Monday, September 22, 2014

Here be Dragonnes...

“The good news is…” Shev greets us at his front door “…at least there’ll be a bit more room in the car”. The season of promotion for his album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon which began in the bright spring sunshine of the acoustic stage at The International Workers' Day Festival in May, has wend and wound its way through the Felixstowe Carnival Fringe, The Secret Garden Party, the Grandma’s Porch Sessions, the BBC, Ipswich Music Day, FolkEast, not to mention TJS’s impromptu appearance at The Grand Old Opry* during his fortnight sojourn around the open mics and showcase nights of Nashville, and is now gathering its autumn skirts closer and wrapping a cosy muffler around her neck with a concluding performance at Acorn Fayre, a boutique festival in the wild Northampton heartlands. Tiny Diva, our vocal co-pilot, percussionist and latterly stunt bassist has had to call off with an unspecified condition, but one with which we are advised that close proximity within a moving vehicle would be inadvisable. Fortunately, along for the ride on this occasion is album-complementing flautist and singer La Mulley, ready to add a couple of harmonies when required but principally to add her haunting aerophonics as per the CD.   
We are approaching Cambridge Services (when the story of the beat scene of the early twenty first century is written, this will be our mythic Blue Boar) as Shev is telling me how he came to sell one of his albums in Minnesota, of all places. “We’re playlisted on Radio Heartland” he begins. “Some guy is driving down Interstate 94, he’s coming through the Twin Cities, it's night time, he’s got the radio on and he hears Nobody. ‘I like that’ he thinks to himself, and so he gets home – he’s not from St. Paul, he’s just passing through – and he gets on the internet, he looks me up, he finds out where the label is and he mails us, wants a CD. By the time we’ve put on the postage and the customs stuff it’s pretty expensive, but he wants the thing, the physical object. We asked him where he heard the album and that’s what he told us”. We are both impressed by the tenacity of the man who heard something on the radio and was so very determined to track it down. We pull into the services. I fill up with diesel. “I’ll get this” he says.

As we travel further on up the road we have a quick recap of the situation. Helen was due to pick a third harmony to complement Jules’s vocal but since we are currently deprived of her talents generally and Clare Torry-esque signature feature in Faith in Myself specifically, Shev suggests that this might create the opportunity for a flute solo instead. “Oh, and since she isn’t going to be taking the main harmonies you might as well do those as well. Think of it as having been down in the programme to play spear carrier and turning up to the theatre to find that you’re now principal boy". There is the slightest of pauses from the back seat. “Do you think we could listen to the album through one more time?” Helen says. 

Upon arrival Tony is quickly appraised of what I meant by ‘a boutique festival’. I had sold it to him on the premise that although a bijou affair, the audience would be principally comprise bloggers and forumistas, and so what they lacked in numbers they would more than be making up for in terms of vociferousness. Maybe using the word ‘festival’ had been mildly misleading. Perhaps ‘showcase’ might have been a better word. “I’m beginning to think I may have oversold this to you” I confess. “Ya think?” he replies, Gobi-dry. “Did you keep the receipt for the diesel?” I ask. There is the subtlest gesture of assent, his visage a picture worth a good half dozen choice words. “It’s not a big college town” I reassure him. Come show time however, buoyed by the free bar, the company and the prospect of a complimentary barbecue to follow, game faces are on. Badinage is batted forth, the obligatory promotional plugs are delivered and (I shouldn’t be surprised) La Mulley plays a blinder – emoting and purring her way through the set like she’d been singing these songs her whole summer. “It’s amazing how you all fit together” remarks a post-gig admirer. “It is. It really is” I agree.
Heading south again after supper we review the day’s doings. “I’d estimate that one in ten of those people there today bought a CD” Tony says to me. “Extrapolating from those numbers, imagine if we’d played Glastonbury!” 


*To be fair, he was on a tourist tour, but he did get to play Your Cheatin’ Heart onstage during a photo opportunity.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ten Albums by White, Male, Singer-Songwriters.

