Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fairport Convention "House Full: Live at the L.A. Troubadour" (4.5*)

Thank you. This is our last number and it's called Sir Patrick Spens isn't the first thing you'd expect to hear on an album, but presumably it’s the only track from the first of three-nights that were recorded to have made the cut for the disk, so there you go.

In any case, if you’re into musical archaeology, House Full, as the only currently available live Fairport Convention album with Richard Thompson in the band, is probably required listening. There’s the small matter of Fairport’s influence on a group of young Angelenos of Mexican origin who morphed into Los Lobos.

Having lost singer Sandy Denny almost directly after Liege & Lief appeared on the market, Fairport had reshaped the vocal department with guitarist Richard Thompson and folkie fiddler Dave Swarbrick sharing the leads with assistance in the background from new bass player Dave Pegg, who’d been slotted in to replace Ashley Hutchings, who was en route to more traditional territory with his new missus Shirley Collins.

The new line up had recorded and released Full House, and were on the road behind the album (as the saying goes) when they landed in L.A. for a week-long gig at the Troubadour (opening, believe it or not, for Rick Nelson) that was legendary for a couple of reasons. According to Dave Pegg the band were doing a week's residency, two spots each night and three on the weekend for which we were going to be paid five hundred dollars. But when we went to collect our wages, we'd drunk so much we owed them fifteen hundred bucks. Impressive, even taking into account the possibility that the drinks in question were overpriced and the band were generous tippers where leggy waitresses were concerned.

The finer details of alcoholic catering may have had something to do with the related fact that Led Zeppelin were performing at the Forum and Robert Plant, John Bonham and Fairport’s new bass player were old mates from Birmingham. Dave Pegg invited the foursome to the Troubadour after their Forum gig at the Forum and when they arrived a dressing room consultation resulted in Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones joining Fairport on stage for a set that included Hey Joe, Morning Dew, Banks of the Sweet PrimrosesMystery Train and That's Alright Mama. While the mobile eight-track machine was rolling throughout the tapes (existence confirmed by Joe Boyd) are buried deep in the Polygram vaults.

But it seems they exist. In White Bicycles Boyd reminisces: the tape reveals Plant’s vocal being louder than any of the amplifiers, Page trying to keep pace with Richard on jigs and reels and Zep manager Peter Grant at a front table cursing and abusing the waitresses.

He also recalls Linda Ronstadt being invited on stage (another night, another distinguished guest) after Fairport had run out of encores for another forty minutes covering songs she had forgotten she knew.

There’s nothing from either night here, however. So what’s on the disk?

Well, for a start, there’s nothing that predates Liege & Lief (predictable, the infamous car crash would still have been relatively fresh in the memory), and the Liege and Full House material is fleshed out with traditional material, a World War I bagpipe lament and, on a lighter note, Yellow Birds (or boids, up high in banana trees).

Even if you’re not familiar with Fairport, those of us who went through high school in the sixties will probably recall Sir Patrick Spens from the poetry anthologies (I had the impression it was regarded as somewhere in the same postcode as iconic as far as medieval ballads were concerned), but don’t let that put you off.

Actually, while Sir Patrick Spens and Banks of the Sweet Primroses get proceedings off on a nice roll, there’s nothing there to suggest you’re in the presence of anything other than a fairly good folk-rock band, things change with the jigs and reels in The Lark in the Morning Medley, which may not be the fastest of their kind in captivity (that honour quite possibly goes to Jenny's Chickens / The Mason's Apron or Bonnie Kate / Sir B. McKenzies) the version here romps along at a merry clip, and like the later variations, is played with stop on a sixpence precision by an outfit with considerable instrumental chops (Swarbrick’s fiddle work might not quite rate as virtuoso, but it’s in an adjacent postcode and Richard Thompson is, well, Richard Thompson, enough said) and a rock hard, hard rocking rhythm section.

Those chops come to the fore again in twelve and a bit minutes of Sloth, and yet again in the play-out to Matty Groves, with the traditional Staines Morris wedged between them. The vocal department on Matty Groves shows what they lost with the departure of Sandy Denny, but there’s a rough-hewn rustic note to the Thompson and Swarbrick take that has its own charm, from where I’m sitting.

