Wednesday, January 31st

ONE THE WEATHER STATION, OSLO

5-weatherTim and I stand with our backs leaning on the bar, watching Red River Dialect play their support-set songs, muggily. “It’s like listening to an It’s a Beautiful Day bootleg” says Tim, with unerring accuracy. I’m concerned that the subtlety of Tamara Lindeman’s songs will suffer a similar fate, but as soon as the Weather Station hit the first chord my worries evaporate. I was sent here by a review that Richard Williams wrote (here) and he captures just what makes their gigs so special. “Some of these songs are like the deepest conversations you ever had with someone you care about – and very often they’re like things that were formulated but somehow never got said. On the faster songs she piles lines on top of each other to create a river of thought and feeling. And none of the nuances are lost when she sings them with a band in front of an audience.”

Lindeman and her collaborators create an organic soundworld, and find the new in clever variations on the old. Sonically there are echoes of David Crosby’s chords, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira-era strumming, and, more tellingly, the spectral space found by the Cowboy Junkies when they recorded with one microphone in a church. But that makes the music sound too gentle – there’s a steamroller drive to the faster songs, powered by the bass of Ben Whiteley, who Tim singles out as the player the music seems to revolve around. Erik Heestermans disdains the obvious on drums and Will Kidman’s guitar solos are febrile and brittle in the manner of Richard Thompson. He’s also playing a structural role in the songs, teasing out melodies that Lindeman fleetingly suggests. The basic building blocks of rock – two guitars, bass and drums – hypnotically remade. Seventy five minutes went by in the blink of an eye.

TWO BASQUIAT AT THE BARBICAN
A fantastic show, where Basquiat’s crazed genius shined through. What I had forgotten was just how much he referenced musicians in his work – often an older Jazz than you may expect (Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” and Ben Webster’s “Blue Skies”, say, although his main man was Charlie Parker).

5-BasquiatThere’s also cracking film of August Darnell and Andy Hernandez leading Kid Creole and the Coconuts through their early-80s set in a New York Club. [Polaroid of AD above].

THREE FROM NICK COLEMAN’S NEW BOOK
Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life, published by Jonathan Cape on 25 January. I’m really looking forward to this. Here’s a bit about Al Green: “We are in New York on Seventh Avenue, high up in the sky in his hotel bedroom. This is my second attempt to interview the Rev. The first time round, which he clearly only half remembers, if at all, from a year ago, we’d got bogged down in thick theological mud. I’d wanted to draw out the lineaments of his faith in order to unravel the fabric of his genius, or something along those lines. Most of all, I’d wanted to uncover the ambivalences that allow him to sing about God like a lover and about Love like a metaphysical poet. This is not possible in 20 minutes. And Al, being a true soul man, had chosen to sing most of his replies in robust Biblical quotation. This was great for me but no use at all for you, dear reader.
So Al, when you’re singing, do you wait for the spirit to come to you or do you summon it? “What magazine do you work for?  in London? Ah, well, I don’t really speak on that subject because it’s a Utopia subject and, anyway, no one is always in the spirit or under the anointing. Not that I know of. And if you sit and wait for it and do what the scripture says – ‘And if anybody ask anything of the Lord, let him be prepared to wait on it’ – you may be waiting a few days. And then your studio time runs out!”

FOUR THE BLOODY BOB MUSICAL, AGAIN…
I saw this review by Caroline McGinn in Time Out. Apart from my obvious disagreement over the production, just check her In My Opinion! “It’s poignant and stirring and totally fresh to see “Like a Rolling Stone” voiced by a middle-aged woman – the electrifying Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth – who’s losing her inhibitions and her mind. Or the – IMO hokey and forgettable minor ballad – “I Want You”, slowed down and revealed as a sexy, aching, unrequited duet for Nick’s son Gene and yet another character, the girl who’s leaving him for a guy with a real job.”

FIVE DO RE MI
I came upon this while looking for something else. It’s rather fine. Bob, Van Dyke Parks and Ry Cooder play Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” at the Malibu Performing Arts Center in January 2009.

Wednesday, January 24

ONE THERE’S POOR, AND THERE’S REALLY POOR
A bar/cafe at Stansted Airport, themed around illustrious musicians (sadly, I kid you not). In reality this means a wall of Black and White 12 x 15 framed prints, and this, a wall of names, graphically arranged.