I was included in one of those Name Your Top Albums things on social media this week and, being not only a bloke, but a huge record spod to boot, I was unable to resist the siren call of compiling a list. Similarly, as a victim of terminal verbosity, I was unable to keep my comments down to what I’d consider to be reasonable limits in terms of expecting folk to skip across pictures of anthropomorphic dogs and amusing pub signs on their Facebook feeds and dig into the equivalent of one of those buyer’s guides you get at the back of Uncut magazine, so I’ve put it here. All of these records have moved me (frequently to tears) have expressed emotions I couldn’t otherwise articulate and have inspired me to aspire to their lofty heights of artistic achievement – principally, I have to admit, by playing bad versions of their songs in pubs with my eyes closed. That’s a given. The individual addenda are merely mansplaining on my part. There are not a great number of what you’d call recent albums on the list – I mean, I work with people who are younger than most of these records - but to me it calls to mind the possibly apocryphal story of when Joseph Heller was buttonholed at a party by someone who pointed out that he hadn’t written anything comparable since the publication of Catch-22 many years earlier. “Neither” replied Heller drily “Has anyone else”. 
1; Richard Thompson – Mock Tudor.

Picking only one album by Thompy was the biggest challenge for me. Henry The Human Fly is inspiring in terms of a man (barely in his early twenties) finding his post-Fairport feet and melding trad folk and raga rock, Hokey Pokey has some of the most joyful music of his career (as well as the most doleful), Hand of Kindness is the break up album’s break up album but, significantly, when he (or at least Capitol Records) brought in a couple of left-field outside producers in the shape of Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Beck, Moby, Motorhead) and Rob Schnapf he was able to really buff the formula until it gleamed. The notes on Dave Mattacks’ website regarding recording the drums are so boggling in their attention to detail that you wonder how they ever dragged him away from the recording booth in the first place. Key Track: Hard on Me.  

2; Neil Young – Time Fades Away.  
Part of the celebrated so-called Ditch Trilogy, this is the album so ragged, on the edge and painful to listen to that Young has never been able to satisfactorily revisit the original tapes in order to get it out on CD - and he remastered Everybody’s Rockin’ . It is the soundtrack to a man falling apart on stage, aided and abetted by Crosby, Nash, a shitload of tequila and bizarrely, a Gibson Flying V. That it was recorded principally on the tour scheduled to support the release of Harvest only adds to its wayward charm in that the befuddled audiences on these dates must have wondered if they'd come on the wrong night. I would also hazard a guess that the yawling Yonder Stands the Sinner is never going to turn up on a Seventies Gold station on heavy rotation. This is careering, in the same way that my snowboarding would probably be. Key Track: Love in Mind.   

3; Clive Gregson – Strange Persuasions.
So clean, so compressed, so beautifully studio-bound (aside from the piano, which sounds like it was recorded in the pub next door after closing time), these are the songs that Gregson still had in his locker after the demise of the sadly underrated Any Trouble. Decamping to a demo studio in Oldham, he enlisted his old rhythm section (sparingly) and a young folk singer he’d come across by the name of Christine Collister to record what looked like it might be his farewell note to the business of show. Following the mantra of dour lyric/happy tune, I Still See Her Face is as jaunty a breakup song as you could hope to hear – the overdubbed guitar interplay presaging that which he’d enjoy with Richard Thompson on a couple of live promotional OGWT performances preserved in the digital aspic of YouTube. Thankfully the Gregson/Collister partnership blossomed and although their subsequent live shows didn’t feature the haunting French horn included in this version of signature song Home is Where the Heart Is they didn’t run to the Springsteen tribute bombast of American Car either.  Key Track: I Fall Apart.   

4; Jackson Browne – Running on Empty
“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels” the album begins, “Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields”. This is a record about yearning, the songs linked by the unlikely bedfellows of hope and ennui – almost a suite. Largely co-written, and recorded live this is (literally) the sound of backstage, the bus and the hotel room writ large. Overwhelmingly, everyone sounds tired. Danny Kortchmar’s Shaky Town is a postcard from somewhere in the mid-west, Lowell George and Valerie Carter’s Love Needs a Heart could have been written in the condensation on the inside of the tour bus window, in Rosie the guy on the sound desk comforts himself with, well let’s not dwell on that. Only in the joyous closing cover Stay do the band celebrate their incarceration together and even then there’s the sense that these moments, too, will be lost in time. Key Track: The Load Out.

5; Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town.
I know – I couldn’t believe it either. I first encountered Springsteen in his Eighties, bulked-up, MTV, Arthur Baker Remix-fuelled pomp, and so it was understandable that I didn’t really take to him at the time. We all know what gated reverb did to a generation of drummers, some of whom are still not entirely over it to this day.  It wasn’t until he’d got all that (and Outlaw Pete) out of his system that I found myself in Hyde Park watching the tangled Terence Malick narrative of Racing in the Street play out in front of me as the sun set over Hyde Park. All that stuff that The Boss bores tell you about the live experience? It’s all true. Better still is having the entire back catalogue waiting and ready for you to work through at your leisure. I was tempted to stop at Darkness, where the carefree street jokers of Asbury Park have aged and withered to become the enervated protagonists of songs like Factory and Prove It All Night. Even more astonishing, as revealed by the release of outtakes compilation The Promise, is what he left off it. Key Track: The Promised Land

6; del Amitri – Waking Hours,
I listened to this album every single day on my way to work for three months solid. Anyone who is familiar with the lyrical content of the ten songs contained within will be aware that this is not necessarily a healthy state of mind to find yourself in. “I’m watching the fumes foul up the sunrise / I’m watching the light fade away” is never going to be a couplet likely to get your endorphins racing in the morning, and so it turned out. Eventually I moved away, before my small, small town turned around and swallowed me. I’d been entranced from the moment I first heard the opening track – I’d argue that it starts with one of the all-time great “Ah-one, two, three, four…” count ins - and from the off it was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a re-tread of their prior jangly buckskin fringed Sticks and Stones Girl period. I bought all the singles too – “Don’t I look Like the Kind of Guy You Used to Hate?” sounds as lemon-juice-on-a-paper cut as it reads on the page. Key Track: Empty

7: The Waterboys – A Pagan Place
Another Damacsene conversion for me was when Mike Scott turned the UEA into a swirling pit of heart, soul, twelve string guitars and tasselled scarves while I watched on unbelieving, the music like a massive wave simultaneously sucking the shingle from under my feet and pummelling me in the chest as it swept over and around and through me. This is the album where The Waterboys – then at least nominally a band – first successfully combined Van Morrison’s Woodstock Celt vibrations with the Chelsea Hotel attitude of New York’s CBGBs scene and produced the first great Big Music. Two albums later, they’d moved on - which is where we first met. Scott’s modus operandi is principally to set up a revolving door of four or five chords and then declaim across them, and that technique serves him beautifully here, notably on the epic Kazakh-referencing Red Army Blues. Don’t get the remastered re-issue, by the way. This album doesn’t need an extra verse, an extended outro or a bunch of extra tracks added on the end, no matter what the limitations of vinyl album running length might have you believe. Fun fact – the “What have I got to lose, somebody might wave back?” hook in track five is lifted directly from a line of dialogue in the Elvis movie G.I. Blues. Key Track: Rags        

8; Warren Zevon – Transverse City
Ah Warren – none more West Coast; you with your floppy-haired, plaid-shirted, harmony-contributing Californian pals and your breezy songs about werewolves and Chines menus and headless Thompson gunners. Who better to produce a late-career claustrophobic concept album about paranoia, alienation and chemophobia with added Dave Gilmour? Acoustic-led Neil Young-athon Splendid Isolation and familiarly-styled ballad Nobody’s In Love This Year aside, the rest of the record is synth-driven and intense – there aren’t any jokes on this one. Key Track: Run Straight Down

9; Spirit of the West – Go Figure
Another genre-hopping release was the 1991 effort by former trad-punksters Spirit of the West, who I’d been in the same room as in what must have been around 1987 and who I hadn’t heard a lot of since, independent releases by Canadian folk bands not being as easy to casually acquire in the latter part of the twentieth century as they were to become in the post-Amazon world. I seriously thought I’d put on the wrong CD in the shop, as what started the first track contained not the cheeky prod in the ribs of the bodhran I’d been expecting, but some sort of Pink Floyd power chordage underpinning the sound of a heavily amplified slide mandolin (and who came up with that idea!?) combined in turn with the tom-tom heavy percussive assault of somebody building a particularly impressive shed in the background. I fell instantly for it, a bit like the way in which Danny does for Sandy at the end of Grease. I’m generally a lyrics man, and so when further investigation reaped a limpid pool of intricate construction and shaded detail I fell in love with it all over again. Once you knew that they are about a children’s hospital, listening carefully to the words of Goodbye Grace had the tendency to prompt a whole new wave of Kleenex-heavy blubbery. And that was before I had any of my own. Key Track: D for Democracy (Scour the House).

