Not so starry-eyed anymore…

IMG_1079This is a week old now.

I’m a grumpy old git, no question; ever more curmudgeonly as the years accrue. Even more prone to shouting at the telly than before. But still…

I went to see the splendid Decemberists last week, giving a graceful run through of their What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World record. I did see them last time they came to the UK and I remember being pretty underwhelmed, although again they had a great record in The King is Dead to showcase. I’d obviously forgotten all this when I jumped at the offer of a ticket for the Birmingham leg of the tour.

I actually wrote a curmudgeonly post for the evening the next day, but in the grips of an oncoming flu I was a bit more negative than I’d want to be really, so I deleted it. The gist of it was:

  • Not a fan of audience participation
  • Upstairs at the Institute is not a great place to see a band
  • Some of the tracks on the new record sound like ABC
  • I don’t feel very well

Harsh, and a little unfair.

The Decemberists, the Institute

The Institute is a grand old theatre with many original features and a fine 3-sided balcony. It would no doubt be a lovely old place to see quiet, reflective music, in the style of St George’s in Bristol. Unfortunately, last week it was rammed with steely-eyed middle-aged punters, all of whom seemed to know that you need to get in early for a decent spot (rather than, say, getting stuck in traffic and then having a couple in the pub next door). It was particularly daft in the balcony, where people were stood five or six deep to peer over the balustrade (there’s a good Melloy word…)

I should say that I do like the new record a lot, Colin Melloy really is a great songsmith, but I’m not a fan of the way some of the songs are arranged. I reckon “Cavalry Captain” sounds like an ABC number (and btw don’t let anyone fool you into thinking this a good thing…); and the faux-doo wop sound grafted onto “Philomena” just irritates the hell out of me. (I found myself wondering if there’s a bit more democracy going on within the band – a bit more input from the other musicians, maybe. My money’s on that bloody drummer…)

I’m well aware that I’m coming on like one of the hipsters that Melloy is patiently addressing on the opener, but I guess I prefer the simpler accordion and harmonica and double bass sounds of Castaways and Cutouts. I wish you hadn’t changed…

(And don’t even get me started on audience participation, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and general on stage tomfoolery…)

Actually, “Cavalry Captain” was a one of the highlights of what was still a pretty good evening and the tinnier elements of the record seemed to vanish in the whole band experience. They played for a good hour and a half, maybe more, giving good account of the recent records and dipping confidently into their impressive back catalogue (although regrettably not Grace Cathedral Hill). They were jolly, passionate about their songs and there was not quite as much silliness as last time I saw them. I was moderately-whelmed, shall we say.

Considering the circumstances – too far up, too far back, too many people coming backwards and forwards (honestly, at times it was like sitting in the Buildbase at Kingsholm…), the recordings are much better than I had a right to expect, and certainly, as ever, worth a listen:

Make You Better

and, in the interests of fairness:

Cavalry Captain

(Now I must get onto those Ultimate Painting recordings, they’re really worth it…)

Seven Great Records of 2011

Started thinking about this a few weeks ago and I realised it’s been a really strong year for new releases – I could’ve named twenty albums very easily. On top of that I’ve recently picked up on a couple of records from this year in the last couple of weeks – the Wilco and Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – ones both of which I’m pretty sure would’ve been on this list if I knew them a little better…

So …

Seven Great Records of 2011

Bad As Me – Tom Waits

Had a real binge on Tom Waits last year and consequently hadn’t spent a lot of time on him this year until this came out. A real stormer in the Real Gone tradition rather than Alice – lots of rough and ready, Beefheartian rumbles and a motor that still runs pretty well after all these years.

High Points:Chicago; Bad as Me; Raised Right Men

It’s bravest to stay,

Even braver to go,

Wherever she goes, I go.

Everything will be better in Chicago

Slave Ambient – War on Drugs

This is an interesting record in that it’s got a number of immediate first appearances that I’m not keen on (not a huge fan of Dylan, not a huge fan of Springsteen) and yet I can’t leave it alone. Some beautiful melodies, some surging synth atmospherics and some wonderful Byrds-y guitar work. Above all it’s a record characterised by some really engaging lyrics that drift, unhurried, through the songs as they unfold. Lovely rich stuff.

High Points
: Your Love is Calling My Name; Best Night; Brothers; I Was There

I was there catching air
Thought I had him by the hand
Only had him by the glove

D – White Denim

I come from a generation for whom the word “virtuosity” was considered a bit of a slap in the face, not something you aspired to, or at the very least concealed with some care. Although hardly new, it’s still pretty refreshing to find a band wearing their technical expertise proudly on their sleeve, not to say flaunting it a lot of the time. These fellers can all play, not just the guitars but the bass and drums are all interesting listens. Bracing, stimulating, invigorating – all in large dollops!