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So we have the ungainly clashes of Muse/Fish and Chips, and Uriah Heep/Fresh, and Depeche Mode seem to have merged with the Rolling Stones… And don’t forget the legendary Ozzy Osb, and Ethro Tull. “I’ll have the Rod Stewart Inergarder, please…”

TWO FOR ART’S SAKE… 
I’m really appreciative of Sky Arts, although they have a worrying tendency to hire people to make programmes about themselves, saying how great they are. They rock this approach with Melvyn Bragg’s hymn of praise to The South Bank Show now that it’s left ITV for Sky. Almost two hours of weirdly unsatisfying clips from thirty years of programme-making, linked by Melv standing coldly on various bits of the windswept South Bank and bigging up himself, before cutting to people like David Puttnam who also big him up. Strange.
I’ve just started another Sky Arts series, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, a history of the magazine. I may be sensitized to this puffery as I’ve just Read 50 Years of Rolling Stone, a (somewhat) entertaining hagiography that I’m reviewing. The documentary comes laced with the same sense of baby-boomer self-congratulation as the book – I assume all this RS looking back activity was an attempt to drive up the price before Jann Wenner sold the company. Anyhow, the first episode reminds you of the brilliance of its writing in the Sixties, especially Hunter S Thompson on Nixon, interesting to read at this point in history:
“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else that tries to make us uncomfortable. Jesus, where will it end – how low do you have to stoop in this country to be President? It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, incurably violent side of the American character. He speaks for the werewolf in us, the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable on the nights where the moon comes too close”

THREE YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EARS…
…as Buddy Holly calls his record company to ask for his songs back. A man never far from a tape recorder, he turned it on for the call. Found via Messy Nessy’s 13 Things I Found on the Internet Today.

FOUR I POST THIS WITH NO COMMENT…
Nando’s has opened a music studio at one of their main London restaurants, giving budding musicians the chance to lay down their own tracks while chowing down on chicken, reported the NME. The studio has been opened at Nando’s in Frith Street, Soho, and will give successful applicants the chance to record their own music with the help of an in-house studio engineer and pioneering equipment including a Neumann U87 microphone. “We’re really excited to open our first music space, both for our growing network of artists and also for our fans looking for a unique experience in the restaurant. Some of the best ideas have started over Peri-Peri (or so we’re told), so we’re looking forward to hearing what happens when we bring together chicken and tunes!”, a Nando’s spokesperson said.

FIVE PRANCING IN THE STREET!
What happens if you take the music away from Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s take on “Dancing in the Street” and cruelly imagine how the vocals may have sounded as they danced? This… 

 

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Friday, January 5th

A quick round up today. Too much time spent watching tv (how poor was McMafia? From its terrible title to its watery atmosphere, its lousy script to its underdeveloped characters… Everything that The Night Manager was, this isn’t. End of rant) and catching up with work to concentrate on 5 Things. I hope normal service will resume from next week. Happy New Year!

ONE MY FAVOURITE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Latest in the repurposed Ladybird People at Work series:

5-ladybird

“This is a rock star. His name is Bob Dylan.
Bob is rehearsing with his band. It takes a long time.
First the band have to learn all of Bob’s famous songs.
Then Bob has to think of worse tunes he can sing over all of them.”

TWO R.I.P. RICK HALL, GIANT OF ALABAMA MUSIC
Although we recorded in Muscle Shoals, we were working at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, set up by Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett, who broke away from Hall’s FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studio. I took the photo below in Florence, just across the river. And, below, I’m standing by the famous sign at the city limits. Among some fine obits, rocksbackpages reminded me of Mick Brown’s wonderful piece on Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals for the Daily Telegraph in 2013. You can find it here.

5-shoals

From Mick’s piece: For a brief and exhilarating period Muscle Shoals rivalled New York, Los Angeles and London as one of the most important recording centres in popular music. You need only visit Muscle Shoals to realise quite how remarkable this was. The town is one of four – the others are Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – that cluster along the Tennessee river in the north-western corner of Alabama, and are collectively known as the Shoals. The combined population is 69,000. It is a place of wood-framed houses, their porches entwined with bougainvillea; of handsome antebellum mansions – and of restaurants serving fried catfish and turnip greens. Thick forests flank the river, which rolls sluggishly in the summer heat. For an anonymous backwater, the Shoals has an improbably rich musical history. Florence was the birthplace of WC Handy, the father of the blues, and of Sam Phillips, who in 1953, convinced, as he put it, that “if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”, had the presence of mind to record an 18-year-old Elvis Presley singing the blues song “That’s Alright, Mama” – effectively creating rock’n’roll.