10; Loudon Wainwright – History
Bleak, introspective, heavy on the sarcasm, generous helpings of self-loathing and brutal as a kids’ party at Katie Hopkins’ house. Also does tit jokes. Either you buy into Loud’s schtick or you don’t, and I do. He edges past Randy Newman in the irony stakes while puncturing his own ego and that of every family member he can line up a bead on. Talk about solipsistic. Also, as I say, does tit jokes. The one-note riff which is the talking blues of Talking New Bob Dylan aside, the songs on this album are breath taking – usually a quick intake of breath followed by a long, reflective exhalation as you inwardly digest what someone who isn’t even a close friend of yours has just told you about their behaviour – see When I’m At Your House for example, or Hitting You. That this album edged out close contenders More Love Songs and Here Come the Choppers is probably down to his heart breaking performance on the Key Track:  Sometimes I Forget.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Show-Off Must Go On.

I’ve been doing a bit of stage managing and MCing recently – it helps keep the old chops in order when there are gaps between gigs - and an interesting discussion came up the other night during the post-performance cable winding when one of the crew remarked that he had enjoyed one of that evening’s performers a great deal, but was concerned that there was a point where their ‘tween song banter had threatened to be more entertaining than the songs. Having introduced said turn with a rather splendid quip I’d harvested* from Twitter, which sailed blissfully over the heads of many of the assembled, I'd been happy to hear someone engaging with the audience to such a degree that this might be an issue in the first place.
Meanwhile, a knowing sigh issued from The Soundman Formerly Known as Our Glorious Leader (TSFKaOGL), who has endured many introductions on my part which have been in danger of lasting slightly longer than the songs they presage. Upon our return from a short tour of Denmark with Heavy Big Pop funsters As Is** some years ago we were in possession of two souvenirs, one being a live recording of a performance which had been recorded from a very expensive looking and immaculately maintained sound desk directly to stereo, and the other an only very slightly shorter cassette of all the on stage chat we’d edited out from between numbers in order to fit the gig on to a single C-90 in the first place. Many’s the time Songs from the Blue House emerged refreshed from a beer festival set to be enthused at by a passing tegestologist with a hearty – “You were great!” [beat] “Really funny!” “Not heartfelt, or moving..?” sighed TSFKaOGL ruminantly, back here in the present. A sympathetic assent came from latter day drummer TNDB, busy unravelling a monitor lead over by the power amps. "That guitarist..."  

The thing is, we didn’t really do any outright comedy songs – certainly a couple of wry observations on the human condition, and one light-hearted skiffle through my romantic past, and yeah, maybe the hick yokel faux-country rendition of Fat Bottomed Girls was played for laughs, but most of our set was definitively bedsit confessional Americana. Certainly the one about killing burglars had a neat pay-off and couldn’t really be described as a romp (it was also the one which usually got the biggest cheer with theatre audiences in the Essex/Suffolk borders region). I just couldn’t help chatting away between numbers, especially if someone was busy tuning, retuning, changing instruments or trying to decipher the set list – all of which can conspire to create an uncomfortable silence, especially if you’re in that first date frame of mind which so many performers and audiences find themselves in during their inceptive experience of each other. This is how Peter Gabriel got started, you know. One minute you're explaining who came up with the chorus that time in the dressing room in Sudbury, the next thing you know you're dressing in an evening gown, wearing a fox head and hanging your balls round your neck in a burlap bag*** for effect. However, just as nature abhors a vacuum, I can’t stand a stage full of people busily going about their business whilst fortifying the fourth wall and so I feel compelled to fill the gap with chunter. I know. It’s a knack.

Since my role with my current employer is to mainly stand at the side, play the twiddly bits from the album and occasionally do some Pat Donaldson-esque harmonies I’m not called upon to speak. Regular accomplices may be astonished to learn that I am blissfully happy with this arrangement. It’s not my circus, after all. Besides, I don’t want him to ask me pointedly to work up a version of  Talk Too Much  

*Or 'stolen', if you will. Thanks and kudos to whoever came up with that 'Miss Marple' gag. It may have misfired slightly with the audience but two of the band who had yet to make an entrance remarked that "...that was hilarious!"

**I found a copy of our twelve inch single in a second hand record shop last weekend. Ooh it took me right back, it did.

***We never quite went that far.