Desssert Isssland Dissscs – Take 3

[Speaking to Roy Plomley’s head in a jar] For my third appearance on the show, Roy, I’ve selected eight disks that mean a lot to me, right now. For those spotting trends, this selection sees a welcome return of two from my first island visit, but none at all from my second. What was I thinking?

Here’s the 2018 eight:

  • I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra. This particular song is my favourite Sinatra track twice over. First of all on his best 50s album (A Swingin’ Affair) and second of all on his best 60s album (Sinatra/Basie). For this latter version, he used a stripped back, slower-tempo arrangement by Neil Hefti, and he leans way, way back. The Basie orchestra’s instrumental interventions build to a rollicking climax, but most of all, they play in the white space left by Sinatra’s horizontal vocal. This one I can trace back to my younger years: my mum had the record, released in the year I was born. But I didn’t like it: it took me years to gain the musical education to appreciate what was going on. The song is a wondrous piece of work, too: from a Fred Astaire dance sequence to Sinatra’s definitive versions with Nelson Riddle and the Basie. For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos. If the wind changes, I’d select the 1957 version, for Sinatra’s “Ring-a-ding-ding” improv on its own.
  • Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. Sullied as it has been by the Top Gear years (Clarkson edition), I’ve carried an affection for this track since my teenage years, when I would occasionally hear it on Radio Caroline, which I would listen to with the radio pressed up against my ear, under the bed clothes. Even so, the Top Gear it reminds me of is the William Woollard version, because the Clarkson era used that shitty el cheapo BBC cover version. As I said the first time I picked it, I especially love the bit in the middle that you would never hear on Top Gear. It’s pentatonic, man.

(No video of this one, so the audio will have to do)

  • Detroit Medley – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Winterland ’78). Is there anything that sums up the peak of Springsteen’s performing career better than this? The 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour was his moment: not yet so big that he’s having to play stadia, nor even yet profitable – if you take him at his own autobiographical word. And yet: he’s big enough to have an arena-filling cohort of devoted fans and enough local radio stations who want to broadcast whole fucking shows and thus gift posterity a series of bootleg recordings that stand apart for their clarity and quality. And this is still six years before his crowds grew with the addition of The Normals, who were attracted to the pumped up, shouty, Born in the USA Bruce. The Medley’s origins lie in a pair of singles put out by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The first was a traditional blues number (C C Rider) combined with Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (also known as (“Jenny Take a Ride”). Spotting a winning formula, the band next put out “Devil with the Blue Dress” (a hit for Motown) and another Little Richard classic, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Springsteen turns these three minute pop songs into a 9-11 minute show stopper. His cover versions are in themselves quite faithful to the originals, but it’s in the improvised breakdown before the climax that he combines the roots rock ’n’ roll with the showmanship for which he is famed. With stage antics falling somewhere between James Brown and Orson Welles, Springsteen drops the band down to a pulse for his twangy  bass-notes guitar solo, and then builds it all up again before calling a halt and reading out what seems like an emergency announcement from the hall management. If you are in possession of a weak heart, or a weak stomach, can you please step out of the venue during the next section of this song because it might be DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. He then calls up Clarence Clemons to aid him in demonstrating the actions which will do no harm, before adding, “You can even get off with light injuries an a short trip to the emergency room when we do THIS. Now… I bet all them guys on the radio are wonderin’ what we’re doin’.… I didn’t do it YET!” At which point, together with Clarence, and freely baiting the radio audience who had the temerity to stay home, he begins a cross stage boogie to Professor Roy Bittan’s rock ’n’ roll piano that descends into chaos before the band bring it back to “Jenny Jenny” with a massive finish. And the remarkable thing about the Detroit Medley was that it would always come at the end of a three hour show, and almost certainly leave the audience begging to be allowed home. But Springsteen would never be satisfied with that, and would leap from this incredible piece of theatre into a version of “Twist and Shout” or “Raise Your Hand” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, leaving all concerned wrung out. At Winterland on 15th December 1978, he followed this extraordinary performance with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and then “Raise Your Hand” and then “Quarter to Three”.
  • That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. 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.
  • No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I love the way Moorer uses the (male) backing vocal on this: seeming to anticipate what he’s going to say, echoing his words even as he sings them, demonstrating in song that she’s heard it all too many times before and that she’s had enough of this shit. There are two ways this song uses such musical cutting. The second is the juxtaposition of the just breaking up distortion on the lead guitar as it plays against a lush background of strings
  • Learning to Fly – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Live at Bonnaroo). The counterpoint to the show-stopping energy of Springsteen, Petty’s way with an audience was to carry them with him on a wave of weary joy. This live version of this so-simple song has a poignancy that only feels stronger following his death in 2017. Stevie Nicks stands in the wings to sing BVs, and Petty carries most of the song’s weight on his shoulders, with a strummed acoustic guitar. From the first chords, the audience are with him, singing every lyric, providing the beat, so that you barely notice that the band are, after all, accompanying him with a stripped back arrangement. I think Mike’s on an electric mandolin. At the second chorus: that’s where the tears prick into my eyes, as Tom says, “Yes it is,” and Benmont plays some piano. Then the song is stripped back again for, “Some say life will beat you down…” On the third chorus, Petty sings “But I ain’t got wings,” in his Dylan voice, then lets the crowd take over. And there you have the blessing and healing power of music, the communion between an artist and his audience, as he improvises lyrics to their singing of the chorus.
  • Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This single is quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I love the rolling piano, the relaxed heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar’s counterpoint to the vocal. The song was supposedly written about Hunter S. Thompson, but I don’t think it matters if you know that or not. It’s a great uplifting song for when you’re feeling, well, weary.
  • The Pretender – Jackson Browne. My theme song.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor:
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

