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 – try “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. 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 and 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.

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