26 November 2009
New Songs

I've written quite a few songs this year. Quite a productive year now that I think of it, even though I haven't really put out that much new stuff. I've actually finished writing the basic songs I'm planning to put in the second album since the early half of this year. But recording will only probably begin in the new year. I'm still figuring out how to record it. Maybe it's time to finally build that home recording studio like I've been threatening to do all these years.

Still, I've continued writing songs and now I have roughly enough songs to fill two albums and more.

And now I'm writing material for a third album that I'm sort of thinking about.

So far, I've made a few home demo recordings of the latest bunch of songs and been listening to them on my iPod. Sometimes I play them on the sound system at the gallery where I work when it's empty. I must say they're kind of morose. Most of the new songs are about kinda cliched stuff about losing at love, or feeling disenchanted by everything, bla bla bla.... but it's all part of the cathartic process.

I played a few of them during the No Black Tie gig the other week. I'm still not very confident playing the new stuff onstage. Mostly due to my poor ability to memorise the lyrics and chords... it'll take me another year to really get inside the songs. But a few have come to be favourites of mine... and I'll most probably include these in my repertoire. Two especially, called "Goliath" and "Mystery Boy". I quite like these two.

"Goliath" is based on the David versus Goliath story in the Bible, and it's written from David's point of view. It's about surrendering to one's instincts regadless of the consequences.

And "Mystery Boy" is inspired by an experience I had with someone I met last year. I wrote a poem for him and about him called "Mystery Boy" and he liked it. But things kind of ended badly and the song is the aftermath of it - all these strange and confusing feelings that welled up inside.

So, anyway, the one strange thing about the new songs is that I don't strum on most of them. They're mostly plucked. I'm not exactly sure what that means.... but maybe it's leading the songs into a more intimate direction.

I've thought about just recording them as they are, just me and guitar. But I don't know yet...

One of the exciting things about songwriting and making music is figuring what should go where. At the moment, I'm still in the sketching stage. And when I'm not sketching, I'm thinking and dreaming.

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24 November 2009
Music Snob Journal#5: Favourite Albums of 2009... and then some
Originally I wanted to name only 10 of my favourite albums from 2009, but then I thought about it and... well... fuck it... who cares if there's 10 or 12 or 25 or 74... any number would've been arbitrary... as if 10 has any special significance. Pfft...

Anyway... these are albums that released in 2009 that I think are mucho fantastico. Granted, not all of them are "fireworks extravaganza" kind of albums. But I loved listening to them all... some made me feel jubilant, some threw me into a ditch of glitter-sprinkled mud, and some creeped me out... in a good way.

Yes, the albums I chose are kinda predictable. But I can't help it... I am drawn to certain musicians and certain music.

And... alas... even though I wasn't planning on it... I ended up choosing 10 albums... LOL...
A drum roll please...


Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

First time I heard Animal Collective was in 2007 when I was still living in my old place in Brickfields. It was their Sung Tongs album which I'm very fond of. "Leaf House" from that album is just a crazy song. It's an amazing piece of work, and not so much because of the technique but the spirit and the aesthetics of it. I had no idea what they were singing about because it was jumbled up... and somehow the clarity of words is not really the point with AC. To me, their sound is like sonic lasagna that's alive, with its layers actively melting into one another. And I love that quality about their music. It's the madness in the method, the post-neo-hippie-ness of it all. But I'm not a hardcore fan. I liked the Feels album, but not so much Strawberry Jam which evoked for me an overpowering stench of psychedelia rock... I mean I don't mind Captain Beefheart but we've been down that road before. Hmm... but anyway, along came Merriweather Post Pavilion... which for me, is AC's masterwork. And I know why. This album is just overflowing with joy. The songs are unabashed. The spirits soar. Clapping hands punch the clouds. It's like September 11 never happened. Which is why this album is amazing. Because 9/11 did happen. And where so many of so-called important statement bands like Radiohead and Portishead draw their best work from the confusion of what I call the eternal recession, AC just decided to attack that darkness with this visceral album of tribal rave. It just sounds so alive and unfettered, a big fat raspberry to all those boring hipsters who just sit and stare at the party like Fuck Buttons just died. But this music is not pop. And it's far from AC's more experimental stuff. It's closest probably to Panda Bear's Person Pitch album, just faster and with beats. And it's so gratifying to listen to a band that I worship hesitantly come up with such a bold and sweeping statement... that just invites you to jump and throw paint around the place, wear feathers in your hair, make funny hand waving gestures... love love love, especially on the track "My Girls" which is my favourite song of 2009. What an album!


Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

It's no secret that I have a major musical crush on Grizzly Bear. Their second album Yellow House was a beautiful paean to majestic hush, full of swoon and creaking furniture. So I was really looking forward to their second album, which doesn't disappoint. I still don't understand what Veckatimest means... I'm not sure if it's meant to carry any meaning or just one of those made-up words. I'm sure Google has the answer. Veckatimest is different to Yellow House, just as Yellow House was different to their debut Horn Of Plenty. If anything, V is less washy than YH, busier, more percussive, a bit more muscular, and has something to prove... whereas YH was content to be amorphous and shadowy. But V is also more song-based than YH... and the standout track "Two Weeks" is just amazing, all pop cliches put through and yet it works. I've yet to wear out this album because it is as intricately arranged and produced, just as YH was. Everytime I listen to it, it's both pleasurable and puts me on edge at the same time. There's just something about it that reminds me of some of the more interesting post-rock stuff like Bark Psychosis and Tortoise. Hmm...

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes' second album took me by surprise. I liked some songs from the debut Fur & Gold, but couldn't stomach the whole because it was somehow lacking in personality. For a moment there, she was just another goth pop chick with a few interesting ideas, but ultimately a bit too derivative of Bjork, Kate Bush and PJ. But Two Suns, from it's opening track "Glass" (my fave song on the set, together with "Daniel" and "Moon & Moon") is more consistently engaging throughout. I love the rather overwritten and romantic lyrics; it has a certain naivete about it, but it works because she's young, and she's experiencing adult heartbreak for the first time and she's allowed her songs and her words to open up, unlike on the first album. The overall impression is sultry spacious goth pop with a new romantic heart -- and more impressively she manages to breathe new life into this genre after it had been shat on by the likes of Evanescence. It's also very melodic and her singing has really improved. At certain moments, the approach gets a bit cloying, but on the whole, it's definitely swoonworthy.


Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

I'm not really a fan of Brit rock so much but I have a soft spot for Doves... I've been a fan of Doves since their second album The Last Broadcast. I think it's because of the sadness in their music. Even on their most euphoric tracks like "There Goes The Fear" on the aforementioned album, there's the tiniest thread of melancholy that runs through it that breaks my heart. And four albums on, they don't disappoint. Kingdom Of Rust is up there with the rest of the band's output but it's no easy rehash. I don't know how they do it, but each new album from Doves manages to deliver tensions that earlier albums only hint at. In Kingdom Of Rust there's a real sense of restlessness... that Some Cities touched on for a bit, but Some Cities was more about a certain kind of hopelessness, of being stuck. KOR is more about propulsion, borne out of desperation, a kind of a final bid to capture the exuberance that made The Last Broadcast so great. Some people might say that they didn't try hard enough but I don't think they're retreading. I love this album because it just proves what an amazing band Doves is. They're not particularly experimental nor visionary... and they're certainly not witty... in fact, their music is almost workmanlike in its ambitions; working class rhythms, but with sweeping majesty, and romantic yearnings to boot. The title track I love to death -- it's like Ennio Morricone meets... Doves! I really wouldn't be surprised if Doves can't follow up this album. To me they're like polar bears trying to fight against the slush. What would be left after a kingdom of rust?


Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care

It's true. Junior Boys' third album is not as instantly accessible as Last Exit or So This Is Goodbye. But that doesn't mean it's not good. In fact, it's excellent... because it doesn't rely on obvious hooks or instant gratification. The songs, there are only eight of them on this album but almost all are five-minute-plus affairs, build up gradually over midtempo beats, blue-eyed soul, sardonic lyrics... the whole thing is so stoic at first... and a bit forbidding -- like a cold bed. But in terms of exploring android soul, Junior Boys do it so much better than Daft Punk's showy offerings. There's more subtlety here, and the lines blur between what is robotic and what is human. Not that Jeremy Greenspan's sexy understated voice sounds inhuman but coupled with the smooth Kraftwerkian soundscapes and you-broke-my-heart-first sentiments that at times choke the album with an almost tyrannical sense of polish, this -- all neon lights, tungsten yellows, glass and metal buildings, wet city streets -- was the overlooked dancefloor homage to the unsatisfied soul of 2009.


Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

While it's not a total departure from his previous album Armchair Apocrypha, it took me a while to able to appreciate Noble Beast fully... just because it's very layered and intricate. It's also less immediate, but not because it's less melodic... on the contrary, the album is made up of songs that reveal themselves slowly. The first song that got me was definitely "Not A Robot, But A Ghost" (definitely the highlight of the album). In between, there's sunny melodies, wonderful vocal harmonies, Andrew's violin arabesques and haunting whistling. Maybe it's because his lyrics are rather cryptic and self-deprecatng. It's not the sort of thing that lends itself to easy listening... although... it's quite pleasant. Cause it's you know kinda folky. And I love folk with a touch of something different and proggy. But I love this album because out of all the albums I've heard all year, this sounds closest to the kind of music that I myself would love to be putting out there. So yeah, Andrew Bird is definitely an influence and a musical hero. If only I could whistle like him...


Boy In Static – Candy Cigarette

When I first listened to San Francisco band Boy In Static at Johnny and Winnie's new pad, I didn't know anything about them. But I knew it was good music... I'm surprised I didn't hear anything about it online anywhere. I guess good music sometimes takes a while to register for most. Then I read up about them online and found out that they were signed to The Notwist's label. Ah... that explains the similarities. But Boy In Static is definitely no copycat band. I love the Postal Service-ish vibe of the album... and at times, BIS do it better. The interplay between violin lines and electronic beats, the summery melodies, the vocal harmonies and bittersweet lyrics. It's like an album of growing pains, of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. But not puerile... but affecting. And fun at the same time. And that's good... because Xiu Xiu can get a bit intense at times...

Fever Ray – Fever Ray

This is the dark electropop masterpiece of the year. Swampy. Moody. Buzzy. And features The Knife's excellent vocalist Karin Dreijer. Enuf said.


Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

When YYY released their second album Show Your Bones, I was kinda disappointed. Not just because it didn't have anything that sounded like "Maps" on it, but also that the band sounded rather bored. I only liked "Gold Lion" and "Cheated Hearts" from that album. So I was kinda hesitant about It's Blitz. I like the band's energy but wasn't sure if I could stomach another disappointment... until I heard "Zero" that is! This is for me the dance album of the year! I don't know how they did it, but YYY managed to recapture the exuberance of their first album, by leaving much of their rawness behind and embracing a bigger sound. "Zero" is just an awesome track... followed by "Heads Will Roll", "Soft Shock" and "Skeleton".... my ears just couldn't believe it. How did they do this? Songs so simple, arrangements that make sense, and yet surprising at the same time. It must be Karen O's voice... it's such a special voice. I'm just cut because tickets sold out for their gig in Singapore... LOL... what to do? must be fate. I guess I just have to listen to this album again and again...

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

I loved Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. At the time it was released, I thought it was a worthy contender, if a bit goofy, to Radiohead's Kid A. Here was an institution band following up an opus with an electromash album. And although it didn't change the world of rock like Kid A, it had its moments. But not so At War With The Mystics... which was unfocused and a bit too deliberately goofed. I lost interest in the Lips after that... until I read good reviews about Embryonic, their so-called psychedelic latest album, supposedly their most experimental record since Zaireeka.... I haven't heard that one so I can't comment. But you know, I love Bardo Pond and Tortoise... so how experimental can this be? Pleasantly. I was surprised by the textures, the looseness of the songs, the new energy in Coyne's voice, and the coherence-within-the-incoherence of it. I found myself listening to this in a pleasant haze of exuberance. But most importantly, it makes me want to listen to it more, which is probably my one single most important criterion for choosing it as one of my faves of the year.

