Saturday, July 20th

{ONE} LOVING LISBON

Fado – everywhere in the Alfama, Barrio Alto and Chiado districts [click to enlarge]

If you haven’t booked a summer break, here’s a suggestion. There’s a fascinating looking bill at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon from 1-11 August, featuring performances by Marc Ribot, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mary Halvorson and more, working around a theme of resistance and protest. We spent a few days there last week and, with Melody Gardot’s “Amalia” floating beside us, we walked the hills and docks of this most livable city. It’s super-friendly, the food and wine terrific, and the slightly crumbling Southern European vibe is still intact from my last visit 20 years ago.

{TWO} RAPPER BENCH NEWS!

From Popbitch: “A new Eastside/Westside hip-hop beef is emerging – but this time it’s between East Sussex and West Sussex. As we mentioned at the start of the year, a resident of Newhaven, managed to raise £1,500 after getting permission from the local council to erect a park bench in tribute to the late NWA rapper, Eazy-E. Now it looks as if rap fans in Lancing, West Sussex, are firing back. Having flouted council regulations, they have installed an unlicensed memorial plaque to Tupac Shakur on a bench at the Monks Recreation Ground. In what appears to be a deliberate attempt to stoke up tensions, they’ve also scrawled the words “Fuck You, Newhaven” underneath it. It has since been removed, but quite how the proposed renaming of Worthing Pier to “Wu-Tang” Pier will go down is currently anyone’s guess.”

{THREE} GUITARSLINGERS

A Blabber & Smoke interview with Glasgow guitar player Tom Rafferty had this excellently annotated list of his favourite guitarists and his favourite instrumental albums:
Here are ten guitarists who have lifted me up:
Marc Ribot – always surprising, always a left turn, a singular hand
James Williamson – slamming raw power
Tom Verlaine – liquidity
Ry Cooder – floating, yet gritty
Sonny Sharrock (especially Ask The Ages) – rage
Jimmy Reed – swinging sincerity, great heart
Hubert Sumlin – righteous blues
Pops Staples – The Shimmering King, with the deftest touch
Robert Quine – skronk and fury
Earl Hooker – astonishing twang and slide
As for a favourite guitar instrumental album, it’s almost impossible, but here’s a few:
Raybeats – It’s Only A Movie
Link Wray & The Wraymen – Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble (the one with the blue cover, on Charly)
David Torn – What Means Solid, Traveller?
Jon & the Nightriders – Live At The Whisky A Go Go
Earl Hooker – The Genius of Earl Hooker

{FOUR} FRIDAY IN THE PARK WITH BOB

Having watched endless programmes recently where manicured presenters sit in fake rural environments (folksy sets of hay bales, picnic sets, log cabins, looking at you, Glastonbury) I was primed for gushing introductions and dreadful links at Bob ’n’ Neil, but they were notable by their absence. By the time we got to Hyde Park, we were 65,000 strong, but there was still enough space to lay down a picnic blanket. It’s essentially a lovely day out in the park, only minus the ability to buy a drink, unless you queue for 45 minutes. Yep, no food or drink was allowed in – obviously, we sneaked a hipflask of Bob’s Heaven’s Door bourbon in – which would be fine if the queues were short. Having missed Boy Azooga on the undercard, I was interested to see how Laura Marling fared. So we found a place at the base of Delay 7, a huge video screen with in-sync speakers where both the sound and vision were good and settled in.

“Master Hunter”, kicked off her set, and featured great rolling drums, a “Ballad of Hollis Brown” feel and a cheeky “It Ain’t me Babe” reference, but it was hard for her to involve the crowd, who were woozily distracted by the bucolic weather and the carnivalesque atmosphere, by the Artisan Pizza and the Coffee Caravans. They only really responded for the final two songs, both from the excellent Semper Femina, “Nothing, Not Really” and “Wild Fire”. It was fun to watch the British Sign Language signers in the corner of the screen work with Laura’s rather sophisticated lyric style. Their remit includes making the beat of each song apparent through their body language – they were certainly going to find both words and beat easier with Neil.

Signer, Neil, Old Black, picnic blanket

I remember Rob Fitzpatrick writing in Word magazine, about Young’s Americana album: “If you remove the comfort blanket of (in this case entirely unwanted) hero worship for a moment – and I love Neil Young dearly – what you’re left with is a record that no one in their right mind could possibly want to play more than once or twice. There is a great deal to be said for recording quickly and intuitively, but not much for bashing through everything once and then calling it a day.” Well, that’s kind of what Neil does now. He’s found a clodhopping bunch to back him up who make Crazy Horse look like a fine-tooled, precision outfit – the band with possibly the worst name in Rock History: Promise of the Real. Really. Promise of the Real. Who came up with that?

Opening with three identically-paced songs with identical chords (that’ll be our old favourites C, G and D) “Mansion on the Hill”, “Over and Over” (that could have been the afternoon’s motto) and “Country Home”, he then went into “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, and some semblance of melody and structure came to bear. I thought I’d have no problem with a set-list that included this, “Alabama”, “Words”, and “Walk On” but I did. The problem was that everything was leaden. The band were no match for the sifty strangeness of a song such as “I’ve Been Waiting for You”, flattening out the melodies, and on the Harvest selections, two guitarists attempted to replace late steel player Ben Keith and failed. I mean, I lived through pub rock, and it was way better than this. He also played possibly two of his worst songs (“Throw Your Hatred Down” and “Piece of Crap” – don’t tempt me).

As Neil churned out solo after solo on “Old Black” – his faithful ’53 Les Paul – all I could think of was Bill Bailey’s riff on The Edge, where he reveals simplistic note patterns beneath the layers of effects pedals. But Neil was there to worship the guitar as a holy relic and played solos on virtually every song. I mean, he’s very good at his thing, but this performance struck me as indulgent and lazy. At some point during a never-ending “Rocking in the Free World”, I was praying for a power cut. At that point, I could have signed it in BSL… Jesus, it was the song that never died. We were, indeed, “rocking” in some world, I’m just not sure how free it actually is at the moment.

“One time in London I’d gone out for a walk / Past a place called Hyde Park where people talk / ’Bout all kinds of different gods, they have their point of view / To anyone passing by, that’s who they’re talking to…” – Bob Dylan, “T.V. Talkin’ Song”, not one of his finest hours.

A rare shot of four-fifths of Bob Dylan and His Band

Bob came on, and the video screen director had his orders: never don’t have Bob in the frame. And as Bob was behind a piano, this meant the entire show was watched in a static shot, unless he sashayed to centre stage to rock out a little or play some harp. We didn’t see Charlie Sexton or George Recili until the fifth song, a cracking “Can’t Wait”. From the off (“Ballad of a Thin Man”) the band were concentrating on Bob’s hands, especially Donnie Herron, perched high behind him, on pedal and lap steels, whose hair was – literally –blowing in the wind. Occasionally, bassist Tony Garnier would lean into shot, staring at the piano keyboard. At first, Bob sang reasonably straight, but it didn’t take long for the rather mannered swallowing and biting of words to start. I thought it slightly unfair on a less Bob-centric crowd than would be at his own shows and felt it especially on a guttural “Make You Feel My Love”, presumably added to the setlist to claim it back from Ms Adkins. Bob either was smiling a lot or grimacing, it was hard to tell, but our friend Bob got it spot-on when asked how he found him, answering, “Puckish”.

