Monday, December 23, 2013
The ancient Romans searched through the entrails of sacrificed animals looking for omens, and as we sat waiting for last night's show, I found myself pondering the significance, if any, of two items that were probably of no significance at all, but when you've got half an hour's wait, that's the sort of thing you do after you've had a photo taken with the Wheel in the background.
Actually, we were lucky to be there at all.
If The Supervisor hadn't asked what time the show started we might have rocked up at least half an hour after the actual commencement. We'd had lunch with The Sister and The Rowdy Niece, and I'd answered a question about starting time with a seven-thirty, omitting an I think and failing to note the expression of surprise from someone who's rather more au fait with the way things run over here than her sister, who has spent the last twenty-odd years in Australia.
Most of the conversation was, predictably, in Japanese, so I didn't pick up the that's early for a Sunday (or words to that effect).
We also learned that the ¥500 drink charge we'd complained about earlier is, in effect, standard operating practice in these parts.
In any case, Madam checked at around four-thirty, we were out the door shortly thereafter and around an hour later we were seated in row G, enjoying the different ambience at a different venue.
The ¥500 drink fee hadn't caused quite the same resentment now that we were aware it was par for the course, and once we were inside it was obvious that Zepp Namba is a far more relaxed environment than the Ex in Roppongi. The entrance was entirely devoid of people yelling instructions through bullhorns, and there were no PA announcements reminding us that photographs were forbidden.
I joined a stream of punters getting photos taken in front of the iconic item and was on my way back to the seats when I noted a familiar-looking bearded gentleman thanking someone who'd taken a happy snap. "Strange," I thought. "Looks like Steve. must be his brother."
As the figure headed off I remarked on the remarkable resemblance, and Madam pointed out that he'd been stopped by a couple of Japanese girls and was signing autographs.
I wasn't sure why someone who'd done dozens of these shows would want a photographic record of his presence there, which raises all sorts of avenues for speculation, and it was around that point I noticed there'd been some changes on the Wheel.
For a start, all the album bonuses, the King's Ransom and Imperial Chocolate and their ilk were gone, replaced by individual songs (In Another Room, River in Reverse, Big Tears, Human Hands), and what seemed to be a new Ghost Jackpot.
So maybe that was it. Alternatively, if the titles up there are the result of some sort of EC-Steve-Whoever collaboration you might want a record.
Or it might just be a part of the pre-concert ritual.
But what was obvious from the time the ensemble hit the stage was an obvious degree of relaxation, which might be down to the fact that the TV appearance was behind them, but quite possibly related to the change of venue.
As noted, Zepp Namba had a much more relaxed vibe in front of stage, and the same thing quite possibly applies to those areas we don't get to see. In any case, Elvis expressed a liking for the place.
It was obvious, once the Wheel segments started, that there'd been a change in the selection policy. Elvis' first foray into the crowd produced a pair of sisters, one sporting an Elvis t-shirt and the other a Liverpool FC shirt and supporter's scarf. Obvious fans, who obviously knew how to attract the man's attention.
Subsequent spinners included a couple who had She as their wedding song. That was their request, and a bit of manipulation on Elvis' part delivered the Joanna Jackpot, which, predictably, concluded with their request.
The Hammer of Song segment produced a woman in a kimono who rang the bell once the right hammer had been produced and requested 45, rather than one of the obvious suspects.
She sat in the Celebrity lounge, obviously having a good time and happily singing along to Radio Radio.
A final crowd excursion in the Help Me extension of Watching the Detectives produced a Belgian gent in a hammer and sickle t-shirt and an attractive Japanese lass who either arrived together or were very rapidly becoming quite good friends.
And, with the more interesting selection of spinners came an increased use of the go-go cage, though no one matched the terpsichorean tantalization of the lovely Dixie de la Fontaine.
And from Row G it was interesting to watch (out of the corner of the eye, of course) what happened as The Mysterious Josephine went out into the audience. One gathers that part of her brief, in the Stage Left aisle, involves encouraging the crowd reaction. You also get the distinct impression that she has someone selected just in case. A Japanese couple spent a long time cued to go on, passed over (quite literally) in Help Me, and ended up missing their shot at the stars when the show came to a relatively premature end.
Actually, it wasn't that premature, and one suspects Elvis was starting to have some vocal issues. The volume definitely seemed to have been cranked up through the latter portions of the encore in a way it hadn't been in Tokyo. He definitely seemed to be straining in Strict Time.
In any case, after the lengthy second set, the crowd persisted with calls for an encore, right up to the point where the stage crew started removing items from the Wheel.
Elvis expressing his inner Jerry Lee Lewis when there were apparent guitar issues during Mystery Dance.
My All Time Doll and Femme Fatale.
New Amsterdam > You've Got To Hide Your Love Away.
And, with that, it's off to Kyoto for a couple of days off bare trees in temple courtyards before we make our way back to the wilds of Northern Australia and an appointment with the same outfit in Sydney in April.
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart of the City
Mystery Dance (Elvis took a chorus on the grand piano, guitar issues?)
Spin 1: My All Time Doll
Spin 2: I Can Sing A Rainbow jackpot
My All Time Doll
Spin 3: So Like Candy
Come the Meantimes
New Amsterdam > You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
Spin 4: Happy Jackpot
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
Spin 5: Joanna Jackpot
Talking in the Dark
Shot With His Own Gun
Spin 6: I Want You
Walk Us Uptown
Hammer of Song: 45
Cinco Minutos Con Vos
Watching the Detectives > Help Me
Spin 7: Time Jackpot
Spin 8: Ghost Jackpot
Sugar Won't Work
Out of Time
I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
Peace Love & Understanding
A glance down the set list from the third show in the Tokyo run has to suggest one of three things. Or two, with a proviso for a third. Perhaps we'll get a little additional light cast on these things at the fourth show, when the venue changes to Osaka's Zepp Namba.
It's hard, having seen all three shows, to avoid the conclusion that the Spinning Songbook concept hasn't played out as well as it was supposed to in these parts. With no Wheel action between the end of the first set and the Hammer of Song segment that opened the second encore, that's a fairly obvious conclusion.
Last night, on the other hand, was going out live to air on Japanese Pay TV, so it's just possible the decision was made to keep the rest of the show within what you might call normal parameters rather than bring in the risk factors that come into play where the Wheel and the selection of audience members to spin it are concerned. Don't want to upstage the star of the show, do we?
There was a degree of what might have been with the couple Josephine hauled up on stage for the Hammer of Song. Where just about everybody else, either singly or jointly, had been female, here we had a bloke who looked like a character. Pork pie hat, white coat, Spinning Songbook T-shirt, girlfriend sporting the same shirt. You'd look at him and label him obvious fan with possible oddball tendencies.
After the jokey preliminaries with the girlfriend and the fake hammer, the guy gets the real one, hits the bell and, given his choice from the Wheel, selects the Joker, which equates to a choice of any song on the Wheel.
Which, of course, he’d already qualified for through the Hammer.
The selection turned out to be Every Day I Write the Book, and through the track the two off them end in the Go-Go Cage, encouraged into Philly Soul/Motown moves by Josephine and Dixie de La Fontaine.
Then they spend the rest of the set with visible applause and reaction from Fan boy, in a fairly stark contrast to just about everyone else who had been hauled up on stage over the three days.
Actually, all the Hammer of Song people have had a bit of character about them.
Unlike the previous two nights, we actually ended up with four segments: the main Spinning Songbook set following the full five song Overture, where the highlight was an impromptu God Give Me Strength called from the middle of the audience (Mr Nieve. God Give Me Strength if you please). It wasn't much visually if you were up in the balcony, but the vocal was belted out with appropriate intensity, and the whole thing must have looked fantastic on television. But even in the balcony, you still wanted to be there as the heart and soul got poured into the performance.
Almost as good was an impassioned I Want You, delivered as the result of the final spin.
Chelsea, Walk Us Uptown and Pump It Up rounded the set off, and it's starting to look like Elvis has found another default show closer.
Otherwise he'd have saved PiU for the end of the third encore wouldn't he?
Or maybe not. The idea may have been to get the punters, who tended (as previously noted) to be rather reserved in the yelling and foot stomping departments, delivering an appropriate response in the Encore Stakes.
While I'd reckoned on what followed as the First Encore, the Costello site divides the Elvis and Steve mini-set off as an Interlude, with the full band selection from Accidents to My New Haunt as the Encore. Same horse, different jockey. What was interesting, in this regard, was the absence of the semi-acoustic bracket with Slow Drag for Josephine and Jimmie Standing In the Rain, which in turn raises the question of the TV broadcast, and what it was supposed to achieve.
It would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall when these matters were being sorted.
In any case, regardless of whether the Wheel did what it was supposed to, and the policies involved with selecting the spinners, it was obvious from the start that the band was on last night. There was just that little bit of extra oomph, the sort of thing you expect when there's an occasion that needs to be risen to.
