Personal Top 30 – part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

15. Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This is one I keep coming back to. It’s already one of my Top 25 most played tracks in iTunes. It’s a 2008 single and is by now quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I can picture her on the stage at a small venue in Buckingham, rocking back and forth at the grand piano and pumping on the foot pedal. The video I’ve posted before, of Ms Merritt playing the song alone in a studio, misses out on the heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar playing in the spaces left by the vocal. So the video below is just the audio (4 views on YouTube!), but is the track as released.

Those gigs in Buckingham were special. The venue was a converted church, and the acoustics were so good that she came back several times and even recorded a live album there. We took the kids. They were very young, but it was such a great experience for them to see some proper live music. We sat on the balcony and looked down, and I remember the youngest peering through the balusters. Tift Merritt is tiny. Her voice is huge. She strums her guitar so aggressively that she wore a hole in it.

Another time, we tried to see her in Oxford – with an actual band. This was it! I was finally going to see her with a backing band. But, turns out, it was an age-restricted venue because you had to go through a bar to get to it. Or something. When I went back to the same venue a couple of years later, they’d moved the entrance so you didn’t have to go in via the pub. Fucksake. We stood outside in the early evening, debating what to do. Four tickets, wasted. For a moment, I was all for abandoning the kids in a coffee shop. But I wouldn’t really have done that, would I?

14. That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. Another one from my most-played Top 25. This 1964 single only managed the upper reaches of the Hot 100, but it has grown in stature with the years, I think. I relate this in my mind to that final chorus on the Allison Moorer song (at number 22 on this list). It’s the way the vocal and backing vocal are slightly out of synch. I guess you’d call it swing. My daughter’s great insight about Sam Cooke is that he is all the evidence you need to understand that songs aren’t poems. Cooke’s smooth, mellifluous voice can do wonders with the most unpromising material. Listen to him sing “It’s All Right” or “We’re Having a Party” and you understand that the most pedestrian lyrics become poetry when performed by a master vocalist. My personal favourite is this: the almost conversational hesitations, stumbles, improvisations, snatching at the words at times, weaving in and out of the simplistic backing vocals and droning horns. The only problem with this is that it’s only 150 seconds long, which isn’t a problem at all.

Sixty-five people have “thumbs-downed” this record on YouTube. What the living fuck is wrong with people? I mean, just the existence of a thumbs down on YouTube is one of the worst things in the world, but then you give people that option and they click it. What? Who? Racists? Cretinous know-nothing racists who apparently like to suck joy out of the world. I don’t care if it’s not to your taste, whatever. But don’t click the fucking button. These are the kind of people who would keep administering an electric shock to an obviously suffering person on the other side of the glass in one of those psychological experiments. People without a shred of empathy.

13. Left My Woman – The Wild Feathers. Another one from the recently-discovered vocal harmony country rock group. I like the audience sing-a-long in this 2014 track. What’s not to like about a band who swaps between vocalists, you know, like The Band on The Weight? 21 people have disliked this video on YouTube.

12. Sad City – Trick Pony featuring Darius Rucker. It really is a little bit sad when you buy a record and then over the months and years distil your listening down to just one track. For whatever reason I didn’t ever warm to Trick Pony, although I remember radio’s Eddie Mair once saying how much he liked them. This song, however, this I love. It’s from their 2005 album R.I.D.E. and features a guest vocal from none other than Darius Rucker, the solo artist who used to be the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. In fact, he recorded this vocal three years before releasing his own debut country album, so I guess it’s a significant moment in his career. Nobody has disliked this one yet.

I miss Eddie Mair. Walked away from the BBC, another talent whose goodwill was burned through by dumb management decisions. I hope he still likes Trick Pony and still occasionally listens to this one.

11. On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe. Another one from Ms Monroe’s 2015 second album. This is a more uptempo number, the poppy debut single from The Blade. I love that country music is such a broad church. This is really just a very good pop record, but there’s no mistaking where her voice comes from, and that slide guitar is unmistakably country. 

And so, we approach the top 10.

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Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.

Rewatching Let it Be

Someone uploaded Let it Be to YouTube and so I watched it again for the first time in at least 25 years. It’s a kind of 50th anniversary: it was this last 10 days or so in 1969 that The Beatles convened, miserable, at Twickenham film studios and desultorily banged at a few instruments, took heroin*, argued, and fell apart. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the film and album release, and maybe we’ll get a blu-ray? I mean, I expect we’ll get a 50th anniversary boxed set of Abbey Road this year, won’t we? Let it Be is problematic, and there has already been the …Naked version (which wasn’t very good, turns out), but however miserable it makes us, the film needs to be preserved, and a digital remaster and blu-ray/digital release would help that. 