Throughout, the band delivered the usual impeccable standard of musicianship, although soloing was kept to a minimum because Bob was obviously enjoying playing the piano too much to leave many gaps. There was a demented music-box version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and a baffling “Like a Rolling Stone”, close to the waltz-time of his first studio demo of the song in 1965. His latter-day blues obsession also led to a string of rather dull roadhouse blues – “Pay in Blood”, “Early Roman Kings” “Honest With Me”, “Thunder on the Mountain” – which lost some of the audience energy. But it was pretty enjoyable, with a sweet acoustic trio performance of “Girl from the North Country”, a thrilling and febrile “Love Sick”, and a bolero-beat “Gotta Serve Somebody”. We cracked out the bourbon and toasted Bob’s health, and his minstrel’s journey, still travelling the world at 78.

{FIVE} VIDEO OF THE WEEK: BRITTANY HOWARD, “STAY HIGH”.

Filmed in Decatur, Alabama and starring actor Terry Crews (fun fact: Crews considers his first job in the entertainment industry to be a stint as a courtroom sketch artist in Flint, Michigan). It’s a little bit of midsummer magic – my favourite moment comes at 2:15, as Crews mimes “I’m doing wonderful / just fine / thank you”, and the girls he drives past echo, “Thank you!”) in full-on Bobbie Gentry conversational mode.

Lars Gotrich on npr: How did Terry Crews come to appear in the video? Simple. Brittany Howard asked. “I got an email from the Brittany Howard, asking me to be a part of a song she wrote that was all about her dad and how special he was to the family. And she poured her heart out in this letter. I couldn’t believe it,” Terry Crews recalls. “Brittany was like, ‘We can shoot it in L.A.,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m coming to you, we’re going to Alabama. We’re going to where you grew up, to where your family is.”

{DESIGN CORNER} MULBERRY, BOND STREET

Rather lovely vernacular designs for fashion brand Mulberry’s curated and sponsored small gigs.

Wednesday, June 12th

{ONE} A FEW THINGS ABOUT MARTIN SCORSESE’S NETFLIX FILM, “ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY
“It was more fun than the law allows, by a long shot. There were genius writers everywhere. It was a bus full of musicians and singers and painters hurtling through the night fueled by White Russians and other things, making a movie, writing songs and playing – on those evenings when we got the mixture right – some of the most incendiary, intense and inspired rock’ n’ roll, before or since. For evidence, please see the version of “Isis.” Check out Dylan’s reading of, “If you want me to, yes.” That was about it for me. That “yes” encapsulated all of it. The joy, the shock, the anger, the lust, the mirth, the bewilderment, the almost derangement of the whole ride.”
– T-Bone Burnett, one of the Revue guitarists

Watch it, it’s a hoot – brilliant and funny, and you can believe what you want to. Think back to Dylan’s playful press conferences – even now he has the ability to wrong-foot or con the audience, he’s just doing it here with Scorsese’s help. It makes no difference if the Sharon Stone bit is invented, or the Argentinian filmmaker doesn’t really exist. If you remember Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s political mockumentary, Tanner ’88, then the politician interviewed about Dylan’s closeness to President Jimmy Carter won’t be a surprise. It’s safe to say that no conventional film studio would have gone for this, but that’s what Netflix brings to the table. So here are a few great moments from Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.

1 “Isis”. Scarlet Rivera’s limo driver says that he’d never really been to a rock show, before noting that the relationship between those on the stage and those in the audience was like “one battery charging another”, a neat way of conveying the excitement felt by the audience at being in such intimate spaces seeming to spur on the performers to reach some kind of ecstasy. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the mighty performance of “Isis” captured here, transformed from a rather plain, loping, piano-driven tune to an excessive, expressive romp. With no guitar (a Patti Smith inspired move) Dylan in white-face makeup gives it the full David Bowie (while, amusingly, Mick Ronson struts and solos behind him).

2 Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg went from being part of the first shows to being bumped off-stage as the running time needed to be cut, by a lot. He continues on tour, hilariously reading Kaddish to a group of mahjong-playing women, who just happened to be in the same hotel as the Revue (they’re then treated to Dylan and band romping through “Simple Twist of Fate” in an almost “Pub Singer” style). What’s great about Ginsberg is that when the camera alights on him, he sums up what’s happening and what it may mean, in gorgeous poetic sentences.

3 “Like stations in some relay…” Among the extraordinary Bob performances nestles something equally stunning. We’re at Gordon Lightfoot’s house in Toronto, walking up darkened stairs before being ushered into a living room. Seated with guitars are Roger McGuinn, Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Joni proceeds to teach them the chords sequence that she wants them to play. When she’s satisfied that they’re not going to fuck it up, she starts… “No regrets, Coyote / We just come from such different sets of circumstances / I’m up all night in the studios / And you’re up early on your ranch…”

She delivers it drop-dead perfectly. She’s just written it about Sam Shepherd, who’s along for the ride to write a film that’s being shot as the tour winds its way up the Northeast coast of America. “I’m up all night in the studios / And you’re up early on your ranch / You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail / While the sun is ascending / And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel…” He was invited to join up, so he dropped what he was doing (setting up a horse ranch in California, since you ask) and caught a train (won’t fly, not since “Mexico, 1963”) to New York. If you like the film, his Rolling Thunder Logbook is a great companion piece.

4 Turning 180º from the big-boned performances and the blustery stadiums of Tour ’74, where even the acoustic performances are bellowed, here, in the gipsy caravan of RTR, “Mister Tambourine Man” is given a beautiful reading, every line caressed and shaped and caught in amazing close-up by David Myers’ lens.

5 The whipcrack of Howie Wyeth’s snare in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. Wyeth and bassist Rob Stoner (the MD of the whole shebang) are the MVPs of the Revue, providing a brilliant rhythmic and melodic platform for everyone to swan-dive off. Stoner does outrageous melodic walks up and down the neck while never missing an accent or a root note to anchor everything again. Wyeth, a student of orchestral percussion, plays the songs, commenting on the lyrics as he goes. In Sam Shepherd’s words, “Wyeth’s jackhammer drums are splitting the four-four time into smithereens. He has a right hand that’s not to be believed. It comes down on the accent and then plays half a dozen little cluster strokes in between striking two or three cymbals for added color. A drummer like this usually goes totally unnoticed, since he lacks the obvious flash of the more athletic types – Howie sits there like he’s driving a ’58 Impala, cruising down the highway.” Joni Mitchell intended to visit for one show, but stayed for the remaining 15, partly because, she said, “Howie Wyeth’s soul is so beautiful.”

The end titles list every gig, by years, that Dylan has played since the Revue’s tours. It’s astonishing…

{TWO} EAZY DOES IT
It seems that the Eazy-E bench in Newhaven [for the earlier story go here] is not an unalloyed hit. But it has produced a classic local paper story. The Argus reports.

One angry resident said he was “truly shocked and outraged” by the decision to allow the bench. William Bartoli told the council: “You are all responsible for polluting our cherished town. I would have applauded Guy Stevens’ interest, and hard work in raising the funds, until I discovered it was a shrine to a drug-dealing rapper whose many song titles included ‘F*** the Police’.” He raged: “Would I get permission to have a memorial bench for Jimmy Savile? I think not.”

