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Tuesday
Nov172015

The music challenge: seven influences

I've recently responded to a challenge on Facebook from an old friend to share over seven days seven key musical influences.

 I thought I might share them now with a (potentially) wider audience.

Day one

When it comes to listening to music, writing about music, writing songs or trying to play them, there’s one person who’s influenced me more than anyone else: Bob Dylan. I first bought a copy of Greatest Hits on Clitheroe market in about 1970. I was soon tracking down everything he’d done, guided by Michael Gray’s book ‘Song and Dance Man’, one of the first serious bits of rock criticism I’d come across. I’ve chosen a song from his 1975 album ‘Blood On The Tracks’, which was also the first record I ever reviewed – for a school magazine. I liked it then and I love it now: a gloriously sweeping and cinematic story of ill-starred love, beautifully written, passionately sung and featuring a decent harmonica break. I hope you enjoy it. Day two

In amongst my love of strongly constructed songs – and living happily alongside a taste for both punky stuff and some fairly angular out-there weirdness – there remains a place in my heart for the genre that rigorous musicologists define as "hippy shit".

When I started listening to music and buying records in 1970, Jefferson Airplane was one of my first obsessions and I splayed out from them into a whole load of West Coast stuff. From this side of the pond, I can happily stomach even the most whimsical bits of the Incredible String Band's catalogue. And I love the Airplane's transatlantic cover of Donovan's "Fat Angel", which must be about as hippy as you can get, and toyed with choosing it today...

But then I settled on this: the Grateful Dead at their inimitable best. I first heard it on "Europe 72". The delicately bonkers "China Cat Sunflower" (they don't write them like that anymore) flows irresistibly and practically telepathically into the traditional blues song "I Know You Rider". You don't need to see the pictures to know how closely they're listening to each other.

Day three

Growing up in Clitheroe (semi-rural east Lancashire, for the non-cognoscenti) I felt very much NOT at the centre of things that mattered to me. When it came to filling in UCCA forms a little later, the main question was: how far could you go?

But, looking back, there were some surprisingly enviable events. The local council decided to sponsor some one-day pop festivals in the grounds of the castle in the early 70s. We got to see the likes of Roy Harper, Third Ear Band and Brinsley Schwartz - some of the more interesting second and third division acts of the time - at a bargain rate. 50p for a 12 hour show in 1971.

Today's pick is probably the best of that bunch - Kevin Ayers. He also stands for a strand of slightly eccentric, playful Englishness in my influences: think of his time in the Soft Machine with Robert Wyatt. I love Robert's solo stuff too and a whole host of related stuff, like Henry Cow, Peter Blegvad, King Crimson. Cleverness and fun, mixed with some uncompromising music.

Anyway, Kevin's band at this time included a very young Mike Oldfield and (a rather older) Lol Coxhill. They were great live. I saw Kevin one more time in Brighton in the nineties or noughties. Then this year I happened on his memorial in the cemetery in Deia in Mallorca. I was looking for Robert Graves, but found Kevin and the great guitarist Ollie Halsall. There's a metaphor in there somewhere...

Day four

The halfway point and far too much still to fit in...

In the early 70s, alongside the hippy shit, I was heavily into its supposed antithesis: the pared-down, blunt realism of the Velvet Underground and the raw power of The Stooges and The MC5. Which meant I was ready and waiting when punk came knocking on the door of the mainstream in 1976

Meanwhile, the UCCA form had done its work and I enrolled at Royal Holloway in October 1975. 

In the Christmas holiday the album that soundtracked the next three years was released. I remember a sceptical John Peel playing the title track on the radio: he wasn't sure, but he thought his listeners ought to hear it. (Thank you, John, for that and a whole lot more.)

Well, what I heard rang true to me – and, remarkably, Reidys in Blackburn had an American import copy of the record. The combination of poetry, power and eye-balling self-confidence in the grooves was irresistible – even putting to one side the transcendent image of Robert Mapplethorpe's glorious cover photo. 

And, for me, she has just got better as time goes on. Her positive commitment to art and to human potential is genuinely inspiring – while her ability to tap in to the beating heart of rock 'n' roll can trump any intellectual explanation. 