But maybe it’s already too late. I’m still haunted by learning that The Who’s The Kids Are All Right documentary was in a very sad state of decay before the 2003 re-release, at which stage it was under 25 years old. The Kids… was restored from the master positive, as none of the release prints had survived. What state is Let it Be in, after 50 years? It was filmed on 16mm, too, which limits the options for a high definition version.

Then again, rumour has it that Scorsese is making a documentary of The Rolling Thunder Revue, and I bet will be using a lot of the footage Dylan filmed for Renaldo and Clara. So maybe Let it Be can be rescued by being repurposed.

I have to say, watching it this time around, it wasn’t as long and depressing as I remembered. The really awful bit at the beginning is over quite quickly, and then there’s a better atmosphere at Apple, bar one or two moments, and then the rooftop concert, which is a real joy to watch. A lot of people can’t watch this film because it’s so sad, but if you think of it as a Spinal Tap type mockumentary, it’s more bearable.

George was playing the part of Put Upon Guitarist, and eventually walked out, went to Liverpool, and refused to return until they agreed to knock Twickenham (and the Big Comeback Concert) on the head and do everything in the Apple offices. The awkward argument between him and Paul as Paul tries to get him to play something a particular way and George instead turns up his Passive Aggressive Hippy knob to 11 is still the worst moment in the film.

Ringo plays Bored Drummer to great effect, smoking and sitting at his kit, joining Paul on the piano, desperate for something, anything, to happen. Ringo must have spent so much of the late 60s sitting around waiting for the others to get their shit together. A candidate for the second worst moment in the film is the bit where John and George (and George Martin) are helping Ringo with “Octopus’ Garden”, and it all seems to be going lovely, and then Paul walks in and it all grinds to a halt. Awks. Maybe it was the editing made it look like it happened that way.

Paul Plays Musical Director, which was a role he’d been used to playing for a couple of years, since John Destroyed his Ego with LSD and generally took a back seat in terms of Hit Making. Without Paul’s contributions in 1968 and ’69, the last of the Beatles would have been a sorry thing indeed. Here is a list:

  • Lady Madonna
  • Hey Jude
  • Back in the USSR
  • Blackbird
  • Helter Skelter
  • The Long and Winding Road
  • Let it Be
  • Get Back
  • Two of Us
  • Side Two of Abbey Road

For sure, Lennon wrote some good ones too, often after realising that Paul was getting ahead of him, but he also phoned a lot in, riding the avant-garde repetitive lyrics train (Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You), glomming things together from fragments (Happiness is a Warm Gun) or ripping off Chuck Berry (Come Together).

*John plays Heroin Addict Rock Star with Heroin Addict Girlfriend and Extra Heroin, and a year ago yesterday gave an interview for Canadian TV which is notorious for the bit in the middle where he gets the Heroin Addict Rock Star Sweats and goes off to be sick. And he’s so, so boring. Up his own arse with self importance and Portentous Statements. A year later his “etchings” would be seized by police in a trumped up obscenity panic. There’s a bit in the film where Musical Director Paul is trying to be Persuasive about the Big Comeback Concert, and Lennon just sits and listens (or does he?) and says not a word.

After 10 days at Twickenham, they canned it and went back to Savile Row to finish up, abandoned the idea of a Big Comeback Concert, and went up onto the roof to finish up. The film finishes almost miraculously, with actual music which is Quite Good (almost all composed by Paul with Paul on lead vocal). There are a few songs performed in the studio (including “Let it Be” and “Two of Us”), and then they’re on the roof, in the cold, with people gathering down below to see what all the fuss. George huddles in his fur coat and green trousers and John plays the fucking lead guitar on “Get Back”. Which clearly confused the hell out of camera people and editor.

This is worth 21 minutes of anyone’s time, because it is brilliant, not just because of the music, but because of the vision of Britain you get on the streets below, as people stop and wonder. There are some nice cameos as people stop and give opinions (top tip: say something positive if you want to be in the film), and you see men in bowler hats mixing with the youngs. Dirty hippies are noticeably absent, but there are lots of young women who worked in offices, all out for an exciting lunchtime. They’re all in their late 60s and 70s now: think about that.

Of course, the narrative goes that the police were called, business was being disrupted and traffic was being stopped, but it’s not as if The Beatles had much more material. I half-suspect the phone call came from inside the Apple offices. Please stop us.