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THREE THE “AMERICAN PIE” CLASSIC ALBUMS PROGRAMME…
reminded my of Don McLean’s song, “Orphans of Wealth”, at this moment as apposite as it’ll ever be…
“And they’re African, Mexican, Caucasian, Indian / Hungry and hopeless Americans / The orphans of wealth and of adequate health / Disowned by this nation they live in.
And with weather-worn hands, on bread lines they stand / Yet but one more degradation… / And they’re treated like tramps while we sell them food stamps /
This thriving and prosperous nation…”

FOUR I TRIED TO WRITE ABOUT DYLAN’S GOSPEL YEARS…
but the issue that I’ve had since 1980 keeps rearing its head – I listen to the first bars of any song thinking, “This sounds great” and ninety seconds later I’ve zoned out. I don’t understand – the band is great, the arrangements are good, it’s performed with drive and commitment… But it’s the same problem I have with the whole of Tom Petty’s oeuvre. I can never stick around ’til the end.

FIVE FROM MAJOR TO MINOR
A fascinating piece about the current state of pop music at Popbitch. They’ve looked at one element in particular…
“Being popular gets you a good place on a Spotify playlist; getting a good place on a Spotify playlist gets you more plays. The more plays you get on Spotify, the better your chart position. The better your chart position, the better your placement on Spotify playlists. The more you get heard, the more popular you become. The more popular you become, the more you get heard. This is not a particularly groundbreaking observation. People have been talking about this quirk of the new chart calculations for years now. What is interesting about this run of long-standing number ones though is that something else significant seems to have changed since the days of “Everything I Do” and “Love Is All Around”. Specifically: the key that the songs are in.”

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Extra! All best for the holiday season…

rushingxmas

Next week, before the year ends, I’ll attempt to write about Josh Ritter at Shepherds Bush Empire (stunningly good), the American Pie Classic Albums on BBC4 (no Rob Stoner, not enough Paul Griffin), David Lynch’s Twin Peaks scene sountracked by Otis, and Guitarmaggedon (Matt Umanov’s on Bleeker Street closing, guitar sales down).

This week, though, a Christmas card from Jimmy Rushing and family, sent to my dad in the late 50s, and my take on another* Christina Rosetti Christmas song. Apologies for the unmixed state of it, but you know Christmas and deadlines… Thanks for reading over the past year, and best wishes to all.

 

* A couple of years ago I recorded “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an eight-minute soundscape. using the Teisco Baritone guitar that I had recently acquired [you can listen to it here]. The bari is back this year, wrestling with twitchy drummers and a ghostly choir (thanks, Mimosa!).

Tuesday, December 19

ONE IS SPOTIFY MAKING MUSIC MUZAK?
I’ve always had issues with Spotify. This article by Lizz Pelly at The Baffler illuminates the subject briliantly. “Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.”

TWO SOMEBODY HAD TO…

Turns out that Swedemason was the man who stepped up…

THREE ROOTS & TOOTS!
I’d really recommend a terrific Sky Arts documentary, Toots and the Maytals: From the Roots, about reggae’s beginnings and the intertwined career of “Toots” Hibbert. Beautifully made, it contrasts excellent interviews and documentary footage with his current band performing his greatest songs (I liked that the drummer had his setlist written on his snare drum head).

5-toots

FOUR A THEORBO? REALLY?
In an early music review in The Guardian there was a tantalising picture of Alex McCartney playing a lute-like instrument that looked ten feet long. It’s a theorbo.

5-mccartney-theorbo

Wikepedia: “The theorbo is a plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck and a second pegbox. Like a lute, a theorbo has a curved-back sound box [a hollow box] with a wooden top, typically with a sound hole, and a neck extending out from the soundbox. As with the lute, the player plucks or strums the strings with one hand while fretting the strings with the other hand; pressing the strings in different places on the neck produces different pitches, thus enabling the performer to play chords, basslines and melodies.” Alex plays it rather beautifully.

FIVE FROM BERLIN, HOLLYWOOD
While I was in Berlin I came across the Camera Work gallery, a beautiful space showing a really well put together show of Matthew Rolston’s photographs from the eighties and nineties. He was bringing back the kind of portraiture that Hollywood studios made popular in the thirties and forties, the work of men like George Hurrell and Clarence Bull. Strong lighting, rich shadows and mysterious expressions made this really well-curated show fascinating. They’ve aged better than I thought they would – I remember being rather wary of their glamour at the time. [Click on the picture to enlarge. It features George Michael on the left and Sade, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell on the right].

