25 Nov 2013

Eric Bibb, the perfect folk-blues?

I have been to two of Eric Bibb's concerts, each time within the context of the Marciac Jazz Festival, which takes place each year in the South-West of France late July and early August. Marciac is one of the many bastides (14th century "new-towns" in France) that are built on an orthogonal plan and feature a central square surrounded by arcades. They were initially conceived as a way of fixing populations disturbed by the ravages of wars. The one below is actually from another town, Fleurance, as the Marciac square, during the festival, is now packed full of tents (too many of them) sellling mostly crap, but occasionally also some good jazz CDs.

The arcades of a typical bastide town in the Gers (Fleurance)

Both of Bibb's concerts have entranced and moved me and I would say that he is currently the best proponent of what is sometimes called "folk-blues". I suppose this means blues that uses, partly or entirely, an acoustic guitar as the major instrument, and whose general accompaniement is not heavily electrified. But also a repertoire that calls, at least partially, on many long-standing blues or folk classics. Bibb equally composes himself and has also played, such as in the first concert I heard, with musicians from other countries and cultures, such as the Malien Habib Koité.

There is something pure and elegant about Bibb's style as a guitar player (also banjo occasionally), and his voice is beautiful, both soft and deep. He also has a very extensive repertoire that constantly evolves. Below are a few shots takn with my phone during the 2013 Marciac concert, which was quite fantastic. Initially this was a double-bill event, with Taj Mahal to follow, but unfortunately a storm came just as Taj Mahal was starting his first set and we had to evacuate the marquee and that was the end of that. But I went away feeling that here was a case of the pupil surpassing the master, as Mahal seemed a bit tired that night.

20 Nov 2013

Christmas Cake and a recipe

I have not been a grerat fan of Christmas, at least since I was a child when it had some magic. If one talks of the food side of things, Christmas cakes usually look as silly as this. Yet preparing one can be a long and complex process that used to be started around this time of the year, in order to allow the stuff to mature before being consumed a month or so later. The same went for Christmas pudding, which uses a similar base but is even heavier on the stomach, if that can be imagined.

I can remember, when at my first boarding school in England, all the boys in the school (there were 70 of us) queuing up into the school kitchen for the priviledge of strirring, with a huge wooden spoon and in a gigantic stoneware basin, the ingredients for one or other of these ritualised stomach bombs.

Here is a recipe that sheds another light on the process (you will need some mastery of the English language and of the effects of alcohol to be able to follow it)

Christmas Cake Recipe 

A cup of waterA cup of sugar
4 large brown eggs
two cups of dried fruit
a tablespoon of salt
a cup of brown sugar
lemon juice
a bottle of whisky

1). Sample the whisky for quality
2). Take a large bowl. Check the whisky again to be sure that the quality is still of the highest order, pour one level cup and drink. Repeat.
3). Turn on the electric mixer, beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one teaspoon of sugar and beat all again.
4). Make sure that the whisky is still ok. Cry another tup.
5). Turn off the mixall. Beat two leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Mix on the turner. If the fired druit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it loosh with a drewscriver.
6). Sample the whisky to check for tonsisticity. Nest, sift two cups of salty. Throw one away. Or something. Who cares anyway?
7). Scheck the visky
8). Now sift most of the menon's juice and strain your nuts
9 ? Add one table. Spoon. Of sugar or somehting. Whatever.
10 (or more). Grease your oven. Burn the cake tin to 360 degree. Remembering to beat off the turner. Throw the bowl out the window.
Then whack the whusky again and go to bed.

Thanks to New Zealand for this fine recipe (and for the All Blacks)

10 Nov 2013

Work in progress: notes on the process of painting

I only manage to find time to paint during about a month in the summer, which, as far as I can see, is insufficient to progress very much in the process, or indeed in terms of the results. But I do have a few ideas about the way I am able to deal with this process of painting what may appear to be more or less simple figurative landscapes.

The painting above, which I began last summer in Gascony, is an example of work-in-progress, since it has in fact changed a bit since I took this photograph of it. As the picture below shows, it started out as work done in front of the landscape that inspired it. But its evolution, like that of the human eye and memory, has also taken into account several other parameters other than the purely formal and technical obstacles that present themselves during the painting process. The way the painting then develops, once away from the initial subject (or even in front of it for that matter), can vary a lot. One may choose to reduce distance and give greater importance to areas by enlarging them, or more impact by simplifying them. Colours will be adjusted of even totally changed for pictorial reasons. In fact the painting itself as a subject/object gradually takes over and dictates its own terms, becoming more important to me that the scene initially looked at.

