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.

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12 Downloads for this summer

cover400x400Ahead of the epic car journeys of the summer, I like to stock up on new music. For recommendations, I turn to the Rolling Stone Country account and their regular lists of artists to check out.

That’s not the only way I find new music, but it’s a fairly reliable barometer in the absence of the UK iTunes store doing anything to update itself. Anyway, here are my recent adds.

  1. Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. Got this because of his song “Portland, Maine”, covered by Tim McGraw. He’s a great songwriter with a voice that doesn’t match his face. Sounds are Americana-standard, acoustic in the main.
  2. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning. Discovering new music on iTunes is hard, partly because of the problem of categories. They have a Country section (not regularly updated) and a Singer/Songwriter section, but there is no Americana (or alt-country) and no Folk or Folk-Rock. There is plenty of music that would fit in either of these categories. Anyway, Amanda Shires Isbell (married to the similarly hard-to-discover Jason Isbell) kind of sways between Country-Americana and Singer-Songwriter. Pretty good.
  3. Keith Urban – Ripcord. Keith Urban has  made a reappearance on UK iTunes after a gap where several albums weren’t even given a UK release. This one is fairly standard: rock-pop/country with some decent guitar. His voice is limited: with the right song, it’s perfectly fine, but when he strains for those emotions he sometimes seems, well, strained. The standout track on this is “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” which is a hooky little number on which Urban plays lead bass.* I can’t stop playing it
  4. William Bell – This is Where I Live. This was a Twitter recommendation. A radio producer I follow got an early listen of this (it’s not properly out yet) and named it the album of the year. You can get three tracks now, and the rest should drop by the end of the week. It’s a soul record in the classic style, a throwback to 60s song values with 2016 production values. This is the one I’d be slipping into playlists and mixtapes if I still did that sort of thing, ahem.
  5. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town. The best songwriter of the “class of 2013”, Brandy Clark’s follow up to 12 Stories is bigger in every way. This new outing features some powerful songs, including the jaw-dropping “Daughter”, which basically wishes a daughter upon a cheating, lying male in the name of karma: so he can watch her get her heart broken by men like him. You think you’ve heard it all, and then this. Essential listening.
  6. Imogen Clark – Love and Lovely Lies. Another hard-to-discover artist. This one I came across when she guested on a podcast (My Favourite Album). At just 8 tracks and 35 minutes, this album is a proper throwback to the golden age of albums, when they were almost all about this long. Another artist with a strong voice and punch-packing songs, don’t be fooled by her appearance into thinking this is going to be some kind of folky background muzak.
  7. Larkin Poe – Reskinned. The Lovell sisters seem determined to leave their folk-country roots behind them. So much so, that they’ve remixed and revamped their album Kin, changing some of the tracks and giving the whole thing a harder, rock-stomping edge. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know that they’re both shredding like mad these days and Rebecca has started playing a Strat through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Talk about trying to reposition yourself in the market: unfortunately, these brilliant 20-something musicians will still find themselves staring at an audience of grizzled, balding 50-somethings, because those are the people who go to (non-festival/arena) gigs.
  8. Frankie Ballard – El Rio. Frankie Ballard’s latest is a real step up in quality from his previous release (2014’s Sunshine and Whiskey). The songwriting is better, and his gravelly but versatile voice is the one Keith Urban wishes he had. You can hear the influence of Bob Seger on the whole record (plus there’s a cover of “You’ll Accompn’y Me”). This is a really enjoyable album packed full of decent songs, like “El Camino”, “L.A. Woman” and “It All Started With a Beer”. Great for a road trip.
  9. Smithfield – Smithfield. This is on Rolling Stone’s July list. Another 8-tracker, these guys are like the new Sugarland or something, which, in the absence of Sugarland, will do.
  10. Anthony D’Amato – Cold Snap. Another one from the RS list, I’ve only played this through once but like it a lot. (Almost) like Frankie Ballard, this is country rock via the Jersey Shore. Where Ballard takes his influence from Detroit (Seger), you can hear Springsteen here, but also Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty references, if you like that sort of thing – and who doesn’t?
  11. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong. Another RS recommendation, this feels more like a punt for me. I’m thinking this is cowpunk, in the vein of Lone Justice. With songs titled “Dwight Yoakam” and “Fuck Up,” this can’t be wrong, can it?
  12. Lucie Silvas – Letters to Ghosts. Finally, this is a British-born, New Zealand-raised country artist who has (for whatever reason) waited years between album releases. Again, I’ve barely listened to this, but the title track is excellent, and it finishes with a spooky cover of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, which shows good taste, if nothing else.

*For non-religionists, like me, I looked it up. This verse is the one that basically summarises the new testament in a line: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

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.

 

 

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.

Here is a list

Leaving aside local bands and friends in local bands, this is a list of the bands/artists I remember seeing live.

I’m not a big gig-goer – usually find something to complain about – but you’ll notice that when I really like someone I stay very loyal! The ones in brackets were incidental – seen as support acts, but wouldn’t have bothered in normal circumstances. There are other support acts, of course, that I don’t remember.

  • Electric Light Orchestra
  • The Who (x2)
  • (Nils Lofgren,
  • (The Stranglers)
  • (AC⚡️DC)
  • Jonathan Richman (x8)
  • The Rolling Stones
  • (The J Geils Band)
  • (Black Uhuru)
  • Bob Dylan (x6)
  • (Santana)
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (x2)
  • Bruce Springsteen (x3)
  • Lou Reed
  • Trisha Yearwood
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Maria McKee (x2)
  • Steve Earle (x2)
  • Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
  • Michelle Shocked
  • Brad Paisley
  • (Darius Rucker)
  • Fleetwood Mac
  • Tim McGraw
  • Little Big Town
  • Vince Gill
  • Kristian Bush
  • Gretchen Peters (x2)
  • Suzy Bogguss
  • Matraca Berg
  • Tift Merritt (x6)
  • Ann McCue
  • Larkin Poe