Two Trips to Glasgow: Adult Jazz, Kelvingrove, and 50,000 Graves

First Contact

Chance found me in Glasgow twice this week.  I had plans to come to the city for a day trip, to walk around and visit the Kelvingrove art and culture museum, but good vibrations led me to buy a ticket to the Adult Jazz show at the Glasgow venue Broadcast last Thursday night – I was meeting the writer Sam Edwards, who’d clued me in to the group – and I prepared to see two very different sides of the city.

Few people walked the wet pedestrian boulevards of central Glasgow Thursday night.  A bit of advice: traffic on the M8 (Edinburgh to Glasgow) is brutal just about every night between 3 and 7.  The Megabus and CityLink drivers know this, too,  but seem to have no way of combating it; nor do their timetables reflect this.  Plan accordingly. Luckily I left Edinburgh at 5 and was in Glasgow by twenty to 8, and, though my Google maps app was fried, I managed to find Sauchiehall.  A few solid-looking locals sparked Drum cigarettes on benches, and young consumers passed me, heading elsewhere; Broadcast offered warm respite, and craft beer.

As a Sam put it, Adult Jazz is the sort of band that makes you reevaluate your expectations of contemporary music – and then immediately to wonder if you’ve been obsession over wanky alt-pop.  The music is new – newness is the first word, the prerequisite to any attempt to talk about the band’s sound.  But push past this and you’ll find a real fluency and a knack for harmony – harmony which comes in some spinning concentrating gyre out of seeming discord.  You’ll find a masterful pop sensibility (in lines and handfuls of bars that tease you with their immediate mass-appeal), diverse rhythms, and something elusive, the quality, perhaps, that fires your doubt while moving you to return to the band, to listen to their album Gist Is, in full, again and again.  (Maybe after one more go-through you’ll have the right words …)

Before Adult Jazz, though, I was pleasantly surprised by two opening acts.

The first (I only heard mumbled versions of the name, unfortunately) proved agile and energetic.  They blazed through pop, reggae, slow-blues, and heavier fare, all tinged with a smart alt sensibility and floating on surprising three-part harmonies.  They fit Adult Jazz well: although the guitarist took most of the lead vocals and the bass players lines would have been called “show stealing” in any other context, there was something immediately refreshing about the act.  Only after the they left the stage, and Sam and I grabbed a Sam Smith India Pale, did we realize that the group had shown no marks of ego whatsoever – much like the music of Adult Jazz, which, before the show at least, was so complete of itself that we couldn’t imagine it coming from “individuals.”

When my mate and I returned from the bar upstairs with our Innis & Gunn lager tall-boys, the trio G-Bop Orchestra (touring with Adult Jazz this season) had assembled in the center of the floor under a disco-ball.  Across the dark room I could see the members of AG and the opening act looking on and grinning.

The first song opened with claves – and segued into a very respectable drum solo, a sort of (quite)toned-down John Bonham affair.  The drums were so good that one became a bit disappointed in the trombone and marimba players, tooting and tapping seemingly uninspired lines – until, that is, each took off on flights of fancy and technical exuberance made all the more titillating by the intimate quarters.  In retrospect, each musician played what I have to call a solo – but that night, I never would have used the word.

And then: Adult Jazz.  “Hum” opened with a hum – and when the buoyant trombone line bubbled up, I smiled, and couldn’t stop until the nearly-eight minute song had finished.  The other bands had impressed; but Adult Jazz were sublime.  If you took a moment to listen to the tracks above, and liked them: Adult Jazz, live, holds together just as well as on the album.  The drums, especially the kick, are more upfront in the mix, making the rhythms – and the essential ceaseless shifts in songs like “Am Gone” – immediate, gut-powerful.

We caught the 11:59 back into Edinburgh, and I was home in Blackford by 2:00.

Return to the “Second City”

On Sunday I woke at 7 to Edinburgh blue-black.  By 8 the sun had come up, revealing a gauzy golden fog.

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This persisted through the drive to Glasgow – the fog was so thick and blue across the flatlands that one could stare directly at the sharp silver dollar of the sun.