Other noteworthy albums of 2009

Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light
'Twas a wonderful album although it doesn't quite measure up to I Am A Bird Now. But stunning songs and performances nevertheless.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus
It's fun.

Micachu & The Shapes - Jewellery
Strange, inscrutable. I love the idea and spirit of it.

Karen O & The Kids - Where The Wild Things Are OST
Very nice.

Dangermouse & Sparklehorse - Dark Night Of The Soul
Nice moody stuff but a bit uneven in some places. I love the tracks with James Mercer and Wayne Coyne.

Seeland - Tommorrow Today
Love it.

Mew - No More Stories Are Told Today
They get better and better.

David Sylvian - Manafon
Blemish, part deux.

La Roux - La Roux

Maxwell - BLACKSummer'sNight
Good return to form.

The xx - The xx

.... I'm sure there are more. I could only digest so many albums in a year... and sorry Whitney, you didn't make the list though I love the "Million Dollar Bill" single... much better than that Mariah crap.

And I really don't know what to make of Lady GaGa.

Another thing: Beyonce, please stop screaming into the mic.

Albums I couldn’t stop listening to that weren’t released in 2009

Judy Garland – At Carnegie Hall
A beautiful boy introduced this to me and I have to say it's one of the best live albums I've ever heard. Judy is nothing short of amazing. And everytime I play this, I'm reminded of wonderful memories I had with that boy.

Milton Nascimento – Travessia
Whoever hasn't heard of Milton must. This is his debut, a mixture of samba, bossa and folk, made magic with Milton's soulful voice.

Various Artistes – Cabaret OST
It's been a while. The boy I fell in love with reintroduced me to the world of movie musicals. And I was reminded of this. Bought the DVD in Singapore and watched it eight times. Although My Fair Lady is still my favourite, Cabaret is definitely up there.

Astrud Gilberto – A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness
Slight of voice, dubious of talent, but enchanting nevertheless... I listened to a lot of bossa this year. Including Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower and Joao Gilberto's compilations. Astrud makes it inanely repeatable.

Dorothy Ashby – The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby
The find of the year! I read about Ashby the jazz harpist online while looking for stuff about Alice Coltrane (who is one of my musical heroes). More groove and R&B based, Dorothy is just as revelatory!

Portishead – Third
I can't get enough of this band. How did they do it? I love "Hunter" and "The Rip". And of course, "Machine Gun".

Michael Jackson – Thriller
Just a week before his death, I was listening to this on my headphones and thought to myself, what an amazing pop album! I was so shocked by MJ's death. I'm not a big fan... but I grew up with this music. He is definitely a touchstone.

Chaka Khan – Naughty
I missed Chaka when she came to KL this year. But it's okay. I have this classic to listen to. If you haven't heard "Papillon (Hot Butterfly)", you are missing out!

Ryuichi Sakamoto – 1996
I've been obsessed with this album since more than a decade ago. I'm still listening to it... I can't stop. Ryuichi is a genius!

The Beatles – Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
I got suckered into buying the remastered versions of Sgt Pepper's and Revolver - my two favourite Beatles albums. I'm still mulling whether to get Magical Mystery Tour (because of "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Maybe I should just get it... LOL. Looks and feels so nice... of course it sounds fab, it's The Beatles.


04 November 2009
SUARAM 20TH ANNIVERSARY DINNER - “20 Years Defending Human Rights”

“20 Years Defending Human Rights”

Fundraiser & Tribute to Defenders of Human Rights in Malaysia

Date & Time: Sun 6 Dec, 8pm to 11pm

Venue: Banquet Hall, MBPJ Civic Hall, Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Admission: RM50 per seat or RM500 per table (10 seats)

Ticket info: Temme Lee (temmelee@gmail.com)

SUARAM is celebrating its 20th Anniversary Dinner on 6 December 2009 with a dinner event to raise funds for our human rights work as well as to pay tribute to those who have fearlessly fought for and defended human rights in Malaysia all these years. The theme of the dinner is "20 Years Defending Human Rights".

Programme line up: SUARAM Human Rights Award 2009, stand-up comedy performance by Mano Maniam, theatre performance by Rumah Anak Teater (RAT) and performances by Jerome Kugan, Meor and Azmyl Yunor.