Anyway, it’s not that bad. And further proof that The Beatles falling apart were still better than most bands at their peak. There’s no album quite like Let it Be for giving me a certain feeling. “Two of Us” is such an evocative song, and my flashbulb memory of the first time I played the album will be with me forever.

Leopards break into the temple: re-enacting The Last Waltz

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.
Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.

Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by by Michael Hofmann

I mentioned before that I might have more thoughts on the regular re-enactments of The Band’s The Last Waltz. Here they are. I used Kafka’s aphorism (some term it a parable) as the epigraph to my PhD thesis, Events and Local Gods, which had its focus events and narrative in the works of Don DeLillo. My argument was that the eventhood of events persists, even after the cause/effect sequence has been re-narrated in the light of new knowledge. In other words, we cannot help but continue to be shocked by events, even if it turns out to have been inevitable. We just incorporate the leopards into our ritual.

I love The Last Waltz. I force it on friends, I watch it regularly, I’ve purchased and repurchased the film and soundtrack almost as many times as I have Bruce Springsteen’s The River. I even used to use it in the classroom, as part of my Film Studies course, as a wonderful demonstration of how nothing you see on screen in a feature film is there by accident. Teenagers always like to argue, re literature and film that the author/director didn’t really mean for us to interpret things. They think they’re being original when they say this. So I would put on a clip of Rick Danko singing “It Makes No Difference” in The Last Waltz, and then I’d pause and point out how the colour of the backdrop changes at the emotional peak of the song, and that Scorsese uses one camera and pulls focus between Rick and Robbie and then Garth as he comes in with his saxophone: because the concert had not just been rehearsed but more or less storyboarded. It was a concert film and a documentary, but it was also a film, and nothing you see in a film is there by chance.

As a farewell concert, then, it already had the quality of a ritual, as much of a retirement as Frank Sinatra’s was a few years earlier. And that’s before you take into account the idea that a “farewell” concert did not have the full and enthusiastic support of all Band members, and that a few short years later most of the group would reconvene to tour again, until the tragic death of Richard Manuel put a stop to that. Even then, the surviving members minus Robbie recorded three more studio albums in the 90s. Only Robbie stayed true to the original vision, and withheld his labour.

So the whole thing is played out as if it were a farewell concert, but only one person really wanted that to be the case.

So we end up with a double vision: from one perspective, The Band gave a magnificent farewell concert in 1976, with lots of special guests (inc. Canadian rock aristocracy and Bob Dylan) which was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese and cut down and released as a feature in 1978. End of story.

From another perspective, The Band participated in a special musical event to commemorate their years in the business, took a few years off the hard life of the road and then got back on it with a slightly adjusted line-up in 1983.

When they “retired” in 1976, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko were around 33 years old; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson, the Bill Wyman of the group, was 39.

The very idea that this collective of incredible talent would step back and fade away in their mid-30s is nonsensical. But Robbie had other things to do: film soundtracks, production, solo work. So they went through the ritual ending, and then the leopards broke into the temple.

In one sense, of course, it was the end of something. It was the end of feeling good about The Band on stage, because the 80s touring was retrospectively tainted by Manuel’s suicide, and the 90s recordings, mostly cover versions, were tainted by two absences and Rick Danko’s death at 55 from the effects of alcoholism. And I can’t watch the later Levon Helm performing through the ravages of throat cancer without crying.

But you can, thanks to the magic of celluloid, watch Levon at his absolute peak, performing with exuberance and joy in a concert film that manages to capture something of the elusive alchemy of live music.

But, still, it’s only a film, with focus pulling and lighting changes. It’s there on a screen, and you can see and hear it but you can’t experience the direct, sweaty, barely controlled tumult of it, and you can only try not to think about how Richard Manuel doesn’t sing much.

And Robbie Robertson’s Stratocaster was dipped in bronze.

And fucking Neil Diamond was there, not because he belonged, nor even because he wrote “I’m a Believer”, but more prosaically because Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for him. And he doesn’t fit and he doesn’t go and some people skip over his chapter on the DVD, but he’s part of the ritual now, so someone has to be him, just like someone has to be Major General George McClellan when they do Civil War re-enactments.

And so the leopards keep breaking into the temple, and recreate the ritual, over and over, in annual re-enactments that pay tribute to the elusive emotions The Last Waltz evokes. It’s an affectionate tribute, and it’s an acknowledgement that, then, Thanksgiving 1976, was the Peak of Rock, and everything after that was remixing and rebooting and simulacra. It’s the last day of the Holy Roman Empire of Rock and the barbarians are at the gate. Quick! get everybody on stage (even you Ronnie Wood) and let’s sing “Forever Young”.  It’s stuck culture at its stickiest.