5-berlin-rolston

 

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Friday, December 1st

Five or so people from the last couple of weeks…

ONE BRAD PAISLEY & CARRIE UNDERWOOD

5-bradncarrieFor their introduction to the 2017 CMA’s. We have to acknowledge a Dixie Chicks level of bravery here, in the heart of the heartland. “Right now, he’s prob’ly in his PJs, watching cable news, reachin’ for his cellphone…”

TWO TIFT MERRITT
For this piece of beautiful and honest writing, in the Oxford American’s Kentucky Issue. An excerpt: “Into the five blue spot lights, into the thin Midwestern crowd and a smattering of cabaret tables, I take the stage alone. The neck of the guitar settles its weight into my hands. I move the tuning pegs with the ease I move parts of my own body. Maybe this is my last Shank Hall. Maybe the night before was my last Chicago headline. Whatever my failures, the music comes easily on that little stage. The sound carries itself, my voice on its back. For a long time, I thought I’d one day get a bus, eat right on the road, show up rested to a good crowd with a hot band. Now, as usual, I am on the road tired and sweaty. My mind wanders, but the rhythm keeps itself constant in my body as I play. I recognize myself in the dimly lit eyes of the audience – trying to align myself with beauty, mid-prayer for meaning. I give what I have to give without expectation that it will come to anything but the good feeling of giving. I do not promise myself that with one more record, one more tour, everything will make sense at last.”

THREE JEFF GOLDBLUM
For his piano playing behind Gregory Porter on the Graham Norton Show. Where did that come from? Maybe I dreamt it. Porter could sing the song acapella for all the backing he needs, but that seems to be what gives Jeff G permission to play with the minimalism that he does…

jessngreg

FOUR DAVID CASSIDY
For sneaking a smokin’ blues (“Rock Me Baby”) into the Top Forty – if you look beyond the slightly gauche lead vocal, there’s much to enjoy as Larry Carlton and Dean Parks have fun doubling up and duelling.

FIVE DELLA REESE
5-dellaFor her inspiration. Marc Myers, JazzWax: “Born in Detroit, Reese was a role model to many of Motown’s female singers, who were being groomed to become supper-club soul vocalists. When I interviewed Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, she told me that Reese held a special place in her heart: “While I sang “Dancing in the Street”, I thought about Riopelle St., where I grew up on Detroit’s East Side. We had street-dance parties there all the time. I loved the East Side. When I came up with the Vandellas’ name, it combined Van – for Van Dyke St., the East Side’s main boulevard – and the first name of singer Della Reese, whose voice I admired.”

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Extra! 55 Hours in Berlin

Richard Williams has been the Artistic Director of the Berlin Jazzfest for the past three years; 2017 is his last year and I wanted to make up for missing the first two. So, picking up tickets for three performances (the rest were sold out) and buying seats on three trains, I packed my poor knowledge of contemporary jazz and a small bag and headed to Berlin.

berlin-jazzfest

I arrived a couple of days after the festival started, but as the train pulled into the station, Richard texted with tickets to that evening’s programme. So started my time in Berlin, a wholly enjoyable blur of astonishing musicians, attentive, clued-up audiences and great coffee. Some highlights:

ONE TYSHAWN SOREY
My introduction to the festival was the artist-in-residence’s Trio, with Cory Smythe on piano, and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey prowled around a small city’s worth of percussive devices and instruments (including a drum kit, a parade drum, vibes, keyboards and a large gong) accentuating the music at one moment, driving it the next. It was impressive but I didn’t feel entirely engaged.

berlin-tyshawn

However, the next day featured Tyshawn in a supporting role (although I don’t think it can really be described as such). Playing a conventional kit in a trio with the powerful Angelika Niescier on saxophone (she was the recipient of this year’s Albert Mangelsdorff Prize) he was flatly astonishing. I’ve never seen a drummer make such a thundering, roiling noise with such clarity. Simultaneous rolls with each hand, a pumping bass drum, and slashed cymbals combined in an exhilarating performance where he was always alive in the music but never grandstanding. A mobile phone had gone off in Sorey’s previous appearance and one went off here, too. Richard said that had never happened before. I posited the theory that it was something to do with Tyshawn’s unique energy field…

TWO MÔNICA VASCONCELOS
The World Service producer and presenter, with her longstanding band, played her recent album of songs about living in Brazil under the military government, The Sao Paulo Tapes. Produced by Robert Wyatt and featuring songs written by some of Brazil’s greatest, the projected backdrop of photographs from that period added an unsettling element to her midnight set in a theatre space off the main concert hall.

berlin-monica

Her warm, lovely voice sat on a fantastic bed of bossa rhythms, expertly played. With two basses (double and electric), great guitar from Ife Tolentino and Ingrid Laubrock’s sax to the fore, it was a perfect jewel-like performance.