In response, Councillor Pinky McLean said that the bench was “a project of passion from a local taxpayer. Although we may not agree with lyrics that this American man wrote, there are many music legends who have not lived a truly wholesome life and recorded songs and lyrics that offend. But they are just humans. Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright was too. He was just a man who has been remembered on a bench and, while not everyone’s cup of tea, made many, many people happy.”

Mr Stevens, who campaigned for the bench, said: “I’d encourage everyone to get a bench of a dead rapper in their town.” Unveiling the bench, Town Mayor Amy said: “I would like to see a John Lennon bench – that was more my era. After looking up Eazy -E on the internet, I am now an expert on gangster rap. His LP Straight Outta Compton was rated as one of the best ever made, and for me, that’s fascinating, because I didn’t have a clue who he was.”


{THREE} LEE KRASNER
Thanks to Caroline and Bill, we went to the opening of Lee Krasner: Living Colour. “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.” It’s a great show, especially the early-to-mid work that the brutalist Barbican space really suits. When MoMa had an exhibition of the paintings of her husband, Jackson Pollock in 1998, they released a CD of music drawn from the Jazz 78s found in his studio. As it’s 2019, The Barbican has made a Spotify playlist for Lee, and it’s very cool.


{FOUR} THERE’S A LOT OF TALENT OUT THERE…

The ingenuity of folk knows no bounds – here’s four people with a strange band name (Walk off the Earth), some loose change, drinking glasses and giant handbells, playing my new favourite song, Lil Nas’ “Old Town Road.”


{FIVE} B.B. KING – LIFE OF RILEY
A sombre, serious portrait that ends up being less celebratory than it could be, and more melancholy. It’s on Netflix now, and beautifully directed by Jon Brewer, but I felt it needed less of the talking heads and a few more of B.B.’s milestone performances. One nugget, though, was an interesting story about his aversion to playing acoustic guitars. Eric Clapton had asked B.B. to make an album with him (2000’s Riding With the King)…

Eric Clapton: I thought the best thing to do – we’ll go into the room with a couple of guitars and see what comes out…
B.B. King: I said, “Whatever you think is good we’ll try it”, and we did, and he was right, except trying to make me play acoustic – I didn’t like that… [laughs] I had been cut all to pieces by a guy called Alexis Korner. Alexis Korner said, “B, I got two Martin guitars, acoustic guitars and I got an idea for something called “Alexis Boogie”, so let’s try it…” Boy, when we started recording, he just cut me to pieces. I said, I’ll never play another [acoustic] as long as you’re alive [laugh] and I didn’t! I promised I wouldn’t do it again, but now Alexis is dead I’ll try it. And Eric did the same thing, cut me to pieces!

Ten Things, Friday, March 15th

{ONE} NO MORE AUCTION BLOCK FOR ME
Very few guitars owned by Bob Dylan have ever come up for auction – the last one I can find was his 1963 Martin, played from the late 60s to 1977, most notably at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. That went for $400,000. This week sees the auction of his Fender XII twelve-string. Sending a press video link to me, Richard points out the hilarious voiceover. For a start, it isn’t a key Dylan guitar at all. Heritage Auctions put up a picture of Dylan playing it in the studio, saying, “the 12-string instrument was used to record the double LP Blonde on Blonde – it is believed to be one of the best albums ever released and may rewrite music history when it crosses the auction block March 16 at Heritage Auctions.” Errr, probably not. Those pictures of Dylan in the studio with the XII are captioned as being from the Highway 61 sessions on Fender’s own website. More important is the fact that no electric 12 string appears on any Dylan tracks from 1965 (unless I just haven’t dug through the 18 CDs of The Cutting Edge forensically enough).

Bob’s mint guitar, in the studio with it, and the 1969 Fender catalogue

The hyperbolic narration ends with… “this piece could very well be the ultimate Dylan guitar – it is definitely one of the most important guitars of the 1960s, and popular music history for that matter…” No, no, and no. It’s not the storied Stratocaster he played at Newport in 1965 (the only other guitar of Bob’s that’s come up for auction, going for $965,000, although that authentication was controversial), which maybe fits the bill. His Greenwich Village Gibson, possibly. His small-bodied Blood on the Tracks Martin, again, maybe. But not this, a Fender publicity opportunity gift, that looks to be in unplayed condition, that may not feature on any of Dylan’s released music.

nb. I’ve always liked this eccentric guitar, probably since seeing Tim Buckley play one (I certainly liked the guitar more than I liked Tim Buckley). The Electric XII used the offset Jazzmaster/Jaguar body allied to what became known as “the hockey stick” headstock. Jimmy Page used his 1965 Electric XII on the arpeggiated rhythm guitar parts in “Stairway to Heaven” and as a drone on “When the Levee Breaks.”

{TWO} THE GEORGE MICHAEL AUCTION
Michael tells me that I should see the show before the auction happens, so I hotfoot it to Christies at St James, arriving at the back of the building to see Damien Hirst’s vitrine of a bull’s carcass pierced by lances (Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, 2007). The piece was too heavy to get into the main exhibition space, so had been left in a loading bay with some disco lights and a music player. It is playing Michael’s rather glossy and antiseptic version of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Suitably off balance, I head round to the front. This is some show, room after room filled with giant blow-ups of George, video screens and mad outfits from video shoots, and George’s collection of the art of the YBA’s (with other artworks also).

The cover image for Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is projected onto the staircase

The stages of George’s career are rather portentously spelt out in panels around the main staircase – “So, on 24th November 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, George Michael chose to publicly declare the beginning of a new era of his own…”

The wildly impressive staging…

It is excessive and fun, but diverting too – his taste leans towards the glib and glossy, very surface-driven, but one man’s art and all that… and I guess if you’re rich, like art and have the wall space then this is what you do.

Giant video screen, prop from video shoot

{THREE} THE GREATEST SIDEMAN
When Hal Blain’s third edition of his life story was published in 2010, it carried the fabulous subtitle, The Story of the World’s Most Recorded Musician. In Art Garfunkle’s words, “If music in the second half of the 20th Century were the Empire State Building, Hal Blaine would be the ground floor.” Blaine was an arranger as much as a drummer, and for a gilded period was on more hits than almost any other musician. The book’s a good read, especially where Phil Spector is concerned…

“Phil had a way of holding me back while the band rehearsed. I felt like a racehorse who wants to run as soon as the gate opens and Phil, the jockey, would rein me in until we were coming around the clubhouse turn, heading for the final stretch. When the right take materialized, he would start his incredible gyrations in the booth, running from one side of the glass to the other, looking at key people during crucial moments like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. He would conduct with one hand asking for loudness, while the other hand was directed at another section calling for quiet. Then he would give me that magical look that meant only one thing – Go! And we would both go crazy, me doing fills that were total lunacy. I would do eighth-note and 16th-note fills during a shuffle, and vice versa!”

“We would rehearse for hours and hours, and no one could even go to the toilet for fear of moving a mic. Finally, after endless run-throughs, Phil would call a “ten” and scream, “Don’t touch the mics!” And no one did. I clearly remember how carefully we would all get up, twisting our bodies and moving delicately. Phil had positioned the mics himself, and the placement was sacred. Like ballet dancers, we would step around the mics and over the cords strewn all over Studio A. The heat was incredible. There was no real air-conditioning in those days… we used to say that the flies buzzing around the Gold Star were getting as large and as famous as us musicians!”

