Ben’s Big Gig

May 2, 2009 | 1 comment

North Oxford is the wealthiest part of a wealthy city, where BMWs sit in gravel driveways and wine bars nestle amongst delicatessens and stylish cafes; a part of the city I always yearned to belong to as a kid, but never quite did. It was where I went to school, and where we had our first offices when we were building Elgg.

In keeping with the rest of Oxford, it’s suddenly begun changing dramatically over the last couple of years (I’ve joked a couple of times that someone at the City Council planning office must have died, but this may not be too far from the truth; despite a glut of brilliant minds and genuine creativity, the city itself has always been stiflingly conservative). One of the newcomers is The North Wall, an arts centre that actually sits a few doors down from that first Curverider office on South Parade, and is in some ways more exciting than any other arts space in Oxford. From hip hop comedy dance to puppetry, its events seem to bring new blood.

Ben’s Big Gig was probably the first gig of its kind. Ben Walker is Internet famous for his Twitter Song, an in-joke that, appropriately enough, has been bookmarked, re-tweeted and blogged all over the web, and attracted praise from the likes of Demi Moore. He’s also a genuinely talented songwriter and musician who has been playing around Oxford for years at various events, including a regular stint at the now-defunct QI Club (which was associated with the TV show of the same name). Together that was enough to sell out the arts centre, as well as attract hundreds of visitors who watched live over the web – Nick Gill’s gorgeous lo-fi poster, pasted up all over town, couldn’t have hurt either. A Twitter wall on the back of the stage read out feedback as it happened, forming a back-channel to the music and allowing the audience to heckle the comedy warm-ups with relative safety. All of this felt not like a technological gimmick, but an organic part of the experience.

Live web gigs happen all the time, but they’ve usually got major backing. Sandi Thom was famously discovered through webcasts, but it was a PR stunt: she already had a major publishing deal, and at the time the streaming technology would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Times have changed: although it’s probably not free, technological improvements have brought live streaming within reach of independent artists. Ben’s the real deal, a performer with old-school talent who just happens to be using contemporary tools to reach his audience. We’re going to be seeing much more of this.

However, the first-mover advantage definitely holds water. At the end, as I was leaving, I told Ben that he needed to do it again. He confirmed that he will; I suspect the audience will be even bigger next time.

In the meantime, here’s the video feed from the gig:

The delightful picture of Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall was released under a CC attribution license by Ben Walker.


January 4, 2009 | Leave a comment

Milk (Directed by Gus Van Sant)

After the Open Stack meeting at the Digg offices the other week, I turned down a kind offer from Tony to allow me to invade his dinner date and walked back to my hotel. The route took me up Sixteenth St, through the Mission, past Castro and into the Haight. Having mostly spent my San Francisco time further up Market St and around the various companies who make their homes in SoMa, it was a side to the city I’d never seen before – particularly at night.

Alongside the Christmas lights and leftover Obama posters (“HOPE” shone from nearly every window), Castro was glowing with anti-Proposition 8 signs. (Prop 8 is the unconstitutional, recently-passed legislation that formalises marriage as being between a man and a woman.) The sidewalks along Market St were filled with openly gay couples being free and open with each other, in a way that – despite significant civil rights advances – you still really don’t see anywhere.

Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro St”, who was the first openly gay man to hold public office in the United States. It does have its flaws, but as Jeff Jarvis says:

Sean Penn does an incredible job capturing Milk’s intensity, humor, joy, and decency. It is a great performance. [...] What Milk does brilliantly is portray the moment and the movement in intimate human terms, not with soaring music, not with gay cliches, not with PC delicacies but with emotion and reality. I recommend it highly.

Alongside Wall-E, I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen over the last twelve months. (And on that note, if you don’t believe a kids’ cartoon can be a genuinely good movie with wide appeal and message, I recommend you give it a try …)

What has struck me, though, is that the movie only seems to be opening in cities – in other words, bypassing the more homophobic small town communities that could really use it. As this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes:

Even with strides, remnants of the discrimination that people like Mr. Milk and Mr. Bell faced still linger, school officials say, and that is why they need safe and supportive environments for students who are gay.

Last year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network unveiled its “National School Climate Survey.” Of the 6,200 gay middle and high school students surveyed, about 90 percent had been harassed and 60 percent said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

One of the most powerful moments in the movie comes when Milk realises he is empowering young people across the country who previously thought, and were being told, that there was something wrong with them – which is one reason why this inspirational film should have wide distribution. Another is that it’s an exceptionally well-made, powerful film that any intelligent person should enjoy.