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Previous Journal Entries

Le Noise

 Le Noise - Neil Young (LP, CD, download)

Well into his fifth decade of performing, with dozens of albums under his belt, a legendary and wilful shape-shifter…it’s good to know Neil Young still has the capacity to find something  new and different. 

The voice and the guitar playing are – as always – unmistakeably his, but the soundscape he and producer Daniel Lanois have created for Le Noise is not something we’ve heard before.  Freed from the tethers of a rhythm section the guitar alternately floats and roars.  There’s calm, detachment and reflection in his singing;  frequent references back to the marriage that grounds him and to his Canadian roots.  The buzz and loops and distortion in the sound add up to interference on a very long distance call, but with the message coming through loud and clear.  It could have been downloaded through a Ouija board. 

Lyrically, the songs are uneven.  Generally plain, workaday language, sometimes veering into the trite (‘Angry World’).  When he does wax poetic, you half wish he hadn’t – ‘Peaceful Valley Boulevard’ mixes clunky lines with stronger ones.  But the sound and the conviction of the performances carry you through the weaker points in the writing without really noticing.  

The lyrics are often brought to life with flashes of personal intensity.  The first of the two strongest and clearly auto biographical songs is ‘Love and War’.  As well as one of the record’s several references back to Toronto, it includes the following heartfelt lines: 

The saddest thing in the whole wide world
Is to break the heart of your lover
I made a mistake and I did it again
And we struggled to recover

The second central song is ‘The Hitchhiker’:  a curious personal history using the drugs he was taking at different stages of his life as its milestones, before retreading the chorus of ‘Like an Inca’ from his eighties album Trans.  ‘The Hitchhiker’ was first written and performed live in the early 90s but not released on record until now. Somehow Neil has grown into it and all the elements come together into something extraordinary. 

I had a taster for all this when we made the trip – or pilgrimage – out to Nashville at the beginning of June to see Neil at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium.  His message was ‘I said solo, they said acoustic…’.  After a relatively gentle, familiar – and glorious - start (‘My My, Hey Hey’, ‘Tell Me Why’, ‘Helpless’), he strapped on Old Black and blasted out a lot of the new songs, along with storming takes on classics like ‘Ohio’ and ‘Cortez the Killer’.  It was a brave and  compelling performance, but I think the new material gains a lot from the settings Daniel Lanois has given it on Le Noise – though I guess increasing familiarity may be affecting my judgment too.  Must track down a recording of the Ryman performances to compare… 

Anyway, if you like Neil Young for his gentler, reflective side, for his barnstorming electric rock, or for his readiness to try something weird and different – cum on feel Le Noise.  He’s doing all those things remarkably well.


Old Crow Medicine Show  

Komedia, Brighton   

22 September 2010     

A fine evening of Americana, stretching out from a bluegrass base to driving blues, and even a spot of reggae.  After a number of UK dates with Dave Rawlings Machine, and before heading off to the continent to open for Mumford & Sons, the Nashville-based sixpiece had the luxury of an evening to themselves – playing two blistering sets to a rightly enthusiastic audience.    

The sound was rather muddy and the subtleties of the shifting backdrop of banjos, guitar, dobro and guit-jo were sometimes lost. On the plus side, Ketch Secor’s amazing fiddle and rabble-rousing harp always cut through, as did the band’s excellent harmony vocals.  And the absence of a drummer from the line-up did not mean any lack of energy or drive.    

Not all their songs are as memorable as their playing.  But highpoints included 'Wagon Wheel' (probably still their strongest number, with many of the audience roaring along, word perfect),  'I Hear Them All '(now covered by Rawlings & co on A Friend of a Friend), and a fine and mellow 'CC Rider'.  The first encore, Bob Marley’s 'Soul Rebel', was a daring shift of style and pace.  I really liked it, my companion (as we reviewers are contractually obliged to say) was less convinced.  She tutted whenever Ketch put his fiddle down – and the band certainly shifted up a gear when it was under his chin, bowing arm a blur.  But it’s good to have some variety.        