{FOUR} THE LAST BLUESMAN
David Remnick writes a fine portrait of Buddy Guy (cool playlist included, too) in the New Yorker. He’s following Buddy around his house while a Gumbo cooks on the stove: “Guy took me around the house to give the flavours, as he said, time to “get acquainted.” There were countless photographs on the walls: all the musicians one could imagine, family photographs from Louisiana, grip-and-grin pictures from when he was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Bush White House and from the Kennedy Center tributes received during the Obama Administration. (Obama has said that, after Air Force One, the greatest perk of office was that “Buddy Guy comes here all the time to my house with his guitar.”)

An enormous jukebox in the den offered selections from pop, gospel, rock, soul. “I listen to everything,” Guy said. “I’ll hear a lick and it’ll grab you – not even blues, necessarily. It might even be from a speaking voice or something from a gospel record, and then I hope I can get it on my guitar. No music is unsatisfying to me. It’s all got something in it. It’s like that gumbo that’s in that kitchen there. You know how many tastes and meats are in there? I see my music as a gumbo. When you hear me play, there’s everything in there, everything I ever heard and stole from.”

{FIVE} R.I.P., MR PARALLEL FOURTHS…
One of the finest guitar sessioneers ever died recently, the man responsible for some of the greatest fills in Southern Soul – Reggie Young, guitarist at both Muscle Shoals and American Studios in Memphis. From a 2013 interview:
Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
“Well, I was listening to this guitar solo on the radio in ’78, and I said to myself, “I can play a better solo than that guy.” Then I realized it was me!
I decided then that I needed to slow down. I was doing two, three, four sessions a day and I’d stay after the sessions were over and overdub harmonies or whatever had to be done. Then I’d be pushed for time to get to the next session…
Have you had any unusual calls?
Steve Jordan (the session drummer) asked if he could give my number to someone. I said, “Sure,” and a couple of days later Steven Segal called me. He was very nice. He kept saying, “My brother” (laughs). Well, he asked if I was interested in doing a benefit and I said I was, then he said I needed to be in Korea on Tuesday (laughs)! I told him that I couldn’t be there, but I gave him Tony Joe White’s number!”

{SIX} A FILM RECOMMENDATION!
I saw a preview at the end of last year (thanks, Hedda!) of Wild Rose, with Jessie Buckley playing a mouthy, car-crash Glasgow girl desperate to get to Nashville to be discovered. It should be a disaster of cringe-worthiness I know, but it neatly sidesteps most of the pitfalls (except for a cameo by Bob Harris that put one in mind of Graham Hill in Grand Prix). A typically excellent performance by Julie Walters helps, as does the fact that Jessie can really sing. She’s backed by a band of grizzled musos – Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham are there, as is Sam Amidon’s drummer, Chris Vatalaro – some decent songs, and a storyline that dials down the fairytale so as to not overshadow the realism. I loved it.

{SEVEN} BREATHLESS, NOT TOPLESS
That New York Herald Tribune knit shirt worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless? Now available here

{EIGHT} IF 5 THINGS HAD A RADIO STATION…
It would sound something like this, but probably not as well-compiled and eclectic: Graham Lovatt’s latest incarnation, at Completely Sound, with the excellent tagline, Music from all directions.

{NINE} IS THIS THE GREATEST…
photo in Jazz History? A quiet Sunday night in 1953. The Dodgers had just won the pennant. J.F.K. and Jacqueline Bouvier had just married. And four titans of bebop came together in a dive bar for a rare jam session. Read it at the New York Times.

{TEN} THE RBP PODCAST
The day ended and began with Giorgio Morodor. Doing some homework on Sigue Sigue Sputnik prior to appearing with Barney and Mark I listened to their hit single from 1985, “Love Missile F1-11”, and found that Moroder produced it, a fact I had not known. Their tagline – “We invented the future” – was never destined to last, and their schtick now looks quaint. And they last updated their website in 2015, so not really covering the “future” bit, lads. Part Adam & the Ants, part Sweet, it’s rockabilly strapped to an Autobahn rhythm. Still, it was fun to talk about their journey from Moroder to Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and then I got to quote Greil Marcus on Curtis Mayfield.

Someone described it as “bedroom dancing” which was a perfect description of the joyous quality it had

Afterwards, I headed to the other side of town, to Oslo in Hackney with Tim for The International Teachers of Pop. Such a fine name that I went not having heard a note. I did read an interview, however, and it told me that “Sheffield has a great history of drawing out these awkward, gangly weirdoes that make a very British, nay eccentric, kind of pop music that stews in the underground for a few years then appears seemingly from nowhere fully formed, like a very peculiar butterfly.” Spot on. They were terrific, a kind of reverse Human League with the two girls not as backing singers, but as strutting frontmen, and a drummer who laid into the beat with such ferocity and metronomic time that we assumed it was all done with computers. Dry Sheffield wit, pointedly political lyrics, and as they say, “a bona fide 125bpm cuddle for the masses!”

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Thursday, October 4th

I’m glad we got the chance to see Charles Aznavour a few years ago, to hear a master at work. Alan Clayson’s choice of ten Aznavour songs in The Guardian was spot on, although ten wasn’t enough to include “It Will Be My Day” and “You’ve Got to Learn”. Find the latter in the music player on the right. In other news this week, the Theremin has reached the mainstream when Graham Norton has a conversation with Ryan Gosling about it, followed by a demonstration, in which Lada Gaga nailed it. Some part of me wants to see Bradley Cooper and Lada Gaga mixin’ it up in A Star is Born. I’m almost tempted to watch Barb and Kris as homework.

Anyway, tonight, thanks to Mark, it’s Vulfpeck. I have no real idea who they are (I think from Brooklyn. No, I’ve checked – Ann Arbor, neighbour to Detroit, Michigan), I’ve heard precisely four minutes of their music (but I liked it a lot, especially the bass player) and I’m looking forward to, uh, getting down in Brixton…

ONE CHARLES AZNAVOUR AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL
From Five Things, 25th November 2015: Charles used the Judas word at the Albert Hall a little while ago, a couple of weeks after Bob was there. Ninety-one, and strutting around the stage like a fit seventy-year-old, he told us stories from his career, rescued “She” from the cawing clutches of Elvis Costello’s Notting Hill cover, and gave a hundred-minute show to an adoring bunch of fans. ‘You know, if you come to be famous, popular, doesn’t matter if you are a singer, actor or politician or anything else, but known – you know what I mean – a money-maker, you’ll find yourself surrounded by an extraordinary entourage of people trying to be helpful in any way – for example, if they found you in bed with their own wives they would pull the cover over you in case you catch cold… [they are] a parasite, until your success begins to decline. So after you have been squeezed like a lemon, the time will come for them to sell you, betray you, to crucify you. I call this song “My Friend, My Judas”.’ What followed was a staggering cross between Barry White and John Barry, with a side order of Bacharach’s Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid soundtrack. Awesome.

TWO GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME…*
How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb? Ten – one to replace it and the other nine to tell you how Steve Gadd would have done it better.

