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« ...and the small ones | Main | The first half of 2013 »

Where the (big) bands are

Still cherishing memories of the E Street Band with a full horn section substituting for (but not replacing) Clarence, I'm reflecting on the way strong songs can flourish within fleshed-out arrangements and unusual instrumentation...

I'm off to see the great Tom Russell in ten days time. A relatively unsung hero of American songwriting I discovered 5000 miles away at an Edmonton Folk Festival, now conveniently booked into Hove's Palmeira, 15 minutes walk from where I live. And to whet the appetite a new album from Tom, Aztec Jazz, drawn from a live performance last year with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. Tom and Thad Beckman's guitars augmented by a 32-piece orchestra, deployed by arranger Mats Halling with great subtlety and skill.

Russell has some form in this area, having deployed Calexico's widescreen, Tex-Mex brass on some recent recordings, but Aztec Jazz goes a whole step further. I've seen some reviews comparing it to Sketches of Spain - I wouldn't go that far, and that wouldn't really be what I'd want for Tom's songs anyway - but I see the point.

I've some quarrels with the song selection, but I've realised I'm probably in a minority amongst his fans after getting a sour reaction for criticisms of what I see as a tendency to over-sentimentalisation in some of his recent writing and delivery. There are rather too many of the crack-in-voice-I'm-about-to-be-overcome-with-emotion moments here again for me. But when he goes for the more uptempo songs and clearer-headed lyrics, I'm completely convinced. Try the autobographical 'East of Woodstock, West Of Vietnam' for size and you'll get the picture. A spritely reading of 'Criminology' is another highlight of the album for me, but not yet on YouTube (is there a full DVD to follow?).

Anyway, I don't think they'd fit a 32-piece band in the Palmeira - not if they want an audience in there. But I'm very much looking forward to seeing Tom, and it will be nice if Thad Beckman makes the trip too...

And finally, in big band territory, some kind soul has posted on YouTube the full version of the Old Grey Whistle Test special drawn from Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra's performance at the Rainbow on 24 July 1973. It's here.

I still have clear memories of when it was first broadcast, as what they called a simulcast, with stereo on the radio to accompany what was still solidly mono TV. Like thousands up and down the country, I carted my stereo system downstairs and positioned the speakers on either side of the small family set - no-one had a second telly upstairs back in the Dark Ages, children...

It was worth it. What an astonishing performance - Van, the band, the strings, tight from a long tour but brimming with energy and invention. You can hear that from the It's Too Late To Stop Now album, of course, but the visuals add a whole other dimension - particularly in making clear how much fun they were having. Check out the set-closer 'Cyprus Avenue', which has it all: stops and starts, ebbs and flows, false endings, high kicks, Shana on tambourine (looking decidedly younger than when I saw her on stage with her dad in Belfast this year). And if you only have a few seconds to spare, take a peek at the completely open and unguarded grin on the Morrison mug at 53:08 - the legendary grumpiness will never be quite so convincing for you again...

I've been hoping that with the current uncertainty of copyright on live recordings of this sort of vintage we might finally see a commercial DVD of this show. No luck so far, but thank goodness for YouTube: this is as good as it gets.

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