Get me out of here
Buy books
  • 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

John Cale, 23 May 2011

Dome, Brighton

23 May 2011

A powerful and commanding performance from John Cale at Brighton's Dome yesterday, in a one-off Festival show loosely themed around the title Émigré/Lost & Found. His voice as clear and fluent as it ever was, straight back, hawk nose, sharp eyes flashing under still-thick white hair (the pink streaks he sported to collect his OBE last year now grown out). The strong sense of a man you wouldn't mess with... Accompanied by a four-piece band and a string quartet, he ranged widely through a more-than-forty-year back catalogue, bringing out effectively how movement, travel and loss have been recurrent themes for him.

And what a catalogue. I've got about a dozen of his solo albums, but that's far from a complete set and some of last night's songs were new to me. There are avant-garde instrumentals and orchestral works alongside affecting, intelligent singer-songwriter excursions and flat-out, screaming (literally), rock. His quality control is not always consistent and not every album is satisfying as a whole, but there are always gems lurking. I'd seen him once before, in 1984 when haunting versions of 'Leaving It All Up To You' and 'Close Watch' were in amongst the less inspired Caribbean Sunset material of the day.

Of course, Cale is significant. Even if he'd never made even one solo album, anyone with a sense of musical history would be interested in seeing the co-founder of the Velvet Underground, producer of pivotal albums like the first Stooges and Modern Lovers albums and Patti Smith's Horses, the architect of the strange beauty of Nico's Marble Index and Desertshore. Still need convincing? Go and listen to the organ part on the Velvets' 'Sister Ray' and ponder his influence...

The good news is that the songs stand up, without any unnecessary hagiography. In one quiet moment towards the end of last night's show, one devotee shouted 'Thank you, John Cale. You are a genius.' He grinned briefly, said 'Calm down' firmly, and moved on to the next number.

The night's travelogue began with the squally rock of 'Captain Hook', with lyrical references to the East India Company and sailing round the Cape of Good Hope, via 'Look Horizon' and a beach in Zanzibar, to a beautiful 'Amsterdam' from 1970's Vintage Violence and a stunning 'Chinese Envoy'. The strings appeared first for 'Half Past France' from Paris 1919, probably his most popular album. He's one of the great deployers of evocative place names, not overly dependent on the easier North American ones: 

I suppose I'm glad I'm on this train
And it's long
Somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris.
Most people here are still asleep
But I'm awake
Looking out from here -- at half-past France.
Things are much different here than Norway
Not so cold.
Wonder when we'll be in Dundee...

It's also a song  that shows clearly his penchant for giving his characters a brutal pay-off line amidst the beauty:

Back in Berlin they're all well fed -
I don't care.
People always bored me anyway.

And so it went on: the sleepy wild west scene of 'Buffalo Ballet', Afghanistan in 'Letter from Abroad'. Cale's homeland Wales was evoked in 'Ship of Fools' (' the time we got to Swansea, it was getting dark...') and his setting of Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gently'.

The final encore featured Cale rocking out impressively, Stratocaster in hand, on his seventies classic 'Helen of Troy'. Not much chance of him going gently...

A mild rap over the knuckles for failing to introduce his fine band: the drummer looked naggingly familiar and I now find it was Michael Jerome - last spotted by me on the Dome's stage in February doing equally fine things for Richard Thompson; and my first encounter, I think, with the storming and splendidly off-centre guitarist Dustin Boyer.

And finally... he's not just a songs man, of course. Why not give a listen to some fine and subtly orchestrated instrumentals on his Paris S'Eveille soundtrack album? It's one of my regular Sunday breakfast records - lovely stuff and you get the bonus of an obscure Velvets instrumental.

I suppose I'm glad I'm on this trainAnd it's longSomewhere between Dunkirk and Paris.Most people here are still asleepBut I'm awakeLooking out from here -- at half-past France.Not so cold.Wonder when we'll be in Dundee...I don't care.People always bored me anyway.


Mike Heron, 5 May 2011

Bom-Bane's, Brighton

5 May 2011

A magical evening at Bom-Bane's - one of the few venues in the galaxy to make the Tom Thumb Theatre feel spacious... The legendary Mike Heron on warm and engaging form, playing two sets of Incredible String Band favourites, with stronger musical support than he's had since the seventies. Perhaps the one obvious gap in a set-list of Heron classics was 'Everything's Fine Right Now' - but if you didn't climb the spiral staircase at the end with that thought firmly in your head anyway, and a silly grin on your face to match, then you hadn't been listening properly.