Weckl, Purdie, Gadd, Paice, Starks & Stubblefield, Earl Young, Steve White. Just a few of the drummers featured in Chris Wilson’s new four-part Sky Arts series, The Art of Drumming, as he crosses continents and genres to talk to the greats. It’s beautifully filmed and full of great quotes. Here’s Earl Young, Philly hero, looking sensational at seventy-eight, on powering Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes: “The pumping bass drum was like a signature, but it’s not just the bass drum. See in the studio, this (points to hi-hat) is the most important feel of a song. Most drummers just use it to keep time, and they worry about this (indicates rest of kit). I worry about this (points to hi-hat), because, to me, this is everything – I hear this as a melody…”

It pays proper homage to New Orleans and the rudiments as it takes us from thrash to jazz. Learn what extreme metal guys owe to Louis Bellson, and let Thomas Lang (Boyzone, The Spice Girls!) blow your mind with his eight-pedal kit. Check your prejudices at the door as Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain talks swing and power: “I’m blessed to play with the best bass player in the world in our genre of music… but I got to be honest, it’s getting harder for me to play that kind of style physically. I’m an old man. I got my railcard last week! Ha!” Bill Ward. Bill Ward of Black Sabbath! Riveting! “I play orchestration-ally. I’m not a very good backbeat drummer… when you play loud and slow music at the same time, there’s just this huge sustaining growl… a wall of sound”, which Bill then goes on to demonstrate vocally.

Bette Midler’s drummer, Daniel Glass, is great on Billy Gussak’s snare bombs on Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” and Earl Palmer’s shuffle variation on Little Richard’s “Lucille”, and Fay Milton of Savages, after playing an extraordinary triplet pattern for the song “The Answer”, tells us that basically, she’s “replicating my own version in my head of what I’m hearing from a sampler from a track that I loved 20 years ago!” Chad Smith of The Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Ian Paice was the first drummer I wanted to play like, so much swing! See, I’m ten years old again!” – is illuminating about Ringo, Bill Ward, and pretty much everyone else mentioned in the programme. Watch as they all play along to iconic tracks while explaining both the mechanics and the soul…

*In “Funky Drummer”, James Brown announces the upcoming drum break, with a request to “give the drummer some.” He tells Clyde Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got…” Stubblefield’s eight-bar unaccompanied “solo”, a version of the riff he plays through most of the song, is the result of Brown’s directions; this breakbeat is one of the most sampled recordings in music.

THREE IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Seen on a bus in Stratford. First, do you think they asked for Lionel’s (or Liooel, as he’ll always be to me) permission? And, second, isn’t Muzmatch just the worst app name that you’ve ever heard?

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FOUR NETFLIX AND CHILLS
More potentially good television. From the press release: An upcoming Netflix docuseries will investigate some of music’s biggest mysteries, including the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley and the murders of Sam Cooke and Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay.

The eight-episode ReMastered will arrive on the streaming service on October 12th with Who Shot the Sheriff?, a look at the role Jamaican politicians and the CIA played in the attempted assassination of Marley, who suffered gunshot wounds to the arm and chest in the incident. The following month, Harlan County U.S.A. documentarian Barbara Kopple co-directs an examination into Johnny Cash’s tumultuous White House meeting with Richard Nixon in Tricky Dick and the Man in Black.

Netflix will stream one new episode of ReMastered every month through May 2019, with the December 2018 episode focusing on Who Killed Jam Master Jay?, the Run-DMC DJ who was killed in a Queens, New York studio in 2002; despite six witnesses, the murder remains unsolved.

Subsequent months bring an investigation into the murder of three members of the Irish group the Miami Showband during the Troubles in Ireland in 1975, the death of Chilean singer Victor Jara at the hands of the Pinochet regime and, in February, a look into the mysterious shooting death of Sam Cooke. ReMastered’s first season concludes with Devil at the Crossroads, about blues legend Robert Johnson and his apocryphal handshake deal with the Devil, and Lion’s Share, about one man’s journey to South Africa to find the true writers behind the hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” ReMastered was created by Emmy award-winners Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist and lists Irving Azoff and Stu Schreiberg among its executive producers.

FIVE BOB CORNER
I usually like Rich Hall and his take on America (from an exile’s perspective), but this promo for his new tour is almost funny (i.e. not funny enough) and pretty mean-spirited. And plain weird to write off everything Bob’s done since 1988, which kinda proves he’s not listening.

Extra! Daniel Kramer’s year with Bob Dylan

Written for Pulp magazine last year.

5-coverBob Dylan: A Year and a Day. Photographs by Daniel Kramer

Edited by Nina Wiener / Art Direction by Josh Baker / Design by Jess Sappenfield
Published by Taschen, hardcover in a clamshell box, edition of 1,965 (cute!)

“In retrospect, it’s clear that Bob was in the process of winding up a very large spring. I didn’t know then 
how much of that spring would be let loose in the coming months.” – Daniel Kramer

On July 20th 1965, Bob Dylan, the star of the Greenwich Village Folk Boom, exploded onto the pop charts. America’s first modern singer-songwriter, Dylan, in the six minutes and thirteen seconds that it took for the epochal “Like a Rolling Stone” to be debuted on US radio, virtually created grown-up rock music. But Dylan’s spectacular reinvention of himself and his music had not just happened overnight – it had been brewing for a while. At the beginning of this astonishing, game-changing period – the like of which had previously been the preserve of fine artists such as Matisse and Picasso – photographer Daniel Kramer found himself, through a mixture of talent, persistence and chance, in the position of recording the highs of an extraordinary year in the life of Bob Dylan.

Having first seen Dylan on Steve Allen’s variety show in February, 1964 (“It was the kind of sound I always liked. It reminded me of a voice from the hills… like a voice that had been left out in the rain and rusted…”) Kramer decided that he had to photograph this performer who was brave enough to play songs about social injustice on a mainstream tv show. He called Dylan’s management: “Naturally I was told Mr Dylan was not available. And so it went. I would call, and they would say no.” Eventually, Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, picked up the phone. “By this time he knew why I was calling. I convinced him that I was a reasonable, completely sane, published, professional photographer. I was caught by surprise when his almost immediate answer was, Okay, come up to Woodstock next Thursday. You can have an hour. Just like that… just like that!”

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So Kramer drove two hours north of New York City on a bright August morning and spent the day following the 23-year-old musician as he read newspapers, played chess, and hung out with Sally Grossman (Albert’s wife) and his own wife-to-be, Sara Lownds. In the early Sixties, Woodstock was still a sleepy burg, a place where Dylan could keep the increasing intensity of life in New York at bay. The pictures are winningly relaxed and goofy, Dylan obviously finding Kramer a copacetic presence, and from that simple beginning, Kramer found himself photographing Dylan on thirty occasions over the next 365 days.

Kramer had come to photography early, aged 14, and later fell into a job working as an assistant at the studio of the fashion photographer Allan Arbus. “His wife, Diane Arbus, also did her darkroom work there – it turned out to be more than just a job. From Allan I learned to manage a studio, work with models, and run the business – and from Diane, I learned to open my eyes a bit wider, to think about my pictures in new ways.” His next gig was assisting Philippe Halsman, legendary Life magazine cover photographer. “From Philippe, I learned how to make light do your bidding, instead of the other way around, and how to choose a decent wine – and that photography could be a great adventure and a pathway to the whole world.”

