound mix) and the Cranberries (ditto) and the Gaslight Anthem – who were kind of ‘Bruce meets The Clash’ with a fanatical young following.

Live artists of the year

Bob Dylan
Gillian Welch (with David Rawlings)
Mahler’s 5th Symphony by the RTE concert orchestra
The Waterboys
Paul Brady
Mark Knopfler
Richard Thompson
Imelda May


I had a somewhat more prolific year for films than gigs, and there were plenty of good 'uns.
Top of the pile was the amazing Martin Scorsese documentary on George Harrison, which I was lucky enough to see on the big screen. Choc-full of great footage, much of which was new to me, and no little insight in to the story of one of my favourite artists. The best contributions were from McCartney, Ringo and Olivia.
The King’s Speech came out around New Year last year I think, and deserved all its awards. A classic period biopic/drama, it had great acting, writing and directing – which is about all you need in a film.
Hugo was a magical film about childhood and early Cinema and was a rarity in that it actually merited being in 3D – it also had a great storyline and was an unusual genre for Scorsese to tackle. Having said all that, it wasn’t really a children’s film – too long and too slow probably, but for this adult(!?) it was just fine!
Midnight in Paris was another solid Woody Allen film,as were his previous few, not that that stopped all the critics slavishly calling it a ‘return to form’. The same thing happens all the time with R.E.M. albums! Well, not anymore, now that they’ve retired..
Anyway, back to films - the 2nd Sherlock Holmes film was fairly entertaining, yes of course it was ridiculously over-the-top, but that was the intention I imagine..
The Adjustment Bureau was a witty and enjoyable adaptation of a Philip K Dick story, which as with all his stories, left you pondering longer than most writers.
The latest Pirates of the Caribbean was a (very)slight improvement on recent installments, especially the London scenes.
The Maids on the 7th Floor was a hilarious French 60s-set comedy, hard to see anyone in Hollywood ever coming up with something like this. It also had something to say, about French and Spanish culture and immigration etc.
The only other non-English-language film I remember seeing in 2011 was The Skin that I Live In - a creepy Almodovar film about possession, revenge and other themes, which almost worked. A bold effort though, and very enjoyable.
Other films I saw that had their moments but didn’t set my world on fire were things like The Guard (over-rated) and Rum Diary (a bit rambling).
Early 2012 looks like being a good period for films – I’ll try and review some of them on the blog, (eg The Artist), plus some others I missed in 2011 (eg True Grit)

My top few films

Living in the Material World – George Harrison documentary
The King’s Speech
The Adjustment Bureau
The Maids on the 7th Floor
Midnight in Paris
The Skin that I Live In


As with concerts, it was a quiet year, I think I only saw three. And one of them was a musical, so really it was only two!
Both were enjoyable though, especially Pygmalion in the Abbey. It’s such a strong play, full of lines that you’d recognise from THAT musical (ie My Fair Lady, for which Pygmalion was the source), and very well acted by the ensemble cast, especially Risteard Cooper as Higgins. I’ve said it before (I think!), but Cooper is very underrated as an actor.
Hay Fever was ok as the Gate’s summer play, but it’s not my favourite Noel Coward play and would only give it 7/10.
The musical I saw was Spamalot, a silly but enjoyable Monty Python romp. It had some good singers – and the script is not bad, with some nice local Dublin ‘tailoring’ – however a mark deducted for Phil Jupitus who seemed to be sleepwalking through his part.

Best Play



It was a quiet year for art in Dublin as the National Gallery is partially closed for renovations. And I never got around to seeing the Frida Kahlo exhibition in IMMA. I did get to see the highly lauded Leonardo exhibition in London though, thanks to 3 hours of early morning queuing! It was very enjoyable, and seemed to have nearly everything that survives of the great man, barring the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper!
I also got to spend a few hours in the Prado in Madrid, which is one of those museums overflowing with old Masters on a scale that takes the breath away. On a lesser scale, but full of similar quality art is the neighbouring Thyssien Museum which I also visited during a very enjoyable weekend in the Spanish capital.

