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Zoë Wren Lifts the Lid on a Box of Delights

August 22, 2014

252156_173744062699207_2065371_nIt takes an especially strong new voice to rise above the general hubbub of the current English folk song flashmob, but there’s a sort of inevitability about the way that clarity prevails over clamour. I first heard Zoë Wren’s voice in the very early days of Instrumental and I had not forgotten it. On Pandora’s Box, she debuts impressively with a five-song set that showcases a maturing voice and songs that have depth to match their indisputable charm.

If you are already conjuring up a cloudy image of a winsome folkette with wispy tunes and the disposition of a delicate flower, then let me dispel that waking dream of yours. Zoë Wren is, arguably, very young to be treading the boards in the folk dens of London town, but not too young to write songs like those contained in Pandora’s Box. They are indicative of a personality with patience to learn a craft, but one that also has the quick wit to bend it to a purpose. Wren has made these songs as a playwright might construct a play, and it’s this visible architecture that will make people stop, look and listen.

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She accompanies herself ably on guitar with relatively few overdubs and embellishments, but they are always apposite; like the vocal backing adornments on the wry, dry Fever 45, the brooding Pandora’s Box and the assertive A Moment’s Madness. The title track, Pandora’s Box, is a particular treasure that contains nicely measured guitar and a spacious arrangement for the dark lyric and her expressive voice to penetrate.

On Just A Song Away, her singing is framed with the same simplicity that could often be heard in the songs of Jim Groce and Ralph McTell. In many ways, hers is a womanly voice that brings an air of authority to the intelligence of her melodies, and that, I think, is where this conspicuous lucidity comes from. Natalie Merchant had similar qualities when singing for 10,000 Maniacs and they very evident in Wren’s delivery of A Moment’s Madness. For me, these are standout tracks because they are modern folk-like melodies that are as true to themselves as they are mindful of their musical heritage.

Tale of an Oak Tree hugs the English folk tradition close to its heart but there is no danger of suffocating it with sentiment. The tale of a small bird evicted from its home by the destructive arm of progress is sweetly sad without being twee. Like all good folk songs it’s too sincere to be ridiculed and too direct for it’s serious point to be missed.

The songs are melodically convincing and frankly, I expected no less. Wren has been singing so well on stage that her ability transmits above the babble-infested festival footage on You Tube. In the studio, her voice was always going ring out around the room. What is unexpected is the self-evident ambition in these tunes. They way they are built is the difference between a paddle-boat on a municipal pond and something that could easily put to sail on the open sea. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Zoë Wren already has plans for much grander designs in the not too distant future.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

Pandora’s Box is out on 15th September on Folkstock Records

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Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity. A film by Dorothy Darr and Jeffrey Morse

August 18, 2014

charles_lloydAnyone who remembers the birth pangs of poplar music documentary will know that the slide into cliché is the beartrap of all visual biographies. There are few things more cringeworthy than Dylan the Superbrat in Don’t Look Back, posing and preening like a chain-smoking, beatnik Raymond Chandler in a smoky Chelsea Hotel. This film biography of Charles Lloyd from 2012, now released on DVD in the UK, is about an adult jazz musician who is an inherently interesting subject, and it is he who saves Arrows Into Infinity from its own self-consciousness.

As a loving memoir of an interesting life that has been marked variously by artistic success, considerable fame, self-imposed obscurity and the boundless energy of the creative mind, it’s a good job well done. Lloyd’s wife Dorothy Darr and co-director Jeffrey Morse stick faithfully to the chronology of Lloyd’s robustly continuing life and the trajectory of his musical arrows into the unknown. But the most memorable moments come when Lloyd is speaking for himself. That’s because he is genuinely witty, observant and candidly self-effacing. If you had any questions to ask Charles before the start of this film then be assured that he answers them all without fear or favour.

Lloyd is famous for many things including his startling arrival with Cannonball Adderleys Sextet, his own ground breaking quartet, making the first million selling jazz album with Forest Flower, and for disappearing off the face of the earth at the height of the hoopla. Well, almost.

Lloyd retreated into an almost hermit-like existence when he acquired a property at Big Sur but a string of visitors, collaborators, house guests and friends from actor Burgess Meredith to Michel Petrucciani and drummer Billy Higgins suggest that he wasn’t exactly incommunicado. Neither was he a wholly reclusive personality who shrank from exposure, for there is plenty of film footage that testifies to his strength of character. It seems like pretty clear thinking that led him to decline his record company’s offer to work on a conveyor belt producing jazz gold. Yes, drugs were involved, and that also affected his focus, but he was aware enough to know that he was on the wrong path musically as much as he was off the rails in his personal life.newsLloyd’s move may have shocked many but the California coast offers an idyllic setting and it’s clearly a place to find solace. Lloyd repeatedly says so himself and explains with seemingly endless patience the reason why. If I can articulate it then I guess I would have to play it, says the septuagenarian saxophonist, but he found it impossible to hear himself think in the bedlam of an increasingly pressurized music industry. Like many jazz musicians before and since, Lloyd is a seeker, first and foremost of the sound, and just as importantly for an accord with oneself. In the interview segments he often closes his eyes when he speaks, as if he still needs to shut out the world in order to organize his thoughts. When he does find the words they are laced with an endearingly back-dated hip-speak, and a deeply sincere honesty. He doesn’t sound to me like a man who’s been hiding from life or from himself.charles-lloyd-posterThe film tends to dwell on the important episodes in Charles Lloyd’s musical career, not least his crossover appeal to rock audiences in the mid to late sixties, concerts in the Soviet Union that inadvertently politicized his jazz identity and jamming his way past musical checkpoints with the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It’s strange to say, but the longer the film stays in those places the more Lloyd himself fades from view. This is especially true when the HBO-style testimonials are in full flow. The river of effulgent praise is no doubt deserved, but these talking heads are not the subject, and Lloyd is fascinating enough in himself to carry his own story. He’s like one of those great movie actors who are so compelling that nothing much seems to be happening when they aren’t on the screen.

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The film begins with Lloyd telling the tale of how he was born in a flood as Sam Cooke’s inimitable gospel soars over an image of rising water. Compare that to the iconic image of Lloyd sitting alone on a promontory overlooking an inlet. This tells you all you need to know about a man who swam against the tide, but made it to higher ground and inner peace. Much of that calm comes from spiritual education and meditation, but you sense that it has as much to do with his sense of duty to jazz. He says he felt, “a debt to the tradition” to get himself back together, and the mental strength required to walk away is manifest in the fortitude to return.800px-Charles_Lloyd,_with_Reuben_Rogers_&_Eric_Harland,_Santa_Barbara_9-2006,_Image_by_Scott_WilliamsIn this respect, Lloyd hasn’t just made a comeback. He stormed through the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s like a man very much making up for lost time. A string of seventeen ECM albums testifies to the supportive philosophy of Manfred Eicher’s famous label, but they also speak to Lloyd’s physical strength (“I can blow hard when I want to”), and the quality of his choices and recent collaborations.

Arrows Into Infinity is also worth seeing for the most recent concert footage from the present decade, for it’s the man at work you end up craving to see. In performance, Lloyd shows how jazz can shed its own clichés and refine itself through perpetual reinvention; usually captured in the moment like a prism refracting light in a droplet of water. Perhaps that’s why he chose to live by the ocean.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

Arrows To Infinity is out now on ECM DVD

 

 

 

 

 

You Know You Want It. The Alarms Give You Real Tough Love.

August 8, 2014

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If you want to hear authentic British Invasion era pop music fortified by refined rock ‘n’ roll born and bred in the USA then wake up. The Alarms are ringing and they demand your attention with Real Tough Love, the band’s debut CD released this week. This is pop for the purists – bristling with urgent guitars, impassioned vocals, densely packed arrangements and harmonic intelligence.

Of course, no amount of YouTube trawling is sufficient to explain the knowingness that threads through these ten short, sharp songs. The Alarms frontman Robert Gay is steeped in pop ‘n’ roll history to the extent that his studies never look likely to ever be completed. We’ve exchanged messages in the past, and his obscure objects of musical desire are sourced from the deepest vaults of pop history. My recollection of sound and vision from the last few decades are sketchy by comparison.

