Monday, 31 October 2016

John Carpenter - 'Release the Bats Tour' live show in Manchester

Manchester Victoria Warehouse - Saturday October 29th, 2016

Probably my most eagerly anticipated event of the year - a live concert by one of my favourite filmmakers and musicians. John Carpenter made several of the films that made me a film fanatic in my childhood and early teens but what is extraordinary is how so much of his work gets even better on repeated viewings. Few filmographies have given me more pleasure as a viewer or produced more personal favourites than Carpenter's work. They are films that work as great entertainment but also reveal surprising depths, ideas, themes and subtleties on closer and further inspection. As a composer, Carpenter's now iconic film scores led to a love of electronic and minimalist music that endures to this day and inspired me to attempt my own keyboard and synth led compositions.

In some ways the 21st century hasn't been an ideal time to be a Carpenter fan. Following the hostile reception and poor box office performance of Ghosts of Mars in 2001 Carpenter went on indefinite hiatus. He's been fairly open about his reluctance to return to filmmaking sighting among other things health reasons and the general cynical atmosphere of working in the film industry. In the years since there have been two 60 minute TV movies done for the 'Masters of Horror' series - Cigarette Burns (2005) and Pro-Life (2006) - and one low budget feature The Ward (2010). Despite working within the Horror genre with which he is now synonymous they all generally lacked Carpenter's signature style and, perhaps significantly, none of these were scored by Carpenter. In an early 1990s interview he remarked that if he stopped making films he'd probably "sit around and talk about the old days" which it turns out was a fairly accurate prediction. As of late he's been a prominent figure at retrospectives, festivals, conventions and signings which seem to imply he's happy to reflect on his work rather than launch new projects. Despite his awareness and pride in his own considerable legacy it's a shame that there has been relatively little effort to reassess his less heralded works from the 1990s, although hopefully they too in time will grow in stature the way his 1980s work did.

There have however been some consolations for devoted Carpenter followers of recent times with plenty of gems to mine from his prior work. The DVD/Blu-Ray age has ushered in terrific special editions of several Carpenter films, with commentary tracks, interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes that have helped shed more light on his output. Rare TV movies Someone's Watching Me! (1978) and Elvis (1979) have both been given welcome DVD releases allowing completists to see these relatively obscure titles in a quality format. Even Carpenter related works like Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (both of which were produced, co-written and scored by Carpenter) have got the deluxe treatment courtesy of Shout! Factory.

Expanded releases of his soundtrack work has put previous releases to shame. Former collaborator Alan Howarth has issued limited edition CDs of the full scores for Prince of Darkness, They Live and Halloween II & III as well as re-recordings of the scores to Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing (which includes the short Carpenter synth cues in addition to Ennio Morricone's score). Meanwhile La La Land records have released the complete scores to Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A. as opposed to the abbreviated tracks and highlight selections of prior editions.

In 2015 Carpenter somewhat unexpectedly released his first ever non-soundtrack LP titled Lost Themes, a series of instrumental pieces that he co-wrote and performed with his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies.
Carpenter's own role is probably somewhat overstated in the billing and marketing of these records. The prog-rock style and abrupt tempo changes on several tracks seem more like the work of Cody - who scored his father's two 'Masters of Horror' episodes and has put several of his own recordings online. At times the album takes on the feel of an extended jam session with a bunch of riffs and motifs cobbled together somewhat awkwardly. There's a chaotic randomness in places that makes it hard to know where some tracks start and others begin. The influence of 1970s recordings by Tangerine Dream, Goblin and in particular Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells seem rather too obvious in places. However there's enough of Carpenter's slow build and moody vibe on tracks like 'Vortex' and 'Night' to keep fans happy.

Lost Themes II (a more guitar driven followup) was released in 2016.
Standout tracks including 'Distant Dream', 'Hofner Dawn', 'Dark Blues' and 'Real Xeno' (a CD only bonus track for some reason). Adding to the excitement of this release was the news that for the first time in his career Carpenter would be going on tour to perform album tracks and classic themes at live shows.

It seems increasingly unlikely that Carpenter will direct another feature and with his enthusiasm for filmmaking having clearly diminished this new chapter in his career has been a welcome development.

The live shows were announced in late 2015 so I've had a near twelve month buildup to the show and seeing the director of the 1978 classic Halloween perform in late October seemed like perfect timing. Sadly the major story of the night for me and many others was the venue itself. The Victoria Warehouse was a horrendous choice of setting for the show: overcrowded, terrible sound quality and there was only a very limited view of the band on stage and the projected film footage unless you were close to the front. Seeing Carpenter perform live seemed like a dream come true but the show itself was something of a nightmare.

When I booked the tickets in late 2015 the show was originally scheduled for two nights at the Albert Hall in central Manchester. Due to a change of promoters and popular demand the Friday show was cancelled and the show was relocated to the Victoria Warehouse near to Old Trafford on the Saturday evening. The Albert Hall was clearly a far more appropriate setting and the decision by the organisers to change it was regrettable to say the least.

The Manchester Evening News covered this infuriating aspect of the show in its review and website coverage.

I can only hope that Carpenter and his touring band do some additional UK live shows in the not too distant future and I get a chance to see them at a more appropriate location. At brief moments I was able to enjoy the show and get a glimpse of how it was supposed to be before my view once again got blocked and the sound became more distorted. Too bad I didn't go to the show in Liverpool instead.

I'd like to end this on a positive note so I will say it was delightful to see a huge turnout for John Carpenter performing selections from his two recent LPs as well as his iconic film scores from the 1970s and 1980s. I'd imagined it would be more of a niche offering but the huge audience in attendance proved otherwise. As someone who has idolised Carpenter for many years hearing the crowd's hugely appreciative response to the man, his films and his music was genuinely heartwarming.

Happy Halloween!