Friday, May 3rd

It was a week when Greta Thunwald gave us all a masterclass in thinking and Beyoncé gave us Homecoming – all sound and fury, but at least signifying something, although it struck me as, to quote Stanley Unwin, “all jumbly in the moto…” So this week, it seems, there are weird cross-currents at work…

{ONE} HOME/HEART INTERFACE
For all its visual flash (it cuts two performances over the Coachella weekend, so in some shots, everyone’s dressed in pink, in others, yellow, which really screws with you until you figure it out) the songs in Homecoming actually get flattened out in the performance, and it feels thin vocally and melodically over the two-plus hours. The rehearsal footage is impressive for showing the scale of a production like this, but the inspirational quotes and voiceover get a little strained. There’s some astonishing dancing, especially from the sinewy men, and great propulsion from the horns and drums, but the songs about Jay-Z (with lines like “Becky with the good hair”) and hits like “Single Ladies” don’t quite feel of a piece with the celebration of black history happening around them.

{TWO} CONDUCTING UP A STORM
Beyoncé uses a huge marching band of drums and horns as tribute to the homecoming culture of America’s black colleges and universities. At the same time, Ethan Iverson (via Richard Williams) pointed us towards The Jenkins Orphanage Band – “Astounding audio and video of Jenkins Orphanage Band in 1928. (That drumming!) Later on in the clip, there is some great dancing. Jabbo Smith, Trummy Young, Cat Anderson and others came out of the Jenkins Orphanage Band.” At 1:24 the bass drum player uses his mallets for a jape. Fabulous. You almost expect Buster Keaton to slide along the street in front of them and turn to face the camera.

As the notes on YouTube by scgary66 say, “The Orphanage Band comprised of young African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina and was a notable influence in American jazz; it had also been the first black instrumental group formed in the state (1895). By the 1920s, the group was so large as to allow five separate bands to tour the eastern US, and they appeared at the 1927 New York premiere of the play Porgy. They are seen here in a Charleston sidewalk performance.” What Richard calls the “two-conductor system” is some kind of genius – two duelling/dancing conductors, one for the rhythm, one for the horns, and I want to know why no-one’s tried this since…

{THREE} RADIO, RADIO
Radio 4 had a tremendous (judging by the first hour) three-part Dusty doc, Definitively Dusty with excellent Dusty audio interviews through the years, and featuring most of her important collaborators. It reminded me that one of the first singles that I ever bought was The Springfields “Island of Dreams”, a song that always links in my mind with Dylan’s “Standing In The Doorway” from Time Out of Mind, mostly for the lyrics, but also for parts of the rather downbeat, blue melody. Also on R4, I caught the end of a very strange programme titled The Spider Orchestra. “Struck by the beauty of spider webs, Tomas Saraceno made them into sculptures and discovered that when spiders move, the silken strands make tiny sounds, which he turns into music.” Rather wonderful. Listen to hear the vagaries of live improv with an arachnid.

{FOUR} BOOKS OF THE WEEK
Found in an extremely old-school bookshop in Suffolk, these gems. I loved Oak Publications because they were typeset on electric typewriters and pasted up in a very rigid way. This one is by Tony “Little Sun” Glover of Koerner, Ray & Glover fame, and is dedicated to Kenneth Patchen and Sonny Boy Williamson II, “the two greatest poets of our times.” Sonny Boy I knew, but Patchen not. He was a poet and pacifist and an influence on the Beats (Patchen’s biographer wrote that he “developed in his fabulous fables, love poems, and picture poems, a deep yet modern mythology that conveys a sense of compassionate wonder amidst the world’s violence.”) In his own words, “I speak for a generation born in one war and doomed to die in another.”

On the other hand, Eddie Rogers’ story of Denmark Street is less poetry, more publishing. Tin Pan Alley Tomorrow (the Fifteenth Chorus as the book archly titles its chapters) is a cracker.

{FIVE} BEWARE THE HUMAN-MACHINE HIVEMIND…
Popbitch flagged up the work of Botnik Studios, who are “mashing up all the best text in history to create the ultimate album, The Songularity. We’re remixing Scottish folk ballads, Amazon reviews, Carrie Underwood, The Elements Of Style and more. Our predictive text computer program suggests lyrics in the style of these influences. We set the results to original music.”

Their ultimate Country song, “You Can’t Take my Door” features the excellent chorus, “Look at yourself / and a hand / and a shelf / in the wind…” There’s “Negatively 4th Street”, which combines Dylan lyrics with negative reviews of restaurants on 4th Street in Manhattan. And “Bored With This Desire To Get Ripped”, which is Morrissey’s lyrics algorithmically combined with Amazon customer reviews of the P90X home workout DVD.

It reminded me of a song service in Nashville in the late 70s, where you could send your lyrics off and have them recorded by session musicians. Famously, a guitarist named John Trubee sent a rambling piece of obscenity featuring Stevie Wonder, which he assumed would prompt a letter back saying that his submission didn’t meet their standards, and that he was a sick man, but instead received this: “Dear John, We have just received your lyrics and think they are very worthy of being recorded with the full Nashville Sound Production. I am enclosing a contract of acceptance. Please sign and return along with $79.95 to cover the cost for the song…” So he did, and that’s how “Peace & Love (Blind Man’s Penis)” came to be. “Over the lamest, most minimal country track was some country hack singing the lyrics I wrote [albeit with references to Stevie nixed]. I was stunned”, Trubee writes. Read the whole story here.


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{BUY FIVE THINGS I SAW & HEARD THIS WEEK – THE BOOK!}

The book is edited by Rick Ball, with a foreword by Richard Williams and a cover illustration by Sam Falconer. It covers the first two years of the site. For more information, go here.

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.

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“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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