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So, there’s a lot of stuff going on up there in that head of his. But what to do with it? That’s the question. Well, the answer in this case is to draft in some buddies who are on the same wavelength and make an album of smart songs with the spirit of radio very much in mind. That being the case, The Axe makes for a perfect opening track to cut through the BS and get straight to the heart of the matter. The spacey melody may be borne high on a wave of guitar in a world of floating bass and deep drums, but its moptop credentials are semaphored from a discreet distance. However, the challenge being met here is not primarily one of credible tribute. The tone that’s set is one of immediacy, as if these tracks had to be laid down quickly in order to preserve their energy and vitality.

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I am listening to the album as I write, and I like it even better than I did when I first heard some sneak previews back in March. A secret is safe with me, but some are harder to keep than others, and this one wasn’t easy at all. Break It To Me Easy is simply a great live-sounding band performance of a fervent plea pitched with just enough angst to be slightly disturbing. Anything more would be parody and The Alarms show plenty of maturity to go with a wee wild streak. There’s a clash of post-punk guitar marching through Make It Better contrasting quite sharply with devastating pop melody in May My Heart be Cast Into Stone in the cleverest (and sincerest) arrangement I’ve heard in a while.

It’s worth flagging up here that Gay and his alarming friends understand the most profound rudiment of great pop writing and performance that others ignore at their peril. Do not bore the listener. That applies to the arc of the song as much as the balance of the set, and they get top marks for grabbing the attention and keeping a firm hold of an all-too easily distracted audience.

The Alarms hail from Nashville where the diversions are legion and you’d think that even in the city’s much-vaunted, diversified music scene it’s still real tough to be a rock band in a country town. Perhaps that’s why the high impact, head-on rock tunes are offset by some equally powerful balladry. The Only One and The One You Can’t Replace perhaps recall a more romantic MTV era where people still held hands rather than gave each other ultimatums at gun-point. The songs are from a McCartney-esque recipe book and, if they were cakes, they’d come drizzled with Brian Wilson’s slightly detached romanticism.

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Avalon is very much a Robert Gay song in that it comes from a deeper place than mere affection for the form. He has a soulful voice that is sometimes wrapped up in the swirling arrangements, but here he’s able to articulate the abstract through an ether of instrumentation. Along with May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone, it’s one of the strongest songs on a record full of muscle-bound music.

Famous Kids is punchy, but Real Tough Love is the heavyweight song that slugs it out at the end leaving Gay audibly exhausted; much in the manner of Lennon pushing himself to the breaking point on Twist and Shout. The Alarms deserve a pair of golden gloves for this record, having scored on points long before this knockout final track. Most of all they prove that when it comes to full-on rock n roll, there are no passengers and no half-measures.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

The Alarms are (and have been):

Robert Gay
Anthony Jorissen
Zachary Robinson
Brady Surface (2010-2014)
Stephen Puckett (2010-2013)

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Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal at Perth Concert Hall for Southern Fried 27.7.14

July 29, 2014

IMG_6295One reason why roots music speaks so loudly to so many souls is the way that it calls out to our sense of self. Nothing has real meaning or direction without a point of departure, a place of origin and time-fix that pinpoints the start of life’s journey. Sometimes, quite often in fact, that journey leads right back to place you started from, and you realize that it’s the travelling that matters more then the perceived destination. This is the story that Rosanne Cash shared with a rapt full house at Perth Concert Hall on Sunday night, as she looped her way around the Delta lands with intimate music, and an even more intimate lyrical narrative.

As a seasoned performer, she chose the obvious charm of Modern Blue to get an expectant, on-side audience settled in their seats. It’s a natural sounding songwriters song with an adult grasp of chorus and mature balance in its measured verse. It also gives a country twist to contemporary disaffection that tells us she’s an urbane, witty and observational woman. Relaxed in jeans and sleeveless knitted cardigan, they love her right away. “This is my motherland and I’m very happy to be here.” She announces without irony. We believe her. She’s one of us.

Much of the material she presents is from her most recent album The River and the Thread, but it’s evident early on that this is no promotional showcase. She’s here to relate in narrative and song lines the chapters in a songbook that delves into Cash family history, social change, economic realities and challenging landscapes. On The Sunken Lands, Cash the essayist introduces the song and merges seamlessly with Cash the songwriter as she articulates an absorbing litany of hardship in an unforgiving place. IMG_6215The conversational tone is set, and the evening takes on the feel of a book group discussion as she explores the depth of unspoken understanding on Ettas Tune, a heartfelt memoir of lifelong love. Speaking of which, Cash is accompanied on guitar and piano by husband of nineteen years John Leventhal. He’s a tall lean, grey-haired empath who picks a firm flat top and whispers gently in her ear. They are darlin’ companions, and we are no longer in the concert hall, but in their front room.

Cash, introducing The Feather’s Not a Bird, talks about travelling with Leventhal through the delta lands “going to different places in order to research this album” but its documentary credentials are already established. Still, it’s a pivotal song on the record and central plank for something really quite new; a literate roots-based music with a vocabulary to match expressive ethnicity. More importantly she has the storyteller’s persuasive gift of keeping you listening. She sings about the linear paths of life’s journey and the circularity of experience with authority and, more importantly, credibility.

Away from The River and the Thread she takes time here and there to visit one or two of the hundred songs that father Johnny Cash recommended to her, twenty of which she recorded on 2009’s The List. She and Leventhal breeze through I’m Movin On and Motherless Children where the tall guy’s guitar playing shines particularly brightly. Cash elegantly dons the oft-covered Long Black Veil, a murder ballad that pleads for a good narrator and is rewarded with Cash’s tender treatment of an utterly timeless melody. “That song sounds so Scottish to me…so brooding….like you do so well”, she teases. Then later, there’s Ode to Billie Joe, related as if we’re sitting across the kitchen table from her as she pieces the whole horrible tale together. Leventhal’s accompaniment is spare and lightly punctuates each carefully enunciated sentence. Cash is good; her vocal range is fully exploited and she’s getting better as the show goes on. IMG_6330The songs she chooses from Black Cadillac, to my mind, stand out with greater clarity in arrangements condensed to their point of creation around sparse instrumentation. Leventhal, the easy-going bespectacled rock in her life is guilty of some beautiful guitar, and he follows in her step as she peeks into one of her finest songs The World Unseen. There is also wonderful imagery to behold in Dreams Are Not My Home as she dwells upon “The note that hangs in the gilded hall, the clanging of my empty rooms.”

There are more subtle connections between the songs as she revisits September When It Comes a song from Rules of Travel that featured John Cash, and is here transposed by Leventhal to an engaging parlour piano setting. Returning to The River and the Thread there is the enervated 50000 Watts which refers to WDIA, the Memphis radio station of choice for the Sun artists who shaped contemporary rock n roots music. IMG_6246There are more historic musical connections made as she retells the story visiting Robert Johnson’s grave, in a place where the blues were born and almost a stone’s throw from Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge. The song she sings speaks to the shocking smallness of the geography and the intensity of life on Money Road. She is not afraid however to author a re-imagined family history placing antecedents in the context of a civil war ballad on When the Master Calls the Roll. On the record it features a full band and a small crowd choir of famous names. Here it’s stripped down but it’s not completely bare and loses nothing as a folk song rather than a hymnal.

If it all sounds a bit learned then don’t be misled. On Tennessee Flat Top Box she is almost coquettish while Leventhal hams it up on guitar. It comes across as a husband and wife in-joke in a Johnny and June moment of unconscious imitation. On Seven Year Ache and the second encore song Heartaches by the Number the jukebox credentials and rockabilly chops were a timely reminder that southern-born Rosanne Cash may now be a metropolitan woman, but she’s still a country girl in her warm heart and very generous soul.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography

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John Fullbright at Southern Fried Perth 27.7.14

July 29, 2014

IMG_6210The programme for Perth’s Southern Fried Festival seemed hesitant to give much away about John Fullbright, who opened in some style for the headlining Rosanne Cash. Describing him as an artist who is “not folk, not Americana and not pop” certainly helps to avoid typecasting them, but it means there is little indication of what precisely is to come, as the concert hall fills to the brim with Americana devotees. As it turns out, anyone unfamiliar with Fulbright and his growing reputation should expect only the unexpected.