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.

Frankly, my dear

This would be an acoustic guitar night, then

So I was listening to Kermode’s review of Frank yesterday, and I’ve read a couple of others which praise it in equal measure.

I’m trying to remember exactly what year it might have been, but I once had the misfortune to witness the phenomenon that was Frank Sidebottom at close quarters.

Jonathan Richman is one of three musicians I have seen in concert at least six times; the other two are Bob Dylan and Tift Merritt.

Now, you know a Dylan concert is a crap shoot. I rate my Dylan live experience as 1.5/6, or around 25%. In other words, go to see Dylan and you’ve got a 25% chance of seeing something good. In his case, the 25% mostly consisted of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

As for Tift Merritt, leaving aside the time when we couldn’t go in because the venue had an age restriction and we had, as usual, bought the kids along, she’s a 100% kind of artist. In other words, there’s no possible way I wouldn’t take the opportunity to buy more tickets, even with the bitter memory of being turned away at the door in Oxford.

Jonathan Richman lies somewhere between the two. As with Dylan, you would never know what you were getting with him. Is he on his own, with a couple of sidemen, with an unplugged acoustic, or a plugged-in electric, or (at least once) a saxophone? The variety of the experience is what kept you going back for more. At one venue (Riverside Studios?), the support act was a magician. The magician wanted an assistant from the audience. It was I who was pulled up onto the stage. Jonathan Richman was watching wide-eyed from the wings. I locked my keys in the car. Someone helped me break into it with a coat hanger. That was a memorable night.

Once, at the Mean Fiddler, the support act was Tanita Tikaram, just before she had some chart success. Another time, at the Town and Country club, a man in the audience rubbed himself against me with too much enthusiasm. When Roy and I went to see him at Camden (Jazz Café), Richman attempted to perform not only with a nylon stringed acoustic guitar, unplugged, but without a microphone. This would have been great, if the fucking audience hadn’t continued their loud conversations and trips to and from the bar throughout.

Which brings us to the Mean Fiddler again, and the night Frank Sidebottom was the support act. Kermode said something in his review about the fine line between tragic and comic, and the damaged person behind the mask. Here’s what I saw: the damaged person behind the mask. I didn’t see anything remotely funny. It was like watching someone with deep psychological problems act them out in front of an audience. It was awkward. It was awful. It was like watching that terrible fly-on-the-wall documentary, Titicut Follies. Sidebottom was Titicut Follies in living colour. I found the experience so miserable that I didn’t enjoy the Jonathan Richman gig that followed.

Needless to say, I won’t be watching the film.

Dwight Yoakam: 3 Pears


What a strange album title. What a strange album cover.

If ever there was a cover and a title that told you absolutely nothing about the contents therein, here it is.

But what a great album!

2013 marks seven years since the release of the last Dixie Chicks record, The Long Way. The Courtyard Hounds have intervened in the meantime, but Natalie Maines has been disappointingly silent, which would seem to give comfort to her right wing idiot critics, the kind of people who defend the the right to kill children under the second amendment to the US constitution, but then sign petitions to deport people who express dissenting views, ignoring the first amendment, that pesky freedom of speech thing.

How did I get onto the Dixies? Well, like them, Dwight Yoakam took a really, really long break between this (3 Pears) and his previous album, Blame the Vainreleased in 2005. Two thousand and five, fact fans, was when man invented fire.

Blame the Vain was a strange and ungrammatical title, too, so you wonder what Dwight was smoking. 3 Pears is some kind of pun, I reckon, because the lyrics to the title track refers to “pairs” of glasses, and “pairs” of feet. Or do they?

Whatever. From the opening bass riff on the opening track, “Take Hold of My Hand”, this record is compelling. It does everything that Mr Yoakam always did so well. It’s full of honky, and it’s full of tonk, and it sounds like timeless hard rockin’ country music (“Dim lights, thick smoke, and live, live music”), but it also sounds very modern. The bass on that opening riff sounds so clean and so clear and so punchy. You really want to turn it up very loud indeed. And that’s me talking, the one who always complains that bass is overrated.