SUARAM is currently seeking support via donations, sponsors for lucky draw items and/or ticket purchase for the event. All proceeds from ticket sales will help finance SUARAM’s human rights work that includes educational and training programmes, campaigns against detention without trial, police brutality and for protection of refugee rights, urgent appeals against arbitrary detention and torture, documentation and monitoring of human rights violations etc. Tickets cost RM50 each, a table (10 seats) costs RM500.

Don't hesitate to disseminate this information to your friends and family. :-)

For more information on the dinner, please visit http://www.suaram.net/dinner-2009
For more information on SUARAM, please visit http://www.suaram.net/about

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03 November 2009
The Accidental Soundguy
You know, sometimes I wonder who actually reads this blog. LOL. Or if my life actually means anything for anyone. But, you know, I've gone down that path many times before. And if I entertain that line of thought, and knowing how it would naturally lead to my totally unglamorous regard for how depressingly uninteresting I am, I'll probably end up going for days without showering and playing Bejeweled non-stop. So that's why I prefer to play my favourite Roisin Murphy or Annie CDs, sing along really loudly to them in the shower and pretend I'm just chewing gum through life for the sake of it. Because life is too short... to be stupid.

Speaking of silly things... I guess this post is about some of the things I've been doing in the past few months but haven't really managed to find time to blog about.

KL Sing Song 2009

Some of you might know that I'm one-third of Troubadours Enterprise, a little initiative I started up with some friends of mine -- singer songwriters Azmyl Yunor and Tan Sei Hon. (That's the three of us in the pic taken by our good friend Johnny McGeorge). We organise this annual concert of singer songwriters called KL Sing Song and we just recently finished organising this year's edition at The Annexe Gallery where I work. We featured 19 singer songwriters altogether and I was the soundguy for the three-day concert. It was kind of stressful work doing the sound and I think I did OK, save for a moment during the first night when I kind of scolded the crowd for not clearing the hall during the line-check for the second set. Blur... Thanks Shieko for taking pics of KL Sing Song... that's me at the sound mixing board.

I'm reading the review for the show by Adrian Yap CK that came out in The Star today. It's nice for a little show like ours to get such nice coverage in the papers... and I think the write-up is a fair assessment of the concert. Except for this line: "KL Sing Song is perhaps an acquired taste for most, with it being such a hardcore display of pure singer-songwriter talents." This notion of "acquired taste" has always been for me a kind of oxymoron. Firstly, are not all tastes acquired? And why should one regard a genre of presentation (in this case, singer songwriters) as an "acquired taste" just because it's minimally staged? I'm not against labelling, but I'm against pigeonholing and putting things into confined boxes, and then saying that it's "an acquired taste" just because people are not used to it. It's more like it's because the music industry and commercial radio and music TV channels have all been artificially engineered to favour the fortunes of bands and good-looking people... if we were blind and ageless, I reckon we'd become better listeners and better at appreciating different genres.

Unfortunately, we're much impaired by our vision and our limited knowledge. We like certain things because we've been conditioned to think in certain ways. But "acquired taste"? If tastes can be acquired, then they certainly can be passed on. It's this perception that we've been trying to overcome... but if writers keep marginalising the performers like this, how can appreciation for the scene grow beyond the niche?

Biz FM Interviews
The two Biz FM interviews I did are online.

Here's one I did for the "In Conversation" segment on 23 Oct 2009. The interviewer asked me to pick 3 songs and talked about them in a general way, plus my life in general... and all that... the three songs I chose were: 1. U2 - "One"; 2. Bjork - "Generous Palmstroke"; and 3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Maps".

Here's an earlier one I did in July. More about talking about my music and writing.

And one of me performing "Tomas" live on radio.

The Gig Report
I don't usually write about the gigs I play at... just because... well... there's not really much to say except "Thank you" to the people who come to watch me play. Although judging from the last few gigs I played at, it really doesn't seem as though people actually make the effort to come and watch me perform. I'm usually the salad to someone else's main course. LOL. But I don't blame anyone for it except myself. I should practise more often... this practice of mine bringing lyric sheets to the stage... aiyoh... it's so slack... I should make the effort to memorise the words and practise my guitar more often.

