Tom Petty – An American Treasure

There’s a story they tell about Tom Petty breaking his hand in frustration during the recording of the track “Rebels” on the Heartbreakers’ album Southern Accents. Continually comparing their recording with his original demo, Petty left the studio after their latest attempt and punched the wall. This story is a lesson for perfectionists everywhere, because the truth was that there was nothing wrong with their latest take. Eventually the problem was “fixed” by replacing the organic human drums with a drum machine.

Well, it was the 80s.

I never really liked Southern Accents, because it sounded like it was made in the 80s. As much as I love Springsteen, I listen to Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love with gritted teeth (ears?) because record production in the 80s was a shitshow. The perfect storm of novel new studio toys and the dreaded click track. The grid. I mean, I’ve seen them do “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with a live drummer, so I blame bloody Dave Stewart for the drum machine nonsense.

My personal theory is that people had been whispering in Tom Petty’s ear since 1979 that Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch wasn’t very good, or at least not very subtle. Step forward, Jimmy Iovine. I don’t think Petty himself believed that, but I can see how it might have been easy to blame Stan rather than, say, the drugs when things weren’t going well in the studio. So when it came to recording his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, Petty used a session drummer. And then again on Wildflowers, after which Stan was out, replaced by Wildflowers session guy Steve Ferrone.

I can imagine that Stan was the kind of guy who wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to go to bed. Or wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to start looking after themselves and heads to rehab.

Anyway, this collection. You get to hear “Rebels” before it was ruined, which is nice, though not “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which I’ve realised I can’t watch these days without crying.

The conceit here is that this is a journey through Tom Petty’s career not including the long established live set standards, the familiar signposts of “American Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Free Fallin’”, “Learning to Fly” etc. This isn’t even as-selected-by-Tom-himself outtakes, because that was the 1995 boxed set Playback. Instead, this feels like a last trawl through the archives by his friends and family — those who, unhampered by Petty’s perfectionism, can say, here, this stuff is worth a listen.

In other words, don’t start here if you’re new to Tom Petty.

You get to hear the version just-before-they-nailed-it of many songs, versions perhaps with slightly less push, or sometimes with just a little bit more air and swing. Or you hear a live version which uses a different approach than they eventually settled on; or just outtakes which for whatever reason didn’t make the final release.

Over four hours and ten minutes, you hear Petty and his group evolve from that ebullient and prickly bar band of the late 70s to the sardonic and bewhiskered elder statesmen of latter days. Available in two versions, Deluxe and non-, I’d say that the 26 track non-Deluxe would probably suffice for most.

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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

TP 🎸 💘 💔

I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.

But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.

In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music. 

But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.

The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing  “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?

Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!

The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.

I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.

Frankly, my dear

jonathan_6

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.

Keith Urban: Fuse, and the music industry’s problem

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Any change is glacial: the UK iTunes Store Country section.

For too long, the music industry has seen illegal downloading as their problem, and all of their strategies have evolved to deal with that. They’ve ended up, as this New Statesman article says, in a situation where they rely on about 1% of their product for 90% of their income. This cannot be good business. It means that top-selling artists must be under extreme pressure to put out product that is exactly the same as their previous product. There is no chance that an artist would be allowed or encouraged to experiment, evolve, and grow in the way that all the great artists of the past did.

Never mind that a large proportion of the people downloading all those tracks from Napster all those years ago and ever since were the kind of people who never paid for music (so cost to the music industry of a lot of those downloads: £0).

Never mind that the industry’s way of dealing with the threat to their business has been to slash costs where they should never slash costs (A&R), and instead rely upon an ever-decreasing number of cash cows or blockbuster artists.

Never mind that the public perception of value-for-money in music has been largely negative since the invention of the CD. Yes, we’ve been feeling ripped off for a long, long time, and the record industry doesn’t care.

Never mind that the industry has persisted in dividing the world into discrete territories long after the notion that borders and customs would somehow magically prevent consumers knowing about and buying stuff from outside their territory disappeared.