You know you’re going to love an album when you get to the fourth track and you haven’t heard a dud yet. Track 4, “Trying” comes at you in great chunks of hard-strummed acoustic guitar, twangy telecaster, bouncy bass and a thumping backbeat that actually gives the impression that everybody concerned was actually listening to each other.

Five stars, five stars, five stars, five stars.

This takes me back, and I mean in a really good way, to the first time I heard Guitars, Cadillacs etc. etc., sometime around 1986. A friend had lent me a tape, but as you do, I didn’t believe he had anything to teach me, know-it-all that I am and was. And then I got into a drinking session with another friend, and we put on the hilarious “new country” tape for a laugh. Boing. I’ve never had such a musical revelation. Lightbulbs, heads, etc. etc..

Such comparisons are invidious, because it sounds like it does when someone tries to tell you that the latest Dylan effort is his “best since Blood on the Tracks,” and you think, “no it’s not. Because Blood on the Tracks wasn’t even his best since Blood on the Tracks.”

But. This. Is. Better. This is a stronger selection of songs, better produced, and better performed, than anything Mr Yoakam did in the 80s. And his output since then has been intermittently good, but patchy at best. Blame the Van was a lot patchy. “Even when it gets better,” he sings on this, “It’s never alright.” But it really is.

I haven’t been as enthusiastic about an album since Tift Merritt‘s See You on the Moon, which I played ten times in a row. I don’t do “Top 10” type lists, but if I did, if I did, this would be a clear 2012 winner. Actually, the best album I bought in 2012 was Late for the Skybut the best album I bought in 2013 is probably this.

Because there was a long hiatus, between 2005 and 3 Pears, and I really almost didn’t buy it. So I kind of saved it till January, knowing there wouldn’t be much coming out around now.

If you’ve been wondering where to start with country music? Start here. Because this is a classic.

Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone (Review)

So Tift Merritt has a new album out, which is always welcome news. She’s with yet another in a series of record labels (do we care which one? No), and this time there was a full use of social media to pre-publicise the album. Naturally, this was extremely annoying. From memory, we went from the announcement of the new album in the spring, via an all-acoustic single (Sweet Spot), another single (To Myself), a free sampler download (a different recording of Sweet Spot and In the Way), a load of limited edition ancillary product such as a notebook and playing cards (for the “whales”), and finally the album itself, available in standard, bonus track, and vinyl and probably pottery versions.

There were sneak previews, YouTube videos, online streams, and lots and lots of tweets. By the week before release, I was tweeting back, “Just release it already and stop pissing around with marketing.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding such “modern” marketing tactics deeply irritating, and I have to say my reaction upon finally being informed by iTunes that I could actually download the album was a little bit meh.

All this in the absence of a music press that could just carry a, you know, advert. Not that Tift Merritt is the sort of artist who gets much in the way advertising. I mean, it’s nice that a small label can use free social media tools to get the word out, but there is a limit to how much of this you can take.

Author Charlie Stross tweeted the other day that he can’t stand watching commercial television because of the advertising, but doesn’t bat an eyelid about tweeting his own publicity. Fine, I can unfollow, and I could unfollow Tift Merritt, but then I might not hear anything about new records at all. iTunes’ notification service emailed me this morning, whereas the album was available to pre-order a month ago.

I hate, hate, hate the feeling that something has been watched or listened to for me before I get to see/hear it for myself, so all the pre-release streaming and sneak previews just piss me off. I want to listen in my own way and in my own time, thanks, and I especially don’t want to read some critic’s ill-considered instant reaction to a freebie.

(Fucking Faith Hill arranged a Sunday night Twitter listening party for her new single – which of course is not available to UK downloaders. And whose Sunday night, anyway? Mine? Hers? John Paul Getty’s? It’s so irritating when Americans act as if the internet was a US-only thing, and not a global service – across all time zones.)

What nonsense release dates are in the iTunes age! What nonsense the concept of the album is. My iTunes library is now heaving with duplicate tracks, slightly different versions, different “album” titles all to do with Traveling Alone. So as well as the constant irritating teasing and endless grind of tweets, I’ve now got to spend time tidying up my fucking library.

Two years ago, I received Ms Merritt’s previous release See You on the Moon and played it about 20 times in a row. For this album, I put it on my iPod and listened in the car on the way to work (not a great way to hear the quieter acoustic numbers), and then played it in my classroom. I didn’t feel like playing it 20 times in a row, but that’s probably because the whole marketing thing put me in a bad mood.

So is it any good? Yes. I’ll prune it down from its 48 minutes, which is too long, but I’ve already identified a number of early favourites. You won’t care what they are, but I’ll say this: the August-release single “To Myself” is definitely one of the stronger tracks. It seems to me that (if you insist on doing “albums” and “singles”) it would have been smarter to put it out as a single to support the actual album release, rather than two months before it was available. Hey, but what do I know? I’m just a fucking expert.

It seems the sounds range from grungier rockier songs to folk tinged with country. Pedal steel guitar is more evident on this release than it has been on anything since her first album Bramble Rose, ten years ago.