As David Hockney has clearly shown in his work on the way the human eye and brain operate, including in his polaroid landscapes, one "sees" an object, and especially a complex one such as a landscape, from more than one point of view at a time. Not only is one's immediate vision binocular, with two slightly different perspectives, but also many particular details, such as the texture of a freshly-cut wheat field, will catch the eye and stimulate the imagination so that it takes on a greater importance than will be shown up in a monocular photograph of the landscape in question, more or less framed identically to the painting, as can be seen below. And of course, during the period during which one stands in front of a subject, the number of perspectives will be multiplied by the number of different head positions (unless one paints with one's head held in a vice), not to mention the role of visual memory and personal inclination. 

In fact, apart from particular approaches such as hyperrealistic work, I can see no point in attempting to reproduce "exactly" what one sees. The process that links the eye to the brain and one's emotions is a complex one that cannot be resumed by such an approach. Yet the beauty that one sees and feels in a landscape pushes one to some degree of realism. Making a landscape painting uses many elements from the scene seen, but also incorporates elements taken from similar or related scenes, or details enlarged beyond their true proportions. Here is a detail from the above landscape that has taken on a greater place in the painting than in the photograph of the same landscape.

In the process of modifying colours, shapes and textures as the painting develops, things seen elsewhere during the same period are often incorporated or used, when it becomes necessary to saturate colours further, enhance a detail or flatten perspectives, for example. The aim being to produce some form of credible synthesis of a landscape, but definitely not a reproduction of the one initially witnessed. And this painting can of course be entirely composed from fragments observed. Here are a few photographs taken near to the initial scene, of different views and at different times of day, all of which have some bearing, consciously or not, on the painting that is under way.

Maybe at some point I will show the "finished" work, but probably together with other things that have developed alongside it since. Because a painting is a form of dialogue that may have echoes in other conversations or comments.

9 Nov 2013

Ducati Hyperstrada: test ride of bike number 17

Hyperstrada with its bags on

I attempted to explain here why, and under what circumstances, I acquired this, my seventeenth slice of two-wheeled heaven. It has been about a month now and so it is high time to tell you more about how my almost new Ducati Hyperstrada (don't like the name very much, any more than the looks, but what can you do?) feels when ridden under different conditions of route and weather. I have now put almost 3,000 additional kilometers on the clock and have ridden it on B-roads, A-roads and motorways, all for some distances, and all with great enjoyment, even if motorways are always boring on a bike.

The bottom part of the  821 cc Testasretta engine that gives this bike plenty of fire. Large diamater exhaust pipe must help a bit too.

First and above all I am very happy with my choice, which I guess is the main thing. The engine is far more flexible than that of my previous regular mount, a KTM Duke 690, which i names "little big bike". It is also naturally faster (although who really needs more speed under today's road-riding conditions and restrictions), much smoother (vibrations from a V-twin being automatically less intrusive than from a single) and more confortable on long rides. And I like the sound it makes too! What makes this happen? Well, first of all the fabulous 821 cc water-cooled V-twin engine which has all the power you can use on roads, plus a lot of character and good torque. This classes as a mid-sized engine by current standards, but, when I started riding bikes, it would have been in the big category. In any event, it delivers the goods and has more than enough power for what one needs on the road. I have found overtaking easy and predictable, and the power/weight ratio just right. Pulling away from lights is also a joy and one just has to watch for unwanted wheelies, especially when in the "sport" mode on the computer that controls power delivery and the electronic safety devices, to which I will return. It also sounds good with the standard silencer, which will save me quite a few euros on a replacement article. Now I don't like making noise in towns, but accelerating out of bends in the open coountry and hearing that cross between a bark and a growl under my seat just puts a smile on my face. We stay kids somewhere I suppose.

you can see the single rear shock-absorber on the left-hand side. I dislike the bird's beak front, but there it is.

Coming back to the flexibility issue, although it is smaller, this motor is far better in this respect than my previous Ducati, a 2005 Multistrada 1000dS. It will pull away from below 2000 rpm without complaint. Just don't expect it to be on full song, which happens at above 4000 rpm, and with a vengeance! This makes for slowing down coming into towns and villages when riding the smaller roads far more relaxing (and quieter for the neighbours). Speaking of noise, being water cooled, and the clutch an oil-bath affair, there is much less clunking and clattering from down below than used to be the case with Ducatis. In fact practically none. The machine manages to be fierce, when needed, and yet civilised at the same time, which I reckon is quite a performance. Some critics have commented on the gearbox being slow, or imprecise, or something. Maybe press test bikes get hammered before they are properly run in, but the gearbox on my bike is smooth and sure. Finding neutral is easy and helped by a green warning light, and I think that I have only missed one gear change, through my own fault, in those 2800 kms. If you pressure and time your change-ups right, the next cog just slots in smoothly and there is practically no break in the forward impetus.