Glasgow, in those conditions, wore a kind of respectable shabbiness (a bit like Krakow, though without that city’s melancholy).  But, I had my own melancholy: for, though whether one arrives by Megabus, coach, or Scotrail, the concerted forces of capitalism direct all visitors to the city to Bucchanan and Sauchiehall Streets, the “Style Mile,” first, I escaped.  The name alone of Glasgow’s Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery of some 50,000 ex-souls, overlooking the Gothic St. Mungo’s Cathedral, drew me before anything else.

Cemeterys, I’ve found, are often the best places to start exploring Scotland’s big cities.  Often situated on hills, they command impressive views removed from the bustle and moil.  And, reading the gravestones, you’ll imbibe the city’s culture and history without really “learning” anything – you’ll find familiar names (like “Tom Riddell” in Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Kirkyard) or odd Scots poems in the style of Rabbie Burns.  The Necropolis offers potentially hours of leisurely walking (if you’re that type), but it also looks out over the city center and the River Clyde, setting up startling somber juxtapositions of industrial smokestacks framed by cracked nineteenth century stones.  The hill is also the best vantage from which to enjoy the verdigrised roof and strong balanced intersecting planes of St. Mungo’s.

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Leaving the Necropolis I wandered (lonely as a cloud?) alone through the city as it shook itself awake – and judging by the berth I had walking the city center streets that Sunday morning, until well past noon, the Glaswegians had had an eventful Saturday night.  Workers were diverting traffic and beginning to set up the city’s famed Christmas lights in George Square.  Pigeons banked above the deserted plaza, aesthetically broken and cluttered with mob fencing and saddened by the unlit Christmas lights – the birds flew in formation as tight as fighter planes, but that dash of reckless independence if not panache  suggested more the No. 46 than the Blue Angels.

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The city was pleasant enough, but I sought something warm before my trip to the Kelvingrove museum and art gallery later that afternoon – and Glasgow was once famous for its tea rooms.

Kate Cranston established the city’s first (and, perhaps, last) “tea room empire” from the 1880s until about the 1930s.  Possessed of a modest inheritance from her father (along with his skill as a baker) Cranston followed her brother into the tea business burgeoning in Glasgow, the “Second City of the British Empire” (at least for much of the Victorian/Edwardian period) then a center of the insidious temperance movement.  With her first tea rooms on Argyle and Ingram, Cranston offered young unchaperoned ladies an acceptable place to meet; but it was her Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall that established her “empire,” in large part due to Cranston’s twenty-year relationship with the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  In the White Room, the China Room, and the Room de Luxe, Mackintosh refined the influences he’d drawn from far eastern decor, the Art Nouveau movement, silver from the colonies, developments in the New Art Glasgow School, and the Viennese painters.  Fond of bold, straight and elongated lines, his furniture recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s dining set at the Darwin Martin House – if just a touch more comfortable.  Art glass and rose-themed gesso panels finished the effect – and the latter works (collaborations with Margaret MacDonald), currently on display in the Kelvingrove museum, do seem to have influenced Gustav Klimt’s languorous, abstracted but emotive women.

Kate sold the Willow Tearooms – which had by then become a favorite haunt not only of respectable women but Glasgow art and design students, the famous “Glasgow Boys” collective of artists, and other figures like Dante Rossetti – in 1917 following her husband’s death.  The establishment was absorbed into a department store and generally degraded, until it was renovated and reopened in 1983.  I headed to Sauchiehall for an early tea in that inspiring setting.

The Willow Tearooms Glasgow.jpg
The Willow Tearooms Glasgow“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Willow today contains much of the old charm, or so I imagine.  Still, it’s notably diminished – the Room de Luxe holds a third of the sleek opulence that even the black-and-white photos convey.  Mackintosh’s distinct fin-de-siecle aesthetic is best preserved in the “first” floor balcony, ringed by “Rennie’s” straight affirmative lines – although, regrettably, the tables look down on an uninspired ground floor dominated by a gift shop.

I ordered the “Charles Rinnie Mackintosh Special Blend,” a mix of Darjeeling and Ceylon teas, and scanned the menu for a wee sweet something.

I admit a weakness for cheesecake.  I search for the cheesecake so emotionally devastating that it will leave me unable to love again.  I left the Willow in a state of relative stability, but the pecan cheesecake was entirely satisfactory; even, I daresay, noteworthy.  It had the necessary savour of hedonism.  Perhaps this allowed for a favorable comparison: the tea was beautifully subtle.