As far as the set list was concerned you'd have to reckon it had been deliberately shaped to present most of the facets of the Elvis back catalogue, though the Americana element was conspicuous by its absence, and the current album got a substantial work over though, of course, it's not an Imposters project.
What will be most interesting is the question of whether the show ends up appearing in DVD or some other form. There's a Spinning Songbook package out in the market, there's no certainty the market can handle two of 'em, but one thing's certain.
If and when it does appear, I'll be in for a copy.
The show rocked mightily when it needed to rock, rolled through a fair selection of the Costello style palette and underlined the notion that the Wise Up Ghost material isn't as far removed from the rest of the man's catalogue as some might think.
So, with a show to go, we'll see what happens in Osaka, where we'll be away from the need to sort things out for theTV special.
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart of the City
Spin 1: So Like Candy
Come the Meantimes
Spin 2: Tokyo Storm Warning (played after Girl jackpot)
Spin 3: Girl jackpot
This Year's Girl
Tokyo Storm Warning
Spin 4: She (ended in the crowd)
God Give Me Strength (sung entirely off stage)
Spin 5: I Want You
Walk us UpTown
Pump it Up
I Still Have That Other Girl
Shot With his Own Gun
Accidents Will Happen
Less Than Zero
Cinco Minutos Con Vos
Tripwire > Peace Love & Understanding (Slow)
My New Haunt
Hammer of Song: Every Day I Write The Book
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
Watching the Detectives
Sugar Won't Work
Peace Love & Understanding (fast)
Saturday, December 21, 2013
And it was time to head out the door for the second of three Elvis Costello Spinning Songbook shows at a theatre a matter of a couple of hundred metres down Roppongi Street.
No, it doesn't get much better than this, but, occasionally it does. Not much better, and again, the unexpected lift came in the encores where last night's performance produced a Hammer of Song request for Church Underground, a response that this band doesn't know that song and a decision to do it solo.
This time around, an excursion into the crowd during the Help Me segue out of Watching the Detectives produced what looked like an awestruck high school girl who needed assistance from The Mysterious Josephine to ring the bell.
I might be wrong about the high school girl, and awestruck might be wide of the mark as well, but the key point here is that she didn't look like someone who'd be conversant with the depths of Mr Costello's extensive back catalogue.
The request? Having managed, with assistance, to ring the bell, she asked for The Imposter, and followed it with the news that the request was for my lover because it's his favourite song.
Cue stunned looks all round from an outfit that takes its name from the song. An on-line query when I made it back to the hotel room reveals the song was last played in May 2008. So, five and a half years is plenty of time to forget how it goes.
But it did appear.
One suspects there's an autocue in operation, and they needed a window to enter the data. A final spin of the wheel produced an Imperial Chocolate bonus (Poor Napoleon, Shabby Doll). With The Imposter and Sugar Won't Work to follow it was a great way to wind up what had been another excellent show.
Significantly, Elvis left the stage with a remark along the lines of See you tomorrow night. It'll be on television. We'll all be famous.
On that basis, you'd have to see these two shows as trial runs for a concert that's going to go live to air from seven-thirty this evening, so one's inclined to filter the last two nights through that perspective and make a few predictions.
There's no doubt about the opening Overture, the four or five song blast that had Uncomplicated slotted in the middle of I Hope You're Happy Now, Heart of the City, Mystery Dance and Radio Radio.
It's also fairly obvious he's working towards a particular demographic when it comes to the wheel spinners. They tend to be young, female and almost invariably overwhelmed by the fact that they're up there on stage in front of all those people.
I was hoping that he'd grab one of the geekier types I spotted in the foyer, which might have produced some interesting results, but in this setting the star of the show probably doesn't want to be upstaged.
The first spin produced the Girl bonus (This Year's Girl, Party Girl, Girls Talk, and the Lennon-Macartney Girl), and the next two delivered She, with comments about the original French lyric by Charles Aznavour, and Monkey to Man, followed by an impromptu Tokyo Storm Warning and Alison > The Wind Cries Mary > Somewhere Over the Rainbow > There's A Place For Us. We know they're impromptu because that's how they're tagged in the official set list.
For me, things really took off with the next spin, God Give Me Strength, complete with masterful piano from Mr Nieve and a venture out into the audience for the final verse or two. One of my favourite Elvis songs, delivered with total passion.
That was the first of a double spin, with the second selection, Accidents Will Happen deferred until after Spin 6, which threw up Tokyo Storm Warning. The respin added New Lace Sleeves to the set list.
I thought we were in for the first encore break after Accidents, but Wise Up Ghost and I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea rounded things off nicely, and the crowd reaction, while not as restrained as the previous night, made me suspect we were in for what amounted to a second set rather than a string of encores, particularly when the next cluster of songs concluded with Peace Love & Understanding.
In between the guitar action centred around the acoustic with Ascension Day followed by Good Year For the Roses, Suit of Lights, Slow Drag for Josephine, Jimmie Standing In The Rain and a quite magnificent Shipbuilding. The young gentleman who'd been hauled up on stage for the double spin had named it as his request, missed getting it by a whisker (Accidents lobbed instead) but ended up having the wish fulfilled.
This acoustic based set based around Josephine and Jimmie seems to be standard operating practice, so you can probably pencil it in for tonight's show as well.
Viceroys Row and Oliver's Army preceded PLU, and raised the suspicion that we weren't going any further. Elvis looked at his watch towards the end of the latter, obviously checking how long they had before the curfew or scheduled end of show.
And based on the degree of audience response you mightn't have been surprised to see the house lights come on at that stage. I was mildly surprised to note two gentlemen in front of me who had been applauding enthusiastically throughout sitting back and conversing as if the next bracket of songs was a foregone conclusion.
Well, it probably was, but I thought that part of the game was to act as if the second, third, fourth and fifth encores are the result of crowd appreciation. The appearance of someone coming up to replace Elvis' drink container as soon as the band departs the stage is, of course, a dead set give away.
Maybe he needs to wait until Elvis and company return. Surely he can skirt around Davey on his way to the little riser that holds Mr Costello's vocal lubrication.
But that's a minor gripe. The return that was always on once you saw the refill started with Watching the Detectives, which morphed into Help Me with another foray into the crowd that brought the young lady up on stage for the Hammer of Song and the request for The Imposter.
The convenient fiction of needing time to remember how it goes produced a final spin, and an Imperial Chocolate bonus, which turned out very tasty indeed. Poor Napoleon, Shabby Doll and The Imposter, followed by Sugar Won't Work brought things to a close in a show that, for once, didn't end with Pump It Up.
I can't say I was disappointed by the omission.
Viewed as a whole, a step up from Wednesday night, with the promise of something extra special with the live to air TV tonight. It says something about Costello's ambition to take a fly by the seat of the pants thing like a Spinning Songbook show and go live to air on a major pay TV network.
With two practice runs under the belt, tonight's show threatens to pull out all the plugs if he can wangle the right participants for the Wheel segments.
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart of the City
Spin 1: Girl Bonus
This Year's Girl
Come the Meantimes
Spin 2: She
Spin 3: Monkey To Man
Tokyo Storm Warning
Alison > The Wind Cries Mary > Somewhere Over the Rainbow > There's A Place For Us
Spin 4: God Give Me Strength
Spin 5: Accidents Will Happen (deferred)
Spin 6: Tokyo Storm Warning. Respin: New Lace Sleeves
Accidents Will Happen
Walk Us Uptown
I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
Good Year For the Roses
Suit of Lights
Slow Drag for Josephine
Jimmie Standing In The Rain
Peace Love & Understanding
Watching the Detectives > Help Me
Hammer of Song request for The Imposter resulted in baffled looks all around and another spin while Elvis "tried to remember how it went."
Spin 7: Imperial Chocolate bonus
Sugar Won't Work
Parting remark along the lines of See you tomorrow night. It'll be on television. we'll all be famous.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters Ex Theatre, Roppongi, Tokyo 11 December 2013 (Spinning Songbook Show)
You can take the primary school teacher out of the classroom (and it has been just over eight years), but you can never get away from your past. Lying in bed waiting to drift off after a great show in a venue with some major irritants I was reminded of one of the old top-level organisers that ran under the moniker of PMI.
That’s Plus, Minus, Interesting, which has, in this case been transformed, through The Good, The Bad and The Ugly into The Great, The Could Have Been Better and The Downright Ugly.
Starting with the latter:
The Downright Ugly:
Which has nothing to do with Elvis, but everything to do with the venue's approach to the punters. Now, some of this seems to be standard operating practice when it comes to concerts in Japan, but three major gripes:
Getting into the venue: where every other venue I've been to had a ground floor point of entry. Here, rather than walking in through the door that opens off the vestibule at the front of the building, we were directed up a flight of steps, across the top of the building and back down a flight of steps into a marshalling area that is on the other side of the door that was the logical point of entry and was, it seemed, for the well connected. The average punter, who paid for his or her ticket had to go via the Cape.