Most of all, it’s a chance, for those who go, to experience live music that is paradoxically somehow more spontaneous and exciting than a modern Rock Aristocracy live tour.

By the time the film is released, Dylan has found God and Ronnie Wood has found The Rolling Stones.

And the Fender Custom Shop borrowed Robertson’s preserved guitar and took it apart and measured it, and tested it, and copied it and reproduced it. So those are out there, more leopards, drinking to the dregs what’s in the pitchers, yours for $17,000, if you can find one.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

Jason Isbell and Tift Merritt, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

 

I booked the tickets for this gig in a moment of passion for music, but as the date came closer I was filled with reluctance because it would be a school/work night, and I knew I’d be tired. Of course, I’m glad I went, although the traffic in Birmingham at arrival time was a shitshow, and going home I was tired enough to cause a couple of Google reroutes.

It was the first time I’d seen Jason Isbell live, and the seventh time seeing Tift Merritt, who’s one of those artists I just buy the new record without even thinking about it. Above is my favourite track from her latest album Stitch of the World, which I was disappointed she did not play. Her 30 minutes on stage was fairly low key and subdued, as she picked songs from her repertoire that lent themselves to solo performance and the sound in the room. I also realised that she was being a good support act citizen, and not doing anything that might embarrass the headliner.

The Symphony Hall is a brilliant space for music. Once the Birmingham rush hour traffic and the city centre diversions had been negotiated, we walked into a venue that felt very unpressurised. It’s a 2000+ seater, and although I didn’t spot empty seats, it was pleasant to be inside and very easy to get away from, with none of the interminable waiting for crowds to disperse that you get at bigger venues like the O2. The acoustics in the hall are just fantastic, and the view you get of the stage, even from one of the upper circles at the back, is good. I previously saw Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter there, but it had been a few years.

Tift Merritt was performing with guitar (both acoustic and an open tuned electric) and keyboard (borrowing the keys from the main act), and her wonderful voice filled the room. Third song in, she stood at the keys and played “Good Hearted Man” and my allergies started playing up.

(Yep, still works – this is from Austin City Limits, a few years ago)

For her final number, she stepped out from behind the mic, as she so often does. She recorded a live album a few years ago here in Buckingham, mainly because she loved the sound of the room. Apart from Jonathan Richman (who I’ve seen somewhere between 9 and 11 times), she’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. (When I see these fucking buskers on the high street with their amps and mics and noisy backing tracks, I want to slap them around a bit and force feed them Tift Merritt.)

 

Then came the interval, and we got to see Tift Merritt clearing up her own equipment, before Jason Isbell arrived promptly on stage at nine.

His set was mainly highlights from his last three albums, heavy on the (heavy) Nashville Sound, backed by his band The 400 Unit, who are very, very good. It was the classic line-up: two guitarists (both capable of playing lead), bass, drums, and keyboards. Isbell’s lead vocals were strong all night, and the rest of the band all contributed backing vocals. The only missing element was violinist Amanda Shires-Isbell, who stayed at home with their young daughter. Isbell was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt in honour of his daughter’s Hallowe’en costume.

The superb 90-minute set contained light and shade, from the hard rocking likes of “Anxiety” and “Molotov” to the shimmering “If We Were Vampires” (which is not anodyne, thanks, Mr Jeremy “Cunt” Hunt).

 

“Hope the High Road” was delivered with passion, and the powerful lyrics of “White Man’s World” couldn’t have been more apposite. Perhaps he should have played that one into Jeremy Hunt’s face on the Marr Show. But then, he is on the high road.

My favourite moments were when the sound opened out with one of the players taking an acoustic guitar and the other playing (usually slide) lead. Songs like “Stockholm” and “Last of My Kind” were brilliant, but perhaps my favourite of the night was “Codeine”, from his 2011 album Here We Rest:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand
It’s this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’
That’s one thing I can’t stand

If there’s one thing I can’t take
It’s the sound that a woman makes
About five seconds after her heart begins to break
That’s one thing I can’t take

She should be home by now but she ain’t
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine

The final encore of the night (so glad we stayed) was Tom Petty’s “Refugee”, which was delivered with every bit as much passion and commitment as the original. My kid, 17, sitting to my left, had tears in her eyes.

Bruce at the Ricoh, Coventry

13308376_10153512132981555_4311945540071433760_oIt’s been 23 years since I last saw Springsteen live. That time, at the Milton Keynes Bowl, was disappointing. The Bowl is a terrible venue, for a start, and Bruce was without the E Street Band. The show was lacklustre, and has no fond memories for me. Prior to that, I saw him twice at Wembley. Having sworn off outdoor/stadium gigs forever after the Bowl, I didn’t expect to see him again. But then, turns out, my youngest daughter became a huge fan, and she’d been hankering to see him live for a couple of years.