I wrote a song about her twenty years ago, following a vivid dream. I have to keep updating the number in it, but the current version of the opening couplet is:

"She supplied the soundtrack to my bid for a misspent youth
And now we've tried through forty years she tells an older truth"

We saw her do a 40th anniversary recreation of "Horses" in the summer and a live interview about her new book a couple of weeks ago. 

Pretentious? Of course she can be – but, so what? She's a grown-up artist. It works.

My hero, as you might have guessed:  Patti Smith.

 

Day five

It's the turn of folk music.

The other good thing about Clitheroe musically (as well as Day 3's festivals) was the folk club above the Dog and Partridge pub. 

Mike Harding used to play there often, in the days before his hit and telly career: he was very funny and very good - a decent singer and guitarist. Bernard Wrigley (the 'Bolton Bullfrog') is another who sticks in the mind. But the Friday night that really floored me was Richard and Linda Thompson, playing an amazing set to about 50 people. One of the very best gigs I've ever been to.

The power and beauty of the British folk tradition has always been a big part of my musical make-up, starting probably with Fairport Convention. 'Liege & Lief' and 'Full House', in particular, were up amongst the key records that did the rounds at school and quickly got under my skin - both the traditional songs and the new ones that shared their spirit. I'm no purist. I can enjoy real finger-in-the-ear stuff but also the rocked-up versions. So long as it's good...

Today's choice is a traditional song, sung here by Sandy Denny and featuring the wonderful Richard Thompson on guitar and accordion. 

I was tempted to go for Bert Jansch's version, which is also lovely, in a different way. That would have allowed me to tell the story of a spur of the moment decision to get tickets to see Bert supporting Neil Young at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2010. He sang 'Blackwaterside' there and it was one of the experiences of my life. But I didn't choose his version so I can't tell you about it... However, let me say in passing, if you're dubious about going with a "silly" indulgence that would be an amazing one-off experience: just do it.

Back to Sandy. Perfect control. Beautiful melody. Literally spine-tingling every time I hear it, after more than 40 years listening.

Day six

Having done the folk tradition on this side of the pond, let’s cross the Atlantic to Americana – and particularly the bands and the experiences from going to folk festivals in Canada.

Family connections have meant five visits to the Edmonton Folk Festival in Alberta, the first in 1993, and we’ve more recently sampled the intimate and ridiculously scenic Canmore festival, in the foothills of the Rockies.

Bigger names have included Hot Tuna and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright, with assorted family members. These trips have also meant seeing a lot of talented folkies (and fellow travellers) from over here: the extraordinary Scottish singer Dick Gaughan has popped up a couple of times, Ireland’s Lisa Hannigan, England’s Richard Thompson… But the two big advantages are the opportunity to find a whole load of stuff you’d never otherwise have heard of; and the brilliant tradition they have over there of running a load of small side stages where they put different acts together in workshop sessions. It's great to see different performers joining in with each other’s songs and generally knocked out to be sharing a stage – all within spitting distance, so you can see the whites of their eyes, and what their plectrum’s up to.

Discoveries? Alejandro Escovedo, Braden Gates, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Del Barber, The Wooden Sky, Oliver Swain, Jon Dee Graham… the list goes on.

But today’s choice is this guy, Tom Russell. First seen in Edmonton twenty-odd years ago, subsequently in Brighton several times (most recently a couple of months ago), as well as on return trips over there. He can sometimes do that overly-sentimental country thing but his strongest songs are superb – and I’ll happily mount the argument that he’s the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, if you’ve got a spare hour or two.

He’s here in his own right, but also as a symbol both of the happy coincidences of festival viewing and the strength of the country tradition. I wouldn’t ever want to have to choose between the folk heritage of North America and the British Isles, but of course they're hopelessly intertwined anyway…

Plus, the song seems appropriate too: I’ll be the protagonist’s age in just 5 months’ time, where ‘There’s a mighty thin line between a heavyweight champ and a used-up old clown’. But he’s still up for it: ‘The rock and the roll and the fight for your soul goes on and on. You put on the gloves, you’re always ready for love: pray your passion ain’t used up and gone.’ There's hope.