After three fully deserved encores OCMS headed off, looking forward to the Eurostar the next day, but muttering about ‘those damned Frenchies’ they’d have to deal with.  And leaving us with a taste of Tennessee in our mouths, and an appetite for more… 


Iain Matthews

The Greys, Brighton

6 September 2010

 A quick rush for tickets when news of this one came in:  a singer with Iain Matthews’ fine pedigree - Fairport Convention in the days of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, Matthews Southern Comfort (complete with a No 1 single*), and some fine solo albums in the 70s (Tigers Will Survive particularly recommended) - now heading for the tiny stage at The Greys, a friendly pub in Brighton with a capacity on a par with the Tom Thumb Theatre.   

Iain was playing with a Dutch guitarist/mandolinist, BJ Baartmans, and promoting what is billed as a new MSC album – though Iain is the only member of the original band featured on it…hmmm.    

The good news is that Iain’s voice is as pure and true as ever and that BJ is a great guitarist, evoking the tones and textures of a mellow Hendrix, and pretty hot on mandolin too.  And there was the bonus of a guest appearance for a few songs by Andy Roberts, previously in Plainsong with Iain, and also on excellent form.  The capacity crowd – virtually all of whom I would say have been on the planet since well before What We Did On Our Holidays hit the racks – were warm and enthusiastic.     

The bad news was that most of the material, though pleasant enough, failed really to cut it.  There was a marked contrast between the twin high spots -  Tom Waits’ 'Heart of Saturday Night' and the (probably inevitable, but don’t knock it) encore of 'Woodstock' - and most of the rest.  Nothing too awful, but a tendency towards plonking and predictable rhymes.  Certainly nothing in the class of   

'the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzing
telephone's ringing, it's your second cousin ' 

or, indeed     

'we are stardust, we are golden'.  

Let’s not make the best the enemy of the good.  A very nice evening, and great that Iain’s still out there, doing what he does.  But, all you great singers out there, don’t strain too hard to write great songs.  There’s plenty of them out there;  more than enough to go around.   

   * for 3 weeks in 1970 - replacing Freda Payne's 'Band of Gold' and followed by Jimi's 'Voodoo Chile'.    Respect certainly due for that company. 


On Margate Sounds

Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate  

29 August 2010    

Well, there was some sun, amid some sharp showers – and a gale that by evening was whipping tin cans down Eastern Esplanade like scrapyard tumbleweed…  

What a splendid day:  a wide range of different styles, some great performances, and a mellow and friendly mood.  A shame the theatre wasn't fuller - but the select band were very satisfied customers and word will surely spread for more next time.    

Monster Bobby’s quirky songs and samples made a strong start before he rushed off to emigrate, sidestepping encore requests and any risk of being mobbed by the steadily growing audience. (‘Elvis has now left the country…’)   

We fortified ourselves with custard pies and doughnuts and watched some films before being inducted into Panther Society’s distinctive sound world.    

Liz Green’s beguiling mix of songs, story-telling and shadow-puppetry followed.  Fenist the Falcon shook a tail feather, with the shade of Jake Thackray lurking approvingly somewhere in the house.  Liz deserves some award for travelling down from Manchester for her slot and being ready to go straight back, before being persuaded to stay over.  And she deserves a plug for her beautifully packaged Crow Cries EP. 


Next up, Tom White played a mellow set of acoustic songs, including a fine cover of Nick Drake’s 'Time Has Told Me' – which is not one for the faint-hearted.   

Rob Hart shook things up completely with a strong and compelling Eaten By Children set, mixing in found cine images and winning over audience members who’d normally run a mile from anything labelled noise.    

Finally four fifths of Two Wings (sounds like the start of a maths puzzle…) blended Hanna Tuulikki’s otherworldly vocals with fine guitar, melodic bass and solid, anchoring harmonies.  The band sometimes seemed tentative and may have been missing their drummer, but it was a lovely set and full of promise.    

Well done, Jess and Sian for pulling it all together and Eoin for making it sound so good.  More, please. 

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