Monday, December 21st

Sorry, I forgot the link to Henry “Red” Allen’s red-hot performance. It is now added…

This video, shot by Eric Feigenbaum, for Charles Bradley singing “Changes”.


I was trying to put my finger on why Adele’s “Hello” doesn’t convince, and then Clive James in The Guardian did it for me: “It could be said that Adele is Mama Cass born again, but she needs a song to match her voice. I have listened several times to her smash hit, “Hello”. I was hoping that the shapely beauty of her opening phrase would hook me for what remains of my forever. But the opening phrase never really arrives. The whole number is one of those big ballads in which the singer whispers her way through a verse section that hasn’t got a melody and then goes soaring and bellowing into a chorus section that hasn’t got a melody either. The virtuosity leaves you yawning with admiration. Whitney Houston drove herself bonkers yelling stuff like that, and Celine Dion at full volume puts up such a barrage that she might be part of Canada’s anti-missile defence system. But Adele still has time for better things.”

Through the generosity and efforts of my loved ones I was totally surprised this week by the arrival of The Holy Grail. Nothing to do with Dan Brown – it was the 18-CD Collectors Edition of Vol 12 of The Bootleg Series. It’s an extraordinary object, with facsimile 7-inch vinyl, books of essays and ephemera, original filmstrip of a release print of Don’t Look Back, and more Dylan than you can shake a stick at.

I’ve barely started on the box set itself, as Columbia decided that – if you’d bought it – they’d give you the Christmas gift of all Dylan’s live shows from February to December 1965. So positive tsunami of songbytes streamed down to my mac. Of note so far: 1) the erroneous iTunes info that the Royal Albert Hall is in Manchester (!). 2) the chance to play “Compare the Drummer!” as Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl have Levon Helm (with Harvey Brooks on bass), the Berkeley Community Theatre has Bobby Gregg, and the previously issued 1966 UK tour has Mickey Jones. Me, I love the sledgehammer that was Mickey, pushing and goading both band and singer onto ever more fantastic heights. 3) the chance to hear “Positively 4th Street” played live in fairly decent audio at Berkeley Community Theatre with Bobby Gregg on drums. 4) as far as I know, the only acoustic version that exists of “Tombstone Blues” – feeling like a cousin to “It’s Alright, Ma” – recorded live at the Contemporary Songs Workshop at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival. The audience are so hip that they actually laugh in all the right places.

River was the most intriguing detfic of the year, as visually striking as London Spy, only way, way better (coherent, grounded, not in love with itself, didn’t filtch an ending from Thelma & Louise). River’s epicentre was a powerful Zapruder-like sequence of the shooting that triggers the story – endlessly replayed in an attempt to discern any clues hidden within it. Its co-star, the excellent Nicola Walker, was asked by The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage if she has a clause in her contracts that she has to sing in all her shows (she sings in both River and Unforgotten, the other policier that she was the lead in, most memorably Tina Charles’ “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’”):
“Yeah, that’s just what I do now. I turn up and I say: It’s very important that I sing 1970s disco hits. Wasn’t that weird? Things like that, you don’t really think about when you’re doing the job, and then they both come out together. I’m not a singer, but I enjoyed it because Stellan (Skarsgård)– even though he was in Mamma Mia – makes a great deal of the fact that he’s not a singer. He’s very good at making you feel like you can do anything.”

One of the things I most enjoy about writing Five Things is the chance discoveries made when I’m checking spellings or dates. You always learn something new, or find some compelling performance. I was sent a scan of a Christmas card that trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen sent years ago, by Tony Standish, an Australian book seller and old friend of the family. And, as is the way of these things, came across this amazing performance from a 1964 Jazz625 with Alex Welsh’s band. Henry starts by listing great New Orleans musicians over a comping piano and walking bass – “I was there with ’em, I couldn’t miss ’em, my father had the band, Henry Allen Snr, New Orleans!” before launching into a blistering “St James Infirmary”, the song Dylan leaned on when he wrote “Blind Willie McTell”. Check the stance, legs tensed as he takes a short break, and the section where he just hollers St James! three times. Actually, the whole vocal is terrific, as is his long solo – avoiding most of the usual clichés – and when the song comes to an end, he just shouts and starts it up again. Then after a shared round of solos it ends again, only to have Henry conduct the band to vamp as he tops it off with a terrific bit of long-note showmanship.


2 [Brief] Things, Friday, December 11th



The last time Bob asked someone to write a song with him, I seem to remember it was Michael Bolton or Diane Warren, but I could be wrong…



My neighbour Carlton asked me to restring and cleanup this guitar that he’d been given. He’d seen my rather odd collection of guitars and figured I was the man for the job. The jury’s still out on that one, but I’m promising (or threatening) to record a Christmas Carol on it next week. At one time, Ry Cooder would have given his eye teeth to get his hands on this little treasure.

A proper Five Things next week, along with an End of Year roundup.

Tuesday, December 1st


Johnny Rivers, LA Reggae. I had this record back in the seventies, bought for its sleeve concept, and his version of version of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,”. I found it recently in the excellent Wood Street market in Walthamstow. The vinyl inside is still interesting, and as cover records go, still sounds good. The Wrecking Crew provide the backing, with Jimmy Webb on piano, and the guitars of Dean Parks and Larry Carlton are both to the fore, guitar fans. Rivers, originally from Louisiana, had an LA-based career playing mostly covers of r ’n’b and pop songs. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Rivers is one of a small number of performers including Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here onward), Queen, Genesis (though under the members’ individual names and/or the pseudonym Gelring Limited) and Neil Diamond, who have their names as the copyright owner on their recordings (most records have the recording company as the named owner of the recording).” Anyway, back to the sleeve… as a graphic tool, the Kodachrome 35mm slide has been a long-time favourite of designers, and was totally suited to the age of the 12-inch record, and is beautifully done here – try doing that with a CD or download (I know, I know, please ignore me, all under 35s reading this).