So we booked tickets to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. As stadia go, it’s not too big (40,000 capacity for concerts – about half the size of Wembley), so weren’t too far from the stage. But it was still outdoors, and the sound wasn’t great.

We parked in one of the park and walk car parks – and paid handsomely for the privilege (£20, fucksake). We joined the throng at the nearby shopping centre and had a coffee in Costa and then some food. There were massive queues everywhere, but the car park bratwurst stand wasn’t too busy. An awful lot of people were drinking, clearly anticipating more rip-off prices in the venue. There’s not much dignity in that, is there? If only venue operators weren’t so greedy, eh?

Getting into the venue was hassle-free, and we didn’t have to wait too long for Springsteen to hit the stage, playing “For You” solo at the piano. There was no support, and he started fairly promptly after 6:30, then played through to 10 pm without a break. It was a 33-song set, with no fucking around. He generally counted into the next song while the final chord of the previous was still reverberating. He did a few sign requests, pulled a couple of kids from the audience, all the usual stuff. Each set list includes something not played on the tour yet. In the US, this was a play through of The River, but for the European stadium gigs, he’s playing a standard set, favouring The River slightly. Bruce Springsteen is 66 years old. (Nils is a whippersnapper at 64, Miami Steve is 65 etc.)

The highlight for me was “Drive All Night,” but perhaps the most affecting moment came during “10th Avenue Freeze Out” when a montage of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici hit the screens following the line, “When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band…”

So it was all good, but then we had to get out and get home. Oh, man. I mean, you expect things to be bad. We were warned it could take up to 90 minutes. Well, it took 40 minutes to get out of the rip-off parking field. Then we were sitting in standing traffic for another half an hour, before pulling a U-turn and driving in the opposite direction until Google maps offered an alternative route (via the M40 rather than the M6). Anyway, three hours after the concert was over, we completed the one hour drive home.

 

 

It’s Too Late to Stop Now – Sinatra/Basie

MI0001879734I’ve been listening again to these two albums recently, and have been struck by a certain peculiarity across the two. Released a decade or so apart, they have more in common than you might think, but they both sound a little odd to my ears.

When Sinatra set up Reprise, he took the kind of control over his career that almost no artist before him had ever had. Give or take Bing Crosby, who pioneered the use of magnetic tape, Sinatra paved the way for artists who wanted to free themselves from the contract slavery. Given how few have managed that feat since, that Sinatra did this in 1960 is extraordinary. (The Beatles only managed to make their slavery worse with Apple.) (The Stones and Prince managed to gain ownership of their masters – almost nobody does this.)

All that said, I don’t rate much of what Sinatra released on his own label, but there are a few high points. Sinatra/Basie came out in the year of my birth. It was always in the house when I was growing up. I liked Sinatra from an early age (it’s the Capitol years, stupid), but whenever I picked up this album to play, I found it underwhelming. ‘A historic musical first?’ And yet… not so great on the ears.

And that’s the first strangeness. Sinatra’s best live album is, without a doubt, Sinatra at the Sands, with the Basie Orchestra. And Sinatra himself claimed that his best-ever live performance was with the Basie Orchestra in London, in May 1970. I remember, too, that my mother was always on a search for the version of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ that appears on the second Sinatra/Basie collaboration, It Might as Well be Swing, which came out in 1964. She’d heard it once, or something, but didn’t know where it came from. (It’s hard to imagine now, kids, but records used to go out of print.)

The second odd thing about this album is the fact that Basie didn’t play on some of the tracks. I’ve said before that Basie didn’t really do much. His signature vamps on the piano bass notes are all you ever notice, really. But he was supposed to be the band leader. The Basie Orchestra were a renowned live outfit, not a studio session band, so a number of freelancers were on hand – just in case, I guess. So Bill Miller plays piano on (at the very least) the opening number, ‘Pennies from Heaven’.

Now, we’ve heard ‘Pennies from Heaven’ before. It’s on (some would say) his best album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. So it seems audacious to record it again, six years later, and have it compared to the Nelson Riddle version. The 1956 ‘Pennies’ swings and has a fairly relaxed tempo; using it in 1962, Sinatra tried to set the tone by doing it both faster and in a looser way. Miller stabs at the piano, Sinatra sings like he’s lying down, and then the Orchestra does an aggressive and loud instrumental. In the second run through of the lyrics, the band does a stereo call-and-response on either side of Sinatra’s vocal. It’s different, but still great. What feels odd is that you’re hearing the Sinatra canon being messed with. I guess here, ahead of Dylan, he’s deconstructing his own myth.

