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Daniel Bates

Daniel Bates


Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


For years, Fitzrovia has enjoyed a sort of sleepy anonymity. While tourists flocked to popular haunts in Soho, Marylebone and Mayfair, this corner of the West End seemed somewhat neglected, the last refuge of a half-forgotten Bohemian London. But last June Fitzrovia’s streets and squares played host to a series of concerts, workshops and social events designed to highlight the area’s illustrious past. FitzFest was born, boasting a decidedly ambitious programme for a first-time Festival, and its organisers succeeded in producing an event that successfully celebrated the neighbourhood’s singular artistic heritage and remarkable cultural diversity.

“The main inspiration for me was finding the book Characters of Fitzrovia by Mike Pentelow and Marsha Rowe at the Fitzrovia Centre. Until I read the book, I had little idea about the history of the area – all the crazy, wonderful things that happened and all the fantastic characters who walked these streets”, explains Dan Bates, FitzFest’s artistic director. But its more recent past was just as important an inspiration. “Fitzrovia was an area which for many generations had been the home of inner-London, working class immigrants and Bohemian artists. I wanted to help remember the historical identity of Fitzrovia – its community and creativity, its social and ethnic diversity – amidst the changes happening in the area.”

Though the idea of a festival to celebrate the area had been gestating in Dan’s mind for some time, it was one of his neighbours who was instrumental in really opening his eyes to the possibilities. “My neighbour, Joyce Hooper, is in her 80s and has lived in the same Local Authority flat in Fitzrovia for over 60 years. She is the absolute expert on the area, knows everyone and is a fascinating source of oral local history. She explained how when she first arrived, the neighbourhood was considered a Jewish area; then it saw the arrival of Cypriot, Chinese and Bangladeshi communities; and further changes occurred when many Local Authority and Peabody flats were sold to tenants in the 1980s and 90s.” It was Joyce’s memories of the different types of music she had heard throughout her life in Fitzrovia that inspired Dan to start a local festival with an emphasis on music. But FitzFest is also more than a festival. Last year it offered music education workshops at All Soul’s Primary School, provided music for poorly children at UCL Hospital and organised performances for older members of the community at All Soul’s Clubhouse.

Last year’s FitzFest opening event brought past and future together in a tour de force elegy to the voices of Fitzrovia’s history by music pioneer Scanner. The public opening of the Fitzrovia chapel was accompanied by an extraordinary sound collage, running for 24 hours a day, evoking the history of the chapel and incorporating the memories and voices of all those for whom the Middlesex Hospital was an important place. Scanner composed a soundtrack to which was added recorded interviews with people in whose lives the hospital had played a significant role, while musicians working in shifts throughout the day added improvised elements to the proceedings.

But the Festival’s strength lay not only in celebrating Fitzrovia’s past but also in the diversity and eclecticism of its offerings, as Dan explains. “It being the first year I wanted to throw everything I could muster at the festival and try and include as many people as possible.” As a hugely experienced classical musician – he holds the position of principal oboe for the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, the City of London Sinfonia and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, as well as guesting with most of the country’s major orchestras and recording with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Rihanna and Barbra Streisand – Dan is in a perfect position to pull together all sorts of musical strands for FitzFest, calling on his wide range of musical colleagues to ensure a varied calendar of events. So it was that Fitzrovia’s local musical heritage became one of the main elements of the festival. A major highlight was a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s brilliant Clarinet Quintet by world famous clarinettist Jörg Widmann in the very room in the Portland Place School in which the German composer is said to have died during a visit to London in 1826. Local resident Sue Blundell provided a piece for an actor and musicians about the life of local composer Eric Coates; his famous Dambusters March remains probably his best known work, but he also wrote a number of charming ‘light music’ pieces inspired by London life and locations, including ‘Knightsbridge’, which became the theme of the BBC’s In Town Tonight. Coates still has plenty of fans, it turns out. “The venue was the room above the Ship pub on New Cavendish Street, and it was such a sell-out success that we repeated it in early January this year and are going to repeat it in this year’s FitzFest as well.”

Of special note were performances by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), with all music played on authentic period wind instruments made in Berners Street. “The OAE play on instruments that would have been in common use in the composer’s day and age,” Dan tells me. “A lot of the instruments that the orchestra play these days are copies of the historical instruments, because though many originals survive, few are in playing condition now. String instruments generally improve with age, while wind instruments don’t last very long!”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Fitzrovia was a centre of the furniture trade, and the two industries of furniture-making and musical instruments were strongly associated with each other, developing side by side. “If you think about it, a wooden flute is really just a hollow chair leg – with a few refinements of course! Many makers operated on Hanway Street, others on Newman Street, while Berners Street saw several generations of flute makers.”

This year’s Festival, made possible thanks to Derwent London’s support, will build on last year’s successes but add an interesting interactive element. “Last year, audiences seemed to like spoken word stuff particularly, be it dramatic performances or talks about the local area. I am hoping to build on this for the next festival and invite Mike Pentelow and Nick Bailey back to talk about Fitzrovia. I’m also planning a murder mystery treasure hunt around the neighbourhood – that will be fun!” Another of last year’s Festival favourites will return this time around: free yoga sessions at the Fitzrovia Chapel with teacher Andy Sotto. “They were very popular classes – people loved lying on the floor and looking up at the amazing ceiling.”