He ambles onstage with an acoustic guitar and opens immediately with a very direct and unadorned love letter Until You Were Gone. By the time he’s done, it becomes clear how the mysterious nature of that vague description might arise. Fullbright straddles the fine lines between country, folk and pop, and specialises in stripped back acoustic pieces with emphasis placed mostly on observant, but sometimes trenchant lyrics. His words strike a balance between engagement and detachment somewhat in the style of say, Don McLean or Tom Waits. Nevertheless, when the music stops he exudes a warm personal charm, and strikes a rapport with an already appreciative audience. And of course a bit of self-deprecation goes down well when he describes himself as the “blind date” they had not come to see, but still he hoped it would be “painless” for them.IMG_6190His singing voice at the microphone is a world away from the dry Oklahoma drawl in which he affably converses – his is primarily a contemporary delivery with the merest hint of a country twang, and he emits a smooth, rich croon that adopts a Ray LaMontagne-esque rough edge when straining for heartfelt howls, as heard in songs such as the bewitching Satan and Saint Paul.

Between tunes he continues to build a relationship with the packed crowd, offering expositions of his songs and the ideas behind them, making serious points laced with bone-dry wit as he goes. In the instance of Happy, an infectious piece of whistle-while-you-work nonchalance, he wanted to get away from the notion that you need to be despondent in order to write music – that you have to “throw yourself off a cliff and write about it on the way down”. He follows this with perhaps his best known work Gawd Above, which Fullbright introduces by saying he’s “not sure if it’s a Christian song for atheists, or an atheist song for Christians.” In either case, it’s another accomplished song, this time with a spectacular series of mouth organ refrains complementing his firm handling of acoustic guitar.IMG_6163In fact, his handling is so firm that a major string goes west and he spends the rest of his set at the piano stool. Later in the foyer, he bemoans his luck because, as he explained, “I had just one more guitar song that I really wanted to do”. Nevertheless he’s very much at home at the keyboard as he introduces a romantic storyline through a series of songs charting the nuances of a developing relationship.

First, there are the frustrations of the star-crossed lovers in When You’re Here, which give way to an acquired mutual understanding in She Knows (A Thing Or Two About Me). His chord progressions and melodies possess the simple beauty of late-period Lennon and McCartney, while the lyrics reminded me of the sensuality of Bernie Taupin in his prime, combined with the poignancy of Al Stewart.

The tenderness vanishes with the arrival of Fat Man, an angry, stomping tirade against the machine of war and capitalism that destroy faith, disrupt relationships and “plucks life like a rose.” However, his trademark empathy quickly reappears in the wistful ballad The One That Lives Too Far.

Fullbright’s suggestion that all of his piano pieces are one interlinked narrative is a masterstroke, as it produces an astonishing climax in High Road. With perfect intuition for dynamics and tempo, he develops the couple’s story to its desperate, tragic conclusion, holding the entire theatre in rapt silence through to the last, lingering, heart-rending notes of a very familiar Scottish refrain.

John Fullbright reaches into, and tugs at your emotions like few songwriters can, putting a lump in your throat, fire in your belly, and a smile on your face – all within the space of ten minutes. His reputation is growing and he already stands tall as a songwriter whose work is easily of the same calibre as a young Jimmy Webb. He’s also possessed of musicianship that makes other singing, song writing piano men look small. He deserves to be huge.

Adam Learmonth

July 2014

All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography

 

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High Voltage Men: The Magic Band Plays the Music of Captain Beefheart

July 28, 2014

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iTunes has autonomously decided that the music of Captain Beefheart, as played by the re-formed, re-constituted Magic Band ain’t nuthin’ but the blues. We beg to differ over this arbitrarily allocated tag. It’s surely obvious to anyone who has ever heard Don Van Vliet’s ideas about contemporary music that any album which bears his name should be filed under “extraordinary”.

This recording is from last year’s London shows featuring a line-up that included Magic Band originals John “Drumbo” French and Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, along with Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley, Eric Klerks and Craig Bunch. It has to be said that The Magic Band in all it’s permutations is one of those confusing musical entities shaped by a combination of long standing founders and a subsequently fluid membership. However, this particular incarnation is very much in tune with one particular core value of the Beefheart manifesto, and that is electricity. It ran through everything that Beefheart did musically, and contributed much of the shock value of the music. It’s present here and the wattage is palpable even on a little silver disc.

This magic band crackles on stage and it’s that sheer energy which is captured on an extremely live recording. French prefaces Human Gets Me Blues with something more like a declaration than an introduction, “We are The Magic Band doing the music of Captain Beefheart” he yells, as they launch into a characteristically confrontational storm of dissonance. It’s a pretty uncompromising start as you might expect from such musical anarchists, but it’s not shapeless, for Beefheart had to start with a form in order to stretch it. The Magic Band (63)Low Yo Yo Stuff validates this view by taking all the angular edges in rock-blues and sharpening them up rather than smoothing them out. It’s odd, but only in its hardwired self-knowledge that a bluesman was more often than not a dangerous man. French gets a firm hold of the Beefheart vocal reflexion with its improvisational take on Howlin’ Wolf’s rasping tongue. If there’s one thing he can’t replicate entirely faithfully though, it’s the uncomfortably intimidating tone in the darker part of the lyric. That dubious gift belonged solely to Van Vliet.

It seems strange even now to be talking about Beefheart in terms of tribute especially when he left music long before he left the earth. Yet, it’s somehow gratifying to hear these songs played in celebration of an influential musician who was as deeply admired by his band colleagues as he was adored by fans. You can hear the band smiling as they power up on Diddy Wah Diddy (the blues redefined in three minutes and six seconds flat), grinning wildly on When It Blows It’s Stacks and leering maniacally on Alice in Blunderland.

Musically, Beefheart went beyond the Out There established by the avant-garde movement and no one ever really asked him why, they just seemed grateful that he was the one crazy or brave enough to go. Interviews with him sometimes seem like reportage with an explorer just back from the rim of a volcano. Often, people didn’t like the postcards he sent, but the free form sound paintings he produced such as Golden Birdies and Hair Pie: Bake 1 are unstintingly and respectfully represented in this set. The Magic Band (62)Why were we surprised when Don Van Vliet took off the Beefheart mask and returned to painting, where he was perhaps freer to express himself away from microscopic scrutiny in the world of (largely debased) rock music? A lot of his music sounded like the work of a man not wholly satisfied with the mode, the means and the final outcome.

Yet, the music he left behind has an acknowledged essence located deep in the passive/aggressive psyche of modern America. Beefheart’s music was plugged-in, switched-on and pulsating with ungovernable power. The Magic Band were there, not merely as witnesses, but as participants and they constituted a conduit for that intensity. It’s possible that’s what attracted many gifted musicians to his buzz-feed. Here, they return to re-generate the feeling, not as an addiction to the past but as vindication of Beefheart’s oft misinterpreted ambitions.

YO LO STUFF – The Magic Band ↑

Love it, loathe it, misunderstand it if you want, but no one is ever able to ignore the music of Captain Beefheart. You can play this stuff to young kids today and they won’t necessarily ask who the artist is. They will more probably ask, “What is that?” Perhaps that is all the response that Beefheart ever wanted to provoke.

Michael S. Clark

28th July 2014

Amy Duncan Live at Hospitalfield Arts 19.7.14

July 21, 2014

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Such is the plethora of singer-songwriters mining fresh seams in very contemporary acoustic music you could be forgiven for having overlooked Amy Duncan. However, an extensive Scottish tour now under way would suggest that no one is being denied the opportunity to hear her play. Last Saturday night, at a modest little venue in a modest coastal town on the wind battered, rain splattered east coast of Scotland, she delivered a very generous set to a modest but appreciative crowd.