Crowd control: Once in, the punters are herded by marshals with bullhorns operating at maximum volume to a point where you are up for:
The extra slug. A compulsory ¥500 slug for a drink, which might be standard operating practice in Japan, but had my Japanese partner complaining bitterly. Along with the bullhorn marshalling, all this meant that when retook our seats we were somewhat less than gruntled.
Could Have Been Better:
The punters brought up to spin the wheel didn't hit any sparks to set things off on a tangent, apart from the Hammer of Song in the encore, who delivered a request for Church Underground and got it, despite Elvis' this band doesn't know that song.
Applause at the end of the main set was enthusiastic but subdued. I suspect Elvis thought cranking things up to the point where he could justify a third encore would be difficult. You wouldn't expect a polite crowd used to showing courtesy and respect in public to go hooting and hollering, stamping the feet and yelling for More. I was tempted, myself, but I thought it would be impolite to those around me.
This, after all, is a country where, over the space of around six weeks stretching over three visits I have NEVER heard someone talking loudly over a mobile phone in public, let alone delivering a frank, obscenity laden recount of last night's contretemps with the now ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.
The first encore was, as a result, more like a second set that combined what would have gone into two encores in other cases. In any case, he managed to work things to the point where they could go off and come back for the regulation thunderous finish.
Once inside the venue it was obvious there wasn't a bad seat, at least as far as the balcony was concerned. Sound was good, clear, loud but not overwhelming. From the balcony, you got a chance to see things you would miss otherwise (e.g. Steve's keyboard work).
Elvis was obviously thinking on his feet (see above) and seemed determined to deliver. Which he did in spades.
Talking in the Dark.
The Wise Up Ghost material in a band setting.
Encore 1, from Church Underground onwards. Thanks, Ayako!!
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart of the City
Spin 1: Town Crier
Spin 2: Beyond Belief > You Belong To Me
Spin 3: Town Crier (respin) > Joanna Jackpot:
I Still Have That Other Girl
Talking In The Dark
Spin 4: Happy bonus:
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
Spin 5: I Can Sing A Rainbow Jackpot:
Spin 6: Monkey to Man
"You wanna hear a new song?" My New Haunt
Tripwire > Peace Love & Understanding (slow)
Every Day I Write the Book
Hammer of Songs: Church Underground
Slow Drag with Josephine
My All Time Doll
Jimmie Standing In The Rain
I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea
Sugar Won't Work
I Want You
Pump It Up
Peace Love & Understanding (Fast)
Friday, November 29, 2013
Leonard Cohen received a hearty roar of appreciation very early on the three hour proceedings when he announced tonight we're going to give it our very best shot (or words to that effect).
I suspect provincial audiences are inclined to suspect a name performer might be tempted to phone it in when playing a relative small and relatively isolated venue.
Interestingly, I seem to recall that best shot remark from the show we saw in Brisbane just over three years ago.
The setlist wasn't all that different either. A couple of songs from the new album, some notable exclusions from the extensive back catalogue, but most of the classics were there, delivered in almost exactly the same sequence as a couple of shows I looked at on this setlist site ).He didn't do Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye or The Gypsy Wife, but he does from time to time.
Knowing I'd be tapping this out the following morning, I'd done that little bit of pre-concert research. Trying to keep notes in the darkness of a concert venue can be a pain, so I thought I'd do a bit of forensic work on the most recent shows I could find.
The result was a list of thirty-three tracks in what looked to be about the regular sequence, and the only two that failed to make the cut last night were the aforementioned Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye and The Gypsy Wife.
But Cohen shows are like that. You pays your money, and you gets an immaculately rehearsed three hours with plenty of instrumental solo work from the members of a handpicked ensemble assembled around one of contemporary music's most esteemed wordsmiths. You might question one of, but leaving it out would drop other favourites like Messrs Costello, Newman, Thompson and Zevon a little too far back in the pecking order.
Regardless of how thoroughly you've rehearsed, there's always the possibility of a wild card, and it came in the form of a possibly indigenous female interjector. Leonard was doing his eighties basic synthesizer shtick on Tower of Song, and making wry remarks that fitted immaculately alongside the line about having no choice and being born with the gift of a golden voice when the interjections came.
The keyboard doodling and noodling continued, but Leonard was late back into the next verse. He seemed to be giggling.
It didn't, however, seem to throw the Webb sisters, who were on stage in the trimmed down Tower of Song ensemble straight after the resumption. They were magnificent throughout, and shone on If It Be Your Will. In combination with the wonderful Sharon Robinson, who had her own showcase on Alexandra Leaving they provided ethereal harmonies that provide a striking counterpoint to Cohen’s battered baritone.
On their own they mightn’t necessarily melt a heart of granite, but they’d go mighty close.
But the vocal trio is only one part of a lineup that’s as impressive in their own way as their boss, who displays his respect for the virtuosos gathered around him throughout proceedings.
Bassist (electric and upright) Roscoe Beck’s association with Cohen goes back to 1979, and you’d have to think he had a fair bit to do with assembling the rest of the band. According to Cohen’s official website he filled that role back in 1988, so you’d guess he’d have been called to do the same when financial double-dealing forced Leonard back onto the road.
Keyboard ace Neil Larsen arrives with an extensive list of session credits, including George Harrison, Rickie Lee Jones, the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Cliff and Richard and Linda Thompson (big tick in that department) and string and horn arrangements for, among others, Gregg Allman and B.B. King.
Cohen introduced him as Professor, and guitarist Mitch Watkins has spent some time teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, but like Roscoe Beck his association with Leonard runs back to 1979. In between he spent a lot of time working with Lyle Lovett as well as Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely and Jennifer Warnes.
Watkins chipped in with some ringing Wes Montgomery styled guitar licks and Larsen got plenty of opportunities to work out on the Hammond B3 and other keys.
But the real stars on the instrumental front were Javier Mas, whose flamenco and gypsy-infused contributions on bandurria, laúd, archilaúd, and, occasionally acoustic guitar were once again stunning, and Moldovan violinist Alexandru Bublitchi, who regularly went close to stealing the show from the man who, last time I saw the ensemble, regularly threatened to steal the show from the front man.
All in all, a show that was at least as good as Brisbane three years ago, and possibly better. Leonard seemed relaxed. Our seats were much better (which, in terms of performance isn’t that important, but definitely enhances the enjoyment).
The only negative factor, in there was one, came in the absence of Dino Soldo, the keyboard, saxophone and assorted woodwind player who added tones of light and shade last time. Of course, if he had been there we wouldn’t have had the violinist, would we?
But when you’re looking for an assessment, it’s best to turn to some of my fellow attendees, two of whom find Hughesy’s predilection for multiple Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello concerts inexplicable. Both of them reported they’d have been happy to front up again the following night if that had been possible.
Me? Given the fact that you’d almost certainly get the same set, I don’t think so.
But if he’s back, by which time he’ll probably be into his eighties, I’m going again. After all, it might be the last time.
Dance Me To The End Of Love
Bird On The Wire
Who By Fire
Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
The Gypsy Wife
Lover, Lover, Lover
Tower Of Song
Chelsea Hotel #2
Waiting For The Miracle
In My Secret Life
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Take This Waltz
So Long Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
I Tried To Leave You
I've Got A Little Secret
Save The Last Dance For Me
Leonard Cohen - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Keyboards
Roscoe Beck - Acoustic and Electric Bass
Mitch Watkins - Guitar
Neil Larsen - Keyboards, Hammond B3
Javier Mas - Bandurria, Laud, Archilaud, Guitar
Alexandru Bublitchi - Violin
Rafael Bernardo Gayol - Drums
Sharon Robinson - Vocals
Hattie Webb - Vocals, Harp
Charley Webb - Vocals, Guitar
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Twenty-five years after it appeared there’s not a lot that can be said about Toumani Diabaté’s first solo album except that it was cut in a single session, live and unaccompanied in a London studio in October 1987.
You could, I suppose, set about listing the tracks, all five of them (Alla L'Aa Ke, Jarabi, Kaira, Konkoba, Tubaka) or say something bout their lengths (5:04 to 10:26) or mutter something about forty and a bit minutes of quite sublime music from a master of the 21-string West African harp-lute known as a kora.
Alternatively, you could mention the fact that Toumani comes from a line of seventy-plus masters of the instrument, and that Joe Boyd landed on this way ahead on the rest of us (released on his Hannibal label in 1988).
After that, you probably scratch your head and do what I’m inclined to do late at night with a glass of good red by my side and a book that needs to be read, pondered and digested.
Which is, of course, to press the play button again for another run through these five sublime instrumentals on an album I’m never likely to tire of.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Well, here we are on the point of parting company with Troy Andrews, at least as far as automatic buy this status is concerned. The third outing under the Trombone Shorty imprint is impressive in spots, lacklustre in others. We twigged a fair while back that there’s a conscious pursuit of mainstream success operating hereabouts, and, increasingly, there’s content that doesn’t fit comfortably into what I’m interested in listening to.