“Glass Harmonica refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. When Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) invented a mechanical version in 1761, he called it the armonica, based on the Italian word armonia, which means “harmony”. The unrelated free-reed wind instrument aeolina, today called the “harmonica”, was not invented until 1821, sixty years later.” So – watch this and weep. “Hallelujah” played on a glass harmonica. Amazing. And to top it all off – at one point, terrifyingly, he jogs the whole table to get a vibrato effect.

I dropped in for one event at this celebration of Punk Rock at St Martin’s, to see Clinton Heylin and John Ingham talk about punk year zero, art schools and DIY with Keith Levene of PIL. What I took away from this was that no two people remember any thing or any event the same way, and this happened to fuel the most amusing bits of the chat, Levene being ever so slightly catty about Clinton’s misreading of the name of Joe Strummer’s first band, the 101ers (Clinton calling them theonehundredandone-ers). I don’t even trust my memories of the period, although my pal Mark has a much better recall of the time in 1976 when the Pistols played their third gig (was it the third? Maybe) at our art school refectory. I recall Johnny Rotten looking like a young Donald Sutherland, but Mark remembers much more pertinent details – the fact that some people got it, like our friend Jill Tipping, and some of us didn’t. As Mark said, if you didn’t get it, it was terrible – to feel too old at twenty one!

Has to be this find, in a great store filled with football and music memorabilia, again in Walthamstow’s Wood Street Antiques City – Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, one of the great music books. I was always a huge admirer of the pithy music and gig reviews in the New Yorker, brilliant at distilling musicians’ USP’s down to a few sentences. The Roxon book is like that, smart and snappy. It’s the first edition (it was later updated and partly re-written by other hands). As my research tool of choice, Wikepedia, says, “her articles about the burgeoning rock scene are now credited as being foundation stones of serious rock writing, and she has since been described by other leading critics as “the mother of rock”. She was friendly with many leading music stars but rarely became personally involved. Although she looked young enough to mix easily with the rock crowd, she was at least ten years older than most of the musicians she wrote about. Unusually for the time, she did not smoke or take drugs and only rarely drank alcohol. These factors, together with her renowned wit, combined to give her writing a degree of ironic detachment that influenced many younger rock writers.”


Anywhere you drop into the book is rewarded with gems, like this.
“Scott McKenzie/He emerged at just the right moment (summer 1967) with his song warning people that if they were coming to San Francisco they would have to be sure to wear a flower in their hair. A long-time friend of Papa John Phillips, he had almost become a Papa, but he didn’t, and the solo albums that followed San Francisco did not do very well. The trouble was he was so closely associated through the song with flower power that it hurt his other singles on other subjects. Besides, a lot of people did go to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair and it didn’t do them a bit of good. They still haven’t forgiven Scott McKenzie”.

Well. I really don’t know where to start. In the beginning, it was Laura Barton who tipped the world (my world, anyway) to the existence of a soulful and raw combo from Athens, Alabama (not Georgia). Their singer, Brittany Howard, a former fry cook and postal worker, had an astonishingly fearless vocal approach and the band avoided a revivalist tag by taking the sounds of the 60s by the scruff of the neck and beating them breathless on the banks of the Tennessee River. Anyway, you know all this. Jordi and I saw them a couple of years back when the hipster chatter attempted, but failed, to ruin the experience.

Having felt a little ho-hum about the new album, and having bought the tickets about nine months ago, I’m not sure how much I was looking forward to the show. Jordi and I decided to skip the support, and the Japanese restaurant we were in felt very warm and comfortable, but as soon as we darkened the doors of the Academy ambivalence disappeared. The one-woman revival show that is Howard enveloped the hall from the first note. Underpinned by her great rhythm playing, the band – added to by an extra keyboardist and three backup vocalists – followed in her slipstream. There are no passengers here, but they have to fight to keep up. Her guitar playing is all grown up and now she takes most of the leads, throttling the neck of her blue pearl three-pickup SG as if her life depended on it. It’s become as important to her as the piano is to Aretha, and the way she controls the ebb and the flow, the tension and release, and the whole quiet/loud/quiet thing is something to behold.

The spirits of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Otis hovered nearby, and this may well be the closest one can now come to seeing any of the great preaching singers who were born in gospel but jumped into r ’n’ b. The individual songs all became part of one hysterical (in a good way) continuum, and I couldn’t tell you what they played, but I could tell you how it felt.

It was the week after the Paris attacks, and the band seemed grateful that people had even turned up to see them. Maybe that added an extra looseness, or a release of relief, to their performance. Everything from the albums were definitively played, and the way the backing singers were worked into the show was clever – sometimes the male vocalist would be the only one on stage, duetting around Howard, other times he’d retreat and the two female voices would punch out the choruses. Towards the end they all surged together like a choir, creating a beautiful gauzy veil with Howard leading them in spirals to the rafters.

It was genuinely thrilling to watch someone push against the limits of both their instrument and the genre of music that they’re working in – Brittany Howard seems engaged in an experiment to find out where she can take that extraordinary voice, and how the music will sound when she gets there. We were just lucky to be along for the ride.

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