The evening was made all the more special by the inclusion of brand new songs from an upcoming new album and the presence of a full compliment of ensemble musicians including Fiona Rutherford (harp), Patsy Reid (violin), Emma Peebles (viola), Pete Harvey (cello) and Rick Standley (double bass). It seemed churlish of the general public not to accept such largesse with wholehearted gratitude, but perhaps Scots aren’t such bravehearts when it comes to a wee bit of rain over Arbroath.

In any case, I had a very good seat at the front unspoilt by incidental chatter, fat heads, intrusive coughing or the rustling of crisp packets. This is the way to hear songs from the superb Cycles of Life album in all their instrumental glory with glissando harp, deep bass stirrings and Duncan’s light, but not slight, singing voice.

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That album from last year produced several songs that consolidated Duncan’s place as a representative voice of Scottish modernity; mindful of tradition but with its own very individual song to sing. Crack in the World and When the Dead Are Watching also betray listening habits that have absorbed much from the singer-songwriter ouvre without falling into traps sprung by cliché or third-hand experience.

Cycles of Life and Ivory Tower also showed that she had mastered the art of accessible melody rooted in sophisticated ideas. In this chamber-folk setting, the songs come to life in the most remarkable way in a live performance that has a strange sort of calm at its centre. Wild Animals featuring Duncan on guitar with the accompaniment of viola, cello and bass was particularly spare and bare, yet the song’s slightly eerie charm was somehow amplified.

The early introduction of new songs into the set such as Constant Without Me and The Good Life and Undercurrents were suggestive of picking things up where Cycles of Life left off, while Guardian Angel (which was previewed online last year as a demo) was more refined, but still every bit as haunting as it ought to be. Along with The Truth Never Changes these new songs constituted highlights in their own right alongside those from Cycles of Life that I’ve long been loving these last twelve months.

1185072_10151875248747835_717622190_nHowever, Duncan chose to end a lengthy set that included special guest Andy Spiller warming up, and some bass/harp duets with Rutherford with more new songs that clearly signal another side to Amy Duncan. Perhaps understandably, she took up her position behind the piano with a little hesitancy, but hit her stride singing Running Boy and Clouds; two beautifully spacious songs that created strong melodic and lyrical imagery. These are not the sorts of tunes that you hum in the car on the way home, although Duncan can write those too. Rather, these particular songs are the kind you live with for years to come; like favourite books, familiar keepsakes and comfortable clothes.

Talking of familiarity, the harp/bass pieces, taken mostly from Fiona Ruthford’s Sleepsound album and the Duncan/Rutherford collaboration Quirk, demonstrated how important their relationship has been to the development of Duncan’s idiosyncratic settings. Theirs is an open-minded world-view of composition and arrangement that readily admits adaptation of Kora inspired music on Lines on the Map, and Eastern European folk scales on Dallam. There’s a pleasing contrast between the quietly introspective muse and a gregarious, outward-facing stance that makes the work they’ve done, together and separately, so distinctive.

It all finished a bit late, it was dark outside and it was (still) raining but I, for one, was pleased. It’s always worth coming out for music that is shared this way, like an intimate confidence among old friends, whatever the weather.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

Midnight Without You – Kevin Mackenzie/Steve Hamilton

July 20, 2014

kev mackenzieSometime in the 1980’s, a strange marriage of convenience took place between the muddling serendipitous tinkerings of pop professors and the properly structured melodies of jazz standards. Most of it was camp mush peddled by the likes of Marc Almond and The Pet Shop Boys. Only The Blue Nile really had the song writing nous to match the quasi-sophisticate stylings. On Midnight Without You, guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and pianist Steve Hamilton strip down Buchanan and Co’s luxurious limousine and instead glide less ostentatiously, but still skilfully, beneath those downtown lights on an even smoother set of wheels.

It shouldn’t really come as any surprise that jazzers have been slow to acknowledge the potential of the famously sweeping nature of The Blue Nile’s urbane melodies. That band (if indeed they could ever be described as such) were themselves notoriously un-prolific with long gaps between releases. That sort of indolence is often contagious, but it’s more likely that jazz players like Mackenzie and Hamilton have been busy with other things. Still, it was matter of time before someone got around to it.

Midnight Without You is a first release as a duo for Mackenzie and Hamilton, who are both significant in Scottish jazz circles as composers, performers and educators of note. Mackenzie’s previous records have featured Donny McCaslin and Julian Arguelles, whilst balancing a portfolio of teaching engagements, not least at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Hamilton spent five years with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and has played “with ‘em all”, from Freddie Hubbard to Martin Taylor and Van Morrison. Among many other things, Hamilton also tickles the ivories for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and teaches jazz piano – also at the RCS in Glasgow. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s more to the point is whether The Blue Nile Songbook is a serious contender for re-evaluation as a set of modern standards, but Midnight Without You makes a strong case for the hitherto slim jazz credentials of Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Moore. If I sound a bit sniffy about The Blue Nile then I apologize to diehard fans. I love Hats to bits, and Mid-Air, the most recent solo offering from Buchanan himself, is every bit as sublime as anything that’s gone before.

However, I tend to think of The Blue Nile in terms of atmospherics and ambience rather than a blur of notes. That is perhaps why we need to draft in a duo like Mackenzie and Hamilton to show us just how biddable tunes like Easter Parade and Headlights on the Parade really are. The album starts with a surprise in the shape of Mackenzie stridently strumming an acoustic while overdubbed electric guitar punctuates as Hamilton gently ripples over the surface tension of Mackenzie’s chords. Indeed, throughout this recording they bring out all the delicate grammar of Buchanan’s phrasing on melodies that are full of pauses, commas, full stops, crossed t’s and dotted i’s.

Mackenzie on electric guitar has the kind of soft, rounded sound paired with rapid fire runs that I really like, and he seldom deviates from giving these songs the warmth that has, at times, been ill-served by synthesizers. As a duo, they bring astute musicianship to sit side-by-side with obvious affection for the material. I think this has less to do with recognizing the inherent jazz intonations of O Lolita or Stay, than fondly playing lovely music we’ve all grown up with, and using their own jazz vocabulary to interpret it. Hamilton is wonderfully fluent on Let’s Go Out Tonight and The Downtown Lights, while Mackenzie’s playing is blissfully evocative as it wanders among the parasols and blue bonnet spring of Easter Parade.

EASTER PARADE – Kevin Mackenzie/Steve Hamilton ↑

I have to say that I have, so far, never listened to Midnight Without You at midnight, or at any other hour after the sun goes down. It’s a great album for calming the embittered soul when stuck in traffic, or enhancing a sea-front reverie in the ice-cream sunshine by the beach. Then again, jazz folks tend to be night people, so perhaps they never listened to The Blue Nile much before midnight. Nevertheless, I imagine that Midnight Without You sounds just as good after dark.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

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Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden: The Perfect Partnership for One Last Dance

July 3, 2014

lastdanceThe seductive symbiosis between pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Charlie Haden is obvious from the opening statements of Last Dance, and listeners familiar with 2007’s Jasmine will also succumb to a pleasant feeling of déjà vu. That’s because this collection of American jazz standards came from the same recording session, and is released now by ECM, we assume, to offer a complete understanding of their special partnership.

Last Dance is a collection of popular tunes, mostly from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, but it’s neither nostalgic nor exploitative, and no kind of retrospective either. It does however educate the listener about the importance of song in that period, and references the almost insatiable appetite for melody with Broadway appeal and cinematic prospects.