On other tracks, Sinatra’s determination to keep it loose and easy seems to work against the tone of his voice. He doesn’t want to be heard to be trying to0 hard, so his voice takes on some of that quality it had later on, when he would seem to lean on a note and turn it into a rumbling drone.

‘(Love is) The Tender Trap’ was originally recorded, in a breezy, uptempo version, for the soundtrack of the film The Tender Trap in 1955. In 1962, he performs it s-l-o-w-l-y. What is he doing? You really have to think of this album as a collaboration between singer and band. It’s a duet. As Sinatra leans back, the band leans forward. He leaves the gaps for them to fill. What’s incredible to think of is just how collaborative and improvised the whole thing is. But you can hear it as he sings the line, ‘Some starry night…’ There’s a clear hesitation, a stutter, ‘Ss- some s-tarry night, when her kisses make you… tingle…’ as he decides just how he’s going to play it, going forward.

What works with this record is to play it fucking loud, as they say. And then you get the full impact of the Basie band, and some flavour of the atmosphere in the studio that Sinatra was working from.

Where I do start to have an issue is with the version of ‘I Won’t Dance’, which is one of my all-time favourite songs on his (actual) best-ever album A Swingin’ Affair, which came out straight after Songs For Swingin’ Lovers. ‘I Won’t Dance’ is a breezy, tight, joyful stroke of genius. When he sings, ‘You know what? You’re lovely, ring-a-ding-ding, so lovely…’ it’s quintessential Sinatra, completely in command of his material, positively fizzing with energy, feeding off the superb arrangement. It closes out Sinatra/Basie in Oppositeland, so down-tempo that it feels like the lyric is dragging. There’s time for a flute to pipe in halfway through every line. Sinatra leaves holes everywhere, filled by stabs from the sax and the muted trumpets (in call-and-response stereo). But he seems to me to be singing too much on the beat, even appearing to lose his way at times. And the greatest sin of all? No ring-a-ding-ding.

*UPDATE!

Well it took some time, it really did, but I now (2018 me) absolutely love this album – especially “I Won’t Dance”. I can’t pick between the two versions, but I never get tired of the version on this album. So ignore everything I said above. This album is brilliant.

2f7e6d02ec5d31966ed082781536ba3b81434d78At least the Basie Orchestra sound in tune, which is more than I can say for the Caledonia Soul Orchestra on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van Morrison’s 1974 live masterpiece. I know I’m wrong about this, but the more I listen to this record, the more discordant I find the small horn section and the timid string quartet that share the stage.

(By the way, Van Morrison’s on iTunes now, did you know? He wasn’t before. The only Morrison solo record on there was his first one, which was owned by someone else, before Van seized control of his catalogue.)

I still think It’s Too Late to Stop Now is the best Van Morrison record, don’t mistake me. It is a great live album, and feels live in the best possible way, with all the tension and energy of someone at the peak of his game. But to my inexpert ears the trumpet and saxophone don’t blend, and the string section sound thin and scratchy. However they were mic’ed up, however recorded, the sound mix sounds lacklustre. I know we’re supposed to be putting the vocalist front-and-centre, and Morrison’s vocal control is almost as accomplished as Sinatra’s, but I still want to hear more of the band. How can 10 musicians sound so thin?

Listening to Van Morrison, anyway, is a study in ignoring his reputation and personality. Mark Ellen said in his book that there are two kinds of people when it comes to Van Morrison: those who like his music; and those who’ve met him. I love It’s Too Late to Stop Now, but I want the Caledonia Soul Orchestra to sound more robust – more like the Basie Orchestra, and less like a band who don’t want to play too loud in case the Man gets annoyed.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Chicago 2016/01/19

bs160119_01Because the snowstorm called Jonah caused the cancellation of a gig in New York City, the Springsteen organisation made available a free download – for two days only – of a Chicago gig of a few days before. It was the 19th January 2016, just the second date of the 2016 River Tour. You can still buy the gig for $9.95, but it’s no longer a freebie.

Being unaffected in any way by the cancellation or the snow, I availed myself of the free download.

I have mixed feelings about tours where an artist plays through a whole album. When I go to a gig I want to hear the favourites from all eras. Usually I wouldn’t play a record all the way through at home. I’m an inveterate track skipper. The whole of The River? Really? All of it? But then you realise that there isn’t a single bad track on The River and that songs like ‘Wreck on the Highway’ or ‘Drive All Night’ aren’t performed live that often – and deserve to be.