THREE AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE
During a fantastic suite of music commissioned for the festival, based on the four songs that Mattie Mae Thomas left the world when she was recorded in Parchman Farm in 1939, guitarist Marvin Sewell played an achingly moving blues, intense and soulful. His buzzing slide sounded like the grooves of a 78 come to life, before he switched back to playing the oldest pattern of the blues, setting up a throbbing pulse as Mattie Mae’s voice ghosted into the tune, sampled, cut up and looped. At the same time, vocalist Dean Bowman worked around and off her performance.

As it developed, composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire stepped in, his beautifully burnished tone pulling the music from the farm to the city with a moody five-note melody that sounded angular and sophisticated in contrast. The music built and built on the piano and trumpet until Sewell came back in to match Akinmusire’s explorations, sounding almost like Larry Carlton with Steely Dan. The band’s groove stayed strong, never losing sight of Mississippi, even as the guitar and trumpet played like cat-and-mouse over the top. It was astonishing to think that they had played this piece only once before, at their rehearsal together the previous day. “How in the pocket was that!” Richard exclaimed at the concert’s end, his first tentative thoughts of Ambrose using Mattie Mae Thomas as a starting point triumphantly realised.

FOUR RENÉ URTREGER AT 83
To the Maison de France for a showing of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Louis Malle’s first film, which famously has a Miles Davis soundtrack. The last surviving musician from the band that recorded it, René Urtreger, gave a solo recital after the screening. His talent was barely dimmed by the passing years. He had become a pop arranger for Claude François and a film composer for Claud Berri before returning to his first love, jazz, in the late 70s.

berlin-rene

In conversation with Richard, René was mischievous and spry: “I become friends with Miles Davis, we share the same room. And now I can tell it, it’s 60 years after – he had an affair with my sister. Okay. My sister has Alzheimer’s, she has forgotten everything (awkward audience laughter). Sorry, that’s life… I ask her about Miles, she says, who?

FIVE NELS CLINE LOVERS
Nels Cline is a master of so many guitar genres it’s dizzying. Quite a few (even the rock ones) were on display here, as he played his album of standards and oddities (like Henry Mancini’s “The Search for Cat” – a short cue from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s score and Sonic Youth’s “Snare Girl”). Conductor and arranger Michael Leonhart guided the brilliant chamber orchestra, partly made up of talented German music students – there was even a harp, always great to see.

berlin-nels

Moving from the noir of New York to the bleached-out tones of sunny California, Nels altered his style in response to the songs. Not one of nature’s front-men, he remained mostly seated behind a workbench covered in pedals and boxes and a lap steel (used to wonderful theramin-like effect on “I Have Dreamed” and “Why was I Born?”). From the naggingly beautiful blues of Jimmy Guiffre’s “Cry, Want” to the dissonance of Annette Peacock’s “So Hard it Hurts/Touching” this was a shape-shifting treat. And the last song, “The Bond”, a simple melodic riff that built into a hypnotic, sweeping soundscape, may just have been the best.

AND FINALLY… DR LONNIE SMITH
If Nels was the heart, Lonnie must be the soul, and it does your own soul good to watch him, a man so in command of his oeuvre (the funky Hammond writ large) that the audience is at one with him from the off. Looking for all the world like Zoltar the Fortune Teller in Tom Hanks’ Big, he lets out a howl of joy as he comes across some amusingly cheesy melody or plays a lick that he really likes. The Leslie speaker behind him was a throbbing, whirling presence of its own, and he worked his way through a barnstorming and crowd-pleasing set, his pedal bass-playing locked tight into Johnathan Blake’s hyper-attuned drumming. The guitar of Jonathan Kreisberg, who covered the bases from Wes Montgomery to James Brown, was the icing on the cake.

What a great place to end my Berlin adventure. I’d heard wailing improvisations, hushed, subtle orchestrations, blistering musical conversations and glorious melodies. The silence of Berlin on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night made it all seem dreamlike – the result of seeing ten concerts in 55 hours, perhaps. Whatever, it was fantastic to be immersed in such a creative space for such an intense period, and to see so many great collaborations work across boundaries of geography, race, language and culture.