The loping groove that kicks off the title track is just fine. Keep rolling those out, Shorty, and Hughesy will be buying. Say That to Say This offers just under three minutes of blaring brass over a pile driving riff. Tasty. You and I (Outta This Place) has some of those elements lurking under the contemporary R&B vocals that persist through Get the Picture. The problem is that it’s starting to sound a little too much like R&B by numbers with the horns relegated to the background.
Vieux Carre, two minutes forty-five of jazzy Caribbean instrumental groove sets things back to where I’d like ‘em, and the cover of The Meters’ Be My Lady has the original New Orleans fonk masters appearing on record for the first time since 1978. So you can see where he’s coming from, you’ve got a fair idea where he’s headed, but some of us have reservations about the route.
That’s particularly the case with Long Weekend, written by album co-producer Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson. Pleasant enough in its own way, but largely generic and essentially lightweight. Fire and Brimstone has a little more bite to it, a streetwise celebration of survival, with the trombone hauled out for the instrumental break.
Following that, the instrumental Sunrise, while again pleasant enough, is a tad too laid back for its own good. It’s back to R&B by numbers for Dream On, which has no chance of advancing too far in the play count stakes, though the instrumental break’s tasty enough. I’m just not so keen on what you have to navigate to get there.
Far better is Shortyville, just under four and a half minutes of grooving instrumental that could have been a little more energetic but lopes along quite tastily with the brass motifs to the fore. Nola Luck winds things up with a vocal that’s of a piece with its counterparts throughout the set.
As a mix of grooving instrumentals and relatively insipid pop-R&B with close to generic lyrics Say That to Say This switches the four way blend of jazz, funk, rock and hip hop that characterised Backatown and For True for an increasingly R&B-oriented product, which is fine if that sort of thing floats your boat.
Unfortunately, the vocal content here doesn’t float mine. Different strokes for different folks and all that.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
The publicity material describes the Tin Men as America's premier sousaphone, washboard and guitar trio, which you might think is stretching things a tad given the possibility that there aren’t too many trios featuring that particular configuration.
I’m looking more towards the Tin Men as an example of the need to work a variety of gigs to keep the wolf from the door, with Alex McMurray having another source of p(l)aying gigs where he doesn’t have to work the spotlight on his own.
Here he’s got a counterfoil in the form of Washboard Chaz, who has his own set of alternative revenue sources. The Palmetto Bug Stompers work their way through traditional New Orleans Jazz, Washboard Rodeo blend New Orleans and Western swing influences and the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio probably deliver just what the moniker suggests.
Third Tin Man Matt Perrine has the handy ability to contribute some stringed bass, but when you’re rated a virtuoso sousaphone player by Downbeat, co-founder of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, one of the city's premier brass bands, the recipient of Offbeat magazine's award for best tuba player for 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 you might be tempted to stick to your stronger suit.
Perrine also picked up credits as musical director and arranger for the musical Nine Lives, composed by Colman deKay and former Cowboy Mouth guitarist, Paul Sanchez, a post-Katrina postcard from New Orleans with the score performed by an all star cast including Irma Thomas, Harry Shearer, Michelle Shocked, Alex McMurray and Allen Toussaint. He’s also, predictably, turned up on Treme, and keeps the wolf from the door by playing gigs with, among others, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show and Jon Cleary's philthy phew.
On that basis you can expect to see the name popping up in these parts fairly regularly from here on.
There’s a fair percentage of original McMurray material in the Tin Men repertoire, and you’d expect various numbers that appear in other settings would make their way into the trio’s live set, but there’s a bit of cover material in evidence on Avocado Woo Woo, including an intriguing take on Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours, and Chuck Berry’s Maybellene.
Having heard McMurray in other settings a burst of gospel to kick things off mightn’t be quite what you’re expecting, but Jesus Always Gets His Man is a serve of street gospel that charges along without taking any prisoners and doesn’t seem to have any tongues in cheek. That’s seemingly at odds with the sentiments expressed in the slinky Swerve, a co-write with Washboard Chaz that’s typically McMurray.
Perrine overdubs some trombone over the regular instrumentation on Turn My Lights Back On, delivering a dash of Dixieland to the mix. There’s no real indication who Tano-San is, but he seems like a cool dude on What Tano-San Say, three minutes of raffish je ne sais quoi, and the title track may or may not be paying tribute to a snacky delicacy. McMurray’s I Got A Guy seems to announce a connection to figures in the local underworld who can get things done for you (and if he can’t, he’s got a guy who can).
Why Don't You Haul Off And Love Me? is about what you think it’s about, but dates back to 1949 when earlier versions of the track features at the top of the Country and Race Records (precursor to Rhythm & Blues) charts. The Mississippi Sheiks operated around the time of the Great Depression and provide the source for Lonely One In This Town.
There’s a touch of Hugh Masakela (think Grazing in the Grass) about Perrine’s Living And Loving On The West Bank that segues nicely into Maybelline.
Things are back in Mississippi Sheiks territory for I've Got Blood In My Eyes For You and New Orleans producer and engineer Keith Keller gets the writing credit for Lies, a prime slice of power pop that contrasts nicely with what preceded it, while The Valparaiso Men's Chorus Boy's Auxiliary roar along on the chorus of McMurray’s If You Can't Make It Here.
All in all, having caught most of McMurray’s back catalogue (apart from the earlier Tim Men releases (Super Great Music For Modern Lovers and Freaks For Industry haven’t made their way into iTunes hereabouts, and I’m *that close* to ordering hard copies) there isn’t a great deal that’s new here, but the guy’s a class act, Washboard Chaz makes an interesting counterfoil, and I’m increasingly supportive of the notion that you don’t need an actual bass player if you’ve got a sousaphone handy.
Of course, it also helps if you’ve got Matt Perrine to play the thing.
Good time jug band influenced music with wit, charm and washboard. What’s not to like about that?
Monday, September 16, 2013
After close to thirty years (since I first heard Orchid in the Storm and his work with the Neville Brothers) I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion we’re not going to get a classic Aaron Neville album, at least not one that matches a unique voice to the stellar collection of material that would set it off just right.
That’s not to suggest there haven’t been great performances along the way, and if you were to grab any of Aaron’s recorded output (it’s a fairly extensive discography, as detailed here) you’ll almost certainly find something that sits comfortably on the continuum between sublime and outstanding. The problem is you won’t find an album where the contents (the whole contents, that is) sit there consistently.
It might be out there, of course, but if it is I haven’t found or recognized it.
And, in the meantime, My True Story will do until the real thing comes along.
Part of the problem is a tendency for whoever sits in the producer’s chair to select a range of material that shows off that voice in a variety of settings. That's fine if it works, but these things don't always work quite as well as you might hope. Don Was and Keith Richards deftly avoid that problem here by restricting the range to doo wop, which as it turns out, was Neville’s first love. Glance at the track listing and you’ll recognize a couple you mightn’t associate with the style, but there’s no question about the nature of the treatment Money Honey, Be My Baby and Work with Me Annie receive here.
The contents rock along gently with the vocals front and centre and the instrumental touches firmly in the background, filling out the spaces where the vocals don’t reach and padding out a sound that’s decidedly retro but still clear as a bell. Much of the credit for that has to go to the quartet of backing voices drawn from actual original doo-wop outfits like The Teenagers, the Del Vikings and, particularly, the Jive Five, who provide the album’s title track.
There’s a deft touch of swing to the opening Money Honey, with Richards’ guitar prominent in the mix and operating in the less is more school, which is entirely appropriate here. The falsetto kicks in big time on My True Story, heavy on the heartbreak of an ill-fated romance with Eugene Pitt, who sang the Jive Five original, as one of the voices in the background.
The crew sashays their way through Leiber and Stoller’s Ruby Baby at a pretty lively clip while things are slowed down for a smoky reading of Curtis Mayfield’s Gypsy Woman, a prime slice of Impressions’ Chicago soul given a doo wop slant. Ting a Ling, a Number One hit for The Clovers written by Ahmet Ertegun and covered by Buddy Holly, gets a suitably swinging reading.
You might be inclined to slot the Jeff Barry/ Ellie Greenwich/ Phil Spector Be My Baby firmly into girl group Phil Spector Wall of Sound territory, but that’d be forgetting the role doo wop played in the development of that scene. Given how good things have been up to this point, with class oozing out of every selection you might think I’m stretching it when I reckon this is the highlight so far, but the interaction between Neville and the backing quartet is particularly fine here.
And it’s almost as good on the lively take on Little Bitty Pretty One.
The classic tracks continue through Neville’s take on Little Anthony and the Imperials' Tears on My Pillow and The Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk gets the old groove going perfectly before brother Art Neville turns up to sit in Hammond on B-3 for Hank Ballard’s Work with Me Annie.
This Magic Moment segues seamlessly into True Love, with Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams) winding up proceedings without, for once, the seemingly obligatory slew of bonus tracks. .
Cut live in the studio with a crackerjack band (Keith Richards and Greg Leisz on guitars, Benmont Tench on organ, Tony Scherr on bass, saxophonist Lenny Pickett and George Receli on drums) My True Story comes across as a genuine period piece, delivered clear as a bell thanks to advances in recording technology with the voices the way they should be and everything else as window dressing.
