How’s the church? How’s the job?

IMG_1841Having been to only one gig so far this year, by the end of this evening, I’ll have been to a couple (and if I’d been better organised, have a ticket to a third). So tonight I’m off to see Richmond Fontaine in Oxford, but in a rare moment of “getting my shit together”, I thought I’d be well advised to post this early, rather than, you know, late.

Ought

These drives over to Bristol are becoming much simpler affairs these days (Easter’s pan-tastrophe excepted, of course), so I was completely unprepared for the closure of the Lodge St entrance to my go-to Colston Hall carpark. A half hour of trying to navigate my way round to the other entrance followed and lacked only a round of the Benny Hill music in the background and a man cleaning windows on a wobbly ladder to complete full-on comic ridiculousness.

Got there, eventually, a little flustered and didn’t really make the most of support band Milo’s Planes, a three-piece who actually looked quite fun with loads of different ideas bulging out all over the place. It was also my first visit to Colston Hall’s number two hall, The Lantern and I like it a lot, especially its typically Colston Hall deep carpet.

Ought are a Canadian band I’d been enthusiastically turned on to by a friend at Christmas and since picking up what is I think their second long player, Sun Coming Down, I’ve become rather fond of their tight, clanky sound, especially singer Tim Darcy’s languid, sardonic delivery.

Darcy, live, is if anything more languid and foppish than I imagined, and in my fancy quickly became some sort of dark-clad, slightly baleful Uriah Heep-type figure (I’m talking Dickens here not the Seventies hard rockers of Demons and Wizards fame – I looked that up I should add)

He did seem to be in some sort of poor health, (which allowed to me to add “consumptive” to my mental pen-picture of him) and spoke of being “tired” clutching some sort of Sport drink for much of the set.

Ably supported by a tight rhythm section and the imaginative colourings of Matt May on keyboards, Darcy gave us most of the record I knew plus enough from the first one to make me want to get hold of it. The touchstone I’ve tried to avoid when describing the Darcy style is of course Mark E Smith, but seeing him and listening back to the recordings, David Byrne might work better. He jerked and fidgeted around the Lantern’s small stage with self-conscious gawkiness. His guitar work was by turns awkward then intricate and between chords there was a vigorous amount of pointing and finger waggling. He also spoke in pretty much the same stylised, back-of-the-throat manner as he sings, which was a little disturbing. But overall it was hard not to like the feller.

In the end, it was quite a short set. I didn’t actually mind this, to be honest, and in the same way as Sun Coming Down is quite a brief but nicely put together outing, playing under the hour seemed quite appropriate. I enjoyed the version of my favourite song, the wonderfully existential “Big Beautiful Blue Sky” with hearty audience participation all round (Warplane! Condo!). The Lantern turns out to have a really clear sound, so the recordings are more than fine.

I commend them and Ought to you.

Men for Miles

Big Beautiful Blue Sky

High voltage man kisses night

johnsolobaldLook, let’s just get one thing straight. I don’t have to have a good reason to post anything about the Magic Band…

But, if I did, (and I’m saying “if”), a curious series of events on a routine Easter trip to Bristol has led me to thinking a lot about Don van Vliet.

Drumbo

A freak saucepan accident occurred which I won’t go into – it’s too unlikely to dwell on. (Suffice to say that the car is still in the garage, the pan ended up embedded in the underbelly and still had lentils in it – and if that’s not a Beefheart-ian sequence, I don’t know what is…) It led to us walking into the city centre from a completely different direction to normal, stopping for a consolation cider brunch at a café and wandering along Whiteladies Road, an area we’ve really only driven through in the past. Jolly nice it was too especially as it culminated in trip to Rise Records at the top of Park Street.

As there’s been a Rise in Cheltenham until recently (thank you John Lewis…), I’ve never bothered with the Bristol branch before, although I know they do music sessions there generally has a fine rep. It was pretty good, lots of nice stuff, reasonably priced and all that and I picked up a couple of things.

The real bonus, though, was this, “the definitive account of life with the Captain from the inside”:
thru the eyesFor a fiver, too (I’d quite literally been eyeing it on Amazon the night before for £20).

A chance conversation with a drummer feller I half-know, had recently got me thinking about favourite drummers. Robert Wyatt was first to mind, of course, but “Drumbo” followed pretty closely on his heels.

John French is a bit of long-suffering hero of mine and I’m kicking myself for not getting off my arse and coming down to see him in Bristol last year. This is the man whose clumping, goofy drumming cajoled the Magic Band through Safe as Milk, Strictly Personal and, of course, Trout Mask Replica. Not being a musician myself, I understand little of the nuts and bolts that drive a record, but every time I put on one of these, French always seems to be performing curious little twists and tucks that stand out even amongst the mayhem and rank craziness that mark all of Beefheart’s best stuff.

