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Previous Journal Entries

Meg Baird and Jason Steel, 14 September 2012


West Hill Hall, Brighton

14 September 2012

It's great when you go to see an old hero and know all the songs. It's also great to hear fine, new, unfamiliar music - particularly in an intimate setting.

So, 48 hours after Patti Smith wowed a couple of thousand of us at the Brighton Dome, I was one of maybe 50 up the road at the West Hill Community Hall - where my kids went to a toddlers' playgroup, where the stage lighting is provided by two old standard lamps, and where Michael Chapman played an amazing show earlier this year.

And Michael it was who led me to Meg Baird. She has a lovely version of his 'No Song To Sing' on the Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman compilation, which is shaping up to feature strongly in my favourite records of 2012.

And that was all I knew when I bought the tickets, other than that she had played in Espers, an American folk band who have never really grabbed my attention.

What a voice: clear and pure with effortless power, influenced - as I see the critics note and she herself acknowledges - by the sound of the English folk revival (Celia Humphris of Trees, Jacqui McShee, Shirley Collins are in the mix), but with a tone and style which is very much her own. Her largely fingerpicking guitar style is also distinctive and provides a solid and reliable platform for the songs.

She seems very shy. Singing always with her eyes closed, barely moving, taking several numbers before starting to say anything to the audience. But she warms into it and communicates a real charm: flashing delighted smiles at the end of the songs, which she seems surprised to find are greeted with rapturous applause. (I came away clutching a copy of her Seasons On Earth album, the sleeve of which has four photos of her, three of which hide her face entirely and the last has an eyes-closed semi-profile as she smiles at her dog... We like you too, Meg!)

She was supported by Jason Steel, a remarkable guitar and banjo player from Yorkshire, who also writes a mean song and sings with a light, true voice. He is remarkable for the way that he will leave space in his arrangements and allow the pace to drop, trusting the music to proceed according to its own internal logic. It works: spellbindingly.

He tells some funny and affecting stories, and quotes John Fahey - who is one definite reference point for the music, along with old, weird folk (from both sides of the Atlantic) and blues. But I also caught some flashes of early Paul Simon and (as my partner pointed out) Jeff Buckley in his songs. Fahey's advice was always to finish with a hymn and Jason gave us two, including a great reading of 'Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down'.

I came away with a handsome piece of vinyl from him, too - his very nicely packaged The Weight of Care album (numbered 242 of 250 - phew, just made it...). I'm going to enjoy getting to know both of my acquisitions.

A lovely, mellow evening: and the stars seemed particularly bright, walking home.


The Black Twig Pickers, 10 July 2012

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton

10 July 2012

Just when I was feeling regretful about not heading up to Stornoway for this year's HebCeltFest, another distinctive, vibrant and immersive folk tradition comes a-calling here in Brighton...

The Black Twig Pickers brought their irresistible, stomping Appalachian songs and tunes to Sticky Mike's Frog Bar last night and it was, as I commented afterwards to the band's fiddle/banjo virtuoso Mike Gangloff, as if the Anthology of American Folk Music had come to town. But don't be put off: this is no dry musicology, but the living, breathing, dancing, real thing.

The trio come from a corner of Virginia 'where West Virginia is north and North Carolina is south', as Gangloff helpfully explained. For this tour Sally Morgan (fiddle/guitar/dance-calling/slapped legs, etc) joins Gangloff and Nathan Bowles (banjo/percussion) because third core member Isak Howell couldn't make it.


They reeled off two sets' worth of fine music with an endearingly casual stage manner - and some winningly appalling jokes (like the corduroy pillow that is making headlines - you have been warned). The explanations of how they had come to learn (or, in some cases, write) the songs revealed their deep immersion in the local music - like links with Henry Reed's musical family including twins Gene and Dean, now in their eighties but still harbouring a grudge because a birth certificate mix-up had allowed one to retire from the power plant 12 months before the other...


A couple of numbers featured fiddlesticks: Nathan beating out a rhythm with chopsticks on Mike's fiddle strings as he played. it was the first time I'd seen it done and it works really well, as part of a regularly shifting dynamic of instrument changes and solo spots. They even managed to get a segment of a smallish but very enthusiastic audience square dancing.

Two hours and a thoroughly deserved encore later, Mike took time to show me his fretless banjo when I asked about it. Talented, charming, authentic, friendly: don't miss them if they're in your town.