Day seven

Van Morrison has been an irreplaceable part of my musical landscape, since I first came across his 'Saint Dominic's Preview' album more than forty years ago. 

He's an astonishing performer, unmistakeable, never the same twice. The unpredictability and spontaneity mean that he sometimes lets you down. He's legendarily grumpy and I've sat through some concerts where he's essentially phoned in an unengaged performance. But when he's genuinely present and it all falls together, he is spellbinding. I've been there with him twice: a recreation of 'Astral Weeks' at the Royal Albert Hall (where this song also featured) and a supper club performance at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, where he was warm and relaxed and genuinely funny. Really. It's jazz, basically: sometimes it's amazing and couldn't get any better; then you're looking at your watch and wondering what went wrong...

But let's say something about this song. If you just saw the lyrics written down, or the very simple and repeated chord progression, you'd be asking what the fuss was all about. A few generic blues phrases and some incoherent rambling. Grunts, even. But, whoa: just give in and let him take you on the journey...

Rock critics tend to bandy the word 'shaman' around, but I'd say this performance is genuinely shamanistic: Van is channeling something, and I'm not sure what it is. And the musicians all play their part: lovely, subtle, flexible jazz drumming from 'Astral Weeks' veteran Connie Kay; great lead guitar from Ronnie Montrose, of all people – he went on to have a minor hit with 'Bad Motor Scooter' with his eponymously named hard rock band, featuring Sammy Hagar.

OK, it's a wonderful, one-off track. But I'm also including it here for another reason. Writing about music has always been a big part of my appreciation of music. I owed a lot in my early days to journalists like Richard Williams, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray for tipping me off to what I should be listening to, and why. I loved the writing in Let It Rock in the seventies, through to The Wire (for all its pretensions) more recently. And when I stopped working full time I thought I'd have a go at writing about music. As well as my Eden On The Line website, I pitched for a commission to write a book about 'Saint Dominic's Preview'. I didn't get anywhere, but I'm really glad I went for it anyway and just wrote it. I had a great time doing the research and talking to some of the musicians and technicians who contributed to the record. The self-published book has sold nearly a thousand copies so far - and that feels good. To me, thinking about music has its place alongside simply enjoying it.

Friday
May152015

Musicians: a great opportunity

Eden-back-on-the-line with a message for all you musicians out there: here's a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor with a fantastic new platform for promoting your work and connecting with fans. Check it out and sign up!

Saturday
Feb072015

Hiss Golden Messenger, 6 February 2015

It was as if the band from North Carolina had slipped six hundred miles south and relocated to Muscle Shoals...

Hiss Golden Messenger successfully swapped the hurt and intimacy of frontman MC Taylor's solo gigs for a full and rocking electric band sound last night. A less than perfect PA set-up at Brighton's Bleach left lyrics mostly indisinguishable but guitars and keyboards crunched effectively around Scott Hirsch's loping bass and a pert hi-hat.

The set began and ended with Taylor singing and playing alone, his bandmates harmonising off-mic, but in between the energy level seldom dropped. They were clearly having fun and the audience responded.

I was reminded that at some point trawling the internet I'd managed to download a very nice HGM mixtape called Wah-Wah Cowboys, Vol II. The said pedal may not have been physically present last night, but that title very much captured the spirit , as the chaps threw in a Waylon Jennings cover alongside sometimes drastically re-arranged originals.

Good stuff.

Wednesday
Dec172014

2014: records of the year

And so to the albums...

I've certainly bought enough music this year and a lot of it has been of real quality. But I guess the striking thing, looking at my ten favourites, is that there are few new names: most of those featured - good as they are - have also had records in earlier annual lists.

And it has also been a great year for archive releases - the 6 CD Basement Tapes Complete is a superbly packaged document of record while, for everyday use, the 3 LP/2 CD Basement Tapes Raw has the really key stuff looking and sounding great. Add into the mix 3 CDs and a DVD of CSNY 1974 and you start to be pushed for time to listen to much else. And that's before getting to the 6 CD set of The Velvet Underground's gorgeous third album, which has had stunning reviews but I haven't yet brought myself to shell out for: can even I justify having a mono mix of the main record, alongside two alternative stereo ones? A mono 'Murder Mystery' is simply perverse...