French’s other great contribution to the Magic Band’s records was to transcribe the screwy ideas handed to him, into some form of music the rest of the band could follow, with only the Captain’s toothy whistling or table banging for guidance. He did a remarkable job, with no little forbearance as van Vliet became increasingly dictatorial, and was rewarded by being thrown out of the band after the completion of Trout Mask Replica (literally, if the stories are to be believed. Down a flight of stairs…). Incredibly, his contribution was largely uncredited on the sleeve of Replica.

I’m not finished the book yet – it’s quite a tome – but it’s an enjoyable, gracious, if rambling, read that is only making me admire the man’s remarkable patience all the more. Predictably, Beefheart’s first three albums, plus the at-the-time unreleased Mirror Man sessions which is the sister LP to Strictly Personal, have all been blasting from the car stereo this fortnight.

They’re a crazed, irresistible musical statement that take some beating (and occasionally a little patience), and I can’t really do their warped, oddness much justice. I did buy a 1966 live album from eMusic (Plastic Factory) this week too, but to be honest it’s not a patch on these. It’s mostly pretty standard blues reworks, remarkable only for Beefheart’s brutal, Howling Wolf-style vocals.

There’s not a lot of good Beefheart on YouTube, unfortunately, and the clip that is regularly trotted out on BBC clip shows is that vaguely creepy (and not in a good way) Upon the My Oh My clip from Dutch TV, which sees the Captain looking not so much eccentric as just plain lonely (and well past his best).

There is this glorious clip, though, shot in 1968 during the MIDEM music festival, on the beach at Cannes, which you’ll have seen, but does certainly capture the Magic Band in all their jerky, groovy weirdness, preparing to embark on their quirky, fraught journey aboard the strange Beefheart gyrocopter.

 

(Btw, I don’t think it does feature Ry Cooder, despite what it looks like and what people say. Cooder had already quit the band the year before, after Beefheart stopped a performance during “Electricity” and fell into the audience, claiming he’d seen a girl he knew turn into a goldfish…)

(I’ve only recently found out that the words for this, my favourite Beefheart song, were not actually written by the Captain at all but by a (to me) mysterious collaborator named Herb Bermann. Go here for an interesting read about the background to the writing of the song and a clip of Bermann reading his own poetry.)

As dawn breaks…

images (1)Funny bugger, I am, sometimes…

I’ve been listening to Mwng again this week, and from there, its predecessor Guerilla. And I realised I’d somehow kind of forgotten the absolutely majesty of Super Furry Animals. A great, great band. That run of albums from Guerilla, through to Phantom Power, is pretty much peerless.

Mwng

I got to thinking about last summer’s Green Man set again, and how it was a little underwhelming, and that it being so had somehow obscured that wonderful evening at the Guildhall, little more than a couple of months earlier. Listening back to the slightly sodden recording I made of the Green Man evening, it’s not even that bad a set either.

For on old befuddled gent, the images are still very clear. It had been a long day “in the field”, mud had been tramped through, drink had been taken, bands had been watched, there had been laughing, chat, general arsing around and all the other stuff that goes with festivals. The drizzle had begun to set in, and it was after midnight, I believe. The sight of a couple of young fellers leaping around in front of us, goonishly, absolutely out of their trees, added to the general feeling of things beginning to unravel a little.

But when SFA shambled on stage (I probably need to think of another Gruff-verb, to be fair), there was such an outpouring of warmth, fondness and elation, from everyone around that I remember thinking “here’s a band that people really love”.

One of the reasons I’ve not put up any of the recordings of the set is because the amount of “noise” around is pretty immense, even by festival standards. Not irritating, couldn’t give a toss about the band, here’s one for my Facebook page, sort of noise. More like people just having a banging good time, drinking lager, smoking herb and joining in with a band they’ve known and loved for many years. You can’t really complain about that.

And as the first chords of “Rings Around the World” jumped across the bobbing heads of the people around me, there was what felt like a discernible ripple of pleasure, joy, whatever you will, that swept you along with it.

As I write, I’m recalling it clearly, starting to rebuild pictures and wondering where on earth the memories have been…

Thing is, and I remember feeling this at the time, an opportunity was missed as soon as the Mwng section of the performance started. Lovely as the songs are, it definitely slowed down the force and drive of the set. You could feel people’s attention gradually wandering, the loons in front of us calmed down considerably, the rain started to get heavier. You can hear on the recording people chatting and generally losing interest. Gradually you realised you had more elbow room as people started to drift off to their tents. My own sleeping bag began to call…

Anyway, it’s funny how vague feelings that you’ve not really acknowledged or possibly realised, can lead you off on roads you didn’t realise you’d turned down. I’ve not played Mwng since…

Until this week. What a gentle, beautiful, strange record it is.