A seemingly effortless recreation of a long bygone era, delivered with panache and best of all, there are at least a dozen other titles already in the can for a sequel, with Neville suggesting a likelihood of Doo-Wop parts 2, 3 and 4!
Bring ‘em on...
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Whether you regard this effort as the self-titled debut of a band called Runt or as Todd Rundgren’s solo debut there’s no arguing where it lies in the Rundgren chronology which is, as far as I’m concerned, all that matters.
At the initial time of release, Runt was identified as a trio consisting of Rundgren (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and brothers Hunt (drums), and Tony Sales (bass), sons of comedian Soupy Sales who went on to collaborate with David Bowie in Tin Machine. The entire album was written and produced by Rundgren,who’d freed himself from the Nazz, but wasn’t quite ready (by all accounts) to go solo. As he stated about the subsequent Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren there were some things he couldn’t quite manage yet, and most of them involved rhythm section duties.
What he had managed to get his head around, however, was the studio, collecting an engineer’s credit for The Band’s Stage Fright, recorded at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios in upstate New York and persuading Grossman that he had something to offer from his own artistic bat.
That should have been obvious from his stint with The Nazz, but here he’s out to demonstrate his ability to cut it on his own, presenting a blend of guitar driven power pop and piano-based ballads that come across as an interesting fusion of elements and hinted at interesting things to come.
Rundgren’s guitar work drives Broke Down and Busted, a gospel blues psychedelic workout before the first of the piano ballads (Believe in Me). The piano’s at the forefront for We Got to Get You a Woman, the breezy slice of Brill Building soundalike that turned into a minor hit (as it should have, it’s a rather classy number, very well put together in a Laura Nyro meets Carole King fashion) and the poppy stuff continues with a rocking and surprisingly cheerful (given the circumstances) Who's That Man.
Rundgren drops the Carole King vocal tone on the next piano ballad, Once Burned, which may or may not have anything to do with the guest appearances from The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm. There’s a bit more drive in the hard-hitting and rather power poppy Devil's Bite and Rundgren’s sarcastic streak comes to the fore in I'm in the Clique, a biting commentary on the state of the music industry with bustling riffs and repetitive robotic vocals in the verses.
That same quirkiness also lurks behind the absence of lyrics in There Are No Words, with echoes of Gregorian chant and dash of Brian Wilson, and the Laura Nyro piano elements are back (he even checks her by name) at the start of Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands, five and a half minutes of classy pop medley before another pop suite (nine and a quarter minutes of Birthday Carol) takes the listener through a fair proportion of the tricks up the Rundgren sleeve.
Birthday Carol’s subdued classical intro, an instrumental passage that has odd echoes of early Steve Miller Band with subdued horns that drifts into blues-styled guitar workout, harmony soaked piano ballad, subdued folky bit that builds back into rocking guitar and horn-driven R & B that drops back into classical territory doesn’t quite add up to everything and the kitchen sink, but it’s not far off.
File under: Signs of things to come. If you’re not familiar with the man and his work this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Friday, August 30, 2013
They mightn’t have sold albums by the truckload, but by the time Dr Feelgood’s third album appeared on the record racks they had a large enough following that was sufficiently fanatical to shoot the album straight to the #1 spot in the UK charts. It only stayed there for a week, and after nine it had disappeared, but Stupidity was the first live album to go to the top spot in the UK chart in its first week of release, and, like the far more commercial Rock Follies in 1976, hit #1 without coming in on the tail of a hit single.
Rock Follies, of course, managed that achievement on the back of a successful TV series, where the Feelgoods’ success was entirely based on their reputation as a live act. From the opening blast of Chuck Berry's Talking About You to the take on Roxette that closed proceedings (there was a bonus Riot in Cell Block No. 9 / Johnny B. Goode single parcelled up with the first 20,000 copies and those two tracks are tacked on the end here),
Chuck Berry penned Talking About You, though you might not spot that at first (it doesn’t have that distinctive Chuck Berry riff) gets things off to a lively start before Wilko Johnson steps up to deliver 20 Yards Behind while Brilleaux’s harp wails away in the background. Solomon Burke’s Stupidity keeps the groove going with its Cousin Brother of Ooh Poo Pah Doo riff, as does Wilko’s All Through The City. Familiar Feelgood meat and potatoes, good solid R&B that delivers a punch but doesn’t hit any great heights.
That begins to change on, of all things, Bo Diddley’s I'm a Man. There are more obvious suspects if you’re looking to kick things into overdrive, and remarkably it’s a Wilko Johnson showcase as he takes lead vocal over Brilleaux’s harp and a thudding rhythm section. The guitar solo, when it comes, is a masterpiece of thudding blues-drenched minimalism. Still not hitting the heights, but definitely on the ascent. The trend continues on a spirited growling prowl through Rufus Thomas’ Walking The Dog and Wilko’s She Does It Right, all sharp, angular guitar hook and razor sharp rhythm section. Two to crank and let rip.
As is the slashing Mick Green riff that kicks Going Back Home towards overdrive, a touch of horn in the outstanding Brilleaux harp solos (both of ‘em) which mightn’t quite match the J. Geils Band’s Magic Dick, but ain’t far off.
Up to this point we’re looking at a recording from a show in Sheffield as Side 1 of the vinyl, and as leads off the second mind we’re back on the band’s home turf in Southend. That might account for the rise in ambient crowd noise as I Don't Mind ends and that distinctive riff leads off into Back in the Night‘s strutting, slashing R&B strut as Johnson cuts loose with stinging Hubert Sumlin licks.
Then it’s Leiber & Stoller’s I'm a Hog for You Baby, delivered with leering intent by Brilleaux as the band heads for the stratosphere. Hughesy’ll always have a soft spot for their take on the Sonny Boy Williamson/Otis Rush perennial Checking Up on My Baby where the harmonica/guitar call and response has me hearkening back to the Yardbirds, though Keith Relf would never have matched the Brilleaux growl.
There’s a strident Roxette, all thumping bass line and rasping harmonica solo, and that’s where the original vinyl stopped. A free single came with the initial pressings of the album, and ended up tacked on to the end of the CD version, coupling a Riot in Cell Block No. 9 that takes absolutely no prisoners with a suitably frenetic and absolutely exultant Johnny B. Goode that provide an absolutely appropriate final flourish.
There’s also an extended CD version of the album was released in 1991 as Stupidity +, subtitled Dr. Feelgood - Live - 1976-1990 with a slew of post-Wilko live tracks (Take a Tip, Every Kind of Vice, She's A Wind Up, No Mo Do Yakamo, Love Hound, Shotgun Blues, King For A Day, Milk and Alcohol, Down At The Doctors) but I’m inclined to take my dose of Feelgood in the original mixture, thank you very much.
When you look at it what’s on offer here doesn’t differ greatly from the original studio versions, which were cut live in the studio but the audience factor adds a frisson of friction between Johnson and Brilleaux that’s reflected in the sound. You know something’s happening, you mightn’t be able to see what it is but it’s definitely there.
This one’s indispensable if hard edged revivalist R&B ids your bag. The big question then becomes how much more of it you need.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
You could see the warning lights all the way along. There was, right from the beginning of the Dr Feelgood story, a serious question about the role of original material in a decidedly traditionalist outfit, and while Down By the Jetty had been heavily (two-thirds) weighted towards Wilko Johnson originals, Malpractice was closer to fifty-fifty and there are suggestions out there that the decision to record and release the live Stupidity was at least partly prompted by Johnson’s inability to come up with enough new material for a studio album. It might have been close to the classic Feelgoods album, and is definitely the one to have if you’re only having one in your collection, but Stupidity had definite hints of the old stopgap measure.
Consider the chronology.
Down By the Jetty, recorded between June and November ’74, released January 1975. Malpractice released nine months later in October ’75. Stupidity, recorded on two nights in May and November 1975 released nearly twelve months after Malpractice in September ’76 and then Sneakin' Suspicion in May 1977.
From the undoubted 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight it looks awfully like a record company that was out to maximise the output (four albums in less than two and a half years) which is a reasonably big ask for an outfit that’s working from a basic palette with a single member contributing the all-important original material.
By all accounts there’s more to the story than the old weight of the songwriting resting on one man’s shoulders behind the potentially fatal blow (Wikipedia) that came with the departure of guitarist and co-focal point, Wilko Johnson. Along with Lee Brilleaux’s manic persona, Wilco’s stone-faced psychopath was a major part of the band’s visual impact, but away from the stage the two of them were, by all accounts, chalk and cheese, and differences over matters like alcohol (Wilko didn’t imbibe, the other three did) and the expectation that he’d continue to come up with new material seem to have eventually taken their toll.
No surprises there.
And there aren’t many surprises when it comes to an increasing reliance on reworking covers into a format that has rather definite stylistic boundaries. Take new material, slot it within those boundaries and while the audience might be able to compare it to what you’d done before they’re not able to make external comparisons.
