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  • Saint Dominic's Flashback: Van Morrison's Classic Album, Forty Years On
    Saint Dominic's Flashback: Van Morrison's Classic Album, Forty Years On
Previous Journal Entries

Van Morrison, 16 March 2013

Europa Hotel, Belfast

16 March 2013

Well, the gamble paid off.

It was certainly worth the trip to Belfast and a stonking ticket price and braving the washed-out St Patrick's Day weekend weather to take front row seats to see Van Morrison playing on his home patch to an audience of 250.

The Man was in mellow mood, clearly enjoying himself: teasing the band and treating us to a range of apercus - on subjects ranging from grumpy people who manage to avoid the criticism he gets (eg HM The Queen) to the equally regal Cliff Richard (substituting 'when Sir Cliff shines his light' in the lyrics when he revisited their one - award winningly unlikely - collaboration).

We travelled up in the lift afterwards with MD Paul Moran, who confirmed with a grin that a good time had been had by all.

It was a jazzy set, geared to the supper club ambience - as the setlist shows. Two songs from last year's album, some standards; the band trading solos fluently and Van contributing a fair amount of sax himself.

The highlights for me were an unexpected rearrangement of 'Wavelength' and a beautiful, luminous, reading of 'In The Garden' - real hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

The bluesey triptych at the end was great,too - muscular performances with Van blowing some fine harp. The audience got up and crowded to the front of the stage and suddenly it could have been some small club, way back when.

Daughter Shana Morrison opened the evening with three songs of her own and then sang backing vocals through the evening, which also seemed to suit the home town vibe.

It's great that Van has found a way of working that really suits him, but the growing sequence of Irish supper club gigs this year may test his fans' wallets and diaries. People seem to be flying in from all over - we were sitting next to a Dutch couple, there was a good sprinkling of Americans, apparently some from Australia - and I hope they continue to do so and he can carry on filling the venues.

I leave you with a man and his mouth organ... his element.

Michael Chapman, 23 February 2013

Michael Chapman

West Hill Hall, Brighton

23 February 2013

"I'm going to be playing the guitar tonight," announced Michael Chapman to a rightly packed West Hill Hall yesterday. "I've just been touring with Thurston Moore and we've been torturing the things..."

He is a man of several parts and the improv which has informed his last two albums, Clayton Peacock and Pachyderm, is on hold, in favour of more structured songs and tunes from his wonderful back catalogue. 

That said, it is his virtuso instrumental chops which are to the fore, with the lyrics largely spoken now. And his playing is freewheeling and expansive, with several extended medleys exploring the sonic possibilities of his trusty guitar, which is 'nearly as old as me' and 'doesn't like the cold', as frequent tunings testify.

He plays the gruff, no nonsense Yorkshireman to a tee in his between-songs patter, skirting the non-PC with relish. A recollection of a dinner with John Fahey, which ended with his 20 stone touring partner naked except for a strategically-placed flag from the Nuremberg Rallies, leads into a beautiful pastiche ('that's French for piss-take') of the great man, all bottleneck and handbrake turns.

Other highlights include 'That Time Of Night', which Lucinda Williams covered memorably on last year's Oh Michael, Look What You've Done compilation (which I will continue to plug at every opportunity: it's great, if you haven't heard it yet...). It's a lovely summation of the tenderness behind the tough coating of the Chapman persona:

I love it when you want me
I love it when you care
You know I don't scare easy
But I do get scared.

He is one of the great guitarists. Full stop.

It's amazing we can see him in small halls like this, so catch him when you can.


Jazz Slayers, 20 December 2012

Jazz Slayers

The Zenith Bar, Islington

20 December 2012

(from guest reviewer Rob Zanders)

I feel that alongside the reviews of esteemed artistes that appear in Eden On The Line, there has to be space for the basic, the ordinary, and the foot soldiers of music.  This took me down to Islington for a Christmas party gig, invited along by an old mate, Charlie.

It has to be said, that hanging around Islington is not one of my normal pastimes.  Just off the now designer high street, down a gentrified terrace, next to a new ‘academy’ is The Zenith.  My first reaction was I had come on the wrong day; the place looked dead.  Eventually I pushed against a door and fell into a place that, if it had been decorated in the last thirty years, they had just painted over whatever was there before.  I expected to find Regan and Carter drooped over the bar.  The gents were out of order with each and everybody left to the one ‘trap’ in the women’s.  And for those in search of ‘Real Ale’ the Zenith is not for you for the dispensers resembled an illuminated Lego model of Time Square.