Of the recent gigs, the ones at Urbanattic and Homegrown were sparsely attended. Siew Eng came to the Homegrown gig! (And also David and Christine!) Which was nice... to see friendly faces in the crowd. Sherry aka Sharidir and Nizam P also played Homegrown that day, and they were amazing of course! Love love love. After Homegrown, Siew Eng and I trotted down the road to Ikea for Swedish meatballs and drool over the furniture... both of us were really infatuated with the queen-size double-bunk bed... I think it's some kind of fetish we both share for sleeping in an elevated position... ha ha ha... moving on... the Urbanattic gig with David was fun. We collaborated on a few songs... which was great. But I have to say... we should have had more time to jam together. It's still kinda hard for me to collaborate with other musicians... I always feel humbled by the gesture that I think I clam up. But I try... I try... LOL.

Last Monday's No Black Tie gig with David and Yuna fared better. But again, I don't think the crowd came to see me specifically. I will always be the salad to someone else's main course. So I gave up trying to please the audience... and played a set of six new songs that I've never performed before. But it didn't matter. I had fun, mainly because it was the day after we finished with KL Sing Song and I wasn't so stressed out. And also because it's always nice to see both David and Yuna perform... they're such nice people with nice voices and nice songs. OMG I love love love. I also played a set of songs with David, which was nice. And sang a cover of "Across The Universe" with David and Yuna to close the night's proceedings. The photo of me David and me taken by Johnny McGeorge.

Hmm... I have maybe two more gigs coming up for the rest of the year. Will blog about that when they come up.

Body 2 Body review
A review of Body 2 Body, the anthology of queer Malaysian writings I co-edited with Pang, was published in the Time Asia November 9 issue. It's also online here. Risky indeed.

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Is That All There Is?
Sometimes a song comes along that just sounds so peculiar and communicates so clearly the things I'm trying to figure out in my head. And in the past two or three weeks it's been this Lieber & Stoller song. I can't help thinking about it, the lyrics, the melody, the structure of the song, the two different versions I've heard.

When I first heard it, via the Chaka Khan version from her Classikhan album, I thought to myself "What a strange little song..." The verses are spoken, narrating three different episodes - a house burning down, a trip to the circus, a failed love affair - all underpinned by the narrator's rather disappointed epiphany "Is there all there is?" and goes on to add "Well, if that's all there is, then let's keep dancing" and "break[ing] out the booze". I'm not sure if it's a defeatist statement... or maybe just realistic... or perhaps even taking a zen approach to things. Especially since the last verse has the narrator saying that she'll never commit suicide, because she suspects that death will be yet another disappointment... LOL... well, that's one way to look at death. I second...


Anyway, I was thinking about why this song was affecting me so. I guess the spoken parts took me aback. There are not that many songs written like this. And also the approach to the song... it made me think of the subtlety of Peggy Lee's version, which I like the best of the ones I've heard so far. It has to be performed with a certain nonchalance... anticipation that turns into disappointment... that turns into bittersweet wistfulness... like some New Orleans funeral march. I love how a song can be like this... it gets me into thinking if somehow my songwriting is lacking something. Well, if I'm already thinking it, then maybe it is lacking... and then it got me into thinking if my life is lacking something... well, of course, it is... like my good friend Amsalan would say, "It's all about the manifestation of your thoughts". If you're already thinking about it, then it's probably there.

Well, my thoughts are saying "Is That All There Is?" right now... and I wonder if I'm getting bored, or dealing with certain disappointments that haven't yielded their lessons... and I wonder if I need to really step back and take another look at my life and my music... and... and... ask myself "Is that all there is?"

Or maybe it's just because it's a nice song... I must admit I do like the banjo and tuba combo. :-)

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01 November 2009
JK performs at No Black Tie with David Knight + Yuna
Yep, after playing sound guy at the recently-concluded KL Sing Song 2009, I'll be performing with David Knight and Yuna at No Black Tie on Monday 2 November. The show starts at 9pm and goes on til midnight. I'll be playing some songs by myself and some with David. Admission is free, so if you've got nothing to do tommorrow night, come by and drink a glass of stout with me. :-)