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From Kramer’s fascinating recollections in the accompanying text, we find that he becomes one of Dylan’s travelling companions. In this role, he’s given both space and time to produce meaningful work. It’s a hallmark of Dylan’s relationships with the producers, musicians and photographers who come into his orbit – once they are admitted, they are allowed to bring their vision with them. Only Alfred Wertheimer on his trips around the country with a young Elvis Presley had such access to a popular star, with similar results – to show the nuts and bolts of the music business and lift the veil at the moment that the cultural plates were shifting.

Listen to any of the session tapes of recent release The Cutting Edge (every single note of music Dylan recorded, complete with false starts and unused takes, throughout 1965, the year of Kramer’s book) and you’ll find that Dylan’s moulding of what’s happening is subtle and understated, only occasionally direct and demanding. And if you met his approval, his world was your oyster. Kramer takes full advantage, producing classic black-and-white reportage backstage, onstage, in cars and cafes.

The book, beautifully laid out, is broken into sections (Woodstock / Town Hall / In the Studio / Bob & Joan / Early ’65 / Forest Hills) by lyrics letterpressed onto heavy matt paper, with Kramer’s excellent narrative set in typewriter, an era-specific evocation of the prevailing technology of the time.

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The sheer size of the book lets you feel that you’re at a really well-curated exhibition, one where the scaling and sequencing of the images are perfectly judged. The detail drawn out of the gorgeous grain of the 35mm Kodak Tri-X film that Kramer used is wonderful, and the book is a much more satisfying way to see these photographs than as individual prints in a gallery.

The colour film that Kramer shot of Dylan, the cover session for Bringing It All Back Home, one of the two albums he would release in 1965 (the other, Highway 61 Revisited, also had a cover shot by Kramer) sits happily at the centre of the book, in a section called “Intermission”. Kramer’s studio shoots (including a meeting at Kramer’s New York studio that would provide the cover for Dylan’s first book, Tarantula) give a break between the reportage either side and show that his earlier experiences in the studio with Arbus and Halsman served him well.

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But first, he needed the persuasive techniques of Bob’s manager to make these shoots happen. After Columbia’s art director, John Berg, refuses to commission the (as he saw it) inexperienced Kramer to shoot the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, Grossman intervenes. “Mr Grossman took us [Dylan and Kramer] to the art director’s office, where he proceeded to make a series of predictions of what bad things would happen [to Berg] if I did not get this assignment.”

Having been present at the recording sessions, Kramer knew that he had to deliver something that related to Dylan’s new direction – and a technique he was working on for a fashion shoot with his 4×5 view camera seemed perfect. It enabled him to make “multiple exposures on one sheet of film while moving, blurring, or keeping sharp parts of any single exposure”, a world away from the fly-on-the-wall 35mm reportage that Kramer had been shooting up to this point.

Arranging Dylan in a room set at Grossman’s Woodstock house, with Sally Grossman draped decoratively on a sofa, Kramer adds elements to make his technique work. “We scoured the house and basement to find things to put in the picture so there would be things to ‘move’ when the camera back was revolved. I wanted to say that Bob Dylan was less a folksinger and more a prince of music. So there in the centre of the turning record is Bob Dylan without an instrument, in this beautiful room, seated with a beautiful woman in a red dress… we were lucky to get one exposure with the cat looking into my lens.” Kramer can’t resist telling us that he and John Berg were nominated for a Grammy Award for best album cover photograph…

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Around this time, a new Dylan snaps into view, as the pages turn from images of joking around with old friends to those of Dylan with an early hero, Johnny Cash. Dylan is about to play one of his last acoustic shows and has morphed from the chubby-faced Chaplinesque troubadour to a more angular and focused presence. Over dinner with Cash, he seems to be burning with a particular intensity, fixing Dan Kramer and Cash both with a piercing gaze.

The next stage is about to begin in earnest, and it will lead to the alienation of Dylan’s loyal fanbase. His artistic horizons are widening to take in Pop Art and filmmaking – from Greenwich Village to the Warhol factory was only a matter of a few downtown NY blocks, but in 1965 it was an artistic chasm. On one side, the gruesomely authentic folksters, on the other, the achingly hip (yet blatantly commercial) scenesters. As Dylan moved inexorably across from one to the other, the air was thick with cries of Sell Out! and worse. Kramer finds himself shooting from the inside out.

A show at Forest Hills with electric backing will plunge Dylan into a maelstrom that the world of rock has rarely seen, as a performer’s desire to follow his muse sees him branded a Judas and pelted with objects. Visually, Dylan’s look begins to assume the sharp outlines of an icon – even in a close-field blur, with Albert Grossman far away in the stands of the Forest Hills stadium, Dylan is instantly recognisable, entering the period where he would be drawn by Milton Glaser as a rainbow-headed visualisation of the grooviness and excitement of the middle sixties.

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And that concert signals the end of Kramer’s travels with Bob. The last shots are of Dylan at one remove from his audience, backlit by blinding spotlights as someone invades the stage, chased by cops. A tour of the US and Europe awaits Dylan, his world accelerating until it culminates in a motorcycle accident that will remove him from the public glare for the following years.

Daniel Kramer moves onto a long and successful career straddling editorial, advertising and motion-picture work, and never photographs Dylan again. And Dylan? Well, he’s still “on the road, heading to another joint…”, not stopping long enough to be pinned down. But we, luckily, have this epic production to linger over, reliving that remarkable year when the times were truly changing.

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The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

Front Cover

He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. Colyer has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and he can write a bit too.”

Wednesday, May 2nd

It was a week of strangeness, a week where Gibson went bankrupt, Bob Dylan turned distiller and Prince had a new song out…

ONE “I’M LIKE A BIRD WITHOUT A SONG”
With some synchronicity, there I was talking about Susan Rogers (see the music player on the right) and Eric Leeds, when she’s interviewed by The Guardian for the release of Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. “One day, he went into a room with a notebook and, within an hour, emerged with the lyrics to “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Rogers, who witnessed many such bursts of creativity, remembers, “The song came out like a sneeze.” As usual, she rolled the tapes as Prince laid down instrument after instrument, mixing and overdubbing in the same session (Eric Leeds overdubbed the sax part three days later).”

It starts for all the world like a Harry Nilsson song, a fairground calliope round punctuated by a percussive dah-dah! Then the vocal starts, a tune you know so well that any deviance from the version you’ve loved since 1990 pulls you up short. There’s an unexpected muscularity as the drums and swooping guitar fly in at the end of the first line. It has that loosey-goosey drumming style that Stevie Wonder had when he overdubbed on top of his own drum parts. (Eddie Hinton was another captain manyhands in this regard – Spotify “Watch Dog”…). It also has a couple of bluesy turns to the melody which really work, and listen to how Eric Leeds’ tenor picks up on that sour/sweetness beautifully. Susan thought the finished song was “exceptional, in his Top 10”. She was right – it’s a masterpiece. Really.