Bruce Springsteen is 67 years old this year.

By coincidence, this night in the Chicago was the night Bruce played an encore that included ‘Take it Easy’ in tribute to Glen Frey, who had just died – at the age of 67. One of the things I’ve been wondering is whether the Springsteen of pensionable age would still be able to do justice to the songs of the 30-year-old Bruce who was angry enough on his 30th birthday to throw a cake into the audience. It’s true that his voice isn’t the supple and subtle instrument it was when he was recording in the 70s and 80s, but he’s doing a lot better than Sinatra was at the same age, and better than Macca, and certainly better than Dylan.

Personnel on this tour seems to be somewhat stripped back. I guess the point is, they’re trying to play The River, not reinvent and re-arrange it. No extended horn section, no row of backing vocalists. We’re back with Steve, Nils, Patti to supply the ragged BVs and just Jake Clemons to supply the sax-ulacrum of the Big Man.

The gig opens with ‘Meet Me in the City’ – a perfectly fine, stomping song that was rejected in 1980 and didn’t make it onto The River. The band then play through the actual album – yes, all of it, even ‘Crush on You’ – in sequence. The concert finishes with a whistle-stop  song selection (‘Night’, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Cover Me’, ‘She’s The One’, ‘Human Touch’, ‘The Rising’, ‘Thunder Road’), followed by an encore of ‘Take it Easy’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Rosalita’ and ‘Shout’. Nothing from Darkness on the Edge of Town, nothing more recent than ‘The Rising’.

So if you were to go to one of these gigs, I guess the non-River part is going to be a kind of pot-luck, but you’re going to be short changed if you don’t want to hear all those River tracks.

The first disk of the double tends to get all the headlines: ‘Ties That Bind’, ‘Hungry Heart’, ‘Independence Day’, title track, and so on. But when you listen to the album you always remember that the real emotional climax of the cycle is ‘Drive All Night’, which on record is a tour-de-force vocal to match ‘Jungleland’. Can the older Springsteen pull it off? At first he sounds tentative, not reaching for the hard stuff. But then, he starts to warm to it, and it builds to a satisfying and sensitive finish. The lack of finesse on the BVs this time around really helps show how plugged in to classic 60s pop The River was. You can hear the Crystals and the Ronettes in all those ‘Don’t cry nows’.

Jake Clemons manages to play the solo just like Clarence did. It must be hard to subsume your own style to ape another’s. His is a thankless task: the audience applaud his ability to reproduce what his uncle did so many times, and he must know that the applause wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic if he did his own thing.

So we want to see this. Portugal in May, Italy in July. Does that mean London in June?

The Ties That Bind – The River Collection

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I’ve written quite recently about The River, and it has been at the forefront of my mind lately, mainly because my younger daughter has grown to love Springsteen, and we have conversations about which is my favourite album. And it comes back to this, the Springsteen album that I got for my 18th birthday, and which was still new and fresh to me throughout the year that followed: the year I left school, left home, experienced life on the dole, the economic realities of the Early Thatcher period.

One of my enduring regrets is that in the summer of 1981, when both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played in London, and I was offered the chance to see one of them, I chose Dylan. At the time, I loved Dylan more, had loved him for longer, and when there was just enough money for one gig, it was him I chose. That was during his evangelical period, but the news was that he’d lightened up on the concert front and started playing some of the old hits again. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that a Bob Dylan concert will always be an event, but that he will never play the songs you love in the way you love them to be played. Wanting to see Dylan live was a hangover from my school days; a friend of mine had gone with her big brother to see him on the 1978 tour, maybe the Blackbushe Aerodrome concert, and I remember feeling envious. So 1981 was a way of getting over that, I suppose.

But it could have been Springsteen, that June in London, it could have been Bruce. The Dylan concert wasn’t terrible, but it was indifferent at best, and the next time Springsteen came to London, when I finally got to go, in 1985, it was a stadium gig. It was a different kind of show. I know the lore. From The Bottom Line club days, through to the arena concerts, that was a different vibe. By the time he was playing the big stadia, that was a different kind of show altogether. The sweet spots were the ’78 and ’81 tours: he had so much good material by then, but was also still playing a venue small enough for there still to be a connection with the audience. Back then he catered for the larger audience by playing multiple nights in the same venue. Hard on the band, sure, but such a band.