On my first run through an album I hadn’t heard a lot of (the Wilko departure factor being part of it, but, more importantly, the late seventies were well and truly into what I’ve termed The Wilderness Years as far as listening and discussing music was concerned) I was actually quite looking forward to the band’s take on Nothin' Shakin' (But the Leaves on the Trees). Wikipedia will tell you it was originally released by Eddie Fontaine in 1958 and had covered by, among others, The Beatles, Crash Craddock, Billy Fury and Linda Gail Lewis, but Hughesy’s personal favourite comes from The Sports, one on a compilation called Debutantes and the other on the fabulous and scandalously out of print Missin' Your Kissin' Live + Studio Rarities.
That’s the problem with covers. Someone else has done them already and there’s no guarantee that your version will work better than theirs. The same thing applies to the cover of Mac Rebennack’s Lights Out, which works well enough in the Feelgood setting but I definitely prefer the fifties New Orleans vibe on the Jerry Byrne original, and the same is true of the version of Lew Lewis’ Lucky Seven. The other covers, Willie Dixon’s You'll Be Mine and Bo Diddley’s Hey Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut, work better, largely due to the less familiar side of things.
As far as the Wilko Johnson numbers are concerned, Sneakin' Suspicion gets things off to a lively start, Paradise reworks a John Lee Hooker riff into the Feelgood formula with a Wilko vocal that revisits All Through the City as it starts off looking at the electric wonderland of the Canvey Island oil refinery them moves into roaming rock star self justification. It’s the song that allegedly brought on the bitter Lee Brilleaux/Wilko Johnson split.
Time and the Devil is another Wilko vocal delivered over a springy guitar riff, with a solo that floats over the play-out, and All My Love has Brilleaux in the vocal booth for something that’s getting close to Feelgood by numbers and probably underlines the relatively limited stylistic palette the band allowed themselves. There’s a familiar jagged riff running through Walking on the Edge too, the sort of thing that militates against the sort of sensibility you might suspect from the title, though there’s a definite Indian influence running through Wilko’s guitar solo.
Still, when you look at it objectively, four albums in a bit over two years is stretching things a bit when you’re working from a limited palette, and it probably comes as no surprise to find the whole enterprise running out of team as far as original material is concerned.
Had they shot to prominence a bit later, with the work rate that became accepted as par for the course through the eighties that mightn’t have presented quite the same problem, but once the Feelgoods had laid the groundwork for the punks and new wavers who succeeded them someone mining this particular stylistic vein was probably going to have a degree of difficulty when it came to hitting the heights.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
The early seventies, as the wave of innovatory experimentation that had been in evidence through 1966 and ’67 and into 1968 ran out of puff and transformed, gradually, into grandiosity and bombast (think Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis) had their share of returns to the roots of rock’n’roll and R&B but it’s hard to think of too many more retrospectively raw expressions of the music’s roots than this debut, released in January 1975.
At a time where the mainstream audience was heading off towards glam and artifice the media images of this outfit from Canvey Island, Essex, were a refreshing touch of normality, with singer Lee Brilleaux having an eye for a well-cut suit and while guitarist Wilko Johnson might have come across as a stone faced psychopathic automaton, he was a soberly dressed one, eschewing the glittery gloss that seemed de rigeur on the sociopathic end of the rock and pop spectrum.
Better still, as far as the retro bit is concerned Wilko had persuaded audio engineer turned producer Vic Maile to record the band live in the studio, avoid the use of overdubs and whack all the music and vocals in the centre, delivering a sound that was as close as dammit to Mono, with practically nothing in the way of stereo separation.
The result was a collection of eight Wilko Johnson originals along with John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, Essex compatriot Mickey Jupp’s Cheque Book, a Mick Green (Johnny Kidd and The Pirates) instrumental called Oyeh! and a medley of Bonie Moronie> Tequila with The Rumour’s Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz on saxophones.
The covers gave a fair indication of where the Feelgoods were coming from, and the original material, with Johnson taking the vocals on tracks where Brilleaux was blowing harp throughout, sounds as if not much had changed since the early days of the Rolling Stones.
She Does It Right leers, Boom Boom has a Wilko vocal while Brilleaux wails on the harp, The More I Give enumerates the protagonist’s grounds for dissatisfaction with his current domestic arrangement, Lee Brilleaux's vocals take on a tinge of Howlin' Wolf rasp on the relentless Roxette and delivers a manic harp solo to go with it, and One Weekend demonstrates that, while everything’s done competently they can’t all be gems.
Wilko’s in the vocal spotlight for That Ain't No Way To Behave, which underlines the same point but does, I think, deliver a little mid-tempo light and shade among the more manic moments. I Don't Mind has the Doctor delivering the mixture as before, jagged riffs, blasts of harp and growling Brilleaux vocals. Twenty Yards Behind is a Wilko exercise in the aesthetics of the wiggle when she walks, Keep It Out Of Sight delivers a slice of sage advice and All Through The City provides the album’s title in Wilko’s portrait of life in the lee of the brightly lit Canvey Island refinery.
A quite magnificent debut, clean, sharp and crunchy, pointing a line straight back to the early Rolling Stones, as stripped down slice of roots rock that’s roughly equal parts of Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley blended with a healthy draught of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. Call it a political statement if you like, but Down by the Jetty’s laid down the no-nonsense back to the basics wide boy ground rules that was, largely, the template the Punk rockers used to storm the citadel a couple of years down the track.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Right from the beginning of Dickey Betts’ Revival it’s obvious the second album by the Allman Brothers Band is the product of an outfit with some aspirations to commercial success. The self-titled debut album had identified them as an outfit with potential, but in a crowded marketplace they’d been doing it tough, and one suspects a realisation that they needed something that would find its way onto the airwaves if they were going to operate at anything beyond semi-starvation level.
As a result (and I suspect slotting Tom Dowd into the producer’s chair had a fair bit to do with it) Idlewild South presents as tighter, more accessible, reasonably commercial and definitely radio-friendly. Part of the credit, of course, also has to go to the emergence of Dickey Betts as a second writer in the outfit, and while he might have only contributed two tracks here, Revival’s poppy gospel delivered hints of a genuine commerciality and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed pointed towards another ABB trademark, the long jazz-inflected instrumental.
Rolling Stone described the album, which takes its name from the band's nickname for the Georgia farmhouse where they were living at the time (the comings and goings reminded them of Idlewild Airport) as comprising briefer, tighter, less 'heavy' numbers, which just about nails it as far as the first three tracks on Side One are concerned.
Dickey Betts’ Revival gets things off to a lively start and could, with a stroke of luck in the airplay department, have been a fairly successful single (think Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man), Gregg Allman’s Don't Keep Me Wonderin' works as a reasonably poppy take on the blues and Midnight Rider comes across as an on the road campfire anthem and is, arguably, in a three way photo finish with Whipping Post and Dreams in the Gregg Allman Signature Song Stakes.
Regardless of whether Dickey Betts actually had sex across the relevant grave in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery, almost seven minutes of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’s Latin jazz instrumental would also have worked in an FM radio environment and would have been handy, in a word of mouth sense, in promoting the band’s live appearances (sort of Hey, man, that was really cool but you should see what happens when they do it live)...
The only track on the album that looks back to the first album’s stone blues is the cover of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters Hoochie Coochie Man, though it’s Berry Oakley rather than Gregg who takes the vocal. Gregg, allegedly, doesn’t like to sing more than three in a row, and at this stage there weren’t too many Dickey Betts vocals, so it looks like Berry (or possibly Duane, who probably could but seems to have preferred not to) was about the only option.
But regardless of any shortcomings in the vocal department (Berry’s handy enough but he ain’t Gregg) the thunderous churning bass riff that drives the track makes it, for mine, the album’s highlight. Red hot solos and stinging licks from Dickey, and then Duane take off from there in a setting where it probably doesn’t matter who takes the microphone, and one shouldn’t neglect the thunderous drumming from Jaimoe and Butch Trucks that propels everything forward and maintains the momentum.
After that battering, the polished but relatively low key Please Call Home, with its weary Gregg Allman vocal and Leave My Blues at Home, which is mostly groove without going overboard on substance (impressive solos, though) probably seem like a bit of a let down, but wind things up rather neatly and would both have been FM-friendly.
Or at least they would have been if Hughesy was doing the DJ bit...
At a touch over thirty minutes, Idlewild South might seem a bit on the skimpy side time-wise, which is, of course, why I’d point the potential listener towards the two for less than the price of one Beginnings (I paid $10.99 at iTunes) which has both of the band’s first two albums in their entirety. Really, at the price you can’t go wrong, though there are issues when you split the tracks into the individual albums (my iTunes has the two albums listed between The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and Teddy Thompson’s Bella).
The debut might have delivered a touch more power, but for production, songwriting and performance Idlewild South is definitely a superior package when you line it up beside The Allman Brothers Band, largely due to what Dickey Betts brings to the party as a second source of original material. As a result there’s a fair bit more sonic more variety, and while it mightn’t be 100% killer there’s a definite lack of filler.