The accompaniment came from astounding fiddler and multi-instrumentalist, Nick Pynn*; the Trembling Bells' guitarist, Mike Hastings, relishing the opportunity to play rather more whistle, kazoo and jew's harp than the day-job allows; and Mike Heron's daughter, Georgia Seddon, whose keyboards, percussion and strong vocals added much more to the mix than Licorice and Rose in the old days. What a band - and more than equal to the eclecticism of the original arrangements. (I will particularly treasure a memory of one song with Nick playing an intricate pizzicato part on fiddle while also clutching a mallet in his hand to hit a miniature xylophone at strategic moments...)

At 68, Heron's voice comes and goes a little - less certain now in strength and pitching, but he seemed to relax and push out more as the evening progressed to its glorious conclusion - 'A Very Cellular Song', in all its mystery and wonder, before a spritely 'Hedgehog's Song.'

Along the way, the many highlights included fine versions of 'Black Jack Davy', 'Log Cabin Home In The Sky' and 'Cousin Caterpillar' - as well as 'Feast of St Stephen' from Mike's first, great, solo album, which he reprised with Trembling Bells last Christmas. Georgia featured two of her own songs - 'Bird' and 'Paths', which fitted in well. As did a cameo Brighton song from host Jane Bom-Bane.

Mike even featured a Robin Williamson number - 'The Circle is Unbroken' - introduced with the slightly barbed comment that he always had the knack of writing what the hippies wanted. But

Come let us build the ship of the future      In an ancient pattern that journeys far

will serve as well now as it did at Woodstock.

* I have to declare an interest, in that Nick is an old friend, whose amazing playing has turbocharged a number of sessions at our parties over the years. But I'm not biased - he's great.



The Decemberists, 12 March 2011

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

12 March 2011

This seems to be breakthrough time for The Decemberists. On our way to their gig at Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion we read a four-star review with colour picture in The Guardian. I have a strong sense that their next tour will be in bigger venues. Take your chance now, while you can still see the whites of their eyes and what their fingers are doing...

The difference has been made by their current album, The King Is Dead, which is the one which hooked me - so I come to this review as a newbie, currently engaged in a fascinating tour through their back catalogue. The new record is a classic slice of stirring and often beautiful Americana embellished with contributions from Gillian Welch and REM's Peter Buck. But they are not dependent on those star guests and the Bexhill versions of songs like 'This Is Why We Fight' and 'Down By The Water' were every bit as strong as the record's. They have chosen well in augmenting their normal five-piece line-up for this tour with fiddle player and singer Sara Watkins, formerly of the fine Nickel Creek: she was in great voice throughout and added an important extra texture to the instrumentation. Not that the core band are short of variety: bouzouki, steel guitar, accordion and banjo were all in the mix at various points.

What has changed? My impression is that the current set of songs has brought a new coherence to an almost ludicrously wide range of styles and lyrical subject matter. Songwriter and front man Colin Meloy is clearly influenced by the English folk tradition and lengthy ballads about strange happenings. He also likes his prog. And a bit of biographical delving on the net has just confirmed my suspicion: he has a degree in creative writing. (There are pluses and minuses to that discipline when it comes to rock music, as co-educatee Sufjan Stevens amply demonstrates: striking writing about completely unexpected subjects but which sometimes slips into craft and fireworks for their own sakes and leaves the listener - this one anyway - asking why?; but then throwing in a gorgeously strange turn of phrase that is unarguably right, whatever it means. And, like Sufjan Stevens, Colin Meloy comes up with some lovely melodies to help the medicine go down.)

It was a major achievement to make songs with the diverse subject matter of 'Red Right Ankle', 'Sixteen Military Wives' and 'The Mariner's Revenge Song' seem part of an organic whole. (Especially when I tell you the last tells the convoluted story of how one sailor determined to kill another has found himself together with his victim in the belly of a whale, and that it is spread over more than ten minutes with audience participation and various bits of mugging from the band... The first-time concertgoer does feel a little like an anthropologist happening upon the strange rituals of a previously undiscovered tribe.) 

But it does all seem like an organic whole. The new album is not a complete shift - there have always been straightforward lines and powerful playing in The Decemberists' music, it has just been brought to the fore in a more disciplined way. Within the clarity there is still a wonderful subtlety - try 'Don't Carry It All'

So raise a glass to turnings of the season, 
And watch it as it arcs towards the sun, 
And you must bear your neighbour's burden within reason, 
And your labours will be borne when all is done.

It's 'within reason' which raises the writing to greatness. And anyone who can throw into a beautiful evocation of summer a line like this from 'July Hymn' and carry it off

The thrushes' bleating battle with the wrens                                                                                        Disrupts my reverie again.

is definitely onto something.

It's the last encore at Bexhill and ends a great gig beautifully. I'd go to four and a half stars. 