Never mind all that: they’ve evolved a sales strategy designed to make it as hard as possible for people to get hold of new music unless it is new music from one of the dozen-or-so blockbuster artists who make up the bulk of sales and profits. Just like the movie industry (which has no interest in $10-20 million films), the music industry has no interest whatsoever in an artist who will sell, say, 50–100,000 copies of something. Now, an artist can make a good living selling 60,000 records and going on tour. But the record industry won’t get out of bed for anything selling less than a million copies.

Add to this their laser-like focus on maximising sales for one quarterly reporting period, and you get the odd situation we have now. Just as the movie industry obsesses on the box office opening weekend (to the extent that they will extend that opening weekend well into the previous week, by offering previews on a wednesday and releasing films on a Thursday and so on), the record industry wants to launch an album into the stratosphere, get huge sales in the first week, and then do the same thing for the next blockbuster artist to come along.

I talk about the “record industry” as shorthand for “record labels”, of which there are, basically, three.

As someone who loves music, this situation upsets me. And of course, it’s probably all my own fault. Twenty years ago, I used to visit record shops. I used to visit all the record shops, and spend time browsing the bins. I went in with no particular purchase in mind and I sometimes bought something on impulse. These days, I do that on iTunes, but the problem is this: discovery. I go to the iTunes Country music page and it literally does not change from month to month and from quarter to quarter. It does not change. Measuring in geological time, maybe there is some change. But in terms of week-to-week music releases and discovery, there is nothing.

By ceding my musical discovery to Apple and iTunes I have fucked up. Fucked. Up.

keith-urban-fuse-sweepstakes.jpg?w=487&h=292&crop=1Keith Urban released Fuse, his latest album, in September 2013. It has only now appeared on the iTunes music store in the UK. Now, I like Keith Urban, but not that much. I think his voice is a bit thin, and his lyrics are a bit crap, but I like his guitar playing, and occasionally he knocks out a song that is enjoyable. He is not, not really, a country artist. Really. He’s a pop-rock artist who has more in common with Tom Petty than with Brad Paisley. His constituency is women aged between 20 and 40. He is 46 years old and married to Nicole Kidman. He is a pretty good looking guy and while he doesn’t have the genius of Vince Gill or the wit of Brad Paisley, he is a fucking excellent guitar player.

In short, Urban, is not a tough sell. His music bounces along in a perfectly pleasant way. It’s radio-friendly and inoffensive. So why, in the name of all that is holy, did it take four months for this record to appear in the UK iTunes store? Why, in the name of all that is profane, was his previous album not released at all?

Because: reasons. Because the record industry has given itself over to Marketing with a capital M and the people in charge of Marketing say, what? They say what? It won’t sell enough copies in the UK to be significant, so who cares? It’s costing them nothing, is it, to click a button and release it to various iTunes stores? There are no distribution costs, there are no shops involved. It’s just a fucking file sitting on a server waiting for someone to click on it.

By the time it’s released in the UK, it is old news. What were they waiting for? For UK iTunes to put it on the carousel at the top of the Country section? The country section that sits unchanged for month after month after month?

Meanwhile, anyone who really wanted this album has either ordered it as an import on CD, downloaded it illegally, or just forgotten about it. So UK download sales will be low, thus confirming what the Marketing monkeys said in the first place.

Jennifer-Nettles-That-Girl-Album-Cover-1Last week, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland released a solo album. I’m not sure if I’ll want it. I might want it. If it was available right now, I might buy it, simply because I haven’t bought a new record in a couple of weeks. But the Marketing people say no. They say wait. They’re not sure. So I might have ordered an import CD, which might or might not arrive before it’s available to download.

There’s somebody somewhere sitting in an office, being paid to manage this sort of thing, who will probably expound on why simultaneous global releases of everything aren’t a thing. That person is a fucking idiot. I don’t want to stream it, I don’t want tie-ins with Yahoo, or Google, or Apple, or Twitter, I just want to be able to buy it. I don’t want to follow links to shitty Marketing exercises that turn out to be US-only, or YouTube videos that are blocked in my territory. I. Just. Want. To. Fucking. Buy. The. Thing.