But, enough of that. Without further ado, the ten new releases of 2013 that I rate most highly:

10. Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather

The first of two appearances in this year's list from a superb guitarist, who also has a lovely knack of combining his talents with a range of different collaborators. Here he is on his own release, playing and singing with confidence, verve and sometimes unnerving technique.

What's more, my daughter's band Ray Gun opened for him when he played in Ramsgate last month - a huge shame I couldn't be there with them...

9. Ryley Walker - All Kinds Of You 

Sometimes sounding unnervingly like a young Bert Jansch, Chicagoan Ryley Walker has a real confidence and character of his own that make this a compelling listen. Beautiful arrangements (again with some Pentangle echoes) of strong songs. As I said when I first heard it 

That all may sound artificial and knowingly retro, but the end product strikes me as organic and convincingly in the here and now.

I'm still feeling the same, eight months on.

8. Thurston Moore - The Best Day

Despite my best efforts, I've never really come to love Sonic Youth. Appreciate and respect, yes; but no more than that. Thurston Moore's solo albums, though, are a different thing - and The Best Day is up there with the best of them. The palette is more varied, with chugging electric grooves and noisier elements in amongst the acoustic melodicism which first drew me to records like Demolished Thoughts.

And, as I said when it came out, the cover art is beautiful - a series of old photos of Moore's parents. Worth buying on vinyl for the cover alone: you can always think later about whether you own a turntable.

7. Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - Cantos de Lisboa

It's that man again... Gunn in a one-off collaboration with Mike Cooper, whose music I hadn't really known before. He's a Brit who started off playing blues in the sixties before expanding into a range of rockier and avant garde styles. One of the pleasures of 2014 has been a voyage of discovery through his back catalogue, aided by some well-crafted vinyl reissues from the estimable Paradise of Bachelors label.

Anyway, Cantos de Lisboa is a treat - but one that needs some mastication, and is all the better for that. You're initially sucked in by the sheer beauty of lambent opener 'Saudade Do Santos-o-Vehlo' but then encounter some crunchier improvisations. Two splendid guitarists with open ears and a clear enjoyment of each other's company.

6. Various Artists - Look Again To The Wind

An odd project on the face of it: a cover version of an early sixties album from Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears, dedicated to the varied injustices that have been visited on American Indians. I don't know the original album and wouldn't claim to like every song here equally, but the highlights of this re-creation are quite extraordinary. Producer Joe Henry has assembled a stellar cast of new country royalty: Steve Earle, Emmylou, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are all present and all acquit themselves well. It's the last two who are transcendent. A protest ballad stretching to more than nine minutes could get a teensy bit tedious, one might think, but 'As Long As The Grass Shall Grow' leaves you wanting more. Their voices and instruments twine around each other so perfectly they're like a single entity, and Rawlings' final guitar solo is worth the price of admission on its own. I haven't seen much written about this album, but more should be... do search it out.

5. Robert Plant - Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar

It's great how Plant remains driven to make new and different music, searching out fresh combinations of very talented collaborators. At a time when he could be sitting back and savouring the royalty cheques from the Led Zeppelin reissue programme, he's moved further on from the fine Americana of his last couple of albums to an edgier, energetic and thoroughly engaging set shot through with African instrumentation and electronics. You're bound to sit up and take notice - and the more you pay attention, the more you appreciate the care and skill that has gone into the arrangements. It's both classy and wildly entertaining: don't miss it.

4. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

I raved about this one here on its release in April. My then favourite song of the year, 'Almost Everything', now has some serious Wussy-shaped competition (see below) but still sounds great, as does the rest of the record. And the band went on to turn in my favourite live show of the year at The Great Escape in May. They're on tremendous form and this is a very good record.