Daniel also hopes to extend his range of venues this year. “The BT Tower would be the ultimate – it’s the major symbol of Fitzrovia. I’m always on the lookout for interesting spaces that people might not normally have access to – car parks, disused swimming pools and so on.”

FitzFest 2017 runs from 8-11 June 2017.

Brandy Row

Brandy Row


Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“I’m like the Artful Dodger meets Al Capone.”

I met Brandy Row about 4 years ago, but really our paths should have crossed much earlier. I’d been looking for a guitarist to help me record some songs with a talented blues singer, and the manager of Soho’s So High Soho recommended one of her employees. I wanted someone local just to make things easy. “Brandy Row. He’s a multi-instrumentalist” she suggested “and best of all, he lives nearby.” But never could I have imagined how nearby – Brandy’s flat and mine shared a wall! He was my next door neighbour, only I was two floors above him.

I discovered an animated, passionate character for whom, it soon became evident, life was both toxic and intoxicating. He looked a lot like a modern day Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter, carrying the same gravitas and intensity but with a caustic sense of humour. This guy was totally absorbed by the desire to write and perform his own music. And his sartorial style was a living embodiment of his dark, sometimes apocalyptic lyrics. Suited like he might be attending a funeral in a Flannery O’Connor Southern Gothic novel, his hands and face covered in a constellation of peculiar tattoos, Brandy Row was definitely not your average Fitzrovian.

And to think our paths had never crossed… How could I have missed him? So I started photographing Brandy to make up for lost time and delved into his music. I discovered his folky psychedelic solo material but also, a harder, 70s english punk side which he showed off with another  project, The Gaggers. But even his bluesier material had a punk edge to it so I was curious to know where that came from. “People like  Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Johnson, Stiv Bators, The Stones, Etta James, Alan Watts, Karen Dalton, Iggy Pop, Lux Interior, Bill Hicks, Joe Strummer, Bruce Lee… they all influenced my songwriting and even life choices! I also love all that Delta Blues stuff and the 50’s 60’s Chicago movement, the list goes on and on!!”

One of the highlights of his life happened last summer, when he got an opening slot for some of the artists he had long admired. “I played a couple of shows in the UK opening for a supergroup formed of Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Earl Slick (who worked with Bowie) and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats. More recently, I opened up for Adam Ant! What a great show! He’s someone I use to dress up like as a kid so him calling me asking me to support was a trip!”

Speaking of trips, Brandy toured America again earlier this year. “I’ve toured a lot in America: the Midwest, the East Coast, West Coast. I met some great people that have changed my life. The last time I was in the States was a few months ago now, I did a tour that started on new years eve in Brooklyn, New York City, at a place called The Beast of Bourbon, run by an english castaway that has been anchored in NYC for 20 years.” It was there that Brandy hosted and promoted a night and got a bunch of musicians that he’d known and shared a stage with many times before in the Big Apple. “It was a great night! My band flew out to do the show. We played into the New Year, then I flew back to LA with my good friends and family Tina de la Celle and Julian de la Celle.”

Touring. Working. Recording. Working. Every penny Brandy earns he throws back into his music, funding 7” single releases, photo shoots and even elaborate videos. And his most recent video might well be one of his most ambitious not to say craziest… “Julian de la Celle and I went to the Nevada desert to shoot a new music video. By the time we were done shooting, I was covered in blood, as part of the story had me being filmed with an array of replica weapons. Anyhow, we drove to Vegas after that, but I had to stop in a busy parking lot to use the toilet! We were all sleep deprived and a bit frazzled. I opened the trunk and all the guns and knifes from the shoot spilled out! To make matters worse, for some reason I had 100 dollars in one dollar bills in my pocket. They all flew out, blowing across the windy desert carpark. That day, the good people of Nevada saw the Artful Dodger dressed as Al Capone, wearing a black mac, splattered with blood, chasing dollar bills in a desert rest stop, waving a gun and cursing in British gibberish at the money flying above his head… the sort of thing that makes a good video in its own right! Needless to say, we got out of there pretty quick.”

The last few months of Brandy’s life have seen him return to studio, off the radar with social media, concentrating on new material, evolving musically yet again. “I’ve been recording a new EP since January with my very talented amigo Rex Whitehall and a great producer and sound engineer called Alastair Jamieson, who owns and operates from Park Studios in Birmingham. It’s full of great 60’s equipment, old reverbs, everything. A great vibe!” Based in a beautiful Victorian building in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, the studio has become Brandy’s second home. “Alastair brings out the best in me and the sessions we have are organic, we capture magic from the madness!”

But Brandy’s ideas for all this new material more often than not originate from his real home, back in Fitzrovia. “My whole writing routine consists of long walks around Fitzrovia and Soho at night. I get a vibe from an idea at home, record it, chop down a mix then put it my ears and take it out to streets. Out there, history seeps from every wall… you see what reality is really like, and that’s what I take from the area: triumph, failure, the truth, fraud, outcasts, junkies, artists, chancers, movers and shakers, its all out there in the dead of night!”