The great thing about pubs like this is the pragmatic, no nonsense service.  An unsmiling bloke behind the bar will greet you with, “Yeah mate, what can I get you?”  He’ll give you a full pint, spill a bit, then follow up with “That’s £3.50, mate.”  Job done.  Not at the Zenith, not this night.  I found a gap at the bar, where two West African lads were serving on.  They had not quite got the idea.  To my left a loud woman was in dispute with one of the lads. 

“What have you done, man?  I didn’t ask for this, it’s undrinkable.  What have you put in my whiskey?”  She was the sort of women who will always get what she wants because her determination to make a point is greater than the other person’s desire to take on the dispute, there are just too many short hours left in life.  She did have a point, however.  The poor bloke showed her a bottle.  “Good gracious man, that’s tonic water.  You don’t put tonic water in scotch.  I asked for soda water.”  She had grown more voluble by the syllable.  Shove a jack plug up her bottom and she was a walking P.A. system for the band.   What she had not worked out was the bar tender did not understand, and she was using that curious English technique of shouting louder to make the foreigner understand.  Somehow he got the idea and poured her another dot of scotch into a half pint glass.  Before adding anything she demanded to see what fizzy stuff he would add.  As luck would have it, he showed her a bottle of Perrier water which both pacified and delighted her in equal measures.  Not so the mixture, he added a splash and she demanded more until the whole glass was brimming with mineral water.  Is this how people take their scotch in Islington, I thought?  Should I ask for a cognac drowned in Highland Spring?

While this was going on, to my right, Dominic, who appeared far more placatory, was buying a round.  He was a sociable chap and after carefully ordering, by that I mean speaking slowly to his barman, enunciating each syllable, he would turn and continue his conversation with his friends.  The chat would continue as the barman stood silently with the drink ready.  I decided to nudge Dominic to hasten the process.  Four nudges and 3 packets of nuts later: “That is it, thank you.  How much do I own you?”  To which the two barmen then carefully attempted to work out the cost on a solar powered calculator, while wondering why it was not working.

By the time they were ready to serve me the band were up on stage.  I ordered a half of Stella for my daughter - you’d never catch me drinking that stuff and, “… a pint of Guinness, please.”

“No Guinness.”

“Then I’ll have the London Pride.”

“No London Pride.”

“What about the John Smith’s?”

“John Smith’s off”.

 I’m now left with a choice of three European, one Indian and one Australian lager, all manufactured along the M1 corridor between Northampton and Luton.  He read the look of exasperated disappointment in my sinking eyes and helpfully suggested, “You have more Stella?”  I relented.

What about the music, then?  This being the second decade of the twenty first century it is best to say what the Jazz Slayers were not.  For starters, they were not a tribute act, so that immediately put them in the top 40 per cent of acts around.  Nor did they perform ‘note for note’ copies.  So they are now in the top fifth.  They are not an act that disbanded out of safety when punk reared up and have now reformed with the lead singer and the bass player and a couple of ex-punks they met at a protest against the shutting down of the local library.  If we take out the headliners demanding a hundred pounds for a ticket at the O2, we get down to the select group of people who are out enjoying themselves and providing no cost enjoyment to others.  Jazz sums it up their music in one word and although their YouTube clips do suggest they actually slay the stuff, on this day they were more ready than rough.

Lest he might get too enthusiastic, tucked in at the back on the left side of the small ‘stage’, penned in by a combi amp, stood the guitarist.  He was allowed to play with his foot pedal but otherwise kept in good order by a rhythm section that adhered to the’ better heard than seen’ rule.  Front stage was two sax players, one who lit up the night with occasional flute.  Charlie enthusiastically blew into something that looked like it came from a hospital museum and had been last used for a colo-rectal cleansing - I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a bass clarinet. Fronting the band was Clive who may well have been a less flamboyant little brother of George Melly.  He could knock out a good song and put in some sound trombone, but not at the same time.  All the band came dressed to shift kit and have beer thrown at them, so a touch of glamour was added by the two ‘girls’ who occasionally added backing vocals for Clive.

