Today we are all astronauts, so let’s get ready to go far from home

This Indian Summer doesn’t know when it’s beaten, does it?

The clocks go back next weekend, Halloween is round the corner and then the miserable trudge into Winter begins. All of which is something of a downer, no? Let us think gaily back to happier times, lighter moments and smoother transitions. Come back with me, if you will, to the sunny uplands of Summer ’18, August to be exact, and lift a glass to sunshine, cobalt skies glinting water and cheerful company.

The more cynical of you will straight away have recognised the whiff of a fancy metaphor when you catch it and spot the tricks of a wily old Blogger, who’s got a couple of things from the Summer he’s been meaning to post for weeks but simply couldn’t be arsed. I choose not to acknowledge your scorn, thumb my nose loftily in your direction and pause only to mention that here are a couple of things from the Summer that I’ve been meaning to post for … a while…

Steven Black, Sea Change

Steven Black (as I’m sure you know) records mostly under the moniker of Sweet Baboo, as well as playing with a number of everyone’s favourite Welsh artists, and has recently released a record of “ambient” compositions with Paul Jones as Group Listening. It’s a lovely record, that I was quite taken with over the Summer and was moved to write these lines about it at the time.

And I saw him in August at Sea Change performing the record in a church as part of the Sea Change festival with Coleser and a number of other chums. It was all part of a gorgeous “festival-without-canvas” if you remember, and a fine time was had.

He’s a chubby, unprepossessing feller who at first glance doesn’t quite have the shambling charisma of Gruff, the gawky eccentricity of Hawkline or the arch surliness of Cate, but is currently producing better records than any of his band leaders. The Group Listening affair is charming, moving back and forth between quirky easy listening and magical (kosmische) enchantment with nods in many a strange and agreeable direction.

And that’s pretty much how the Saturday afternoon went, with Black and Jones deftly running through the songs of the record – carefully, lovingly and artfully preserving the spirit of a collection of songs for which they clearly have a fondness. The venue being a church and all that, you might’ve expected hushed reverence from an audience of chin-stroking devotees, but actually it was all a bit more fun than that – people came and went, a baby cried sporadically, echoes and hums whirled around the stage. It all felt very cosy and seemed to add something to the general ambience of “field recording” there is about the songs.

Coleser’s fondness for a front seat meant we were in the very front pews and the upshot is a certain amount of nervous fiddling and general cack-handery with the recorder, but I like to think it all adds to the feel of the show. Here are a couple of songs you might want to give a listen to:

Happy Whistler

Maryan (it wouldn’t be Partly Porpoise…)

Introducing “Happy Whistler”, they mentioned it was originally a find from a 1963 record by Raymond Scott called Soothing Sounds for Baby. And by the wonders of YouTube, you can hear the original, pretty odd track (One of the comments mentions a similarity to King Tubby, and he’s not wrong. This is a bit of a treat, you probably need to give it a listen…)

 

Rare as the afternoon had been, Sea Change was still to reach its high-water mark (oh yes!) later on that evening, and Steven Black was again the catalyst…

It being quite a small festival with a few big names shoe-horned into two bulging days, there were a couple of ugly timetable clashes that prompted something of a difference of opinion amongst our cheery party. The long and short of it was that yours truly went over to the main hall to see Gwenno while the rest of the group went back to church for Josh T Pearson. A reunion for Sweet Baboo later on in the evening was planned. Gwenno was pretty good (although at this rate I’ll probably never get round to posting) and the hall was packed (including Steven Black himself. And an effervescent Big Jeff spotted at the front, so clearly I win – to be fair, I barely mentioned it…)

Towards the end of the set, I got a couple of urgent-sounding texts from others telling me to get my tail over to the intimate and exclusive surroundings of the upstairs pub room for Sweet Baboo before they closed the doors. An anxious trot across town sufficed and saw me safely bounding upstairs, hailed cheerfully from the bar and a beer thrust in my hand, as the band struck up. A feeling of enormous well-being rushed across my ruddy cheeks and for a moment I honestly felt like I was in a Bacardi Breezer advert. What a life!

Sweet Baboo didn’t disappoint, adding drummer Rob Jones from the excellent Surfing Magazines (who had sounded great the evening before from the warmth of the wine tent), and playing a selection of chart-topping favourites from his previous couple of records, particularly his latest, Wild Imagination. It was actually a very similar sort of occasion from when I saw him in the Prince Albert in Stroud a few years back – boisterous, funny and amiable.

The recordings are also pretty boisterous, stood as I was by the bar, flushed with well-being and generally “in my cups”, but all the better for it I’d say.

Clear Blue Skies

Lost Out on the Floor

The second song isn’t on Wild Imagination but was introduced as being his attempt at making an Abba / Chic style floor-filler that was rejected by the record company but was available as part of a sausage vending machine promotion in Cardiff, and therefore possibly “the best song ever released on sausage”.

