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"The cords of all link back...strandentwining cable...

"Hello...put me on to Edenville... aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one"

Sunday
May112014

Great Escape 2014

Just a paddle in this year's Great Escape festival, after the immersion of recent years.

I knew that other commitments would keep me from wandering the streets and bars of Brighton for the full three days, but I had to sign up when The Hold Steady were added to the bill. I then caught half a dozen other sets and snippets of a few more - but I'm not your source this year for a real overview or 'best of' list.

 I've been following The Hold Steady's records since picking up Separation Sunday six or seven years ago but haven't had the chance to see them live before. I was doubtful whether a 45 minute festival slot might not suit what can be a discursive narrative style to front man Craig Finn's songs, but I needn't have worried.

They were tight, focused and powerful, using every minute to good effect. The opening chords of the next song rang out before the crowd had time to acknowledge the last. Finn was pumped up and bouncing, striding up to the edge of the stage and shouting off-mic, clearly enjoying being free from the constraints of guitar duties now Steve Selvidge has joined the band.

The set was a seamless blend of the punchiest stuff from this year's Teeth Dreams - including opener 'I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You' and the lovely 'Big Cig' - with some irresistible older classics. Six albums in, they're a band with a back catalogue to kill for: 'Constructive Summer', 'Sequestered In Memphis', 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend' and 'Chips Ahoy!' all featured, and all sounded as fresh and crunchy as ever. The last of these - a tall tale of a girl who can foresee the winners of races - was briefly introduced with:

This is a song about a boy and a girl and a horse...

and that was about as chatty as Craig allowed himself to be, before a slightly longer paean to the joys of going out and joining a rock crowd, instead of sitting at home with electronic devices, as he led the way to 'Spinners'. Another of the stronger songs from the current album, it's a movingly uncynical portrayal of the ups and downs of a single-again girl going back to the city scene:

She's two years off some prairie town.

She dresses up and she spins around.

Little looks and smaller talk.

Heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off.

It was really good to see a band so full of fire and enthusiasm at a stage in their career when they might have hoped to be bigger. Finn's lyrics are intricate, perceptive and clever - but also often very funny. I still smile whenever I think of the hapless narrator of 'Sequestered In Memphis' being interrogated about the aftermath of a one-night stand:

In bar-light, she looked all right.

In daylight she looked desperate.

But that's all right - I was desperate too.

I'm getting pretty sick of this interview...

If I'm not preaching to the already-converted, why not give that song a try?

I'd already got my money's worth from The Great Escape after three quarters of an hour from The Hold Steady, but what else can I tell you?

Finnish heavy metal band the Von Hertzen Brothers were exactly what that description will bring to mind, and were not for me, I fear.

I very much liked Ethan Johns' work on Laura Marling's last album and he obviously has a fine pedigree from producer father Glyn. But I was left unmoved by his tasteful but formulaic Americana, 'there's a red moon on the rise', etc. 

I had better luck on Saturday afternoon. One of the joys of festival-going is hearing styles of music you don't normally listen to, and Poland's Rebeka - a synth and beats based electro-pop duo - were certainly in that category.

They won me over with a high-energy set, dramatic vocals (occasional echoes of Donna Summer?) and strong stage presence.

Singer Iwona Skwarek drew things to a conclusion with:

We are quite wet now so we have to finish

but an enthusiatic crowd at the Green Door Store were ready for more.

Earlier, I'd caught a couple of bands in what seems to have become a traditional Canadian session at the Blind Tiger Club. A man from Alberta Music praised the federal and provincial governments for the amount of support they provide for this sort of activity: apparently Canada is 37th in a list of the world's countries by population and 8th by music exports...

Anyway, Calgary's Boreal Sons had a nice manner and some carefully wrought songs - though the lyrics were a bit too overwrought and sensitive for my taste (shirt cuffs brushing dust motes from window sills and the like).

But my top discovery of this year were the band that followed them: Powder Blue, from Saskatoon. They were billed as psychedelic rock and I also caught elements of shoegaze, Krautrock and even Jesus and Mary Chain-style surf in the mix. It's a tight, drony, layered sound, shorn of any luxuriation in melodic soloing. I found myself mesmerised by Amber Kraft's drumming - an object lesson in precision, attack and sheer brutality. She put me in mind of Free's Simon Kirke in his pomp, both for the sound and the way she disappeared behind a curtain of hair, absorbed in pulverising the kit. And full marks to keyboard player Elsa Gebremichael for a pretty good effort when the pair swapped instruments for one number.

Anyway, the band have an excellent mini-album out, Dream In Black - available on appropriately powder blue vinyl, as well as on cassette. Pretty cool artefacts, I'd say.

There's a taster below. 'Go On Forever' sounds attractively like it could do just that.

Friday
Apr252014

A little more Wussy

I know I go on about them, but Wussy's Attica is already sounding like the album of the year, a couple of weeks before it has even been released.