3. Braden Gates - Ferris Wheel

This star
fiddler/ singer/ songwriter/ guitarist from Alberta was my find of 2013 - nabbing the top slot in my gigs of the year and the same number 3 slot in the albums that he's occupying now. Ferris Wheel is a distinct advance on his first release, with more variety and confidence in the writing, performance and arrangements. I wrote about it at length here. There's obviously a lot more to come from this highly talented young man: you should get aboard now and follow what should be a fascinating career. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness Of Dancers

Possibly the best HGM release so far - despite there being some pretty stiff competition. This sounds more like a band record, rather than mainman MC Taylor plus friends: cohesive, varied and sometimes downright funky. But be reassured that this not come at the expense of HGM's trademark emotional heft. 'Chapter & Verse (Ione's Song)' is a particular tear-jerker, even after multiple listens. As so often, it's not entirely clear what's going on in narrative terms, but the vocal combination of sympathy and reassurance and pain set against a simple piano's willed optimism comes across like proceedings at a frontier smalltown funeral. Beautiful - and the other nine songs are pretty damn good too.

1. Wussy - Attica!

Well, regular readers will not be surprised by the number one slot. My favourite band in the world right now and I've already provided a detailed rave review of what is also probably their most consistently strong album so far. A rare combination of crunch and delicacy, with a melodic sense reminiscent of REM at their best. 'Halloween', 'Beautiful' and 'Teenage Wasteland' are all strong contenders for the best song I've heard this year. The band seem to be on a real roll and it would be good if they could now reach the wider audience they so obviously deserve.

The near misses, jostling at the gate of my top ten, include Beck's Morning Phase and Two Wings' A Wake. Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes and Del Barber's Prairieography both included some strong individual songs but didn't really hold together as albums for me. Neil Young's A Letter Home strikes me as a really impressive work of art, like a time capsule launched to and/or from somewhere beyond the grave, but I haven't been listening to it with any regularity as a collection of songs. I haven't been listening to Neil's Storytone much either, but that's more because the songs don't seem very inspired - whether in their stripped-down or kitchen-sink-arrangement versions. Maybe it will grow on me...

And let's see what 2015 brings. A very Happy Christmas to anyone who has read this far!

Monday
Dec152014

2014: gigs of the year

I've just looked back at 2013's equivalent post. The cornucopia of live delights recorded there was sadly not replicated in 2014. A couple of days at The Great Escape but only nine other gigs this year, so perhaps not incredibly meaningful to come up with a top five performances. But I saw some excellent sets, so I will anyway...

5. John Surman - Dome Studio, Brighton, 18 November

A treat to see a long-time hero for the first time. Wonderful horn playing and some nice duets with guest Norwegian singer Karin Krog in the second half. Soprano and baritone saxes and bass clarinet, sometimes alone, sometimes set against loops: mellow and satisfying.

4. Neil Young - Hyde Park, London, 12 July

A storming set, often crowd-pleasing ('Heart of Gold', 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', etc), but only after he'd stretched the patience of less partisan festival-goers with some protracted guitar work-outs ('Love And Only Love', 'Goin' Home') and rewarded the cognoscenti with the rarely-performed 'Days That Used To Be'. A shame that after playing this well he then turned in a decidedly mediocre album in the shape of Storytone.

3. Jackson Browne - Royal Albert Hall, London, 25 November

I've seen Jackson half a dozen or more times over the years and he never disappoints. My favourite of those shows was probably one in Edinburgh with the collaborator who fits his style best - the great David Lindley. But this was a close runner-up: Greg Leisz's pedal steel filled some Lindley-shaped holes and the rest of the band were on fine form. Some stone classics performed unimpeachably in the course of a marathon 25 song set: 'These Days', 'Before The Deluge', 'Late For The Sky', 'For A Dancer', etc, etc. OK, the ones from the new album weren't quite in that league, but I was in no mood to quibble...

2. Powder Blue - The Great Escape, Brighton, 10 May

Reviewed here. One of those sweet festival moments when a band you've never heard of and have no expectations about grabs hold of your ears and makes you pay attention... Saskatoon's finest, playing Krautrock, shoegaze and a whole lot more. I gather there is a full length album due next year, which I'm looking forward to - I've been listening to Dream In Black a lot.

1. The Hold Steady - Great Escape, Brighton, 9 May

Also reviewed here. Another occasion where I was pleased to see live a band whose albums I've rated for some time. They took the gig by the scruff of its neck and never let go: a tight, explosive and thoroughly entertaining three quarters of an hour.