Stop making it so hard!

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Royal Albert Hall, 18 June 2012

Mike Campbell, wigging out in Oslo

Going to gigs these days will always make me feel old. Even if I’d taken my daughter to see Taylor Swift (it was a school night, so we didn’t), I’d have felt like an old man.

Taking the kids to see Tom Petty was no different. It was a school night, but we went anyway, to the first night (the extra night) at the Royal Albert Hall. For merely the price of a family holiday, it was a good night out.

There were a lot of men and women of a certain age there, with a few younger faces. Looking at the grey hairs, the fatties, the baldies, I kept having to remind myself, not that I was a young man surrounded by oldies, but that I was looking into a mirror.

I’d never been to the RAH before, and did think it was a good venue, with nobody sitting so far away that they didn’t get a good view. We were in the stalls, section G, at the side of the stage, and it’s one of the best views I’ve ever had at a gig, in spite of the fact that we weren’t face on. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never be one of those people in the front few rows, the ones who get to catch all the plectra thrown into the crowd. Not for the likes of me, like most of the things this country has to offer.

The only thing about the RAH is that it’s miles from anywhere. Doesn’t warrant its own tube station, and you have to walk about a mile to get something to eat or drink that isn’t at venue prices.

This is an expensive night out, and I know I shouldn’t go on about the money, but it bothers me. The £65 per ticket is fair enough: that’s how bands make money these days, accepted. £20-25 for a t-shirt, same thing. But the £5+ booking fee (per ticket), the train fair, the fact that you’re in Belgravia and a round of soft drinks is going to be almost a tenner, it felt like I was shedding £5 notes behind me as I walked. We walked down to a pub called The Goat that offered fish and chips if you could find a table. It was decent enough, although without the tartare sauce, the curry sauce, and all the other condiments, surprisingly bland. So that was another fifty notes.

The standard irritations of a London gig weren’t absent. It started during the support act, the Jonathan Wilson band. Of course the venue remained mainly empty, which is a shame (because they were quite good), but I’d rather that than the other thing, which was the couple next to me who came in, late, with their drinks, making a lot of noise, and proceeded to continue a conversation at TOP VOLUME (because, you know, you have to SHOUT to make yourself HEARD when a BAND IS PLAYING). I tolerated it for as long as I could, even offering to swap places with my wife, who might prefer me not to start a fight. But she said she could hear her just as clearly.

So in the end, I yelled, “YOU KNOW, IF YOU TALK REALLY, REALLY LOUD YOU CAN ALMOST HAVE A NORMAL CONVERSATION.”

Which shut them up.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers arrived on stage, on time, and played the kind of set that only a group of musicians who have been together for 40 years, more or less, can play. (Petty met Benmont Tench in ’68 and Mike Campbell in 1970.) They don’t leap around too much, but they play tight, with truly great musicianship.

When you can start your set with stuff like “You Wreck Me“, “Here Comes My Girl”, and play crowd pleasers like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Free Fallin'”, a Traveling Wilburys number, a Peter Green song, and  “Learning to Fly”; and when you can bring the set to a head with a blistering “Refugee”, and then come back and deliver “Mary Jane’s Last Dance“; when you can do all that, and you can still pull out “American Girl” to wrap it all up? Well, that’s entertainment.

It was clear that the audience responded more to songs from the 70s and 80s more than they did the more recent Mojo tracks, but then I think that’s at least partly because TP has not toured the UK for 15 years or so. There was a tremendous warmth in the atmosphere, and a sense that the band were enjoying themselves and responding to the crowd. The interplay between Benmont Tench (in his nest of keyboards), Mike Campbell, and Tom Petty was as excellent as ever, and Scott Thurston’s backing vocals are a real asset. Mike Campbell just gets better and better, but Petty played some good guitar, too.

A great occasion, and worth every minute of lost sleep on a school night.

A few singles

Hard Promises

Hard Promises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This months The Word magazine has an interesting article about music sharing and curating, proposing the idea that it might be right for a Slow Music movement to match the Slow Food movement.