Jenny's Chickens / The Mason's Apron cart us back into jigs and reels territory, then there’s a stately take on Battle of the Somme, a piper’s lament that you might not expect to work in this setting but if you didn’t you weren’t aware of Thompson’s ongoing affinity with the skirl of the pipes.

Up to this point we’re revisiting the original House Full. The related release Live at the L.A. Troubadour gives us Bonnie Kate / Sir B. McKenzie's Daughter's Lament for the 77th Mounted Lancer's Retreat from the Straits of Loch Knombe, in the Year of Our Lord 1727, on the Occasion of the Announcement of Her Marriage to the Laird of Kinleakie, which predictably gets abbreviated to Sir B. McKenzies. Non-Einsteins will no doubt be able to figure out why, and proceedings are concluded on a lighter note with the old Yellow Birds.

In their day, the five man Fairport were, by all accounts, an awesome experience in a live setting and as the only officially released live recording of the lineup House Full, with that extra material from the cousin-brother Live at the L.A. Troubadour tacked on the end is close to essential listening for anyone interested in investigating this little corner of the folk-rock genre.

In summary, a crack five-piece outfit at the height of their considerable powers. I was, back in the day, highly impressed by Angel Delight, the studio album that followed this live excursion, by which time Richard Thompson had gone. Classic, exuberant British folk-rock from the best all-male lineup of a band that has gone on to become an institution (they’re still going strong with a 45th anniversary coming up, and there’ll be those who’ll rate a configuration featuring Sandy Denny as slightly better).

They never, as someone or other pointed out, made an album like this again, but then again, no one else did either. For $10.99 at the iTunes Store it was a no-brainer...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Neil Young Dreamin' Man Live '92 (4*)

If I've taken my time getting to Dreamin' Man Live '92 I can always point to the lack of urgency Neil Young displayed in getting to this document from his 1992 tour. Not much urgency in a close to twenty year gap between a handful of concerts selected from the four dozen shows spread over four legs of touring between January and November 1992 and this album's appearance as volume twelve in the Archives Performance Series.

And, with the disregard for sequencing we've almost come to expect from Mr Young it might be volume twelve, but it's the fifth to actually be released.

That 1992 tour was widely bootlegged, so, if you’re looking for a more accurate record than this chronologically sequenced collection of live recordings covering a non-sequential rerun of Harvest Moon’s ten tracks they’re out there. Many of them are perfectly listenable, and there’s a sixty-two track tour compilation in circulation as well, covering the whole gamut of songs played on the tour from acoustic takes on the likes of electric classics like Down By The River and Cinnamon Girl through to songs he wouldn’t get around to releasing officially until  Le Noise two years back (Hitchhiker).

So, what have we got here? Well, for a start we’re talking chronological order, rather than any other variation. Dreamin' Man from Portland in January, Such a Woman from Detroit four months later and three each (One of These Days/ Harvest Moon/You And Me and From Hank to Hendrix/ Unknown Legend/ Old King) from two consecutive nights in Los Angeles four months after that and a two month jump forward to Chicago (Natural Beauty) and Minneapolis (War of Man) for the last two tracks.

Being solo and acoustic, we’ve got Neil mostly on guitar, hopping over to the piano for Such a Woman, taking a turn on banjo for Old King, with the odd blast of neck brace harmonica. The result isn’t quite a deconstruction or reinterpretation of the Harvest Moon material, more a stripped back version of some of his strongest material from the nineties, delivered with the intimacy the live acoustic small theatre setting makes possible.

Long term fans would be totally aware of how well Neil works this sort of setting, and while there’s plenty for the more casual listener to enjoy here, Hughesy, for one, would much rather  have seen a complete recording of a particular concert, maybe with the rest of the Harvest Moon material added to the end, something like the full set list from the show that gave us the opening track, Dreamin' Man, here.

That would have read: Long May You Run, From Hank To Hendrix, Unknown Legend, Silver And Gold, You And Me, War Of Man, Old King, Such A Woman, Harvest Moon, Heart Of Gold, Dreamin' Man, Natural Beauty, Don't Let It Bring You Down, Sugar Mountain, After The Goldrush.

