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Mark Olson, The Slaughtered Lamb, Clerkenwell, June 1st 2010

June 12, 2010

I’d last seen Mark Olson – sometime Jayhawk and one-time Creekdipper – a year ago at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona. That night, before headliners Neil Young and Sonic Youth came on, the Jayhawks were playing, which these days is a rare opportunity not to be missed. Here’s a photo by my friend HarryO of Gary Louris and Mark rocking out in front of the appreciative crowd. They delivered a really good set and, as I’d seen Mark and Gary play together six months earlier, I was uncertain as to whether the Jayhawks were ‘officially’ together again or not, particularly when the two of them released a fine album together, 2008’s Ready For The Flood. Gary and Mark’s parting back in 1995 was none too amicable, as Mark wanted to pursue an earthier, folkier path than he felt the Jayhawks were following, but it derailed the band at just the point where they were becoming big.

The Creekdippers, Mark’s subsequent band, were a good folk-country outfit in their own right, but Mark’s well-publicised divorce from wife Victoria Williams couldn’t have been easy for him (or, to be fair, her). Indeed, his first solo album, 2007’s Salvation Blues, documents some of the pain of those years and can be uncomfortable listening on occasion – in his songs, Mark wears his heart on his sleeve and the music is unadorned and offers no shelter from the emotions being laid bare.

I wouldn’t want you to think that Mark is a doom merchant, as he is friendly and personable on stage, and I was keen to see this show at one of my favourite small venues. He was accompanied, as he usually is these days, by girlfriend and highly talented Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold (who also calls herself ‘Sailorine’) on djembe, harmonium, other percussion stuff and harmony vocals. Mark himself plays guitar and dulcimer, and sings very sweetly. Thanks to The Suit for the photo (left).

They kicked off with Clifton Bridge, from Salvation Blues, and followed it with a new one, No Time To Live Without Her, from his new album Many Colored Kite, which is out in July. There’s certainly no ignoring of the Jayhawks’ heritage, though, and he immediately gives us Wichita and a stirring Clouds from the band’s first major label album, 1992’s brilliant Hollywood Town Hall. Then we went back even further, with Falling Star from the Jayhawks actual first album, aka The Bunkhouse Album from 1986, long unavailable and now thankfully reissued. Mark said that their manager, who he described as something of ‘a dandy’, contacted him to write ‘an essay’ for the booklet accompanying the reissued album – that was something more than the ‘notes’ he expected to write, but he did it.

Little Bird Of Freedom and Beehive, both from the new album, showed Mark’s trademark songwriting talents – strong narrative and straightforward tunes – and stood up well against oldies like Sister Cry, from Hollywood Town Hall, and the pair’s final encore, Over My Shoulder from Mark’s last Jayhawks album, 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass. It had been a friendly, intimate evening and a privilege to be up close to such a fine songwriter.

While I was writing this, I stumbled across one of those serendipitous chains of links that make the online world interesting. I was going to conclude by saying that there’s something about Mark’s demeanour that is self-effacing and modest in a rather un-American way, unlike his long-time partner Gary Louris, who has an easy and confident stage manner… and then I read the Amber Stalker’s blog which quoted my piece about Patti Smith where I talked about “the ingrained British habits of self-deprecation”. This was in his piece about the album Quite Silent by Charlotte Greig – with whom Mark Olson stayed in Wales while writing and making his Salvation Blues album. Circles within circles.

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