I like this idea because I’ve thought for a long time that there’s something not quite right about the way music is being consumed these days. I’m not just being nostalgic when I say that for me as a teenager music was a precious commodity, the more so because it was relatively expensive and sometimes hard to find.

My daughter recently returned from a trip to Paris with a copy of Tom Petty‘s Hard Promises on vinyl – in spite of the fact that we do not have at home the means to play said vinyl. I think she instinctively gets it, though. She knows that vinyl is cooler than a download or a CD, and she is quite willing to wait patiently for the playback occasion to present itself.

I joined ThisIsMyJam because the idea of sharing just one song at a time appealed to me.

Everyone’s a critic these days and there are hundreds of blogs reviewing albums and gigs, making the traditional music press more or less redundant. When you read the kind of shit written by professional journalists these days (like this crap from Barney Hoskins in the Graun), it’s not surprising. I’ve published the occasional album review on blogs myself, but personally, I find it a bit of a bore.

Something that occured to me the other day was that the idea of reviewing singles seems to have died a death. Back in the 60s and 70s, the release of a new single was an event. These days a single, if it appears at all, tends to be just a pre-release track from a forthcoming album, part of the hype machine. But then I thought, why not? I’m actually much more interested in writing a review of a single track than I am a whole album.

So here are a few singles I’m playing at the moment. In no particular order:

So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore – Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson has released a few decent singles recently, probably from a forthcoming album, but I think it’s great to grab a track in isolation. This one is a slow tempoed ballad which gets to the heart of a certain type of male behaviour.

“I’ll be the bad guy / I’ll take the black eye / When I walk out you can slam the door

I’ll be the SOB / If that’s what you need from me / So you don’t have to love me anymore”

Like all Jackson’s records, the production values are high, and the instrumentation is traditional country: a beautifully mixed ensemble of piano, fiddle, guitars, drums, and vocals. The electric guitar solo is a fine piece of work, and the dynamics of the track rise and fall in a subtle way to the plaintiff ending. The lyrics carry the song (written by Jay Knowles & Adam Wright): he’s happy to leave her with plenty of excuses to complain about him to her friends because he knows she needs to stop loving him. Classic country.

Slow Me Down – Cyndi Thomson

I was pleasantly surprised to see Cyndi Thomson making a comeback. Her first album and single, back at the beginning of this century, were big hits, but then she withdrew from the music industry, feeling unable to take up the promotional grind for a follow-up album. She released a five-track EP in 2009 (“This Time”) and then this single in 2011. It’s another downtempo number, starting with arpeggioed acoustic guitar, piano, and her vocal. Thomson’s voice is sweet and clear, and instantly recogniseable. A string arrangement joins as the track builds. The lyrics could almost make this the theme tune of the Slow Music movement.

Georgia Mud – Joanna Smith

Guitars, mandolin, vocals. This is a typical product of the Nashville scene. A pleasant enough vocal, hard to tell apart from the liks of Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Julianne Hough and the like. This could have been released at any time in the past 15 years. One of the reasons I’ve always liked Country is that it has this timeless quality. Like Julianne Hough’s song “That Song in My Head“, and hundreds of other country tunes this is one of those songs which are nostalgic for some event in the recent past, in this case some kind of sexual adventure involving mud in, er, Georgia. I like it by the way, which isn’t to say that I can’t see what a construct it is.

Come Home – Faith Hill

Had to acquire this by nefarious means because it’s still not available on the UK iTunes. Faith Hill is by now country royalty, and has clearly had other things going on in recent years. Her last studio album of original material was way back in 2005. She’s released a few singles in the meantime. This is a typically baroque production (there are probably 90 tracks in the mix). I believe Hill’s vocals are always double-tracked, one dry and one wet, and that’s before you get to the layered guitars, backing vocals, pounding rhythm section. Her voice, like husband Tim McGraw‘s, has a lot of exciter on it, so that the track positively fizzes. It’s a masterful production though, building to a massive climax and the strange intrusion of some Beatles-style backing vocals in the fade. Great track.