Wednesday, November 1st

A tribute to Fats, a weird Sixties jam, some notable films, and a rather extraordinary gig…

ONE BEST OPENING PARAGRAPH OF THE WEEK
Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, on Fats Domino: “The moments in my life in which I experience the least complicated kinds of joy are usually when I’m listening to a record by a piano player from New Orleans: Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, Allen Toussaint, and, especially, Fats Domino. I can’t explain the alchemy – let the biologists map out precisely what happens on a chemical level. It doesn’t matter how leaden or battered I might have been feeling before – how encumbered by my own cynicism, how spiritually ransacked. There’s an exuberance inherent to this music that is purely, mystifyingly transformative. In an instant, everything lightens.”

TWO FATS AND THE BYRDS
Later in the Fats Domino piece, Amanda P, when talking about his first hit, “The Fat Man”, says, “…but I’d still challenge anyone to make it through the bit after the second verse – in which Domino begins to scat in falsetto, approximating the wah-wah-wah sound of a muted Dixieland trumpet – and not be left at least slightly agog. It’s a nonverbal, nonsensical chorus that’s not exactly a chorus, yet is somehow a flawless chorus—effervescent, unexpected, profuse.”

So for lovers of that, I’d recommend this – Domino backed by the Byrds on The Barry Richards Turn On Show (such a title!), one of a number of “free form” TV shows that were on local UHF TV stations around America in the late Sixties. Start at 7 minutes 30 seconds to see Fats teach the Byrds “Walking to New Orleans”. He tells Roger McGuinn to play the two notes that start the song. “No… staccato. Just hit ’em…” and then, satisfied that they at least vaguely understand him, he leads them into the song. Skip Battin (I guess) on drums and Chis Etheridge (I guess again) on bass try to fit into the rolling groove of Fats’ piano, and Clarence White moves over and plays the answer lines back to Fats… “That’s it, three chords, no bridge… no solo”. Fats looks momentarily worried when the tv director asks him if they’re ready to do a take, before Barry wanders back into frame to introduce the song, snapping his fingers to denote that he’s with it. Fats continues the rehearsal until Skip’s got inside the rhythm, then says: “We ready!”

Barry: “Here’s Fats Antoine Domino in a jam with the Byrds, the Byrds, and F– ” at which point Fats cuts him off and starts singing “I’m walking to New Orleans”, the camera shot tight on his extraordinary face. But they’d never rehearsed the ending – after the third verse it trucks along with Fats humming a lovely phrase over and over, while Clarence and Skip answer him before he draws it to a close with a raised arm and a shambling blues ending. It’s really, well, sweet is the only word…

THREE IF YOU’VE GOT TWENTY MINUTES TO SPARE…
Watch Undeniably Donnie, a film about Donny “Flipside” Fritts, whose album from 2015, Oh My Goodness, this short film was made to promote. Kris Kristofferson supplies the narration (“Every morning his hands draw close to the keys of his Wurlitzer piano”) to a wistful and touching portrait of one of the great backroom boys of Alabama music. Known as the Alabama Leaning Man in honour of his totally laidback style – “I’ve only seen him run twice…” says Kris, before adding, “the truth is I’ve never seen him run…”. John Prine, who often recorded in Muscle Shoals, sums Donnie up: “It’s like when you see a character in a movie, and you just feel really close to that one character as the plot develops – usually it’s not the, y’know, main person in the film, it’s a character actor, y’know – and Donnie’s a living, walking character actor…”

FOUR BILL FRISELL: A PORTRAIT

5-frisell richter
On Sunday, I’m hoping that I can get back to the city in time to go to the first London showing of the above film by singer and filmmaker Emma Franz. I’m always transfixed by Bill Frisell’s playing, whether he’s creating soundscapes and atmospherics, or modestly laying out a simple effects-free melody line from an ancient song that speaks to him. His touch is so delicate, yet so intense. If you feel the same way, then there are still some tickets left for the showing at the Curzon Soho this Sunday, November 5th, at 3pm.

Here’s Emma on Bill: “My own life experience includes many years having worked around the world professionally as a musician. I had long been an admirer of Bill Frisell’s music, as he seems to encompass everything that fascinates and excites me about music. In his music, there is individuality and universality, technique and simplicity, diversity, intensity and depth, and the sense of adventure of a child. Bill Frisell has already left a unique stamp on music, been artistically successful and critically acclaimed, yet remains an eternal student; humble, open-minded and constantly self- challenging.” I really like the idea of a musician making this film, and following Bill across his wide-ranging musical life. He’s been quoted as saying: “She got at something that I don’t think anybody’s ever [captured] – you know, it’s about the process, or whatever it is that I [go through]. I felt like you could actually see that.”