The 1975 E Streeters were funky and I want to say loose but they weren’t loose in the sense of out of time. They were tight in that sense, but had that soulful swing that went with the flared trousers and the long hair, beards, and floppy hats. You can see them at their best in the Hammersmith Odeon show. Back then, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steve Van Zandt were all fairly new to the band, which was really much more of a backing group for Bruce the frontman. By 1978, supporting the hyper-real Darkness on the Edge of Town, they were hard driving, disciplined, road-hardened rockers. The shows were brilliant, and they were really focused on Bruce and Clarence, the mutual adoration and interplay between those two. By the time of The River tour, this version of the E Street Band had so many miles behind it they could do anything. And the shows were different again: there was Bruce the frontman with impressive sideburns and a quiff, along with his sidekick Clarence, but also, moments when Garry Talent and Steve Van Zandt would bounce down the stage in unison. The entertainment was growing larger to cope with bigger venues, and the breadth and depth of the material was astounding.

The River, as I wrote before, is Springsteen’s best work. This new boxed set attempts to place it in a context: the third in a trilogy, yes, but also an attempt to capture something of the live shows because of that oft-repeated criticism that Springsteen on record was nothing like as good as Springsteen live. Which is saying something, when you consider how brilliant both Born to Run and Darkness are. This was an attempt to capture on disc the sound of the band, with basic tracks recorded ensemble, allowing the sounds of the instruments to mesh together with overspill. The history of music is often a history of the battle between musicians who know how music sounds live, and sound engineers, who want to control everything.

The boxed set does a good job. First of all, you get the aborted single album version of The River, which is packed full of decent songs but ultimately feels thin and insubstantial. Springsteen wanted to include some light and shade, but it just didn’t work at single album length. So he did what he seems to always end up doing: he took it back and went to work again.

Amazingly, there are several songs on the 10-track single album version (“Be True” being the most notable) that didn’t make it onto the 20-track double. You can’t help observing that Springsteen throws away more good songs than most other artists have good songs. Listening to the 22 songs on the Outtakes disc, I was struck by the thought that this album of rejects was obviously better than The Clash’s London Calling, which always seems to make critics’ lists of “best albums”, probably because they wouldn’t want to be accused of ignoring that whole punk/new wave era.

In the accompanying documentary, Bruce laughs ruefully at the notion that he left “Roulette” off The River and instead included the insubstantial “Crush on You”. But he was right, I think, because “Crush on You”, “Ramrod”, “Cadillac Ranch” and others manage to capture the irreverent life-affirming joy of the live shows. The River is an album that captures the struggle and despair of working people’s lives and at the same time includes the escapist, wondrous music that saves those same lives. How is it possible to feel so good and so bad at the same time? Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

So my big issue here is with the documentary. While it’s great to hear Bruce talk about this stuff, and his process, and his struggles with sequencing, balance, and tone, I would also like to hear from some of the other people involved. Springsteen mentions how he kind of deliberately set his perfectionist manager Jon Landau against the Wall-of-Sound advocate Steve Van Zandt, creating a conflict that he could resolve as the one in the middle. When he said that it made me think of the “Classic Albums” documentary about Damn the Torpedoes, and the clash between Jimmy Iovine and Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. I would like to hear from Miami Steve, the other musicians, from the engineers, from Landau. After all, what happened next speaks volumes.

First of all, Bruce abandoned the band, and the recording studio, altogether in favour of a TEAC home 4-track and the stripped down Nebraska. And then, during the recording of Born in the USA, Van Zandt left the band, to be replaced on the subsequent tour by Nils Lofgren. After that album, it was a long time before Bruce attempted to record with the E Street Band again. So I think there’s a story there about how hard he is to work with, and how frustrating he has always found the recording process.

But there it is. Maybe one day, we’ll learn something more. For now, this is the fourth version of The River I’ve bought/owned. I really wanted this for the live show on the DVD, but the rest of the package is good, too. The photo book is hefty, and there’s also a facsimile of a note book with scribbled and typed lyrics, mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut.

So who is this for? Fifty quid bloke? Fifty-something bloke? Yeah, probably. That’s me. I can’t see this as an entry point for someone, and I’d struggle, actually, to come up with a way in for the genuine newcomer. Anything you might offer as a playlist would be horribly patronising and off the mark. Probably watching some YouTube clips would be the best bet, these days. But how do you make the leap from watching a 5-10 minute clip to sitting through all the albums or a whole show? How did my own 15 year old daughter get into Bruce? He was just there, in the house, in the same way that Frank Sinatra and The Beatles were for me. For the record, she says it was the song “Wrecking Ball,” which she discovered on the iPad and played over and over, and then went from there.

People these days will fall over themselves to get tickets for the live shows, but how many of them are really there for their first experience? What is music, anyway, in 2016? I just… I just… I just don’t know.