The Jarrett and Haden partnership has not been a continuous one, but it is a relationship unbroken in spirit and friendship. Here, they duet seamlessly on a mix of songbook classics, pure blues and show tunes in long conversations spoken in fluent jazz. On My Old Flame, Jarrett’s extrapolations depart from the comfortable chair of blues melody with Haden playing in between his steps, but even at this generally relaxed tempo there is still swing. It might be gentle but it’s deft, subtle and sensuous. When Haden takes the lead, his bass walks and talks the song beautifully while Jarrett shades with perfectly placed chords and startlingly accurate darting runs. The song, perhaps most famously sung by Billie Holliday, is eighty years old, but it it’s forever young in the hands of musicians who love it deeply enough to spend ten full minutes in its company.keith-jarrett-Dec-2011The tone is therefore set from the start, and the treatment of My Ship, a boat that left for New York sometime in 1941, takes nine minutes to land somewhere near the alluring, downtown lights of 52nd Street. Jarrett brings out the cautious optimism in the melody, but the thread on this album is distinctly blue. When Haden takes his turn again, you realize that you’ve become attuned to his low blues voice, as if the bass had begun to enunciate of its own accord.

On the everlasting Round Midnight, they accept a most appealing invitation to gather round a tune in which musicians frequently like to lose themselves. Jarrett and Haden perfectly capture the feeling of having nothing better to do than just hang out and enjoy playing music. Haden is a little more to the fore, with bass lines that side step in and out of Jarrett rapid runs. Together, they are masters of the subtle dynamic, as Jarrett takes time to peel back the layers of history that sometimes shroud Monk’s 1944 classic. Here, he holds it up so that it can be heard clearly, brightly and unambiguously.

Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels from 1940 is just that, a devilish quickstep that perhaps only the twinkle toes of Fred Astaire could choreograph. Swing is king, and the joy of their combined energy, and Jarrett’s sparkling improvisations are imbued with a sense of fun to match the virtuosity. It’s perhaps a glimpse of what genius gets up to on its days off. It Might As Well Be Spring, a tune enjoying a minor renaissance, is eased from its cosseted habitat in the 1945 musical State Fair, to emerge as an incredibly lovely song with an intellect to match. Jarrett takes eleven minutes to meander lovingly through the maze of ideas that it offers up, as Hayden’s bass drifts in and out like distracted thoughts of love. We shouldn’t forget that this music had to be romantic, if it was going to pay the bills. Haden and Jarrett certainly haven’t. 6a00d8341c630a53ef01539127e229970b-piSpeaking of big earners, they include Everything Happens to Me, a widely recorded pop standard from 1940 covered by almost everyone including Sinatra, Chet Baker and Nat King Cole. It morphed into a jazz standard through repeated reworking, but here Jarrett alights on its inherent brightness as a good-natured piece of self-deprecation. If there is humility in the performance then it’s expressed as deep affection for the sweetness of the song.

In contrast, the reading of 1944’s Every Time We Say Goodbye subdues its soaring nature and makes it more contemplative as a song that might be sung to oneself. There’s an unsettling a sense of apprehension that with each parting, the flame of love “dies a little”. In popular versions it tends to be delivered with irony bordering on the melancholy. Haden and Jarrett depart relative short distances from this familiar song, but far enough to show that it is not immune to new interpretation. It also reclaims the song from the legions of mediocre pop singers who sought credibility with it; only to succeed in murdering the thing they love most.

The album closes curiously with Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye (1934), an alternate take from the 2007 Jasmine sessions and it’s included here with alternate version of Peggy Lee’s Where Can I Go Without You? from the same date. The latter is arguably a better fit because it has a certain familiarity about it, but both are added here to show the full measure of a musical relationship that, like the songs they’re covering, is undiminished by the mere passing of time.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senses and Sensibilities: Omar Sosa Improvises a Path To Inner Peace

July 2, 2014

fot_clr22Omar Sosa is, without doubt, a citizen of the world. His concert schedule takes him all over the globe, often to exotic locations that you’d like to visit yourself. However, a country of the mind where kindred spirits meet is the place where he communicates his outgoing ideas most effectively. A new CD sees Sosa looking uncharacteristically inwards, with improvised piano pieces that constitute a response to personal crisis.

I absolutely loved Omar Sosa’s previous solo piano release Calma for its comprehension that we all need peace. Sosa seemed to intuit that the panacea for the contemporary malaise of useless information overload could be found in sympathetic, carefully measured music. On Senses, he has created music to soothe his own soul through piano solos that are nevertheless deeply spiritual songs. The position he takes is not religious, but he does seem bound by a faith in the elemental, and hope in the act of creation.

The first track, Sun Shower, opens with the piano almost impersonating a celestial harp. It unfolds like the slow dawning of a long day, yet it’s also a deeply melodic song-setting that develops a theme from one end of the keyboard to the other. Certainly, it evokes the brightness and harshness of natural light with variations of shifting intensity. But before you settle down with a good book as Senses subliminally percolates in the canyons of your mind, be warned: there is a LOT of music on this album. fot_bw01Peaceful Shadow demonstrates that spatial sense is one of Sosa’s strongest skills, and there is never the suggestion of any searching for the notes. If anything, his gift for melodic neatness leaves the notes craving a suitable lyric to compliment and complete them. There is also the feeling of uncovering layers of melody until a song emerges like a bright-winged thing releasing itself from a chrysalis. There is ambiguity too in the title he’s chosen for the album. Some tunes, such as Looking Both Ways and the sprawling Olorun, feel conceptual, and offer a sense of things. There is also a heightening of the senses as he stretches out Despacio and contemplates a fickle season on Two Sides of Autumn. Overall though the music offers a massaging of the senses for minds adrift in a sea of troubles.

This self-cure is heard, I think, most literally on Shadow of the Clouds, where notes are picked out like whispered syllables, and the brooding (there I’ve said it) Dark Tango in the Morning. Of course, the two sides of introspection are the questions asked, and the further questions asked. Interrogation comes easily, while the answers may never reveal themselves. There are several pieces that are strongly suggestive of matters unresolved, but they offer yet another sense – they give an impression of acceptance. Humility contains some of Erik Satie’s brooding, de-saturated colours played out in a cold room of echoing walls. Holy Mary is a short prayer, while At Night contemplates a long, dark nocture of the soul. fot_bw06Elsewhere, La Luna de mi Hija offers up a latin-jazz song slowed down to the pace of a moderato recital piece, giving it both gravitas and humanity. This contrasts markedly with Lament, which furrows its brow like Chopin on valium. If I had to choose a centrepiece on this recording, it would be Olorun, an experiment in space that tests the tension between sound and silence. Yet it still has melodic character. It pulls the gaps between the notes together in a drawstring composition which progresses satisfyingly into tangible song, before stretching out again into silence.

Olorun by Omar Sosa ↑

I started to wonder if there was a single word that could describe what this music was proposing, and for the most part succeeding to say. It made me think of things like passive regret, resigned yearning or pensive recollection. Sosa provides the answer himself on the closing track Pensamientos. It is an epilogue of uncertainty, with spatial choices that make the music hang in the air like an important thought that flew away, and disappeared before it could be considered.

Overall, Senses has the feel of a requiem for lost opportunities and missed chances, and as such it feels meditative rather than disconsolate. The album also leaves you with a strong sense of the song inside us all – almost as much as it reveals the many soulful voices contained in solo piano from a master in his field.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

Senses-Cover

Gold Dust Woman. Grace Askew and the 24 Carat Southern Country Blues

June 19, 2014

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pic by Amy Clolinger O’Bryant

In the search for musical authenticity, it’s often the case that the most potent ingredients are to be found very close to home. Grace Askew is Memphis born and bred, and she knows that gold dust can still be found just below the surface of Tennessee’s dirt roads. On her latest album, Scaredy Cat, she has walked the shortest possible distance from the back porch to the recording studio to make a convincing statement about her deep roots, a strong musical heritage and her personal identity.

INSTRUMENTAL first discovered the Grace Askew’s highly individual brand of denim-clad southern charm with her plaintive lament Jupe. This slow-burning piece of desiccated Americana immediately suggested a voice in tune with an authentic story of the blues. She has flirted with other styles and is highly capable of singing just about anything with great power, control and expression. But she is a country girl at heart, and one who obviously blooms in her native soil. The good ground is to be found in Memphis, a place that is synonymous with the history of roots-based popular music. However, the plot is famously special, because this record was made in the legendary Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue.