Unlikely as this might sound…

Over an ocean away…

My pal, Coleser, has recently hatched a plan for myself and a couple of other like-minded souls to go to the Sea Change festival in Totnes. He’s chosen well as he knows that of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that my days accompanying him to Green Man and End of the Road may well be over. Much too old and too soft these days. The lure of the damp sod, the open air stage and the beer tent no longer sufficient recompense for the dubious pleasures of uncomfortable nights, listening to the rain lashing the canvas and the sound of drunken oafs stumbling over guy ropes. Sea Change is a town festival, however, and as such provides simple luxuries like beds, roofs and comfy pubs. This pleases me immensely and I’m beginning to look forward to the weekend.

Headliners for Sea Change include Jane Weaver, Hookworms and the mythical Damo Suzuki. I’m also becoming quite keen to see this pair:

Group Listening

Paul Jones I do not know but he is apparently a long term, college friend of Stephen Black, whom as Sweet Baboo, I’ve followed for a while and indeed written about him, (here in fact). Over the course of a few years, I’ve seen Black playing bass behind Gruff Rhys, Euros Childs, Cate le Bon and H Hawkline more times than I care to remember (including a good few at Green Man) and also doing his own Sweet Baboo set at the Prince Albert in Stroud.

This Group Listening record that came out earlier this year is different again, though. Clarinet and Piano: Selected Works, Vol 1 sounds like the discouraging title of a John Cage or Brian Eno record, doesn’t it? Not that far off, to be honest. It is indeed a collection of ambient pieces, mostly covers, played in bewitchingly straight fashion on said clarinet and piano.

Something about this title and description made every fibre of my body scream Can’t Be Arsed when I came across it, but a little common sense and open-mindedness has yielded to me a light and beautiful treat that I could easily have missed. I am not clear how many of the tracks are originals and how many are covers, but a brief scan yields songs by Eno, Euros Childs, Dieter Roedelius and a gorgeous cover of Maryan which I really think you should hear

 

I’ve spoken before (at length) about my love of Robert Wyatt and I’m not generally keen on people piggy-backing on the great man’s genius, but here I’m willing to give them a pass. The pair manage to take a meandering, joy-filled, free-spirited original and give me something new. They constrain it a little, painting it in bluer, more directionless tones. Black talks in this interview about “a deep yearning… a positive sadness” about the interpretations and you can hear it here. Childs’ “The Dog” is another uneven triumph.

There’s also something very refreshing about dense, industrial, abstract krautrock compositions transcribed into lighter, more human tones by Jones and Black. You hear this very clearly in the Eno track, “Julie With”, not a song I knew previously. There’s a beautiful video released to go with it too, all bridges and channels, mundane blues and greys:

 

The richness of a slow summer…

2013 – Seven Gigs (plus one)

calexico-bellyup-590x390 (1)2013 has hardly been a vintage year for seeing live acts – a combination of low funds, apathy and a series of wet festivals in previous years has somewhat taken the fizz from the live experience for me. And so to be honest, I’m scraping around for seven top quality gigs; I went to some pretty good evenings, a few fairly good’uns and a couple of real stinkers. Looking back, I’ve also been a bit negligent in maintaining my recordings – there’s a few tapes which I just never got around to processing, in some cases inexplicably (they’re good!). So anyway, roughly in order of greatness:

Calexico, Bristol Academy, Feb ‘13

I’ve seen Calexico before and I remember being pleasantly surprised at what a good live act they were; and so it was this February. I’d been slightly underwhelmed by the Algiers record but went back to it in the following weeks on the strength of a bustling, classy set from Burns, Convertino and team, which I think comes out as my favourite evening of the year.

Puerto

Kurt Vile, The Fleece, December ‘13

I know I’ve only just got back from this gig, and it may well be a combination of this and the fact that I’d not seen any live music for, oh, ages, but I really, really enjoyed this evening. A good combination really, an artist I was new to, on top of his game and at one of my favourite venues. Win, win and win again.

Girl Called Alex

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, St Bonaventura’s, March ‘13

This one definitely comes under the heading of “inexplicably missed” from previous pages of this Blog. I don’t think I can have written about it at all, and the recordings were left sitting on my hard drive, untouched. I’m guessing the reason for this was that this March gig was in fact the third time I’d seen Anais Mitchell in a year and maybe I thought there was nothing more to add. Actually listening to it now, I wish I’d written more about it at the time, because some of the versions of songs from the Child Ballads record she released with Jefferson Hamer are just exquisite. Beautiful songs, beautifully sung.

Riddles Wisely Expounded

Suuns, Bristol Exchange, May ‘13

Actually, I think this was the third time I’d seen Suuns recently too, but that took nothing from the lustre of another spectacular evening in the company of Montreal’s sinister young gentlemen. Still unable to catch any of the words (although I think we’ve established that the first lines of Pie IX having nothing to do with a certain West Country town), no communication with the audience, loads of smoke and distortion. Fine, mean stuff.