Liz Green, 2 April 2012

Liz Green, The Hope, Brighton

2 April 2012

Liz Green has come a long way since I first saw her at On Margate Sounds in 2010. Excellent reviews for her debut album O Devotion; a fine Secret Sessions appearance; and a single of the week and now gig of the week in The Guardian's Guide. Happily, the whimsy, charm and originality remain intact, but there is a new drive and assurance to her stage manner and performance.

As a declaration of intent, her opening takes some beating: standing in the middle of the audience and breaking into Son House's 'Grinnin' In Your Face' unmiked and unaccompanied, doing her own thing with confidence and grace while slow-on-the-uptake punters were shushed by their neighbours. She then moved on to Pulp's 'Help The Aged' before a succession of her own distinctive songs.

Her reference to Jarvis Cocker and Son House being her main influences got a laugh, but there is something in it: she's a blues singer, but a very European one – marrying Jarvis's clear-eyed and mordant observation to a clipped and unostentatious vocal style. There's also something of the chanson tradition in the mix, as her song 'French Singer' suggests. (She even managed to introduce it in French for the benefit of a couple of fans from across the Channel.

Overall, it's a jazz take on the blues, helped by skilled and subtle accompaniment from Gus Fairbairn on tenor sax, Sam Buckley on double bass and Phil Howley on drums, deploying brushes very effectively throughout.

Liz plays guitar most of the time: straightforward and unonstentatious fingerpicking which fits in fine with the overall sound. She takes her place behind a Roland keyboard for a couple of numbers, adopting a similar approach, but deadpanning beforehand "I've learnt the piano. And I'm fucking excellent." But the musical contribution that wins the most applause is her parping 'mouth trumpet' solo in 'Bad Medicine' to fill in for a missing band member.

Plenty of variety, then. We get introduced to Starling Joe, as she dons a bird facemask along the way. She ends as she began, singing alone and off-mike in front of the stage for a final encore.

Great stuff: now, onward and upward.


Van Morrison, 3 March 2012

The Dome, Brighton

3 March 2012

Heading off to a Van Morrison gig there's always an edge of trepidation along with the anticipation. Of course, you know why you want to be there... That astounding voice. A back catalogue of songs to kill for. A jazzman's ability to cut and coax and prod and change - with a shaman's urge to take it somewhere higher. This is one of the few rock performers for whom the word 'genius' might not be the usual obvious hyperbole.

And yet... This is also the guy who turned in a perfunctory, uncommunicative and frustrating show the first time I saw him some thirty years ago, delighted to have bagged front row seats at the Hammersmith Odeon. This is also the guy who has churned out a whole load of uninspired songs with clumsy and self-pitying lyrics. Who has elevated grumpy-old-man-ness to a form of conceptual art.

I saw a couple of concerts in Brighton in the 90s which were pretty good, but then a gap until I was lured back for his reprise of Astral Weeks at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years ago. Trepidation cubed for that, given the cultural weight of the set-list and the eye-watering ticket prices - it could all go horribly wrong.

It didn't, of course. An absolute and delightful triumph: the voice undimmed by the years, unlike so many of his contemporaries; an extraordinary band; Van (by his standards) chatty and clearly enjoying himself; and to cap it all the unexpected and unalloyed joy of hearing 'Listen To The Lions' live after the night's main menu.

So, I couldn't expect him to match that, nor could I miss the opportunity to see him in Brighton again. Trepidation along with anticipation.

A nicely in-character notice to welcome us to The Dome: no support, on stage at eight sharp, 90 minutes, no drinks, bar shut, no photography - under pain of ritual disembowelment (inside later, security folk were indeed rushing down the aisles earnestly to wag fingers at the merest gleam from a mobile).

But as soon as the music started, the tension slipped way. This was never going to be a reprise of the Albert Hall but it was definitely the next best Van show I've seen. Primarily a jazz band behind him for this tour, all in black, highly skilled - trombone and sax, keyboard doubling on trumpet, guitar, bass and two drummers - slipping effortlessly into a lightly swinging arrangement of 'Brown Eyed Girl'. Van in command: stretching words, repeating, scat singing; pointing in the solos, nodding proprietorially at the particularly good ones - of which their were many.

It's also an evening to appreciate what a good musician Van is himself: he blows some very nice alto sax, along with harp on a couple of numbers and even plays some electric piano.