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Scaredy Cat is just about as authentic as roots-defined music could possibly get. It’s stripped down to the resonating wires of its steel wound strings, and it vibrates across an aluminium body charged with hi-voltage electricity. But the buzz comes from the commitment in the performances not mere amplification. Many artists have recorded at Sun since it reopened as a going concern in 1987, but few have made such a strong connection with its historic past as Askew, on this occasion backed a small and essentially acoustic band. Others will have hoped that disembodied voices from the past would talk to them through the ether, but the result is more likely to be songs that speak in tongues. Askew is different. She has the language of very early rock n roll ingrained in her DNA, and it often emerges in the most ethereal of ways.

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pic by Amy Clolinger O’Bryant

Elvis will never truly be a ghost because his earliest recordings stand as a testimony to a force of nature. His spirit lives on in any kid who picks up a guitar and thrashes out That’s Alright Mama, armed only with his or her first three chords. Musically, Scaredy Cat jumps on board the Mystery Train and captures the undiluted essence of that spine tingling Sun sound. I rather fancy that the imaginary starting point was the famous jam at Sun Studios populated by an all-star line-up that included Presley, Perkins and Cash. But the aim here is to create and not merely to reproduce. That task falls largely to Askew’s remarkable voice, and her very modern ideas about stretching a melody. It’s true that she moans, slurs, drawls and yelps in the indisputable tradition of backyard country blues, but hers is a disciplined voice that stays level whether it swoops low or soars skywards.

You will also revel in those strangely pleasing, contorted vowels that marks her out as a daughter of the southern states. This particular way with words places Askew firmly off the main highway and locates her among forgotten towns along the near mythic Route 66. Among performers of contemporary roots music, only Dr. John is as authentically steeped in this vernacular. The opening track Wild Heart sets the rather uncompromising tone on an album that squares up to the listener with a “take me as I am” declaration of a confident musical self.

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Pic by Cassandra Dixon

There are straight-up jump blues like Bad Habit, Tip-Top Liquor and Anywhere But Here that are laced with out-of-body, full-moon hoops and hollers, and the suggestion of something a little bit ungovernable. Calvary and Out On Your Front Steps are simply great little songs that sound as if they simply seeped from the timbers on that back porch I mentioned earlier. Sycamore Tree, Turn a Blind Eye and Cinnamon seem to me to be arranged as a sort of Sun-kissed triptych of bar room crowd-pleasers shot through with proven experience. In fact, the only voice characterization that she seems consciously to use could easily be overlooked. There are times when she subtly references Jerry Lee Lewis’ slightly unhinged yowl, and allows her voice to pull hard on the choke chain of rock ‘n’ roots conventions.

The record closes out with Scaredey Cat, and only then you begin to understand what you’ve been listening to. We’re used to revering the icons who recorded at Sun Studios, but that isn’t Grace Askew’s sole premise. She also imagines what might have been going on in their heads before they went in to put down some of the best-loved music ever made. Arguably, only a native could really comprehend that.

Only Human by Grace Askew ↑

But what about Grace Askew? She’s a songwriter too, and all of these compositions are hers. Apart from her singing and her grasp of the idiom, what else can we say of her? The songs are uniformly strong and they fit the profile of an artist regaining and asserting her independence. As a contestant last year on America’s version of The Voice, she was one of a few roots artists who were initially very successful. That meant setting her own vision aside at least for a while. Now she’s home again in the midst of the music she clearly loves, and in the place where she truly belongs. On top of that, she’s given us a thing of beauty in Only Human, a very lovely song that I’d like Grace to sit on the porch swing and sing just for me. I suppose if we are truthful, that’s the way it all it began.

Michael S. Clark

June 2014

Scaredy Cat is released 25.7.14

The photographs for this feature were kindly donated by Mike Stanton, Brian Chilson, Cassandra Dixon and Amy Clolinger O’Bryant

Click on their names to link to more about these generous people and their work.

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pic by Mike Stanton

Believe! The Holy Ghosts Live in Dundee 6.6.14

June 9, 2014

The Holy Ghosts-2911Does anyone here remember Friday night and what it used to mean? In today’s 24/7 world of compulsory overtime just to make a buck, it’s hard to restore the universal buzz to the start of the weekend. All too often, TGIF now means you’re too pooped to pop. The Holy Ghosts don’t put up with any of that nonsense. Here at long last, is a band to set the weekend alight with a new testament to the carefree spirit of goodtime rock n roll.

One thing that’s as obvious as a barn on fire is that they have the look of men on a mission. They look the part; they dress the part and come on with the kind of attitude that takes ownership of the stage from the outset. It is an absolute must to see them live, for that is the only way to be reassured that they walk the walk. And believe me they truly do. Last Friday night at Buskers, a busy but friendly Dundee venue, they also proved that they take it all in their stride. The Holy Ghosts-2767The combined mixed messages of fuzzy PR, half-baked reviews, tweets and social media twaddle would suggest that they are erstwhile Exiles from Main Street. Certainly they are Princes of the Street from Edinburgh, with a shake ‘em up approach to performance. But the music enjoys a more open relationship with rock n roots than the nailed-on blues-rock of old. It’s Americana stamped firmly with a Scots Lion Rampant as if to remind the world that possession of the idiom is nine-tenths of rock n roll law.

Frontman Jacky Sandison has the moves like Adam Levine (who himself has the moves like Jagger) but the lead Ghost possesses more than a few smart steps of his own. He strums, struts, pouts and strides around the postage-stamp stage like a leather-jacketed field commander, and he’s never anything less than the complete centre of attention. This is as it should be, because the only way a performer of his calibre can deliver for the band is if his mates have his back. The Holy Ghosts-2733The rhythm section of bassist Johnny Voodoo (of course it’s his real name), Angus Ross on drums and Andy Barbour on keys are fast n loose like JJ Cale on speed, and occasionally as thumpgut heavy as Alex’s Sensational Band. Jon Mackenzie is a razor sharp guitar player who nevertheless favours the softer edges of the Les Paul sound, and the references to Chuck Berry on Twist the Knife only underscore a bit of hat-tipping to Billy Peek. Indeed, there were more than a few sweet ‘lil rock n rollers in the audience and it really is about time that we traded in the old farts for the new sparks. It’s only what our kids deserve.

The band drew heavily from the recently released debut album Ride Them Down and titles like Ol’ Snakehips and We Were Kings are alone worth the price of admission to The Holy Ghosts medicine show. The song writing, particularly on things like Staring Down The Barrel is hooky, snooky and full of rounded harmony vocals that are warm like a brotherly arm on your shoulder. The Holy Ghosts are, however, as punchy in the midriff area as they are clear-eyed in their direct connection with strong melody. Sandison’s lead vocal delivery has a lazy, hazy way about it, but it rides easily above the waves of rolling chords, especially on Little Kickstarter, which also features some razzamanaz slide guitar from Mackenzie. The Holy Ghosts-2751In many respects, the album won’t prepare you for the big grin that is The Holy Ghosts on stage. They are the most fun you will have with your clothes off, your hat on, or your underpants wrapped around your head. On record, the songs shape a strong musical identity that is altogether more refined than the live incarnation would have you believe. On stage, it’s all about making gutsy music to rattle contemporary audiences out of their present sceptical stupor. A big mission and a tall order I know, but they seem like likely lads to me from the tangled hair on the tops of their heads to their scuffed Cuban heels.The Holy Ghosts-2826They came back for a treat of an encore so good that those foolish enough to leave early must have some sort of built in gigoer-fail mechanism. A frantic, supercharged version Fortunate Son, with Mackenzie taking the higher pitched lead vocal, gave credence to their brand of rock n soul revival. They sang and played as if all their birthdays had come at once; a smiling Sandison particularly living the dream. I love this stuff, and unmistakeably they do too.

So, when the working week is done, and it’s time for some fun, pick me up at eight, and don’t be late. I want to be there when The Holy Ghosts start playing…..

Michael S. Clark

June 2014

The Holy Ghosts were live at Buskers in Dundee.

All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography

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A State of Independence

May 30, 2014

freedomIt is a constant and consistently depressing truth that hard-won freedoms come with what seems like an obscenely disproportionate price tag. Ask anyone caught up in the horror of Baghdad or the nightmare in Homs what they crave for most, liberty or subjugation, and they will probably find the question irrelevant. They ask for respite and we give them a polemic to chew on.