But despite those (slight) misgivings, given the fact that the Harvest Moon material mightn’t be totally familiar to the average listener, Dreamin’ Man Live '92 works well enough to warrant an evaluatory listen.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Boubacar Traoré "Mali Denhou" (4*)

Reading about Boubacar Traoré I couldn’t help thinking there were parallels with the lives of some of the old Delta blues men. Not the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, the guys who packed up and headed to Chicago, hitting the relative big time plying clubs on the South Side before gaining national exposure when the Rolling Stones and their cousin brothers exposed the blues to a wider audience, I’m thinking here of the likes of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams.

Son House recorded for Paramount in 1930 during a session for Charlie Patton, drifted into obscurity through the thirties, re-emerged to be recorded for the Library of Congress by John and Alan Lomax in 1941 and '42, then moved to Rochester, New York, where worked as a railroad porter and chef until Dick Waterman tracked him down in 1964.

Mississippi John Hurt was a sharecropper, playing local dances and parties before cutting sides for Okeh in 1928. They weren't hits, so Mississippi John continued to work as a farmer until a Washington blues enthusiast tracked him down in 1963 and persuaded him to move to Washington and record for the Library of Congress. He played the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, hit the coffee houses and concert halls of the early sixties folk revival cut three albums for Vanguard Records.

Nehemiah "Skip" James sharecropped, helped build roads and levees and sold bootleg whiskey around Bentonia, Mississippi, recorded for Paramount Records in 1931, drifted into obscurity and was rediscovered by John Fahey, Bill Barth (The Insect Trust, co-founder of the Memphis Country Blues Society) and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat) in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi in 1964. The usual round of folk and blues festivals, concerts and recording followed and Cream's recording of his I'm So Glad provided the only windfall of his career.

Booker T. Washington Bukka White, second cousin of B.B. King, had a similar story before being rediscovered working in a tank factory in Memphis, thanks to a letter addressed to Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi that was forwarded to his new address. John Fahey and ED Denson wrote the letter, and Bob Dylan had covered Fixin' to Die Blues in 1963, a number White had come up with on the spot when his other material had failed to impress at a record session some thirty years earlier.

Robert Pete Williams, whose Grown So Ugly turned up on the first Captain Beefheart album (Safe as Milk, 1967), played music and worked in the lumberyards around Baton Rouge before a life sentence for a killing in a local club in 1956 led to his discovery in the Louisiana State Penitentiary by a pair of ethnomusicologists.

Compared to those stories the Boubacar Traoré saga  starts off much more promisingly.

Fifty years ago, having taught himself the guitar, which he plays as if it were a kora (or learned from his brother, but don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story) he was playing clubs, the Malian Elvis Presley as Mali became independent. Thanks to radio airplay (Mali Twist was played on the national station every morning and regularly through the rest of the day) he was a celebrity with what amounted to hit records (Mali Twist, Kar Kar Madison, with the Kar Kar or "Dribbler" coming from his prowess as a footballer until injury ended a promising career).

Then, on 19 November 1968 a coup deposed President Modibo Keïta, all political activity was banned, informers monitored opposition figures and Malian equivalents of Elvis Presley were presumably surplus to requirements. As a result, for close to twenty years Traoré worked as a tailor, farmer and shopkeeper, a series of random jobs until a surprise television appearance in 1987 hinted at a revival. That was quickly quashed when his wife died in childbirth, and Boubacar moved to France to work on building sites.

So, working in France after a gap of more than twenty years after the coup, Traoré started recording. His first actual album, Mariama, appeared in 1990, followed in rapid succession, by Kar Kar (1992), Les Enfants de Pierrette (1995) and Sa Golo (1996). Things slowed down a little after that, with a four-year gap to Maciré, three to Je chanterai pour toi and The Best of Boubacar Traoré: The Bluesman from Mali and another two to 2005‘s Kongo Magni.

Mali Denhou is his first album in six years and assuming it’s a representative sample of the man’s style, the rest of the back catalogue would appear to be worth checking out.

You wouldn’t be expecting the harmonica to be a key element in indigenous West African music (it was, after all, only invented in its modern form in the 1830s) and the player here is French rather than African, but Vincent Bucher adds light and shade to Traoré's laid back acoustic guitar, Mahamadou Kamissoko’s n'goni, Madieye Niang ‘s calabash and Fassery Diabate’s balafon.