They started with a warmer up that the Crusaders might have knocked out in the late seventies, then turned a little more be-boppy.  They would happily take a good old pop tune and put their own slant on it.  I’m not sure how many of the audience singing along to ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ could empathise but maybe a few of them had thumped the tubs of Islington back in the mid-eighties, in support of striking miners, even though that beastly Arthur Scargill never deserved a ‘home’ in London. 

After a short lager break, they took the stage again and funked it up a bit.  The crowd had grown and evolved from toe tapping to syncopated wobbling when the funk burst seamlessly into a jazz version of ‘We Three Kings’.  They were also joined for a medley by a thirteen and half year old trumpeter from Crouch End, called Hugo.  Watch out for him.  Or maybe in fifty years’ time, he will reflect ruefully from his solicitor's practice, that he has another twenty two years before retirement and he could and should have cut it as a jazz trumpet player.

I have now to admit that due to the vagaries of the transport system in this leading global city, we left at ten fifteen to get back to London Bridge Station.  I went to pick up my jacket, a worn and battered thing that no low life in any pub would want to nick.  It wasn’t there!  In its place was a much nicer thing from John Lewis with a post it note stuck to the sleeve, ‘Have my jacket - Merry Christmas.’  As I fell out of the door, Clive announced Hugo was also leaving and as we wandered up Packington Street and the child prodigy got into his dad’s Saab, the whole pub was roaring out, “HUGO, HUGO, HUGO….”

I think I was missing the best part of the night, and I certainly missed the number where ‘Little Donkey’ morphs into Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’.  I leave that for the next time.

Would I revisit the Zenith for a beer? No.

Would I go again to see another act? If I lived closer

Would I go again to see the jazz Slayers? No problem.

Would I check out where else they play and see them again?  Dead right, I would.  And I’d stay to the end.

I have done this review for all the folk out there who do not want to book a gig twelve months in advance through a third party agency where you have to pay £100 to sit with a pair of binoculars just to see the big screen.  It is dedicated to those people who just like to turn up and take a chance.  Those who want a good night out at no more than the cost of public transport and a few beers.  And also for the good, honest performers who are willing to put on a show just because they enjoy it.


Peter Case, 10 October 2012

The Latest Bar, Brighton

10 October 2012

The best of Peter Case's songs suck you in to their own little worlds so deftly that you shiver with the final chord, like shaking awake from a dream. You've been there, inside, seeing what he's been seeing...

'Entella Hotel' has a small crowd at Brighton's Latest Bar rapt and, when it's evocation of living the lowlife in San Francisco is over, Case's collaborator tonight, Michael Weston King, speaks for us all:

'That's not just one of my favourite Peter Case songs, it's one of my favourite songs by anyone, ever.'

There are barely thirty people in the room and Case is so good, that's crazy. I shake his hand afterwards and tell him he should be playing to thousands. 'Maybe in another life,' he replies wryly.

He's 58 now and has been making solo albums since his classic self-titled debut in 1986. Prior to that he played in a couple of punky bands the Nerves and the Plimsouls. He's an accomplished guitarist, picking blues licks on an open-tuned acoustic with drive and no little finesse - but it's feel and impact rather than scrupulous technique that he goes for. His voice is distinctive, clear and expressive, with occasional echoes of John Lennon; his look is equally his own - imagine a beatnik Willy Rushton after an all night session...

This is the last night of a short tour with Weston King, a British country singer-songwriter and formerly one of the Good Sons. The set up is like a folkfest workshop: the pair sitting next to each other and trading songs, occasionally joining in to accompany each other. They open with a fine joint reworking of Tom Russell's 'Blue Wing'. Weston King has a decent voice and is friendly and engaging, but Case's songs are in a different league from his and so - like a folkfest workshop - the intensity and energy level in the room tends to fluctuate as the spotlight shifts.

Peter Case likes to tell stories between songs, as well as in them, and we get a long tale of buying in to Bob Dylan's self-mytholigising of running away to hit the road as a child. And, since Case grew up in Buffalo, his route out was Highway 62 - which runs all the way to the Mexican border at El Paso, via the birthplaces of Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly... Cue a splendid take on Dylan's 'Pledging My Time', re-imagined as country blues.