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I’ve taken my coffee and tea black (treacle black in the case of the former) for several years now, so that I can no longer stomach the nauseating brew I drank daily during my freshman year of college (Tim Horton’s double-double with a shot of French Vanilla – and on particularly indulgent days, *shudder* – a latte).  But at the Willow I found the bowl of piebald sugar cubes too tempting.  After a cup black (I’d finished the cake; more sugar would make little difference) I let a brown cube dissolve as I poured the next.  With this finished (pleasant enough; one cube was not so bad), I thought it would be a waste- even, perhaps, disrespectful – to leave the cream untouched.  Thus the third cup lightened.

I reached deep into myself – grappled for control.  The demon retreated; I found and dusted off my principles re: potables.  But the fourth cup, now steeped some fifteen minutes (though rejuvenated with a dash of fresh hot water) splashed hard against my tastebuds, lured into decadent unfeeling somnolence.  It was a bracing brew; the bracing brew I needed; like taking fresh air after hours in the tobacco haze of a close room (to “correct our watches by the public clocks”).  Heed my example – ye lot of cream-and-sugar takers, ye double-doublers and triple-triplers, ye anything-but-blacks – and awake.  (Thus wakened, my appreciation for the CRM blend grew: I paused to inhale from the dead spent leaves: dark, vegetal, barky; spice of sandalwood; something rotting distantly and fragrantly; thick summer grass.)  And I set out for the Kelvingrove.

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Kelvingrove is chaos – at least at first.  I walked into a high spacious hall where a crowd had gathered to see a man give a tooting and desultory recital on a two-and-a-half-story organ.  In the next hall, I found what appeared to be all the items the museum couldn’t fit anywhere else: busts of Queen Victoria and bearded chaps, enameled statuettes of the Eight Immortals, stuffed birds and foxes, silver laughing and shouting heads hung from the ceiling, a picture of Brad Pitt.

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Despite making a great show of catering to children – perhaps a factor in the eccentric curation – the museum has some excellent pieces.  I recommend seeking out Mackintosh and MacDonald’s room – the complete the experience of the Willow, and richen it, ply on ply.  But, as one gets the best imitation of the pieces in the museum – and then the originals behind a paltry rope – one wonders why the two can’t be rejoined.

>The collection of the “Glasgow Boys” is appropriately excellent, and features what might be the museum’s best piece: Sir John Lavery’s exquisite Anna Pavlova, the ballerina, head thrown back, tossing above her a gauzy shawl that seems made of fire itself, the flame inflaming her.  Her dance is no act, but ecstasis.  (Worth noting, too, is EA Walton’s full-length portrait of Lillian May Law, his stepdaughter.  Refined but powerful lines sweep through her frame, mimicked in the falling dress; her posture makes one want to stand up straighter; and the force of the whole surprised the viewer, when it reveals itself, appearing at once out of all the accumulated  gracenotes and little conspiring effects of curve and line and plane, they are so unassuming and natural.

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The Kelvingrove’s most famous work, though, is Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross.  The myth surrounding it – Dali’s Freudian interests, his powerful dreams, his interest in the original Christ-depiction of St. John of the Cross – do little to clear away the sheer mystery that greets the viewer – shooting out, like the crucifix in Dali’s painting, at an odd, sudden, impossible angle.  And the fishermen?  And the void?

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These pieces kept me lingering many minutes, but the French room was the best chose totale.  The wide selection doesn’t often surprise one with a bold or seemingly incongruous pieces, but the works have a cumulative effect, showing off the diversity in seeming sameness and subtlety.  Van Gogh’s portrait of his one-time roommate, the Glasgow dealer Alexander Reid, is like a garment with all the stitches loosed just slightly – but still hung together.  From one angle it looks prickly – but stare a second longer and it grows soft, and warm.  In contrast, his windmill captures the uncapturable element – the blades move, while the grass hushes.

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Meanwhile, Renoir’s still life of oranges is more pleasing than Cezanne’s overturned fruit basket next to it, but some reason the eye returns to the latter.

But of all the pieces, I returned most to Henri Fatin Latour’s quietly exploding chrysanthemums.

I left Glasgow shortly after 5, wearing my tweed cap, I hoped, as jauntily as one of van Ostade’s peasants.

[See more pictures here.]

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