In this horrible age of abuse and decay…

414779I had a disconcerting conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago, who was able, without hesitation to tell me not only his top ten albums of all time but also his ten favourite Beatles songs. He seemed particularly surprised, scathing even, that I didn’t have the same readily to hand.

Needless to say, this has bothered me disproportionately, particularly the top ten albums thing. What exactly have I been doing with myself? I can do a top three for sure but after that, it’s all a bit sketchy…

Robyn Hitchcock

One record that should certainly be in the 3-10 category would be Underwater Moonlight by the ever-wonderful Soft Boys. Not exactly a Great record, as such, but definitely a record I come back to again and again, full of wonderful tunes and Robyn Hitchcock’s fish-eye take on the world. That combination of jingle-jangle guitar and post-punk dissonance and edge is, just, special. (I’m listening to “Queen of Eyes” as I type, a gem of a song that is as damn near perfect as makes no difference.)

The reason I’m back on the Soft Boys again this time, is that another in a substantial line of semi-official parcels of recordings has just come to my attention. Published on the by-now venerable old Blog that is Aquarium Drunkard, it’s some sort of collection of sessions and demos taken from what is apparently their very early days, but one or two of the tracks wouldn’t look out of place on Underwater Moonlight. I won’t link any here but do go to AD and take it yourself (and listen to Look Into Your Mirror nice and loud). And while you’re at it, you’d be plain daft not to have a listen to the recording of the 1980 show (proper Moonlight vintage) that I’ve just noticed he’s also offering. And, by the way, I don’t think it can be that unofficial (if this sort of thing bothers you), as it popped up on Hitchcock’s own Twitter feed…

The good news is that the Old Pervert is still alive and recording, and I believe touring the US as I write. Recently bought his Joe Boyd-produced latest record, The Man Upstairs, and it’s a little mellower, for sure, but still odd and beautifully tuneful. A mixture of originals and covers, it’s a lovely listen.

Here’s the Psychedelic Furs song, The Ghost in You:

 

 

I’ve seen Hitchcock play festivals a couple of times in the last few years and an engaging soul he is. I enjoyed his set of insect songs one balmy Green Man afternoon but the more memorable of the two was a spot he did with Joe Boyd himself, as the producer read extracts from his book. After each section, Hitchcock would sing a rough but heartfelt song from that session.

I think I’ve probably posted this before, but here’s one of them:

River Man

God bless your silvery locks, sir…

Misfortune and love are infinite

MI0000477845So, The Boy is back from Paris, and came bearing gifts, including another volume of the World’s Greatest Compilation series that he’d picked up in a local store. Merci beaucoup!

If he’d spent any time perusing these pages he’d have known how much I love these earthy, funky Ethiopiques compilations, choc full as they are with soaring brass, ethereal basslines and swooping, unlikely vocals, all of it infused with a peculiarity and general otherness that this jaded punter is unable to resist. In fact, if I’d had my wits about me I would’ve sent him out with specific instructions to load up on as much Amharic eccentricity as he could persuade customs officers was for his own personal use.

He hadn’t, I didn’t and in fact he’d had never heard of Ethiopiques, but there you go. He said he bought it because he “thought it looked weird”.

Well, at least something, somewhere along the line has gone in…

Mahmoud Ahmed

Ethiopiques 19, dedicated like volume 6, to a man who seems to be universally regarded as one of the giants of Ethiopian music, is another sizzler, equally as good as anything else I’ve heard inAELP80c the series. It’s culled from recordings he made in 1974, at a time when Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign was ending and the onset of the Derg Time was looming. There are jumping, twitchy street songs, nervous ballads and dark meandering blues numbers, all of it bound together by Ahmed’s distinctive gymnastic tones. It’s fabulous, but what makes for a different experience this time is that the liner notes for this compilation include English translations of each lyric.

It’s fascinating stuff too, coming as it surely does from a tradition of spoken poetry but at a time when Ethiopian music had moved towards modernisation and away from the old ways. Although the lyrics still sound very traditional, almost scriptural, it’s impossible not to read them without thinking of the overhang on which Ethiopia found itself perched:

Have you lost your way? Have you forgotten me?

You hold me captive with your love

Ignore what the others might think

Show yourself, daughter of my country

Find your way through the wood.