High Points
: Burnished/Back at the Farm; Street Joy; Anvil Everything

Crossed an ocean,

Faced a fear…

Gentle Spirit – Jonathan Wilson

I’ve already used “unhurried”, haven’t I, I’ll go for “leisurely”, then, as my go-to word for Gentle Spirit. I don’t get the impression Jonathon Wilson does any hurrying, and a quick scurry to Wikipedia to discover that this gorgeous folk gem took four years to put together doesn’t really surprise me at all. A beautiful, sun-blistered collection of leisurely, folky songs from another age. Not come across anyone unmoved by it…

High Points: Desert Raven; Can We Really Party today?; Valley of the Silver Moon

When my word’s come out

It’s like oil and water,

Separation, no reaction

Writing you now from the valley of the silver moon

Last of the Country Gentlemen – Josh T Pearson

A record that I bought before I went to Green Man, but which I didn’t really get into at the time. The last few weeks though, it’s really grabbed me by the throat. A huge contrast to the Jonathon Wilson record, unremittingly miserable and bitter (but in a good way) and really (really) intense. His deft guitar playing lightens the mood a little and is occasionally supplemented with heart-breaking violin. I love the way the songs are shapeless explorations (“ramblings” you could say, four of them running past the 10 minute mark) that come to a natural conclusion in their own sweet time. Phew!

High Points: Country Dumb; Woman When I’ve Raised Hell; Thou Art Loosed

Don’t make me rule this home with the back of my hand
Just let me sit alone in this chair, my own make believe little throne


The King is Dead – The Decemberists

I think I said last night, that I’ve rediscovered Colin Melloy and the Decemberists, courtesy of this record and the evening at the Academy. Really didn’t like The Hazards of Love (sounded like Queen to me), but the new record is a strong, strong come back from there. It’s a return to simpler songs and more understated canvases on which to tell his stories. I reckon the difference between this album and some of the earlier (great) ones is that the rest of the Decemberists have (been allowed to) come of age here and make tangible, intelligent contributions to what is a rich, quality record.

High Points: This Is Why We Fight; Rise to Me; Rox in the Box

And when we die,

We will die,

With our arms unbound

Zeroes QC – Suuns

I realise that I love this record beyond reasoned argument and get the feeling that it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the other records here in anyone else’s ears. Maybe one day, when the brouhaha has all died down, I’ll give this a listen and wonder what the fever was all about. But now, right now, from the first dull thud of the drum and the stylophone meanderings that introduce Armed for Peace, to the last heady drones and squeaks that complete Organ Blues, I just love this record. Damnit, why am I so bloody old!

High Points: Pie IX; Up Past the Nursery; PVC; Arena

Do you want to?

Do you want to?

Do you want to?

Seven Great Gigs of 2011

I’m a little apprehensive about writing this post about best gigs of the year, partly because I think I’ve seen less this year than many others but mainly because I seem to know a few people who seem to go to a mindboggling number of gigs. I know of a couple of people who are nearly into three figures for the year.

Think about it, pretty much two gigs a week… {prostrates himself on the floor}

But, anyhoo, for what’s its worth here are seven cracking live experiences from this year.  In no particular order…

Seven Great Gigs of 2011

The Decemberists – Bristol Academy, March

I’ve tended to remember this gig for some of the sillier things that the ever-adlibbing Colin Melloy and friends got up to, but a quick listen back to the recordings remind me that it was actually a great evening. I loved the new songs (and went out soon after and bought The King is Dead on the strength of the evening) but also found myself enjoying the Hazards Of Love songs, previously not a record I’d warmed to at all.  Exhilarating, boisterous stuff, and they also played Grace Cathedral Hill, my favourite Decemberists song of all.  A lovely evening.

Laura Cantrell – St Bonaventura’s, May

A delightful get-together, in the unpretentious, intimate surroundings of St Bonaventura’s, itself a support player in a great evening. Laura Cantrell (can I call her Laura? Ms Cantrell?) still has a pure, ringing voice and an uncluttered delivery style which shines the spotlight full on her dazzling songs. Lots of Kitty Wells Dresses, but also a good few from the another favourite Not the Tremblin’ Kind. Engaging between-song chat and the always pleasing sight of a true star selling her own merchandise after the show.