TWO “I BEEN A MOONSHINER…”
As I write this, son is in L.A. attempting to buy a bottle of Bob’s new signature hootch, Heaven’s Door. According to Clay Risen of The New York Times, “the palate opens with a soft cocoa and buttercream note, then sharpens toward black pepper and cigar tobacco. The finish is slightly bitter, with the sweet spiciness of an Atomic Fireball.” Sounds good, Clay. Let’s hope Gabe hits paydirt. It’s occasioned the release of more pictures of Bob in his ironworking studio, along with inspirational quotes…

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…but there’s a cute bit of the Heaven’s Door site that has a random selection of Bob’s original typescripts for songs that reference drink. This one, for “Blind Willie McTell” – bootlegged whisky in his hand – has the fabulous (cut) couplet, “Just me and Betty Grable, trying to stay warm…”

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THREE “DON’T THINK TWICE, IT’S ALRIGHT”
While typing, I’m listening to Verona, the last show of the Dylan European Tour (it’s here) which features heavily re-arranged versions of the entire set-list. There’s an intimate and gentle loveliness to pretty much everything played, like the band are gathered around one mic in a triangle of light. Although it’s all very restrained, there are some neat angles to the melody lines (mainly in the form of unison lap steel/guitar features). The version of “Tangled up in Blue” is very odd, but the American Songbook stuff is gorgeous, “Honest with Me” is given a total Eddie Cochran makeover (quite a lot of the gig has a dawn of R&R feel) and “Pay in Blood” has now become a brilliant kind of Weimar Blues. Bob’s own piano playing is on-the-money, operating at the most eccentric end of his spectrum. The interludes in “Ballad of a Thin Man” – well it’s nothing like you’d expect. The whole band sound like they’re having the damnedest time. Good on Ol’ Whiskey Bob.

FOUR RY COODER TOURS AGAIN, AT SON’S INSISTENCE…
Well done, Joaquin! Of course, The Prodigal Son London date sold out instantly. A shame, as Cadogan Hall would be an excellent venue to hear him and his band of young guns play. I managed to get tickets for the gig at the National Stadium in Dublin, the world’s only purpose-built boxing stadium, built in 1939. Wish me luck. I mean, acoustically it could be fine, I just have my doubts… Oh, and someone put this excellent promo film on YouTube recently: Van Dyke Parks’ first music video production at Warner Brothers Records, in 1970. “I headed up a pioneering office that I titled ‘Audio Visual Services.’ Of those several ten-minute documentary musical shorts, I know of only one that survives – ‘Ry Cooder’”. Dig the pick-up truck and Airstream trailer.

FIVE MORTIFICATION CORNER
I’m at the dentist, around the corner from Selfridges. Across from me, looking at his phone is Toby Jones. Who doesn’t love Toby Jones as an actor? Brilliant in his breakthrough role as Truman Capote in Infamous, marvellous as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous (the story of Stoke City Football Club’s kit-man), and fantastic alongside Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists.

I have a guitar with me, which I never do. I hate carrying a guitar around town. I feel a charlatan. I have it because my sister-in-law, Hedda, has asked me to bring it to that evening’s Mark Kermode in 3D at the BFI, of which she is one of the producers. Not to play, you understand, but as a back-up, in case actor Johnny Flynn can’t bring his to the show. Johnny wrote the theme song for Detectorists, so I’m amused by the coincidence. Dentist visit done with, I head to the South Bank, and to the Green Room. Tonight’s guests are Charlie Brooker of Black Mirror fame, and Jessie Buckley and Johnny, who are there to talk about their new film, Beast.

I’m talking to Mark, who says that Johnny won’t be here for the start of the show, and we work out a bit of business where, as Johnny’s introduced, Mark will ask if anyone has a guitar. Guitar secreted under my seat, that’ll be my cue to hold my hand up and pass it to the front. Hilarity will ensue.

Mark asks if the guitar’s in tune, so I say yes but get it out to check. As I’m doing so, Mark then suggests a run through, and pulling out his harmonica, calls Jessie over, and expects me to play along, with Charlie Brooker and Hedda for an audience. The chords for, yes, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” fly from my head, and Jessie’s lovely voice is left to deal with my all-over-the-shop guitar. Attempting to pull the chords up on the phone is tricky, as the BFI building seems to block 4G signals, but Mark somehow gets them. Not so they fit on a tiny phone screen, however. We go again, there’s much stopping and starting, but it gets the key worked out, warms Jessie’s voice up and allows Mark to sort out the right cross-key for his harmonica.

The show is, as usual, highly entertaining, and Charlie Brooker’s love for the terrifying Magic Roundabout film, Dougal and the Blue Cat, a sight to see. Then Johnny arrives on stage, and he and Jessie try to talk about a film that is almost impossible to without spoiling its taut roll-out of character and tension. Then Mark asks his guests to play a song, and if there’s a guitar in the house. There is. It’s Johnny’s, but no-one’s told Mark so he points me out, and expects me to hand it to him. But I’d been asked to leave mine in the Green Room in case Johnny wanted to familiarise himself with it. And no-one’s told Mark, but it only adds to the rather carnival-esque atmosphere of these shows… All is well, though, and they essay a sweet, skipping version of “Don’t Think Twice”.

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Afterwards, I talk to Johnny about his love of the fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt (listen to the Detectorists theme to check that out), his upcoming live album (and great live albums of the past), Blake Mills’ production of his friend Laura Marling’s Semper Femina (I love how Mills pushed the structures of the music, but he’s not so sure) and his lovely 1934 wooden Resonator guitar (a National Trojan, I think). He’s a lovely guy, great at both things he does, as is the extremely talented Jessie. And, thankfully, I hadn’t seen the excellent Beast before I met them both. That’s all I’m saying.

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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.

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.

Extra: That Dylan Play…

hibbing

IT SEEMS THAT I HAVE TO GO TO THE THEATRE…
…which is not my favourite thing to do. But as two friends have opposite opinions on the play that uses Dylan songs throughout, it’s going to be necessary. [Image above shows Hibbing’s High School, Dylan’s Yearbook picture, Dylan onstage with his first band, The Golden Chords, and North Country Girl Echo Star Helstrom].

So here’s Bruce Millar on Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country:

“The first inkling that something was not quite right came early on, as it became clear that the young female actor (20s, early 30s at a pinch) in the lead role was actually playing an aging woman with dementia – well, at least 60, and we are talking about the 1930s, when that age did make you old. Her husband was, appropriately, my age and similarly gone to seed. I know, this is acting, you suspend your disbelief – but as Tom said, is it really not possible to find a female actor of 60-odd who can sing a bit? They’re always complaining of a lack of roles, but here one comes along on the West End stage and it’s snaffled by a youngster. Anyway, for me the production immediately smacked of the school play, with a teenage Lady Macbeth…

The play itself, set in Duluth (the possibly spurious BD connection – I couldn’t make out any dramatic justification for it), seemed to throw in every cliche of American southern gothic literature – the nutter in every family, the sinister and manipulative Bible salesman, the subterranean sexual passions, the wastrel would-be writer son, the washed-up pro boxer – in a not very stylish or original manner, and a couple of thousand miles north of its proper territory.