An early highlight was 'Fair Play' from 1974's classic Veedon Fleece, Van blending sweet high notes with more guttural attack, playing around repeatedly with the wonderfully bizarre 'you say Geronimo' line. There's even a bit of slapstick when Van sings 'you can hear the brass band' then waits ostentatiously while the horns pretend to miss their cue. Sounds daft, but it was good fun at the time...

After that, he briefly reminded us that he can write some clunkers by wheeling out 'I'm Not Feeling It Anymore' ('I just ended up in doubt/All my drinking buddies, they locked me out' etc, etc) before returning to the stronger side of his songbook.

A lot of the set is gently paced and quietly pitched. He's not afraid to cut things back and draw out individual instruments. And that makes for strong dynamic variety when the band crank up and really go for it. A medley moving from 'All In The Game' through to 'No Plan B/This Is It' builds irrestibly to the repetition of the key phrases 'this is rehearsal'.

Then things calm through 'Moondance', 'Haunts Of Ancient Peace' and (another lovely surprise) a slow and gentle reading of 'Into The Mystic' - after which 'In The Garden' builds again to its forceful conclusion 'no guru, no method, no teacher'. Time for some hairs on the back of the neck to spring to attention at a liberating message very convincingly expressed.

After 'Crazy Love', Van calls to the wings for a crib sheet, introducing a Rodney Crowell song 'that we haven't played for a while'. It is 'Till I Gain Control Again', from the Pay The Devil country set from 2006. He doesn't seem to have to study the words much, but relative unfamiliarity may help form what is a moving version of a fragile song.

He then segues into 'I Can't Stop Loving You' before a killer sequence of five songs to close the show: a stark and blues-inflected 'St James Infirmary'; a jaunty 'Precious Time', with an arrangement bordering on ska; then reining back for a luminous take on 'Ballerina' (introduced as a request from his six-year old daughter), before cranking up again with 'Help Me' and closing with a storming and stonking version of 'Gloria'.

The last song is a joy. I realise I'd almost come to think of 'Gloria' as Patti Smith's song, but it's great to hear the relish its creator can still bring to it, the best part of fifty years on - and the sheer enjoyment of the band, reeling off chorus after exuberant chorus after their leader has marched off the stage - a great rock guitar solo followed by a chopping and churning keyboard break, including a heel landing on the keys, Jerry Lee Lewis style.

After that, there is of course no chance of a second encore: the house lights are up before all the band have left the stage. Van is probably several streets way already.

Oh, well: let him do it his way - the results can be extraordinary.


Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings

The Dome, Brighton

12 November 2011

An astonishing performance by Gillian and Dave at the Brighton Dome last night, opening their European tour, following the release of Gillian's first album for eight years, 'The Harrow and the Harvest' - as well as the first Dave Rawlings Machine release.

They play uncannily well together: Gillian laying down a rock-solid platform on her Gibson (or occasional banjo) with Dave spinning off at remarkable and unmistakable tangents on his distinctive antique f-hole-of-a-make-I-didn't-recognise (Epiphone?). He's not a grandstander in any way, and all is in service of the song - but this is like a jazz gig in the way that the audience repeatedly breaks into spontaneous roars and applause when another solo ties itself in beautiful knots before unravelling miraculously and parking on a sixpence in time for the next verse. And the voices - spot on, supportive harmonies. These two are a unit.

A delayed and somewhat - by their standards - muted opening was explained a few songs in: Dave had tripped climbing the final staircase on the long walk from the dressing room (' was in France...', '...we came through the Eurotunnel...') and landed heavily on his arm in protecting his precious guitar. They didn't know if it was going to work properly: well, it did - and I hope it's not too sore today. (I draw a veil over the shouts of 'Spinal Tap!' from the audience when difficult journeys from dressing room to stage were mentioned. G & D ignored them too...)

Over two hours of glorious music, mixing tracks from the new album with old classics and some judicious covers, with not the slightest sign of a weak link. I think it's only time before fine new songs like 'The Way That It Goes' ('She was busted, broke and flat/ had to sell that pussy cat') and 'Tennessee' ('I had no desire to be a child of sin/ and then you went and pressed your whiskers to my chin') have implanted themselves them as firmly in my brain as the indisputably extraordinary 'Elvis Presley Blues' and 'Revelator' - both gloriously present and correct last night.

And the covers? No Neil Young this time, sadly. But a lovely 'Billy' from Dylan'sPat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack and a shivers-down-the-spine-astounding take on the Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit'. And then a trip back to O Brother, Where Art Thou? for a final encore of 'I'll Fly Away'.

Welcome back: don't leave it so long next time.