2020

Richard Hawley, Colston Hall, February ‘13

Another early-in-the-year gig, in fact I think if I remember rightly this evening was in the same week as Calexico, phew! A sold out Colston Hall was treated to a long, heartfelt evening of Hawley favourites, each one enhanced by a top notch backing band and a real warmth between artist and audience. If not as exhilarating as Suuns and Calexico, every bit as enjoyable.

Leave Your Body Behind You

Sweet Baboo, Prince Albert, Stroud, April ‘13

Classic live band-in-a-pub, sort of an evening, although you’d hardly call Sweet Baboo a classic pub band. The Prince Albert is a terrific pub on the edge of Stroud, with top beers and food and a tiny stage, all a bit reminiscent of the old Slak Bar in Cheltenham. Sweet Baboo who I’m sure, I know (I’ve seen), has played much larger stages but he entered into the spirit of the evening, bouncing around enthusiastically on stage giving his Ships album a fair old (stripped down) thrashing. Oh, and Keith Allen turned up..

My Heart is Ready to Bounce Again

British Sea Power, The Guildhall, August ‘13

Maybe not quite as good as the other gigs here, (or even the unlucky eighth gig – Pere Ubu, since you’re asking), but for sheer excitement and as a peek into the BSP er “phenomena” (?), I really enjoyed this evening. I have a group of friends who are complete nuts for BSP and had travelled a fair old distance to be in Gloucester for this, (one of whom cheerfully told me he’d seen them seven times this year already, another of whom was on first name terms with the guys on the merch stall), so it was kind of a given that I’d need to get along to this a rare decent gig on my doorstep. In the end it was a rousing evening from a band who genuinely do have a bond with their audience. In-jokes abounded and I didn’t really understand the bears, but it all made for something of an experience which made their Green Man performances look a little pale.

Apologies to Insect Life

Of course, if we’re talking about exhilarating, one-off experiences, nothing will top this, my real “live music” highlight of 2013…

On mountain tops, in gales, I pray

Cardiff’s Shape Records are a busy little outfit – always seem to have a few gigs and events on, and having that fine Sweet Baboo record in the summer, have now released an album by the mysterious H Hawkline. You can stream the whole record from their site, here, or if you want something special, you can buy one of only 150 specially pressed vinyl LPs, with special sleeves and the like.

On top of this, Shape Records have just made available a free download of a song called “I Want To Write You A Song As Good As I Can”, which was apparently part of the I’m a Dancer sessions, but didn’t make the cut. It’s pretty good as well, all quirky, plaintive vocals and seventies brass. I like it, and you can get it in exchange for your email address here.

Here’s a clip of Steven playing at one of the Shape Functions:

A doff of the cap to you…

Wish I was made out of steel, with no legs just wheels

I’ve been given this album by Sweet Baboo by the fine gentlemen of Shape Records, based in Cardiff. I say “I’ve been given” in a This Just In sort of a way, but actually I was sent it two or three weeks ago and I’m afraid I have dragged my heels a little. In fact, with a little more awareness and a little less lethargy I could have written a post to coincide with the official release of the record.

[sighs]

Sweet Baboo

Actually you might be tempted to read into my sluggishness a luke-warm response to “I’m a Dancer / Songs about Sleeping” but fact is I’ve pretty much played it to death over these weeks. It’s a great little record.

Sweet Baboo is actually Stephen Black from North Wales, who’s played with Euros Childs, Richard James, Islets and Cate le Bon – all favourites of these pages – and co-produced the Son of Euros record that was released last year. Apparently there are a couple of other releases (self releases, rather) but this is his biggest record so far. I’ve not seen him play yet, although I now rather regret a couple of near misses in the last year or so (an Acoustica and this year’s Green Man)

He’s a quirky dresser and writer, chronically self-conscious, with an obsession with body parts and a sense of his own awkwardness, which all comes out in songs like “Y’r Lungs, “Three Thumbs” and “Wish I was Made Out of Steel”. I like a bit of vulnerability in a writer, mind, and there’s nothing maudlin or irritating about all this misery. Quite the reverse really, his gawkiness is actually quite charming and very listenable.

He strums alone, often, although sometimes with minimal support from a few trusty aides, and sings in a sometimes broken, sometimes stutteringly hesitant voice. Occasionally, however, he is joined belatedly by his band, always to good effect and with some sensitivity. A lovely package altogether.

Favourite tracks are either of the versions of I’m a Dancer and Baby Let Me Let You Sleep, but really there’s not a weak song on the record. You can buy one of 300 limited edition vinyl copies or download it from Shape, or eMusic.

I’m a Dancer

Wish I was Made of Steel