FIVE LOREN CONNORS AT CAFE OTO

5-loren2On a screen in a small music venue in Dalston a film is projected. In it a man shuffles around an apartment, struggling to free a record from its packaging. As he bends over you see a scar from some surgery running up his neck and into his hairline. The music that comes from the record when he drops the needle onto it is distant, ethereal, delicate, and distorted. Appalachian Blues, I wonder? Maybe Widescreen American Western Music? The man shuffles through drawings, hundreds of drawings, and hundreds more photocopies. He lays rolls of paint-splashed paper down on the floorboards of an apartment as the ghostly sounds play. That’s my introduction to Loren Connors’ world. The film is, appropriately, called Gestures. Then Connors walks on stage with a cane and a three-quarter sized student model Stratocaster (a Squier Mini, Fender’s diffusion line), sits down and starts a swirling, shifting piece. I’m transfixed. He builds walls of sound and then coaxes up tiny notes that sit on top, all the while using minimal chord shapes and flickering fingers to brush the strings. At times it’s angry and buzzing, but the impression I’m left with is a subtle and mesmerising beauty.

I’m there with Calum. I was saying that I’d never been to Cafe OTO, so Calum kindly gets us tickets for something coming up that he thinks I’d enjoy, and he’s spot-on. He last saw Connors years ago, when his hair was long and draped over his face when he played. Now he looks like one of Christopher Guest’s ensemble players, straight out of A Mighty Wind or Best in Show. At some point in the 45 minute performance, Loren’s partner, Suzanne Langille, starts reciting  a Keats ballad – La Belle Dame sans Merci – “And this is why I sojourn here/Alone and palely loitering/Though the sedge is withered from the lake/And no birds sing.” It’s alternately beguiling and creepy, which is, I think, its intended effect. It ends to wild applause. Loren sits back down, plays for another minute (an encore?) and that’s it. Brilliant.

5-loren

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Friday, October 27th

ONE “THE FURNACE RANG WITH A THOUSAND GROANS”
I’m not going to mention the Dylan play anymore (I’ve learned my lesson) but, in one of those strange coincidences, as I got into the car – but prior to finding Bryan Ferry’s fabulous version of “Hard Rain” on my phone – I checked my email. There was a note from Michael Gray, Legendary Professor of Dylan. We hadn’t been in touch for at least nine months, so it was amusing that he emailed at that precise time.

5-skiffleHe was kindly pointing me to an Australian review of a new compilation album that features the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group doing “Down Bound Train”. I always assumed that Ken, Alexis, Lonnie and the gang’s gently percolating tune was based on an old “Casey Jones” style trad song. I was wrong. It was written by Chuck Berry. And thus Ken became the first British artist to cover a Chuck Berry song. Before the Beatles. Before the Stones. Which seems somewhat amazing. I can only assume that their blues antennae were set for Chess Records because of Dixon, Waters and Wolf, and somehow in early 1956, flipped Chuck’s “No Money Down” to listen to the B-Side.

TWO “SULPHURIC FUMES SCORCHED THEIR HANDS AND FACE”
Wikipedia tells us that “Down Bound Train” was inspired by Berry’s fire and brimstone religious upbringing. Both his parents were staunch Baptists and sang in the Antioch Church Choir, which rehearsed at his home. “It is a song about redemption and a warning against alcohol abuse. A man who has too much to drink falls asleep on a barroom floor and has a vivid dream about riding a train, which is driven by the Devil himself. When the man wakes up he renounces the demon drink. It’s one of the first rock records to employ a fade-in and fade-out.” Chuck’s version is hotter and hipper than Ken’s, for sure, and features a fine vocal and a great lyric:
“The passengers were most a motley crew,
Some were foreigners and others he knew,
Rich men in broadcloth, beggars in rags,
Handsome young ladies and wicked old hags…”
But the topping is the fabulous galloping guitar he plays throughout, which leaps forward from the backing for a couple of rhythm solos. [Listen in the audio player to the right].

THREE “THE STRANGER AWOKE WITH AN ANGUISHED CRY”
Listen to this“Respect” from A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and tell me if it doesn’t strike you as totally redundant…

FOUR “WIDER AND WIDER THE COUNTRY GREW”
Also, please help me to understand this Bang & Olufsen advert in the latest John Lewis magazine: “The AW17 Collection (this Autumn/Winter, I get that at least) embraces that magical slice of time where everything just falls into place. Crisp, lilac sunrises, grey city skyline days, rich brown dusks and violet nightclub vibes – all set in the unique landscape of Japan”. I think we’re talking about tiny speakers.