perfect handling is a given with Ducati

Chassis is up to normal Ducati standards, which means very high. I have not found its limts on the road yet but then I have been riding on autumn roads, with wet and leaves and all that, and I have yet to really push things. If you have the bags on and load 'em properly with light stuff, they do not affect handling much but need to be watched for their width when slipping through small gaps. As to the handling, maybe I'll do a track day or two in the spring to find ou more. Brakes are very good. If you adjust the lever right to suit the way you brake with the front, you can stop on a pin and there is ABS to help out. I read in one report that there was too much travel on the front brake lever before the brakes hit. Did the guy not find the easy-to-operate adjustment dial on the lever? This sorts that one out instantly. And I find the rear brake a useful addition to stabilise you coming into bends, as it is progressive in its action. The Pirelli Scorpion tyres work ok, even if they are not as good as Michelin Power Pilots in the wet. Haven't pushed them much yet though. 

the controls are not ideal and too close together with winter gloves on

The controls are a bit of a mixed bag and perhaps not one of the bike's best aspects. The indicator switch is a bit iffy (ie you are never quite sure if you have pushed it far enough), you can confuse the horn button for the lower of the two computer switches (yes, this machine is sophisticated too) in the dark, and I found myself hitting the high beam switch, strangely placed behind the left hand grip, without meaning to, again in the dark and with winter gloves on. The afore-mentioned computer gives one all the information required, with the exception of gear engaged and state of fuel tank, and the pre-programmed performance and safety parameters have 3 positions : sport, touring and urban. The latter reduces power by 25% and gives you maximum intervention of the traction control and ABS. I only use it in town when it is wet. Touring is fine for touring and for everyday use. Sport makes the whole thing feel sharper and reduces both the degree of traction control and of ABS intervention. Within each setting one can fiddle about with the levels of all the parameters, and even cancel all forms of this intervention, but I haven't got that far yet. Remember I am used to bikes with little or no electronic assistance!

rider's view: the screen offers some protection and the control panel is perfectly legible

This "touring" version of the Hypermotard has been well adapted to the more aged or long-distance rider (or both) with a couple of useful features allowing for mixed usage between fun and touring. A more confortable seat with a big dent in it to keep seat to road distance reasonable, a slightly raised handlebar position through longer clamps, a small windscreen and bags that slot on or off (in theory, as we shall see). I measure about 6ft (1m80) and have no probelm with the seat height as it allows me to have both soles of my boots on the ground when stopped. But this dip in the rider's part of the seat, although it slots one into a nice little niche, can be a pain on long distance or when riding fast on variable roads as it effectively prevents one from shifting weight forwards or backwards. I may therefore try another seat at some time. The riding position is otherwise fine and makes for a reasonable compromise for touring. The bars have enough width (and hand protectors that incorporate the front indicators) and are at the right height. The screen is quite small but offers some protection, though I am about to fit the higher version, which is an optional accessory. As to the bags, the removal mechanism seems to have stuck on one of mine, so it stays on until I can find a solution. Useful for storing a helmet and a U-bar I suppose, but a bit ungainly for slipping through traffic. These bags have plenty of capacity and are made of a semi-rigid fabric that necessitates additional water-proof inner bags (supplied) that reduce the capacity somewhat but do their job water-wise if you close them properly, as I found out when riding for 2 hours under a downpour. These are clearly by the same manufacturer as the ones I had on my KTM, but are much bigger. You can lock the zips that close them with a little padlock (supplied). The tool kit is minimalist and far below KTM standards for example. One has to buy an additional special spanner in order to adjust the chain, not to mention a torque wrench!

The fuel tank apparently holds 16 litres. There is no fuel guage, but I find that the reserve light comes on after about 220 kms, when riding at an average fuel consumption rate of around 4,5 litres per 100 kms. This should mean that I have consumed about 10 litres, which would signify that the reserve actually holds 6 litres instead of the 4 announced in the manuel. In any event, there must be enough for another 100 kms after the orange light comes on. I will only test this the day I am carrying a can with me though. So we can safely count on a range of above 250 kms, which is fine for me as you always need to stretch your legs after that distance anyway. Ducati have considerably improved the intervals between servicing on their recent models. I used to have to take my Multistradas in every 5,000 kms and this ends up being costly. The manuel to the Hyperstrada tells me that I can now wait for 15,000 kms which is good news. I will have to do the chain before then however.

I will shortly fit (or have fitted) a higher screen, some heated grips and a much needed tank bag. Then we'll be ready to brave the winter together, not that I ride long distances in the winter. Will keep you up with future developments.

Ride safely and have fun...