As is invariably the case in these circumtances you don’t have a clue what’s going on lyrically (no digital booklet with the iTunes download, and I didn’t go too far looking on the interwebs) but there’s a relaxed, contemplative groove throughout, laid back vocals, the odd recognizable proto-blues riff here and there with the whole combining to deliver a sense of Zen resignation. The harp underlines the links to the blues while the West African elements lope along in a manner that’s not entirely dissimilar to his Malian peers Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté but not quite in their footsteps either.

Hughesy'll be dipping into that back catalogue for sure...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Galactic Ya-Ka-May (3.5*)

They didn’t get a guernsey in Samuel Charters’ New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus (hardly surprising, they’re not exactly a jazz outfit) and attracting a one line assessment in Rick Koster’s Louisiana Music (crosses the jam band tendencies of Phish or the Dead with serious funk nuances and jazz chops) but I’ve had the outfit that formed as an octet back in 1994 under the name Galactic Prophylactic filed under Check these out for a while.
The most recent reminder came with Ben Ellman’s gig as producer for the two Trombone Shorty albums, but I’ve also picked up live material featuring drummer Stanton Moore sitting in with various collaborators, so some sort of investigation was always on the cards.
Galactic’s origins date back to the early nineties, when guitarist Jeff Raines and bass player Robert Mercurio moved from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to study at Tulane and Loyola, encountering the local funk scene, influenced by The Meters, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the enduring legacy of Professor Longhair.
The current lineup is rounded out by drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist/producer Ben Ellman, and Rich Vogel on Hammond B3. Until 2004 there was also a vocalist in the form of Theryl DeClouet, but since then they’ve been predominantly an instrumental unit with guest vocals from Corey Glover from Living Colour and assorted other New Orleans and related luminaries as their style moved from New Orleans funk to a fusion of hip hop, electronica, fusion, and jazz. 
The guest vocalist roster on Ya-Ka-May includes Irma Thomas, Chief Bo Dollis of The Wild Magnolias, Allen Toussaint and Walter Wolfman Washington, Trombone Shorty, Corey Henry, John Boutté, Josh Cohen and Ryan Scully of Morning 40 Federation, and Glen David Andrews, as well as Bounce artists Cheeky Blakk, Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby and extra horns from the Rebirth Brass Band.
Ya-Ka-May, in case you were wondering is a noodle soup, possibly of Chinese origin also known as Old Sober due to alleged hangover-curing properties, where whatever meat you have on hand is simmered with green onions, noodles, hard-boiled eggs and the predictable Cajun-Creole blend of spices(more details here).
The fifteen tracks on the regular Ya-Ka-May (the iTunes version has two bonus tracks) give what sounds like a fair cross-section of what’s happening in N’Awlins. 
Once you’ve got the minute and a bit mad scientist rant Friends of Science out of the way, Boe Money kicks the musical side of things off with a bang as the horns of the Rebirth Brass Band lead through an instrumental that’s part dancehall jam, and part street parade. The rap and hip-hop bit kicks in with Double It with rapping from some dude named Big Freedia over an energetic dancehall groove that I personally could do without, but mileages, of course vary.
Much more to Hughesy’s taste is the Irma Thomas vocal on Heart of Steel, which hovers over the border between R&B and rap and Wild Man, two minutes of Big Chief Bo Dollis vocalising that’s recognisably coming out of Mardi Gras Indian territory via the dance floor and Bacchus where Allen Toussaint’s characteristic vocal and piano riffing bumps itself up against the rap elements, sort of Gil Scott Heron meets New Orleans over interesting rhythmic patterns from drummer Stanton Moore.
Moore kicks off Katey vs. Nobby with fairly traditional marching drums before New Orleans rappers Katey Red and Sissy Nobby jump in for a vocal cutting contest. Not being the world’s greatest hip-hop fan, Hughesy lost interest around the ten-second mark, though the marching band drums keep going under the street brat rapping. 
Cineramascope, on the other hand, lands us back in more familiar marching band territory as the Rebirth horns groove along over a funky riff with Rich Vogel’s B3 underpinning things. The John Boutté vocals on Dark Water work rather nicely as well, but from the start of Do It Again, what we used to refer to as a language advisory situation back when I was on the radio has Hughesy hitting the shuffle button. That might read like a bit of wowserism sneaking in, but there’s a definite ear worm in the rhythm and there are some things you’d prefer not to have running through your head, compris?
Liquor Pang is another track that’ll be pushing to find its way into Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played, with  singer Josh Cohen lamenting the bad decisions with the money I earn, but thirty-three seconds of Krewe d'Etat and four minutes of You Don't Know with gritty vocals from Glen David Andrews over wailing Dixieland horns are going to be lurking on the fringes thereof, as will Speaks His Mind, an interesting mix of rappy vocalising over an intriguing instrumental track with fluttering guitar though we’re back in hit the shuffle button mode for  Do It Again (Again) where those language advisory issues raise their ugly head again. 
The bonus tracks, Muss the Hair, an almost traditional-sounding excursion into Allen Toussaint’s regular territory and Sandor’s Revenge, an instrumental based around Moore’s driving syncopated drums don’t quite fit into the vibe of the rest of the album (presumably that’s why they’re bonus tracks, eh?) They’ll fit, on the other hand, rather handily into Hughesy’s iTunes Fat Tuesday playlist, so that’s fine with me.
In live performances Galactic, by all accounts, jam their way through marathon dance medleys, and what’s on offer here is probably going to provide the basis for on-stage extension, with three to four minute themes that can be linked and extemporised around, a set of party songs strongly influenced by New Orleans bounce rap that’ll also work when filtered through the DJ booth in a club environment.
There’ll be tracks from the album that’ll find their way to the top of Hughesy’s iTunes playlists (Boe Money, Heart of Steel, Wild Man and Bacchus for starters) and if we were still polluting the airwaves Galactic’s ghetto-funk and hip-hop elements would be a useful addition to the musical terrain.
If you’re into New Orleans music it’s worth an evaluatory listen. Approach with caution, maybe, but worth approaching, though the approach may not result in a purchase...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stephen Cummings "Reverse Psychology" (4*)