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FIVE “AND THE PRAYERS AND VOWS WERE NOT IN VAIN”
A letter to The Guardian that was bang on…
Sincere thanks to Laura Barton for her excellent review of Bruce Springsteen on Broadway (13 October). Rich in insights while devoid of cliche, her warm perceptive report conveyed much of the intimate feeling of being there, sensing that it was something special and exceptional. The accompanying monochrome portrait was exactly right, capturing the man’s essential humanity. Ms Barton, as ever, selects each phrase with care: “We’re not at the theatre any more.” With that, she has told us everything. I have to cope with never getting a ticket, but great reporting.
Irvine Stuart
Dorridge, West Midlands

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Extra: Girl from the North Country

NOT FARGO, FARRAGO
I decided to spend an afternoon traveling in the North Country fair but sadly wished that I’d never taken leave of London Town. (To see what prompted my going, see Five Things Extra: That Dylan Play, where two friends with opposing views write about it).

Honestly, upfront I have to say that there’s more nuance and depth of character in a silent movie than there is in Girl from the North Country. Yes, I speak as a slightly reluctant attendee, but not because I was proprietorially feeling How dare they… or snottily assuming critical feelings about a work in another medium purloining Bob’s songs to its own ends. I’m not even sure that I would have been offended by Ben Elton scripting a play based around these songs, as he had done for Queen. And – also honestly – the music, arranged by Simon Hale, is delivered beautifully, with sensitive guitar, piano, bass, and fiddle accompaniment that manages to mostly stay away from a Mumford hoedown, and deliver true heft behind some good singing.

But, dramatically speaking, well… Nothing here made me feel that the writer, Conor McPherson, had any understanding of these people and their problems in this small midwestern town. The plot seemed laughably dated, cobbled together from offcuts of Steinbeck, O’Connor, and O’Neill. Slow-witted lunk? Check. Old rich man who thinks money can buy him the love of a poor but pretty girl? Check. Con man masquerading as a bible salesman? Check. Boarding-House owner with debts and a mistress? Check. Black convict trying to escape… I could work my way through the cast, but you get the drift.

There’s an almost offensive use of dementia as a dramatic device, with Shirley Henderson having to play the afflicted wife of Nick, the Boarding House owner. From the back of the stalls she looks too young (even if she isn’t in life) and plays her as a sexually incontinent, gratuitously swearing Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Really. Bits of business at the boarding house ( in a variety of clunky American accents) get interspersed with musical moments that are meant to round out character and story, but for every line that fits, there are two that seem tangential or just plain weird. “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (with its mention of “that little Minnesota town”) work at the start, but “Señor” (“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”) seems to carry a heavier apocalyptic load than these flimsy characters can bear.

And while it was great to hear songs from, say, the Empire Burlesque period, where Dylan’s own versions have weak or unlistenable production, some decisions didn’t come off. Especially in the case of “I Want You”, sung in counterpoint to a reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Slowing the song’s essential skipping beat to a funereal pace and disastrously over-enunciating the lyrics (Musical Theatre Alert!) rendered those beautiful rolling and tumbling lines (“The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) dead on arrival. It also contained the unfortunate call and response of…
“How does it feel…” (LaRS)
“So bad…” (IWY)

I thought Bronagh Gallagher the most impressive singer (she also played very tidy drums on a few songs) especially on “Sweetheart Like You”/True Love Tends to Forget”, but I found myself more than once involuntarily leaning forward and putting my head in my hands. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the performance so I had to stop myself emitting weary sighs, but by halfway through the second half, I felt my patience being stretched thin, as thin as the dramatic arc of the story.

Thinking about the success of the play (it’s transferring to the West End soon), and the standing ovations at the finale, I wondered if there are people who go to see every musical in the West End, regardless of type. I heard the people behind me say that they must go home and listen to this Dylan guy, and I don’t mention that as a criticism. What I do think is that the bar is set too low if this farrago gets five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian.

As I walked back to my car, I scanned through my iPhone for some music to clear my head. Brian Ferry irreverently blasting out “Hard Rain” fitted the bill as I pulled out from the Cut and onto Waterloo Bridge. When, a few songs later, Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” burst out of the speakers, I pulled over and listened, powerfully struck by the fact that he paints – with shocking detail – a fully rounded and realised story in the three and a half minutes it takes to play out. Dreams, inequality, racism, celebrity, poverty, politics, and violence. All vividly brought to life. Three and a half minutes. The last two and a half hours is just wasted time.

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