Exhibition of the Year

Leonardo – National Gallery London


Not a vintage year, but not too bad either. I don’t know if it’s creeping old-age – but there just aren’t so many albums I’m interested in being released these days. It was great however to finally see a new Gillian Welch album, and it certainly ranks close in quality to her first 4 albums which were a hard act to follow to say the least. The songs seemed to work better live though.
And, conversely, the reverse seemed to be the case for the new Wilco album! But, I haven’t had it long, and it needs a few more listens before I can really rate it.
For now though, my album of 2011 is Tom Wait’s new one ‘Bad as Me’. Full of roaring rockers and gorgeous ballads, the songs are snappier and somewhat more effective than on Real Gone. Great arrangements and singing (yes, singing!) too – and boy would be great to see this album in a live setting.
Other good new albums include PJ Harvey’s ‘Shake England Shake’ albeit it's slightly overrated - and The Black Key’s boisterous El Camino. And there were lots of good songs on the Noel Gallagher debut.

Albums of the year

Tom Waits Bad as Me
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
Wilco – The Whole Love
PJ Harvey - Shake England Shake
The Black Keys – El Camino
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds


Again – mainly re-reading old books, and stuck in magazines and newspapers as well as stuff about music or running.
So, really, the only one outstanding new novel I read this year was the ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes book ‘The House of Silk’ by Anthony Horowitz. It was the first time the Conan-Doyle estate has sanctioned a new novel and Horowitz seems to have really captured the feel and style of the original books, not to mention that it is as ‘un-putdown-able’ as Doyle’s best!
I also really enjoyed a great book about mountain running called ‘Mud Sweat and Tears’ by Moire O’Sullivan.
Online and via Apps, I enjoyed content from the Irish Times, New York Times, Evening Standard, and more. Plus lots of great websites and blogs. Some more examples;


Ok, anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for period dramas, especially if set between, say, the 1880s and the 1940s.
So, I was always going to like Downton Abbey. It may have the occasional unintentionally funny line, and the 2nd series had a slightly rushed feel about it, but it’s still a cleverly constructed piece of television and it isn’t topping the ratings for nothing. That said, the X Factor also tops the ratings so what do I know!
Plus, I was always going to like South Riding. Nowhere near as popular as Downton Abbey, but this small 3-part 1930s drama (adapted from a novel) was top notch, most notably for the performance of the amazing Anna Maxwell Martin.
If I had to choose one programme though as the best on TV at the moment I’d have to go for Sherlock – the contemporary re-imagining of the Conan-Doyle stories. However the first season was 2010 and the 2nd season started on New Years Day 2012, so I guess I’ll leave my actual review for the moment..
Other period dramas I saw were the BBC’s Great Expectations (it was ok), the Young James Herriot (a bit disappointing really) and Sky Atlantic's Boardwalk Empire (it started off ok, but got quite boring after a while, frankly), oh and while I’m not wild about Dr Who, the Christmas Day special was quite good.
Which leads me to ask – barring Sherlock, did I see ANY CONTEMPORARY drama in 2011?!
Phew - Blue Bloods to the rescue! A fairly bog-standard NYC cop drama – some people didn’t like it – but I thought it was pretty solid, not the greatest writing of all time, but good acting and nicely directed (it kept you wanting to know what’s coming next).
In 2012 I resolve to watch The Killing and The Wire (yes I still haven't seen The Wire)!
And leaving drama aside, I watched a fair bit of news, music programmes and documentaries – none of which really stood out, maybe other than the BBCs Frozen Planet.

Top few TV progs

Downton Abbey
South Riding
Frozen Planet
Blue Bloods


Culture Night - always one of the highlights of the year in Dublin. And it’s completely free. Amazed more people don’t go to it.

Personal stuff

A tough year, but a really good one for the reasons that matter..

Final word

This blog is mainly about culture, and sometimes about running, but please see my short list of websites (below) which are about other matters.
And keep an eye on where I'll be launching other writing and expanding on other projects in the coming months. There's nothing on that site yet, but please feel free to bookmark it!

See you all down the road in 2012..

Ken Cowley
email: or
Tel: 00 353 (0)85 7129060

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