He's ready to mix in some old songs, like 'Put Down The Gun' (drawn, like 'Entella Hotel', from his second album Blue Guitar*) and even responds to a shouted request for the Plimsouls' 'Oldest Story In The World'. But is clearly ambivalent about crowd-pleasing: he agonises over a request for 'Old Blue Car' and eventually turns in an alternative seemingly improvised blues which he dubs 'New Old Blue Car'.

He also conveniently forgets my bid for the great 'Two Angels'. When I remind him afterwards he tells me that the song has just been featured in a TV show, providing the soundtrack as two vampires make love 'which, amazingly enough, is exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote the song...'

My partner and I reflect on the way home on the entirely random way that audience size correlates to talent. OK, someone like Case is always likely to be in the cult hero bracket, rather than a household name. That said, the cult really ought to be a little less exclusive. She points out that Peter is just as a good a singer, songwriter and guitarist as, say, Steve Earle, and of a similar vintage. But Steve is capable of drawing an audience in Brighton about a hundred times the size of tonight's. Go figure.

And go and see Peter Case at the very next opportunity: you won't regret it.


*and if you're not yet familiar with his second album's full title, try this for size: The Man With The Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-traditionalist Guitar. Yep, that's about it.


Wussy, 19 September 2012

The Windmill, Brixton, London

19 September 2012

'Chuck thinks that if something doesn't sound right you should stomp on a distortion pedal and make it ten times louder,' explains Wussy's Lisa Walker.

'Sometimes it works...' is the response from her partner in crime, Chuck Cleaver.

And he's right. The pair blend gorgeous melodies and great lyrics with a fine propensity for squalling noise. This, for me, is what rock & roll is supposed to be all about: a passionate racket veined with vision and beauty.

I'd turned up at Brixton's Windmill expecting the full five piece line-up of the band but found that only the two singer-songwriters had made the trip from Cincinnati. But that was never going to be a cue for some sort of laidback, acoustic performance...

In fact, it was an advantage in this intimate venue. The sound guys seemed to be having trouble getting the vocals loud enough over the bass and drums of openers Slowgun and then American Werewolf Academy - in the latter's set, even a harmonica blasting into frontman Aaron Thedford's vocal mic was barely audible. I would have hated for Wussy's wondrous words and harmonies to have gone the same way. But I needn't have worried: they come through loud and clear.

The two of them are here promoting a European-only compilation, Buckeye, drawn from four or five releases across the Atlantic over the last seven years, and there is something of a greatest hits feel to their set, with a whole clutch of songs jammed into their hour or so, any one of which would be a career highlight for most other songwriters: 'Airborne', 'Crooked', 'Maglite', 'Grand Champion Steer', 'Pulverized'... Classic songs just keep on coming.

There's a fascinating chemistry between the duo. Walker is keen to emphasise that they're no longer a couple offstage. 'But there's no real hate,' adds Cleaver, prompting the response: 'I'm not so sure...'

Lisa spends the set alternately grimacing at unexpected musical interventions and beaming at some of the many points when the big man undoubtedly pulls it off. The prickly intimacy in the way their voices and guitars entwine is something special and testifies to deep familiarity with each other's approach. 'We formed the band about 10 years ago,' says Walker. 'I was just an embryo; Chuck was already 50.

This isn't supposed to be slick music and when Lisa apologises for something that was rougher than she'd have liked, a guy in the audience shouts 'Remember Neil Young: ragged glory'. That's not a bad analogy: Wussy have a similar inclination to just go for it in performance and see what comes out; and a similar ability to veer between muscle and bruised vulnerability. As well as songs that stand up in that sort of exalted company.

I'm taken again tonight by the subtlety and beauty of many of those songs, alongside the energy and drive. 'Motorcycle' in particular gets its hooks in my brain, drawing on both the physical (small town, humdrum life) and the spiritual (flashes of the Rapture) to build the power of its yearning for escape:

16 motorcycles just today.

And if they offered I would take it:

A free ride out of this place.

And I would sit right on the back

Without a helmet on,

One day you'll see.

There's something very special going on here: do catch the tour if you can, and give the records a try.

Meanwhile, they're clearly thrilled to be in London and relishing some local experiences, though the double decker buses are not entirely suited to Chuck's ample frame... 'and they smell funny,' he added in a disappointed tone. 'They only smell funny,' came the immediate rejoinder, 'because of your bag of curry'.

A non-couple, but joined at the hip.