Iron & Wine

Corn Exchange, Brighton

9 March 2011

Most reviews of the unarguably hirsute Samuel Beam's shows tend to start with beards. But I'll begin by praising the luxuriance of his band. Seven - count 'em - colleagues crossed the Atlantic with him, shaming cheapskate US troubadours who have played solo in Brighton to save on airfares and hotel bills and then charged about twice as much for tickets as the estimable I&W (yes, I'm talking to you Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, etc, etc).

They're a flexible bunch too - sax, flute, clarinet, mandolin, banjo at various points as well as drums, percussion, keyboards and guitars. The textures and dynamics shifted nicely and it's difficult to put a single stylistic label on them. There are certainly strands of seventies AOR in there, but there were moments when a wildly honking tenor sax turned the dial all the way through fusion to flat-out jazz. And then they pared everything back for a gloriously spare arrangement of 'Naked As We Came' - the song that first alerted me to the fact that one of a new generation of sensitive chaps my daughter was listening to had something about him and could really write...

The first time I saw I&W was a couple of years ago - a solo gig at the Edmonton Folk Festival, outdoors on the main stage in broad daylight. Pleasant enough but it didn't really command attention, meandering gently in the sun. Last night was completely different in terms of attack and impact. The Corn Exchange is hardly ideal - a barn-like, flat, all-standing space with an unfinished air about it - but the way the band worked it and held the audience's attention owed as much to the frontman's confidence and projection as to the vigour of his supporting musicians. He opened by apologising for the fact that he was recovering from a cold, but he sounded in good voice throughout.

All told, an excellent show. The current album Kiss Each Other Clean seemed like a big stylistic shift when it came out a couple of months back, but hearing older material reinvigorated live alongside the new songs makes you see similarities that were always lurking in there. 'Wolves' from The Shepherd's Dog took it's place seamlessly alongside strong new songs like "Rabbit Will Run' and 'Me And Lazarus'. It felt coherent: it worked.

Oh, and beards? A definite element of continuity. From my vantage point I'd say 75% of those on stage had some form of facial follicular display. Not a bad average, given that a further 12.5% comprised a female backing singer.


Patti Smith

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

28 January 2011

Patti Smith was mesmerising at the De la Warr Pavilion last night. A genuinely shamanic performer with a voice of honeyed iron. Mixing readings in with songs drawn from across her thirty five year career and making a satisfying and consistent whole.

The musical platform was flimsier than usual. I missed Lenny Kaye's rock-solid guitar. A trio combining daughter Jesse's piano, vibes/guitar and violin/harp (as in Joanna Newsom rather than Sonny Terry) brought some new and interesting textures to familiar favourites. But they were often tentative and Jesse in particular seemed ill at ease. it didn't matter: Patti was in commanding form, owning the songs and driving through them. 

Commanding, but with her usual gawky charm: thanks to the audience, pleasure to be there, frequent references to the virtues of sea air - which Bexhill residents should remember 'even when they get fed up of the town'. Several times she broke off, grinned and apologised for missing a cue. Like the oracle at Delphi stopping midflow, peering through the smoke over her spectacles, and regretting that she hadn't done that particular prophecy very much recently...

She set the tone by singing a spine-tingling 'Beneath the Southern Cross' solo to her own acoustic guitar. Given the original boasted Tom Verlaine as well as Lenny Kaye, it was clear her confidence was high, and rightly so.

A lot of the evening had an elegiac tone. She introduced 'Ghost Dance' by talking of the Hopi's ability to summon the spirits of their ancestors for help and guidance 'which we all can do'. She read her last letter to Robert Mapplethorpe. She sang a song for Jerry Garcia ('who didn't teach me guitar'). She dedicated her wonderful cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' to her late husband Fred - and the lines 'Baby can you hear me now...sing with me somehow' were particularly charged. A beautiful reading from WG Sebald's After Nature focused on the painter Grunewald, whose thirteen year old son died unexpectedly and the artist 'did not long survive him'...

Elegiac but never doomy or downbeat. Patti Smith has come through her tragedies and sadness and wants us to do so as well. Stomping and joyful versions of 'People Have The Power' and 'Because The Night', with the audience roaring out the chorus, were topped by an extraordinary encore of 'Gloria'. Patti said that they hadn't really rehearsed it ('but we haven't rehearsed anything very much'), but any ragged edges were immaterial: it throbbed and burned with all the passion and yearning and self-belief that took her out of that New Jersey 'Piss Factory' onto the train to New York City and into her art and on and on and on...

One of the talkative crowd shouted 'When will your new record be finished?'. She spat back 'Do I look like Nostradamus? ...You sound like my record company.' Watch this space - she's got a lot more to say yet.

(photo courtesy Anna Rhodes)