Increasingly though, it seems that the cost of compliance is becoming similarly oppressive, equally unaffordable and ultimately untenable. All over the world, the price of labour is being driven into the ground as the gains of capital become grotesquely bloated and narrowly defined. Just when we thought the race to the bottom was over, it turns out we have a few more circuits to run. That leaves the poorest of the poor with a simple enough choice to make: which master will be the one to enslave them.

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If this all seems remote to your own experience then I would ask you to ponder this. There is more than one common thread linking the global problems that “we can’t do anything about” to the very real on-going recession and the fake recovery in the UK. They include, but are not limited to, retention of capital funds that might usefully be invested in social portfolios, barriers to free and unfettered social enterprise, diminished opportunities for the individual and cultural atrophy.

Now, most of us in these as yet Un-splintered Isles are not eking out a living by crawling over mountains of garbage, or standing in an eternal line amidst the rubble of our homes waiting for water. We at least have a bare minimum of gas, food and lodgings, and of course debts. We have plenty of those and, as every fatuous politician in Westminster is wont to say, we cannot sustain them. And here is where the first thread finds the eye of a needle. What exactly do they mean by “we”?

This is the time of me, not we. Surely anyone can see that. We don’t want a nanny state (we are told), paternalistic employers are quaintly out-dated (we are told) and the police have better things to do besides keep the peace (it is said). Perhaps this is why the new model states we see around the world are copycatting each other like crazy. Theirs is a state is there to direct not to serve, employers are there to serve shareholders and the police are there to protect both of them from their disenfranchised citizenry. byrdsNow, if you are just a singer in a rock n roll band then you could ask, with some justification, “what has all of this got to do with me?” Well, you’re the one who started it, with all your starry talk of record contracts and a career in the music industry. Hardly a day goes by without forensic examination of the corpse of the major label business model. Yes, we know what is killing music. We get it. But the things that are killing your music are the same things that are killing real people elsewhere. They are underpinned by the politics of control through exclusion, and that despicable game is far from over.

The music industry was never very attractive, but it has morphed into something quite different as it marches into the 2020’s with its tunnel vision fixed firmly upon the approaching endgame. It is a hollow being covered in a thin, eggshell patina of faded glamour that only a child would find enthralling. That is why mainstream music is not music at all. It is as synthetic as cheese slices and just memorable on the palate. Poptart downloads are packed lunch snackables that are neither offensive nor nutritious, but our young, especially our young, have to be weaned off them. IMG_2118Music is made somewhere else. It is made in the music community and that is where it is heard, celebrated and preserved. Naturally, a community is something that cannot easily be incorporated. Sometimes, an artist, a group or an ensemble may have enough longevity and continuing relevance to become their own franchise. In other cases, the people who think in terms of gated compounds for a ruling elite think the same way about subsidy for higher artistic forms. It can’t be helped that they do not understand the mutability of those forms. Art should not and (arguably) cannot be corralled, and that is why it thrives when it is free to roam. If it is not liberated, then the result is art and culture that we are condescendingly given and not the kind we create for ourselves.

So, now you know you are on your own in a state of independence with all its scary heights and dungeon-black lows. The alternative may be worse still. You may find yourself knocking on a door that will never be answered. This is not because you didn’t knock loudly enough, or knock in quite the right way. You will not be answered because there is no one there to come to the door. If you stand there long enough, all those auto-response, do-not-reply out-of- office emails will suddenly start to make some sort of perverse sense.

door-neuchatel-castleThere is, however, a massive chasm-wide distinction between a state of isolation and a state of independence. Nothing can happen where there is nothing for your actions to act against. The level and quality of communication via the Internet offers connectivity and insularity in equal measure. You may join a social group but you must abide by their strict terms. You can share as much as you like but it will not be long before you reach the limits of tolerance among your virtual audience. That’s about as open ended as we get, and all the time the platforms we use are being reconstructed into cages under our feet. The web has liberated us only as far as the next stockade, but there may be still be time to spring ourselves from the trap.

I hear wonderful songs and great music all the time, and I do understand the value that artists place on mainstream media exposure, and the reach that is still enjoyed by outlets like the Guardian and the BBC. I am not inclined myself to storm any citadels any time soon, for I have always found the love of the common people beyond those moated enclosures quite sufficient. Once upon a time beyond the city walls, a settlement became a hamlet that became a village that became a rare old toun. This is already happening as networks develop amongst real people with common cause in real places, particularly at smaller festivals and gatherings. There are some fantastic civic venues but they need to be populated more frequently and much more representatively. avatars-000061646029-jwezj1-t500x500This activity needs to be ramped up in scale, and with wholehearted support from those who are in a position to empower. There is money in this country that is under lock and key in both the private and public sectors, and it should be released more freely. National lottery funding needs to be guided by a visionary strategy for re-establishing civic amenity, civic inclusivity and civic access. After all, it is money that was embezzled from a gamble-unaware section of the population least able to resist its mendacious allure. I would argue that the result will be a sense of opportunity, awareness of new possibilities and the restoration of civility. Hell, they might even reinstate our libraries to their former glory.

Of course there have been and continue to be flagship capital projects that seem to satisfy and disappoint in almost equal measure. A large, new museum in your hitherto overlooked town may or may not receive matching funds; it may or may not re-boot a local economy, and it may or may not kick-start town centre regeneration. But is that a strategy?

Nature, well-known in town planning circles, abhors a vacuum but property developers do not. They can squat on empty spaces for whole generations at a time and it matters not to them whether the good ground is scarred, screed or grassed over. We may well ask ourselves, having already found our beautiful cars and our beautiful homes, “Where is my beautiful venue set in its own gardens, with its six days a week programme of affordable events that is noted for hosting community projects and initiatives.” Where venues have been built (often as over-sized and grandiose mega gestures), their operators are rightly asking, “where are my operational funds to run this place on behalf of the community it is supposed to serve?” From the marketplace? Oh, do come on.

Museum_at_nightI do not expect artists and musicians who have become self-directed out of necessity to relish their independent status. Neither should they be dependent on society for gratuitous hand-outs. But a civilized society is dependent on artists and musicians to give much greater meaning to its existence, whether it is inside the citadel or beyond the city walls.

The engagement at civic level, and with private sector partnerships, must be based on a radically altered conversation about what we can do as opposed to what we cannot do. Many hard-working people do this already. Far from disregarding their considerable efforts, I am pressing for far greater support for them, and for that support to be radically opened up. tumblr_lvn0ji9ebR1qzcmdmo1_1280Our society has to re-learn the true value of music through constant exposure using a variety of media. That means less reliance on manipulative Internet platforms and more investigation into the creation of bespoke means of distribution. This is the stumbling block for all of us. The means of distribution has to be re-built from the rubble left by the destructive force changes wrought by web commerce. The means of production, vexed though it may be, is less problematic than getting the music out there and turning passing interest into loyal and engaged audiences.

At the moment, web media and marketing are managed inconsistently across the artistic diaspora. That will correct itself as the web creation tools become easier to use and/or the price point for such services gets more realistic. Perhaps even more importantly than that, artists and collectives need to think hard about consolidating connections with each other and empowering capital to share and act upon anything that offers their community more control over distribution.

It is the only way to separate music from industry product, and that is why it requires institutional intervention to match community level enthusiasm. The alternative is a nomadic and despised minstrel community wandering through a pale, grey country of the culturally blind and the musically deaf.

Michael S. Clark

May 2014

 

Down at the Swap N Shop

May 27, 2014

At-the-Drive-In-classic-movies-6987541-1280-1025James P. MacNamara, our very special guest writer from Kansas City (MO), shares his thoughts with us as he ponders the meaning of existence “Down at the Swap N Shop”. Drive-in movie theatres were once as iconic as Jimmy Dean himself but now the humble car-boot sale has inherited the earth where giant movie screens once stood. Why not tag along as he mulls over the broken pieces of yesterday’s life?