And then, in a manner rather too reminiscent of Abba – The Musical, the cast burst into song every now and then. Some of the singing was good, and there was nothing particularly wrong with the interpretations, but it slowly dawned on me that this was a Crime against Art. Recorded or live, these songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are all very precise, but at the same time extraordinarily open-ended; they play on the imagination, suggesting multiple meanings, feelings and depths, in a way that few songwriters have ever achieved so consistently (which is probably why the Nobel committee gave Dylan the literature prize).

Shoe-horned into this derivative drama, each song seemed to have been limited, confined, diminished, flattened and emptied-out; there was no charge, none of the reverberation that I value in the originals. It was strange to hear these great songs transformed into something so small.

Over an interval drink, Tom and I decided to cut our losses and head for Dunkirk instead. I’ve got pretty catholic tastes and am both patient and mean enough to want to get my money’s worth – the last time I walked out of a film or play was 40 years ago (strange how some things stick in the mind). I haven’t seen what the professional reviewers make of Girl from the North Country – I’ll be particularly interested in Ann Treneman’s review in the Times (if she reviews it), given that she is an admirer of Dylan. My prediction is that lazy subs will probably run headlines saying For fans of Dylan only; I would reverse that, but even then advise against going.”

And here’s Mick Gold:

“It’s a funny beast but I recommend it. Twenty songs in search of a play? Stuck in 1934 Duluth with the Eugene O’Neill Blues again? Set in a Depression era rooming house in the city where Bob will be born in seven years time, McPherson’s play floats in a fragmented way on a sea of songs. The good news is the cast and the music are wonderful. Worth the price of a ticket just to see Bronagh Gallagher (of Pulp Fiction fame) play the drums.

When a falsely accused black pugilist enters stage left, you can guess what is coming, but when the inevitable “Hurricane” blows the audience away, it’s done with massive energy. To my ears some outstanding young singers in the cast (Sheila Atim, Arinze Kene). Jim Norton, who did a brilliant job of reading the whole of Ulysses for Naxos discs, plays a seedy old man.

“Jokerman”, “Slow Train”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and many more are all done with great artistry and emotional impact. There was the occasional tear in my eye. If this were a boxing match I’d score it Play 3, Bob 5. But the reason the music is so good is McPherson does have some strange and poignant ideas about not making the songs too obvious. And the rhyming of 1934 Depression-era Main Street USA and 2017 zero-hours UK is convincing.”

Thursday, May 25th

ONE LIL BUCK
Dance is my Cultural Achilles Heel™ but I overcome it to marvel at this, filmed while the Shchukin collection was at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. “I was born in Chicago,” Lil Buck says, “Raised in Memphis, Tennessee…” Well, that’s a blues lyric right there.

5-Lil

“It’s a dance style that started with Memphis underground rap music, and that music, the way it was produced, gave us a certain bounce. When I was around 16 years old I got into ballet. We made a deal with this artistic director that we would teach hip-hop, and they would teach us ballet…” There’s a moment at 2:45 in front of Picasso’s Three Women that is just astounding, but it’s not the locale, or the music, or the amazing art – this would be as strange and beguiling wherever it was performed.

TWO “I WAS HIS PERPETUAL +1”
In the 80s Mark and I went to see, more than once, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, a band that consisted of eight brass players and one drummer. The man on the non-brass instrument was Phillip Wilson. A great drummer, he was equally adept at keeping the band ticking and purring through the buildup of “Saving All My Love for You” as slashing and slapping back at the horns as they riffed violently to the song’s climax. It was a holy noise, great on record but best experienced live. The only other things I knew about Phillip Wilson were that he was involved in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and that he had drummed with the Paul Butterfield Band around the end of the Sixties. This fascinating interview by Ethan Iverson with David Sanborn, the sax player, is about how important Wilson was to Sanborn.

“Through Phillip, I met Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiet Bluiett. Lester was the comedian king: like the wise philosopher of St. Louis but funny and fearless. Phillip and Lester did not discriminate about styles of music. Lester played in a circus band, society gigs, straight-ahead gigs. He played with Jimmy Forrest. He met his wife Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass on a gig with the Clara Ward Gospel Singers. Everyone had a day job except for Lester. Julius Hemphill sold furniture, Oliver Lake worked in the post office, Phillip worked as an arc welder at McDonnell Aircraft. Phillip worked at McDonnell all day, like from six in the morning to three or four in the afternoon, and he might have gone home and slept a bit before playing and hanging all night. Sometimes we would be hanging at like four in the morning and he’d say, ‘I’ve got to go home, change my clothes, and go to work.’”

THREE WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE
I loved this pastel drawing, a forgery passed off as Bob Dylan’s work a week or so ago, but actually a rather great picture of The Band. As Richard Manuel sang “The hoot owl and his song, will bring you along / Where else on earth would you wanna go?”

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FOUR “MY HEAD SAYS NO! BUT MY HEART SAYS GO!”
This NY Times video, by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, is simply people climbing up a Ten Meter Diving Platform and jumping off. The twist is that none of them has ever done it before, and it takes some negotiating, either with friends or themselves, as they build up the courage to do it. And the reason that I’m writing about it is that the editing of the film is so brilliant, and the sounds are as important as the visuals. Tension and release personified – finger clicking, nervous scratching and deep breaths before the screams and the splash.

FIVE SPIRITLAND
Tim and I meet at Spiritland, somewhere that I’ve been meaning to go to since it opened. Then a couple of days later, Oobah Butler on Mr. Hyde wrote a piece on it that perfectly summed up my mixed feelings about it.

“Novelty has become the lifeblood of London. Most new spots open with a sideways glance, crazed gurn and elbow nudge, rather than straight-faced sincerity. But a new hero is bucking the trend: Spiritland, the “listening bar” in Kings Cross that’s “a paradise for anyone from the aficionado to the curious”. It definitely takes itself seriously, from its one-of-a-kind speaker system to DJ sets from big names like Hot Chip and Jarvis Cocker. And that’s great! But one issue: what the hot hell is a listening bar? Dudes in At The Drive-In T-shirts who occasionally look up from their William Burroughs novel to give an appreciative nod? An immersive experience that leaves no room for anything but absorbing tunes? One so intoxicating that it can get you drunk on music? I tried to stay sober on a Thursday night to find out.

Spiritland is tucked away in a ghost town of half-finished apartment buildings, mournful Bella Italias and broad, empty streets. It’s a diverse crowd, but everyone has one thing in common: we’re sat in a spartan room with dinner and drinks, facing The Bloody Big Music Blaster. Neither imbalanced nor throttling, the setup sounds wonderful. It’s official: I am woozy; totally drunk on music. But getting there requires an indulgent, eyes-closed isolationism that goes against its appeal to groups going out. You can have a table-banging debate about zero-hours contracts with the squad, or you can surrender to sound and fully appreciate the tech. Doing both is harder.

There’s also the Dad’s-cologne whiff of pragmatism over the layout. If you were to place all your focus on the listening experience, you wouldn’t have so many tables right at the front. The speakers would creep away from the wall. You wouldn’t serve food. So Spiritland finds itself in a no man’s land, ostensibly appealing to both the casuals and the committed, but not being quite right for either. But this is probably as music-obsessed as we can get in London 2017 – it could have been more dedicated elsewhere in Europe, but the closure of clubs and gig venues shows we turned our backs on music. So I order a beer, relax and enjoy Spiritland for what it is: an imperfect yet inventive space for a bit of small-group musical nerding.”

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