The band were, at this point, still in the process of establishing themselves and exploring the possibilities, and the apex of their achievement is just around the corner with At Fillmore East.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
It’s interesting, to me at least, that an album that has gone on to provide much of the core concert repertoire of a band still going strong forty-plus years later should have peaked at #188 on the Billboard charts first time around. It is, I think, another of those records that didn’t sell a lot, at first, but everyone who bought it either went on to do something or placed a big tick beside a name to watch out for.
Maybe not quite everyone, but Black Hearted Woman had wormed its way into the set list of a Cairns-based heavy rock quartet called Barabbas by December 1970, and I suspect there was a desire to emulate the Allmans’ sound that had the outfit looking for someone who could replicate Gregg Allman’s Hammond B-3 licks and add a bit of light and shade to a very classy guitar, bass and drums trio.
And, quite seriously, it’s hard not to be impressed with an album that may or may not be the best debut album ever delivered by an American blues band, but definitely laid the groundwork for a whole genre of powerful, hard-edged blues-based Southern rock. The Allmans went on, thanks largely to the band’s legendary live performances and the live At Fillmore East album, to become huge, but it was success based on a core repertoire and much of that core repertoire comes from right here.
Working the genre in a concert environment you could possibly find a better way to start (Statesboro Blues?) than the opening one-two punch of Don't Want You No More > It's Not My Cross to Bear but they’d be relatively few and rather far between. The loose jazzy instrumental they acquired from the Spencer Davis Group’s 1968 post-Stevie Winwood album With Their New Face On, just in case you’re interested) works pretty well as a snappy limbering up exercise with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ guitars and Gregg Allman's organ surge along over Berry Oakley's bass and the drums duo of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe propel things into a shuddering climax and Duane and Dickey play the harmonised guitar line that runs down into It's Not My Cross to Bear.
That instrumental intro hints that, hey, we’re not looking at a straight blues band here, but Not My Cross points out rather succinctly that here’s an outfit that can damn well play the blues straight if straight is what you’re looking for with clear, ringing guitar licks, a mighty fine vocal and a wrenching Duane Allman solo.
Then there’s Black Hearted Woman, faster with stinging interplay between Duane and Dickey Betts and the vocal and guitar bit towards the end that harkens right back to the moans and hollers on the plantations, work camps and prison farms (leastways that’s how it sounds to me). Gregg comes across vocally as a grizzled old blues man rather than a skinny long hair in his early twenties and consolidates the impression on Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More, where Duane's distinctive slide work with the coricidin bottle shoots into the spotlight for the first time.
If you were going to identify a weak link in an otherwise impressive collection you might go for the rather formulaic Every Hungry Woman, though it still chugs along merrily enough with sufficient opportunities for guitar pyrotechnics to hold down a regular place in the band’s set lists some forty-three years after the album appeared. If (and it’s a dubious proposition, but I have heard and seen it expressed) EHW is the album’s low point, weak link or whatever, that just underlines just how fine everything else is.
Or maybe you come to that conclusion because it precedes the album’s two set piece showcases.
First there’s Dreams close to seven and a half minutes of organ-drenched atmospheric waltz-time dynamics that combines world weary brooding (I’m hung up/On dreams I’ve never seen), an understated vocal and easy-rolling elements of blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock with a lyrical solo from Duane that climbs higher and higher until the bottleneck comes out and really nails things. For mine, the album’s definite high point.
Given a little more time, however, that tag could well have been afforded to the surging, rolling and tumbling Whipping Post, though 5:19 probably isn’t long enough for things to really build the way they were soon to do in the live setting, where the track regularly clocked in around the fifteen minute mark.
Still, from the start of that completely distinctive Berry Oakley bass line, the tension builds over the driving drum combo as the guitars wail and the whole thing comes to a shattering halt, making it a cathartic concert closer, and the ideal way to wrap up a very solid debut.
With the potential to be spun out to a much lengthier extrapolation in the live setting, Whipping Post, like the rest of the album is a sign of things to come, and while greatness mightn’t have been achieved here (they hadn’t hooked up with Tom Dowd yet) and hadn’t quite arrived with Idlewild South either you could, I think, sense it just over the horizon.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Given the likelihood that the natural move when looking at an Allen Toussaint set exploring his influences would be to place the man in a Crescent City studio with an outfit drawn from New Orleans’ finest instrumentalists it makes sense, at least from where I’m sitting, for producer Joe Henry to head out of town and cut the album with a group of highly rated New York session players and guest artists.
The Bright Mississippi isn’t Toussaint’s first excursion into the world of jazz, but given the limited distribution of 2005’s Going Places, released on a small label run by his son, it might as well be. It also acts as the follow-up to Toussaint's high-profile 2006 album with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse (also produced by Joe Henry). That time they used Costello’s Imposters alongside an array of New Orleans instrumentalists, but here there’s a horn section that approximates modern jazz royalty (trumpeter Nicholas Payton, whose father played bass on Lee Dorsey’s Working In A Coal Mine and clarinetist Don Byron), a stellar rhythm section (David Pilch on upright bass and Jay Bellerose, drums) with Marc Ribot, in all-acoustic mode on guitar. With Toussaint on piano and guest appearances from pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman that’s the instrumental lineup sorted.
As far as the material is concerned we’re looking at covers of classic pieces by Jelly Roll Morton (Winin' Boy Blues), Sidney Bechet (Egyptian Fantasy), Louis Armstrong (King Oliver’s West End Blues), Duke Ellington (Day Dream and Solitude), Django Reinhardt (Blue Drag), Thelonious Monk (The Bright Mississippi) alongside the traditional St. James Infirmary and Just A Closer Walk With Thee and Leonard Feather’s Long, Long Journey.
Sidney Bechet’s Egyptian Fantasy comes across as a brassy jazz funeral march, Byron's clarinet and Payton’s trumpet ragging around each other before a Toussaint piano solo over a barely audible tambourine in the background. Dear Old Southland riffs off Summertime throughout, opening with Payton playing a Dixie lament over Toussaint’s piano before another unaccompanied piano solo with Payton coming back soft and eloquent to round off an impressive six plus minutes.
The rolling piano in St. James Infirmary swings over Piltch's upright bass, Ribot's acoustic guitar and Bellerose's percussive punctuation, Ribot gets a solo and there’s an immaculately executed call and response to and fro around the main theme as Toussaint’s piano prodding Ribot's guitar on the way out.
Payton's back in the foreground for Singin’ the Blues with the rhythm section right on his heels and Toussaint comping along behind in a version that could have come straight out of Preservation Hall, and Jelly Roll Morton’s Winin’ Boy Blues is reworked as a piano duet with Brad Mehldau joining Toussaint behind the ivories.
Mention King Oliver’s West End Blues to anyone who knows their traditional jazz and the immediate response will probably mention Louis Armstrong and, predictably, Payton’s trumpet brings New Orleans’ most famous musical ambassador to mind from the opening five-note theme. Toussaint’s piano underpins the whole exercise and Ribot’s guitar is crisp and concise, as it is on Blue Drag, which, of course, it should on a Django Reinhardt number.
Byron’s clarinet takes the lead on the traditional Just a Closer Walk with Thee, with just a hint of playfulness as the stride piano plays off the gospel patterns as the clarinet loops back and forth across the top.
Thelonious Monk’s Bright Mississippi gets a down home treatment, with a touch of funk in the second-line drum groove and a buoyant strut in the horn arrangement. There’s none of that in Joshua Redman’s tenor sax on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Day Dream, which gets the three-in-the-morning smoke-filled night club yearning treatment as Toussaint and Redman play off each other.
The album’s only vocal arrives in Leonard Feather’s Long, Long Journey, a weary blues with muted trumpet over a brushed snare drum stroll with slide guitar, subtle and understated and eases gently into Duke Ellington’s Solitude, a late night duet involving Ribot’s guitar and Toussaint’s piano picking their way around the theme in five and a half minutes of stop-start interplay. It makes for an elegant finale to an exceptional outing.
Cut live in the studio over four days (and it definitely sounds that way) The Bright Mississippi delivers a neat and innovative exploration of modern and traditional jazz elements that casts a glance back to the music’s roots and still sounds contemporary, delivers soul with elegance, and matches a good time feel with supper club sophistication. It’s a class effort that underlines the riches of the New Orleans tradition by taking the material, filtering it through one of the city’s musical giants and rolling it out through an instrumental outfit familiar with the feel but not bound by the musical geography.
It’s an exercise one might definitely be tempted to repeat (and my music collection could definitely handle further explorations of the same themes in a similar manner) though one suspects lightning might not manage to repeat the strike location.
And if it doesn’t, this will do quite nicely, thank you...
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Never mind the release dates, check the session chronology and you’ve got a rather remarkable couple of quantum leaps from Fresh Cream (various dates, July to October 1966) to Disraeli Gears (three and a half days in May 1967) to Wheels of Fire (basic sessions at IBC Studios in London in July and August 1967, overdubs at Atlantic Studios in New York City during September and October and some finishing touches at the same location in January and February 1968), basically at times the band’s hectic touring schedule allowed.