On occasion, you have to ask the big question, “why are we here?” As mundane an experience as it is grand, it’s a question we all must ask ourselves at one point or another. I know the answer, for this city at least, and it is deceptive. Some would say, Kansas City is here because of its proximity to several frontier era trade routes and a large, travel-friendly river system. Those people are incorrect. Very wrong.

To the best of my perception, Kansas City is here because of some divine plan. Whether it be the initiative of the God of Moses or some older, shrieking totem of a long dead tongue is unknown, but the vast conspiracy of spheres was in no doubt. It fabricated the ground upon which I tread to bring us here to this place: Swap N Shop at the old 63rd Street Drive-in Theatre. It lies in the defunct, reforested eastern gray area that could be Raytown (our south-eastern suburb, where there is still smoking in bars and a truly fantastic pool hall), or it could be Kansas City, but is probably neither.  It’s covered in a knot of intersected highways and, if you weren’t from here or intrinsically strange, you’d never know it existed.8024441280_a2e5f612e0_zThere are a couple of swap meets in the city; this is the one I’ve always gone to. It’s the type of place where you could buy a crossbow as easily as a t-shirt. Through most of the week, and year for that matter, due to the drive in theater’s seasonal nature, it is devoid of life. This place is a wide pit of gravel with worn, billboard-sized projector screens backed into the fences at its borders. In the daylight you can see the flaps and tears on the screens waving in the breeze. I’m sure if you stood next to them you could see more of that vertical terrain hewn from years in the rain and snow: they hang there on their poles, still waving in their malaise, loose pockets puffing out in the wind.

Here was a distraction for a different America in a different time that, as far as I can tell, never really existed. The place is reminiscent of tongue-in-cheek public domain film reels from the 50’s, and you can almost hear a new American exuberance flitting about the place. A blissful ignorance made of fleeting diversions pulling the curtain across the McCarthy and HUAC witch hunts, the near boiling pot of red scare hysteria and, above all, the civil rights stand-offs that held up a mirror to us and told us we couldn’t look away this time. Drive-in theaters are holy ground when viewed in the proper light. This is a place where Harryhausen gave people something to look at that didn’t require a conscience.

That’s what it was. At least, that’s what it was in my head.death-of-the-drive-inIt’s difficult to see this place now without recognizing what died to make this ground fertile. You can drift through the folding card tables and open truck beds, past the reserved, yet suspicious glances of people in the nylon thatched folding chairs waiting for a bite on their bootleg DVD collections. You can choose to purchase nothing; this is a place where observation is it’s own form of commerce. Like those elderly people who jog in malls before the stores open, you can simply treat it as your backyard or personal zoo exhibit.

You can walk around and listen to snippets of offers and counter-offers, wonder what could be so worth it, and travel on. You can listen for the sound of tires gnawing through gravel. You can pick up a pair of “Foakley’s”, put them back down and walk on. That is fine. You are scenery until you choose to participate. You are in the photograph, time stamped and filed away for the protagonists waltz through.imagePrice tags are as malleable and shifting as the dirt beneath you. You are trying to buy the dubious copy of a film still in the theaters, but the price is too high. You argue until the collectible Ghostbusters lighter is thrown in. Every purchase is a small battle. Every battle ends in a winking attrition.

It’s psuedo-legal, pirate bizarre trappings are just that: the no frills decorative austerity is purely incidental. No wasted space on any table; vintage action figures are falling on top of knock-off purses, air rifles piled on top of each other with the ammunition stacked neatly next to them. It is the lean, exposed bones of this place that are so attractive to me.

It’s all negative space except where you supposed to be looking: at the tables, at the goods. Flat screen TV’s are up for a debatable price, no way to know if they work until you get home. Cash only. Is it worth the gamble? Will this guy even be here later today or next week to argue a return if it doesn’t? Who knows? It’s the American dream interpreted by people who are psychologically dependent on couponing. It is hot dust and things you probably don’t need. It is excess at the end of the world. And I love it here without irony.

James P. MacNamara

May 2014

James P. MacNamara is a writer based in Kansas City. This month, he’s chosen Ben Grim’s Imagination feat. DEUCE FONTANE for your headphones.

 

Tales for the Telling – Christine Tobin Live on the Frigate Unicorn Dundee 23.5.14

May 24, 2014

75877_167178776648323_276726_nNow that jazz, blues and folk nights are firmly established on board the Frigate Unicorn in Bonnie Dundee, it seems only natural for organizers to push the boat out a little. Last night, celebrated jazz songstress Christine Tobin dropped by to offer her thoughts on Leonard Cohen in an evening of song that was sheer poetry to mine ears.

Cohen himself is one of those almost-iconic figures who invites love and loathing in equal measure. As Tobin herself says with the most charming Irish lilt, Hes a bit like Marmite, you either like him..or you dont. I can’t stand Marmite, but I am partial to a bit of Leonard Cohen. The process for making that dubious foodstuff is secret, while Cohen’s songs are merely a bit obscure at times. They have always begged for interpretation rather than mere coverage, and that is what Christine Tobin brings to this repertoire.

The evening isn’t just about the louche, Canadian priest of love and Tobin set out to reassure us from the outset that it would be neither exclusive nor reverential. She opened insidiously with Joni Mitchell’s dark Priest, alluding more to shamanism, I felt, than purity of heart and mind. Christine_Tobin_home_2_v7Tobin’s reading of Cohen is informed by insights acquired while growing up with his songs and having them close to hand through life. There is wisdom too, for she does not hang on to his every word like a smitten fan. She is attentive to the colour of saying and lets the poetry in the song speak for itself. As a result, the rapt audience got two thrills for the price of one; a tremendously rich jazz voice and worldly, adult erudition.

The spare accompaniment of upright bass (Dave Whiteford) and electric guitar (Phil Robson) seemed at first to suggest an arty treatment of arty poetry. However, Dance Me to the End of Love was suitably sultry, 1000 Kisses Deep brimmed with frank eroticism while Famous Blue Raincoat set aside Cohen’s sly pin-sticking in favour of a thinly veiled knife in the ribs. On Everybody Knows, Tobin sang a delightful duet with husband Phil picking alongside on guitar in a sweet moment of elevated musicianship.

By this time, I was beginning to harbour the sneaking suspicion that the Christine Tobin might be more than just a great singer and interpreter. As the show went on it became more and more apparent in the numerous scat episodes that Tobin’s award-winning voice has the scope of a multi-instrumentalist. She uses tone, style, allusion, illusion and mimicry until you quite forget that the line-up is essentially a duo and a singer. photo(1)All that aside, Christine Tobin’s self-evident musicianship is borne of experience, craft and affection for music of the post-love generation. Musically, she is a child of jazz, but she is as comfortable with the blue-jeaned rhymes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Bobbie Gentry as the smart set poetry of Leonard Cohen.

In fact, her treatment of Ode to Billie Joe was as absorbing as the killer tale itself, and Robson contributed to the heavy atmospherics laid down by Whiteford with some authentic Georgia-swamp guitar. Only Gentry herself could have narrated a more brooding slice of horrifying Southern Gothic with such casual eloquence.

But let’s talk about Leonard. He is a marvellous poet, but is he a great one? There is every chance that his canon will endure as long as singers like Christine Tobin are interested in exploring his work beyond mere nostalgia. She takes the edge off Cohen’s bitters with a warm as whiskey pitch, and a steady gaze that tells you she is nobody’s fool when it comes to these sorts of songs. She certainly has the measure of the man.

If you get the chance you should get along to hear her tell his tales in songs like Take This Waltz with just a touch of faux deference, or You Know Who I Am with clear-eyed conviction and Tower of Song with a terseness that accurately reflects the harshness of the words on Cohen’s back pages. She ends with a carefree Suzanne and encores with a tenderly sincere God Bless the Child in the most complete of performances. Far from suffering intermittent audience chatter throughout the show, it was was observed afterwards that, “You could’ve heard a pin drop!” Testimony indeed, that the voice of experience will ultimately prevail.

Michael S. Clark

May 2014

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