I'll do a proper review when I've got the actual artefact – CD only, sadly, I gather from the record company – but I've been listening to the preview pretty solidly in the last few days. 'Teenage Wasteland' isn't actually my current favourite song (check out 'Halloween' for that), but it's a glorious opener and this video captures so much of what I like about the band: restrained power, noise and beauty, aching vulnerability, no grandstanding, obviously enjoying themselves

when the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart...

 Gorgeous.

Thursday
Apr242014

A limping fox – and Dan Stuart

As I was walking home from last night's gig, a fox passed me on the opposite pavement and I noticed that it was carrying one back leg off the ground, unable to put any weight on it.

Blasé as we may now be about urban foxes, it's still a thrill to share the Brighton streets with wild beasts. But, as I walked on, the injury bothered me: it can't be much fun getting by like that – pain, lower life-expectancy, no chance of calling in at the PDSA for a plaster cast or splint...

Then it struck me as a pretty good metaphor for my feelings about the Dan Stuart gig I'd just seen at the Prince Albert. As half of the creative heart of Green on Red, alongside the mighty Chuck Prophet, more than twenty years ago now, he certainly counted as a big beast – at least to gentlemen of a certain age. (I note that his website promises that he'll buy a drink for anyone under 30 who comes to a show on the current tour; and at one point last night he surveyed the crowd and exclaimed 'There are females here!' – though there weren't that many, it must be admitted.)

I treasure memories of seeing Green on Red at the Zap Club, under the arches on the seafront - exactly 23 years before today's show. Stuart recalled that visit to Brighton too: apparently it was the first time he and Chuck had taken ecstasy...

The 2014 incarnation was just the second night of the current tour and Dan and his sole accomplice, guitarist Antonio Gramentieri, seemed still to be getting the measure of each other and the set up. Dan noted that he's more used to playing with a full band and missed the backbeat. For the audience, it's odd to have a different Telecaster-wielding guitarist next to him, and as talented and generally nice as Antonio seems to be, of course he isn't Chuck. Dan seemed to be blaming the audience for being quiet - which is seldom a good sign - drawing the response:

'It's Wednesday night',

which continued, with the expository pedantry which seems to come naturally to Brighton punters,

'and there's been a Bank Holiday, so it feels like Tuesday...'.

Anyway, there were good things on offer, with older classics mixed in with newer songs – an early rendition of 'Keep On Moving' and a lively take on '16 Ways' were particularly impressive. During one lull, Dan invited requests and I obliged with 'You Couldn't Get Arrested', only to be answered with: 

I swore I wasn't gonna play that fucking song once on this tour.

He tried it anyway, somehow managing to forget the change to the third chord (of a three chord song), but still ending up with a convincing version.

If Eden On The Line awarded stars, this would be 3 out of 5, I guess: I'm glad I saw it, but the gig never fully caught light and was essentially for established aficionados only. When Dan made clear soon after eleven that there would be no encore, I breathed silent thanks – and headed for my vulpine rendezvous...

For non-aficionados, here's some of what the fuss is about

Monday
Apr212014

RSD: Dave & Phil Alvin

So, I did the Record Store Day thing on Saturday, late afternoon when the crowds had died down...

A new four track EP from Bruce Springsteen, a nice live album from Chris Forsyth, but I think the cream of the crop is a lovingly-produced 2x10" set from Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin. The records come in a hardback book-style sleeve, like some 78s used to, back before the dawn of time. Yep Roc Records have even managed to pre-age the sleeve with some imitation ring-wear, but were also thoughtful enough to include a download code.

The packaging is entirely apt for the music: a selection of covers of Big Bill Broonzy songs, which is a taster for an album of the same called Common Ground due out at the beginning of June. I'm slightly wary of covers of classic blues songs, which can often be too studied or too raucous, but I think the Alvin brothers have got it exactly right: respect but no awe, light on their feet, fine playing and no self-indulgence in the singing. A lot of fun.

There's a nice backstory, too, of sometimes warring brothers, with tempestuous times when they played together in The Blasters (think Ray and Dave Davies, or Liam and Noel Gallagher). Since then Phil has had a near-fatal illness and Dave's last album (the wonderful Eleven Eleven) included the wryly affectionate duet 'What's Up With Your Brother?'. Anyway, as Dave has said,'We never argued about Big Bill Broonzy'.

There's an interview and a taste of Common Ground here.

Thursday
Apr172014

No Bob Dylan in 33 1/3 short list

The short list of possible new commissions for 33 1/3's series of slim volumes on classic albums maintains Bob Dylan's surprising under-representation on that list.

Of course, I find it particularly scandalous that they didn't take up my pitch for a study of John Wesley Harding, but I do find it more generally odd that Highway 61 Revisited remains the only one of the maestro's many memorable releases to be covered. One can argue that the world has enough Bob Dylan books in it already, but I still think that there is room for a rigorous and focused look at an undoubted classic.

You can read a draft introductory chapter here which explains why.

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