Posted in concerts, entertainment, gigs, live, music, Review

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.

 

 

Posted in bastards, concerts, entertainment, live, music, Review

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.

2f7e6d02ec5d31966ed082781536ba3b81434d78But at 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.

Posted in Books, concerts, documentary, entertainment, gigs, live, music, Review

The Ties That Bind – The River Collection

720x405-GettyImages-86051202

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.

Posted in concerts, entertainment, gigs, live, music

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