Toots & the Maytals –BristolAcademy, September

I don’t think I actually wrote about this evening at all – I was sulking a little at another recording comprehensively buggered up by clumsiness and circumstance, I suspect. I’ve just referred to Laura Cantrell as a true star, so what is Toots Hibbert? I went through a phase in my early twenties of trying to see various old timers perform before they were gone forever, and I’m still a sucker for a bit of nostalgia. Great versions of 54-46 and Pressure Drop, and a whole lot off the Funky Kingston record, including a lung-busting, belting version of the title track. The sort of evening that the Academy does well…

Suuns – Green Man, August

I’ve banged on about this lot so much in the last months that there’s not a lot more to say, other than that for me this performance – in the Big Tent, mid evening, with enough smoke, distortion and swagger to suggest everything else should be called off afterwards – is the sort of stuff Suuns should be building their legacy upon. Belligerent, funky, inarticulate, and really very loud.

Phosphorescent – Thekla, May

One of those, for me classic, occasions when I turned up not entirely convinced of a band’s worth, but left having totally got it. The Here’s To Taking It Easy album sounded entirely different afterwards and throughout the following weeks, I couldn’t listen to Hard to be Humble without seeing the foppish Matthew Houk waving his finger in my face. Another of my favourite songs of my year, Mermaid Parade, got its definitive performance this evening.

Gruff Rhys / Y Niwl – St George’s, February

Saw both artists again later on in the year at Green Man, but neither sets were as good as the twin performances in the robust, muscular surroundings ofSt George’s. Again, some of the magic of the evening was lost for me as soon as I realised I’d not managed to record it properly, but that’s all wrong, really. It was a terrific evening, the Y Niwl boys banging out their surf sounds with infectious eagerness, before joining Gruff onstage as he ran through most of the Hotel Shampoo offering in his own inimitable, shambling style. Guest appearances from Cate le Bon and Sweet Baboo as well…

Wild Beasts – Guildhall, May

Yet another performance for which I have no recording, but which will survive in my memory for a good while. Lots from the two recent, breakthrough albums, neither of which I’m terribly familiar with, still (inexplicably); but also a good few of their older more awkward songs, their galumphing, shuffling rhythms still on show for all to see. Really enjoyed their combination of craft and enthusiasm, and they went down well in the old hall.

So, another year gone, another few tickets, pinned to the board, wink lasciviously at me and it all starts again…

Tomorrow I’ll think about my best of the year releases.

Sweet on a Green-Eyed Girl

Off to Brizzle the other night for only my second decent-sized gig of the year – the Decemberists at the Academy.

I’ve had a bit of an on-off thing for Colin Melloy in the last few years. When I first discovered Picaresque and Castaways & Cutouts, a while back, I was mad for his idiosyncratic ballads and stories, but I really didn’t much like last year’s Hazards of Love journey into “big” sounds…The King is Dead is a great record, though and a return to what I reckon are his lo-fi strengths

Support band were Blind Pilot, who were pretty good and I think I’ll post on them later, worth a mention of their own. The Decemberists, though, were terrific, really terrific; ploughing through a striking set of what is by now a really strong body of songwriting.

I’d not actually given much thought to the rest of the band, but they were really impressive, from the accordion and organ flourishes of Jenny Conlee to the intelligent string contributions of guitarist Chris Funk (Wikipedia, btw, has him down as a player of “ guitar, pedal steel, piano, violin, dobro, hurdy gurdy, mandolin, saxophone, the theremin” – wow!). I really liked his pedal steel work and zinging Byrds-y guitar. The whole band were really tight.

I’d imagined the set would be dominated by Hazards of Love and King is Dead, but in fact there was more than a smattering of older songs (sounding like they could have come straight off King is Dead). It was particularly gratifying to hear one of my favourites, Grace Cathedral Hill, still in the set list. A beautiful, beautiful song.

The set lasted over two hours, though I have to say most of the last half hour or so was kinda thrown away on a growing need to “engage” with the audience. I’m not a great fan of the call and response sing-along trend in concerts these days, – I generally go along with it – but a ten-minute “joke” blues number was a bit wearing, and the vaudeville stuff did get a bit tiresome after a while. I’m probably being a little churlish…

I made some recordings of the evening, which are … Ok, although I think my aging iRiver is moving into its dotage, and they’re a little trebly. I’ve uploaded some of the high points of the evening, and a zipped file of all sixteen tracks – I’m afraid Mariner’s Revenge Song and Chimbley Sweep fell foul of the general buffoonery of the last half hour. Fun to be there, but not a great listen…

None of that should detract from what was a belting evening – outstanding songs, outstanding performances, outstanding performers…

Grace Cathedral Hill

July July

This is Why We Fight

Rise to Me

The Decemberists, Bristol Academy, March ‘11