That’s sort of twelve months from something approximating Well if we’re going to make a go of this we’re going to need some product to sell to an exercise in tweaking the boundaries of what was possible on a rock record, and not just on the studio side of things. Producer Felix Pappalardi arranged for a mobile recording setup from Los Angeles to be shipped to San Francisco to record shows at the Fillmore auditorium and the Winterland Ballroom. Pappalardi and recording engineer Bill Halverson recorded six shows split between the two venues, and what didn’t end up on the Live at the Fillmore half of Wheels of Fire ended up on two volumes of Live Cream.
As far as Disc one: In the Studio is concerned, it starts with a monumental roar in the shape of White Room's multi-tracked guitar, single strings feeding back while the tympani pound and the bass thunders, and the recording details of this one track are mirrored throughout the rest of the album. Initial sessions at IBC Studios in London in July and August 1967, overdubs in New York in September and October and the wah wah effects inserted at Atlantic Studios in early 1968.
After that pounding intro there’s a great set of Brown lyrics, allegedly relating to his new apartment and a psychedelic experience Where the shadows run from themselves that was powerful enough to have him swear off the stuff. Clapton’s working the wah wah towards the borders of excess, Baker’s drum sound is nothing short of majestic and Bruce delivers one of his best vocal performances.
There are any number of versions of Sitting on Top of the World (credited to Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon; arranged by Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf) but this one probably set the benchmark as far as the post-Wolf generation was concerned. Great rock-blues guitar work employing classic phrasing pushed to the point of reverbed distortion underpins a fine vocal performance, and Baker’s drums set things up just right. He’s there banging away again on Passing the Time, co-written with British jazz composer and pianist Mike Taylor (Baker provides the lyrics).
After Disraeli Gears’ Blue Condition, Baker must have realised he needed the right collaborator (big tick as far as Hughesy’s concerned) and appears to have put some effort into the words, which mightn’t tell a great story, but set a scene that works well with the studio production. Wisely, the vocal duties go to Bruce, and the result is a rather quirky, slightly hypnotic gem, full of deftly executed time changes, heavy on the glockenspiel with the quiet, melancholy of the verses shifting into all-out hard rock on the chorus.
With Clapton missing and Baker limited to the high hat cymbal, Bruce gets almost total credit on As You Said, contributing acoustic guitar, cellos, lead vocals in what amounts to a solo performance. Acoustic guitar and droning cello play back and forth and the result is a quirky piece that delivers a mixture of menace, mystery and melancholy (the sun is out of reach)...
Baker continues to demonstrate a recognition that song on Disraeli Gears could (and should) have been better by reciting the vocal line on Pressed Rat and Warthog. Your mileage may well vary with this fractured bit of whimsical nonsense concerning purveyors of atonal apples and amplified heat / And Pressed Rat’s collection of dogs’ legs and feet, but from the first time I heard it (as the B-side of Clapton and Sharp's decidedly oddball Anyone for Tennis), I’ve seen it as a pretty harmless bit of fun with its own peculiar charm, with Pappalardi’s trumpet figures lilting over Baker’s drum rolls and Clapton's subdued chord (before he cuts loose on the instrumental play-out).
A prowling, menacing riff leads into the Bruce/Brown Politician that could have been slow heavy metal twelve bar by numbers if it wasn’t for Clapton’s interwoven guitar overdubs, Baker’s precise percussive punctuation and Brown’s cynical lyric line given a reasonably straight delivery in Bruce’s vocal. Contrast, if you will, with the Pete Brown & His Battered Ornaments version, complete with Brown’s introductory monologue in all its twelve-minute glory here.
The Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor combo scores again on Those Were the Days, a percussion showpiece with Baker on drums, marimba, tubular bells and Felix Pappalardi banging away on Swiss hand bells. Again, there seems to have been some thought and effort going into the words, Bruce gets to sing and Clapton unleashes some stinging frenetic guitar over the percussive melee.
That’s followed by Born Under a Bad Sign, a fairly orthodox rendition of a contemporary blues standard by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, originally recorded by Albert King with any number of subsequent versions (Wikipedia lists, among others, Big Mama Thornton, Blue Cheer, Booker T. and the M.G.s, Buddy Miles, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Koko Taylor with Buddy Guy, Paul Butterfield, Paul Rodgers, Peter Green, Rita Coolidge and Robben Ford). Bruce walks around the basic riff on bass, Baker syncopates around that and Clapton reworks King’s solo in his own style, with an edgy sound that’s unmistakably Claptonesque.
There’d been a fair bit of the cinematic across Disraeli Gears (Tales of Brave Ulysses, World of Pain) and earlier in Wheels of Fire (White Room, Passing the Time) but the Bruce/Brown Deserted Cities of the Heart, three and a half minutes that, for me at least, is the album’s most successful track moves those elements into another dimension.
Or would have if they’d opted to reprise the furious Clapton solo that burns and aches with frustration in the middle as a play out. Now my heart’s drowned in cold dark streams, indeed.
With a couple of nights recorded, the selection of tracks to include on Disc two: Live at the Fillmore seems to have been based on what producer Pappalardi thought needed to go on there (obvious enough, but there’s this issue of sharing the spotlight around three ways, which means we were always going to be getting a lengthy Toad). Bruce needs his turn in the spotlight, which would seem to explain Train Time, and, of course, he gets to nail Spoonful in the vocal department. Clapton’s going to get the guitar spotlight throughout, and gets the vocal on Crossroads so the result is an odd display of diplomatic democracy that, interestingly, works in reverse chronological order as far as the actual performances go.
Crossroads (recorded 10 March 1968 in the first show at Winterland) might kick proceedings off, but it was recorded last, following Spoonful in the actual performance and, at just 4:13 is Clapton's showpiece, and may or may not have been edited down from a longer version. Tom Dowd, who you reckon might be in a position to know, claimed in an interview with Guitar Player magazine (July 1985) Crossroads, onstage, was never under seven to ten minutes long. So, the solos between the vocals were edited, which would explain why this one’s substantially more focussed than the sixteen minute Spoonful that follows (but in real life preceded) it. On the other hand there’s no obvious sign of an edit, and there are other versions recorded in a similar time frame that run around the same length of time.
Spoonful, on the other hand, weighing in at 16:43 is heavy on the improvisation, and while Clapton’s firing on all cylinders Bruce is heading over the top in the vocal department and your mileage will vary depending on your ability to handle extended statements of virtuosity. If you can handle the solos, you’ll probably be rapt, but it’s a track that often attracts the Shuffle forward button, as does Train Time’s harmonica and Bruce vocal overload. Baker does a good job on the choo choo shuffle, but it’s one that’s destined to remain outside Hughesy’s Top 10,000, let along the Top 1500 Most Played, as is Toad. If the relatively brief version on Fresh Cream doesn’t qualify, sixteen and a bit minutes here are no chance whatsoever, though each time I allow the thing to run Baker’s rhythmic invention and sheer stamina impress.
With the live material in the can, the band decided to split, though the announcement to the wider world didn’t happen until July, and there was the obligatory farewell tour of the US and a couple of concerts in London. Wheels of Fire didn’t hit the stores until August, but when it did
With the benefit of hindsight, decision to split was, when you looked at the tensions between Bruce and Baker and Clapton’s feeling that the trio didn’t listen to each other enough (at one point he stopped playing mid-concert and neither Baker nor Bruce noticed) was probably inevitable and the final shows in London came just under twenty-eight months after their debut.
In that context it’s interesting to note the progression in recording technology from four tracks (Fresh Cream, July > October 1966) to eight (Disraeli Gears, May 1967) to what was probably closer to twenty-four once the basic tracks for Wheels of Fire had been cut at IBC in London and they’d transferred operations to Atlantic in New York. There’s a lot more room when you’re on a multiple of eight tracks, and it comes through strongly in the intricate overdubs and the added instrumentation, the cello, trumpet, viola, organ, and a swarms of bells and percussive effects that add a great deal of light and shade.
Casting the gaze backwards, and shedding the live component it would be a tricky issue if you set out to decide which out of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire amount to a greater achievement. Disraeli Gears, for those of us who were around at the time, was the album that made you stop, listen and note that there was definitely the album where Cream hit their straps, where Wheels of Fire has them in full fight, firing on all cylinders, delivering a sprawling masterpiece of a kind that would very shortly become an endangered species as Cream disbanded, Hendrix left us and the pioneers were succeeded by a wave of lesser performers with less imagination and a greater propensity to work to formulas.
Cream’s heyday coincided with a time when the old definitions of commerciality were temporarily being disregarded. The commercial success of Wheels of Fire (it went platinum in the US within a year of release), and the previously unimagined river of revenue that stemmed from touring the United States, playing large venues (something unimaginable in a British setting) went on to pave the way for a wave of successors and aspirants, but I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for the pioneers who blazed the way...