Beautiful, plaintive stuff, for sure, and in November 1974, the Derg announced the end of the Solomonic Dynasty and imprisoned Selassie. Nightclubs were closed down, the military dance bands upon which the Swinging Addis sounds were built were disbanded and musicians, artists and other public figures fled the country. Ahmed remained in Ethiopia but by 1978 was unable to release records owing to the country’s censorship laws. By the 1980s he was answering calls to perform in Europe and North America, and perhaps surprisingly he continues to do so to this day.

And here he is, performing one of the songs off the Ethiopiques disk, the superlative Etu Gela, in 2014, and it has to be said still looking ridiculously sprightly:

 

One doesn’t go mad for no reason

My sister, my body

He who suffers because of love will lose his mind

Misfortune and love are infinite

Getting baptised by your daddy

IMG_1765Live music is a wondrous thing, no?

You think you know a record, you have it neatly bundled up and categorised, you no longer spend a lot of time considering it, and then the hum of a cannily-plucked bass string, a clever little guitar run, or the expression on a player’s face as he does his thing… All of a sudden, all bets are off, and you’re somewhere you didn’t expect to be.

Ryley Walker & Danny Thompson, The Bullingdon

The fact that I was going at all was the subject of the odd eye-roll and raised eyebrow amongst my friends, as I’ve been somewhat luke-warm about Walker’s debut Primrose Green, a record that’s had usually-composed punters losing their cool. I do like it, but I can’t help hearing each track and saying to myself “This is him doing Tim Buckley. This one’s his Nick Drake song…” (This, of course, is not something you hear me say when the latest White Fence or Allah-Lahs record appears, oh no – consistency, pah!)

The truly massive figure of the great Danny Thompson clearly doesn’t have any authenticity issues, though, agreeing as he has to go on tour with Walker. And if that wasn’t reason enough to hoover up one of the last tickets at The Bullingdon, well…

I’d missed my chance to see the pair the night before at Bristol’s venerable old St George’s (also something of an
experience, I gather), so a maiden trip to Oxford’s number one venue was called for. It’s a decent enough spot too, although it was a little disconcerting to see it almost empty when we arrived just before the support act was due on.

IMG_1757We needn’t have worried. As soon as Meg Baird had finished her earnest (if flagging) set, a swell of old lags of Severn Bore proportions surged across the hall, and suddenly the room was abuzz with expectation. They were on pretty quickly after and once the introductions were over (“This is Danny Thompson, he’s just getting his start, so I thought it’d be nice to bring him along…”, followed by “I could’ve been at home watching ‘Flog it!’”), we were off.

It’s probably stating the bleedin’ obvious but Walker’s a helluva guitarist and almost immediately his impossibly deft guitar runs were filling the hall and mesmerizing a knowing but expectant audience. I cannot imagine how much you need to practice to be able to skip your way around a fret board as lightly and faultlessly as he does – I suspect no amount of practice supplants the sheer instinctive ability to articulate an idea in music. He was quite good.

Actually, I had to remind myself to switch my attention to the guitarist after about fifteen minutes once I realised that the equally nimble fingers and intense expressions of Danny Thompson had monopolised my attention almost entirely up until then. (Walker referred to him as “Mr Thompson” or “Sir”, so I guess maybe I should too…) His own description of his style (in this interview I read this morning) as being someone who just plays intricate bass solos is characteristically modest but was spot on for the evening. He scampered up and down the bass for intense seconds of activity then stopped and listened, looking for the next space, like some sort of woodland animal. He was massively captivating and yet never at any point hogged the stage. A dream to play with I’d imagine… (It’s perhaps worth
pointing out at this stage that his huge list of credits include being a founding member of Pentangle and playing on Five Leaves Left; Solid Air & Bless the Weather; Folk, Blues and Beyond and Dream Letter, not to mention Cliff’s “Congratulations” and also the Thunderbirds theme tune. What a guy.)

IMG_1769The pair of them showed a terrific understanding and a sensitivity to each other’s direction, which belied the fact that they can only have been playing together a matter of weeks. They ran through a number of songs unfamiliar to me which sounded fresh and above all original (making a mockery of all my prejudices), before finishing with two songs from Primrose Green. The evening ended (too soon) with an encore that included a dazzling “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” and a beautiful new song that according to the setlist doesn’t yet have a name. Neither man bothered to leave the stage for the encore which I kind of like, and as the seventy-six-year-old (Mr) Thompson pointed out “when we go off, we’re hunting crumpet!”

Here are some of the highlights of a great, great evening.

Funny Thing She Said

On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee

“New”

It’s been ten years…

 

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