A couple of years he was the Happiest Man Alive, and about twelve months later everything was Tickety Boo, so where does Reverse Psychology fit into the continuing saga of that bloke who used to front The Sports?
It's a bit over two years since that last studio effort, and Stephen Cummings gigs tend to be few and far between, so at a guess he's been sitting quietly in suburban Lovetown reading, listening to music and doing the odd bit of writing. This latest effort's not exactly a long player, and at $13.52 for a touch over half an hour's music you might not be inclined to look favourably on this eight track extended EP.
Then again you're looking at a long term songwriting talent who has managed to find himself a cosy niche in a fairly quiet market as he skips across genres as the mood takes him. It's not quite Elvis Costello territory, since Cummings has always given the impression of being somewhat more laid back than the bloke who was once reckoned to be churning songs out at the rate of one a day.
As far back as The Sports era, where Cummings was one of the main writers in an outfit that ranged across Little Feat-style slink through power pop into new wave territory, there has always been something interesting in a new Cummings-related recording and Reverse Psychology continues that tradition.
Take the first three tracks here as an example. After a whooshy synth intro, Stupidity evolves into a bluesy ballad, the vocoder-based Ooga Booga has proved to be a significant ear worm in these parts and would, with different backing track, have fitted nicely with the rockabilly on Firecracker and there's a vaguely Mediterranean flavour to The Cat And The Coq that contrasts nicely with the previous retro synths. 
They’re different takes on a characteristic style, and once you’re familiar with the man’s work you’re hardly likely to mistake him for anyone else, but he’s a writer and performer who’ll roam across the genres and, as a couple of albums (Close Ups and Good Bones if you want specifics) have shown, he’s quite willing to rejig earlier material into different styles.
He’s not, in other words, your old one trick pony.
With long-time collaborator Rebecca Barnard sighing away in the background Not In My Skin is familiar territory, as is Through December and after I Can't Stay Mad At You starts to lift the tempo there's some sizzling guitar work on the rocker All Day, with it's references to a certain well known song by The Kinks. Back in familiar Cummings territory You Should Get Out More wraps things up rather nicely. 
Cummings, along with latter-day preferred collaborator Billy Miller (The Ferrets) continues to hop and bop through the genres, and though mileages might vary there's invariably something in a new Cummings recording to attract Hughesy's attention. As far as I can tell (it's an extensive discography, after all) I've got everything he's done in the past, barring a couple of compilations and there's nothing here that'll stop me from queueing up for a copy next time around.