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Summer Sundae Festival, De Montfort Hall, Leicester, August 14th-16th 2010 (Part 1)

August 19, 2010

June’s Big Session Festival in Leicester has become a firm favourite in our festival calendar, but this year we decided we’d also go to the venue’s bigger and more mainstream festival, Summer Sundae. Astral and I thought it would be a bit more fair on our lads to have some acts that were more their style, although their tastes are clearly far wider than those of most of their friends and acquaintances. And the Premier Inn’s all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet was an irresistible addition to the weekend’s fun.

It was grey and drizzly as we drove into Leicester and before we checked into the hotel, we headed to the Wetherspoons for a cheapo lunch. My handy Summer Sundae app then updated me that the first act that I’d pencilled in to see, Liam Bailey, had cancelled, which meant there was no rush to go and get wristbanded. When we did get in, I headed for the real ale tent and we indulged in yet more award-winning Castle Rock Harvest Pale, Woodforde’s Wherry and Bateman’s Summer Swallow (left), all of them delicious and hoppy session ales.

We saw south-east London folksters Trevor and Hannah-Lou in the bar and wandered next door to the Musician Stage tent to see them play with Danny and the Champions. The tent was half full to start with, but Danny and the gang were received enthusiastically. Danny Wilson (formerly of south London favourites Grand Drive) is clean-shaven and less hairy these days, but he still conducts a gig like a religious revival. Opener Henry The Van, a touching eulogy to a well-loved tour van that has reached the end of its days, has become something of a Champs anthem. It’s the first track on their latest album, the fine Streets Of Our Time, and they followed it with Still Believe, from the first album. The motley band play what looks like a folky collection of instruments, but create quite a big rock sound. They’re often compared to The Boss, but there’s more in there than just the stadium anthemic stuff, though These Days, from the first album, segues into a toe-tapping Dancing In The Dark. Lose These Rags was well received and the crowd seemed to appreciate the band’s enthusiastic and positive outlook. Danny is endearingly romantic in his upbeat demeanour and his belief in music as a purveyor of happiness. Long may he run – unlike poor old Henry the Van.

Astral and I then made for the main stage to catch jangly Scottish band Teenage Fanclub (left), who make some of the sweetest Byrdsian, Big Starian sounds around. I know some people who are huge fans of theirs and I like them, but don’t understand the adoration. They do what they do well, though they sound pretty much as they did when I first saw them at least twenty years ago at the Mean Fiddler. And most of tonight’s songs were from the 90s, too – Can’t Feel My Soul (from 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain), Star Sign (from 1991’s Bandwagonesque), Everything Flows (from their first album, 1990’s A Catholic Education), Sparky’s Dream (Grand Prix, 1995) and The Concept (also from Bandwagonesque). Still, it was good to see them again and hum along.

After a beer-tent interlude, we returned to the Musician Stage tent for Jason and the Scorchers, a perfect band for Friday night. There was a slight chill in the air and the tent wasn’t full, but we were soon warmed up by some good ole Southern cowpunk fun. New numbers Mona Lee, Land Of The Free and Gettin’ Nowhere Fast were joined by oldies but goodies Shop It Around, Absolutely Sweet Marie and the rollicking 200 Proof Lovin‘:
She gives me 200 proof lovin’
Pure as any moonshine
Made down in Tennessee
I get high on her kissin’ and her huggin’
200 proof lovin’ is all the proof I need.

After that, we had a riproaring selection of more oldies – Harvest Moon, White Lies and Broken Whiskey Glass – before they left the stage to a huge roar of approval. Great stuff. Afterwards, I said hello and thanks to ace guitarist Warner Hodges (who I’d seen not only at this year’s Scorchers show in London, but also at the Dan Baird one), who said that Dan was planning to come back to Europe in November, which is nice. It was a great way to round off our first Summer Sundae evening.

Smoke Fairies, The Enterprise, Chalk Farm, London, August 11th 2010

August 18, 2010

This semi-secret Smoke Fairies gig was in the tiny upstairs room of The Enterprise, a Chalk Farm boozer that, as my old friend and compadre for the evening Mick the Banjo moaned, seems to have become part of the tiresomeness that is ‘Camden’. This is not so much the place as a grubby concept that encompasses overpriced teen-tribe clothing, unsmokable ‘legal highs’, squits-inducing street food and gangs of out-of-town youngsters aimlessly milling around wondering where ‘the action’ is. Early evening in The Enterprise can be quite pleasant, though, and we downed a few pints of Adnams Best before heading upstairs.

I was keen to see the support, who was the up-and-coming and highly promising young folk picker Ben Folke Thomas, a Swedish-born stalwart of Andy Hankdog’s Easycome Acoustic Club. He’s a big fella and carries his acoustic guitar much as the bear-like John Martyn did – at least when the latter could stand up, bless him. Ben’s style, though, is older school than John and reminds me more of the sensitive put percusssive picking of the late great Jackson C Frank. If you don’t know Jackson, listen to this:There’s a lot of Leadbelly in Ben’s playing too, and he’s an accomplished singer as well as picker. Dusty Part Of Heaven and Can’t Live That Way are delivered with an easy air, though it’s a brave man who gets up and sings the Southern standard Dixie.

Smoke Fairies took the stage to a big cheer from the packed audience and played pretty much the set I’d seen back in February. It was fine, but the sound was noticeably inferior, which blunted their edge. All the stand-outs were well-delivered, particularly Living With Ghosts, Frozen Heart and Gastown, but they still need to learn a bit of stagecraft. I’m not sure that it’s nerves that makes them appear stand-offish, but the more they play, the more that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll be seeing them again for the album-launch show at Dingwalls next month, so it’ll be interesting to see if they approach that any differently. A good show, then, but one that could have been better… but, hey, that’s OK.

Rachel Harrington with Rod Clements, The Slaughtered Lamb, Clerkenwell, August 9th 2010

August 17, 2010

Rachel Harrington‘s The Bootlegger’s Daughter was one of my favourite records of 2007. It’s a refreshing slice of straightforward country music written, sung and played well. And by country music, I mean music from the countryside – including backwoods, creeks, hollows and all the other weird places of America – rather than the ‘Country’ of Nashville. Her follow-up, City Of Refuge, was equally impressive, but this was the first time I’ve been able to catch up with her live.

Mr P had come with me in a strictly under-age capacity, but I figured a small club playing this sort of music isn’t going to turn away a young guitar-man who’s eager to learn (and musically steal) from good musicians. Thanks, Will… And that’s Mr P’s ‘action’ photo below. Accompanying Rachel on this tour is Lindisfarne veteran Rod Clements, who’s also appeared and played with Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and others over the years. His presence was much appreciated in giving some variety to the evening that, as I’ve mentioned before, can be very difficult to pull off if you’re just a solo singer with a guitar.

The pair started with Karen Kane, from City Of Refuge, and Shoeless Joe, from The Bootlegger’s Daughter. The latter is a well-observed baseball song and pinpoints the traps and snares of fame and fortune:
The boys treated me real good, I can’t complain,
Even when they asked me throw the game.
Did the best I could but let a few get by,
Press lit me up for that, made my Momma cry.
I left the courthouse with my good name
A boy looked up at me, handin’ me my shame,
He said, “Hey Joe say it ain’t so,
Tell me it ain’t true…

That’s definitely one The Baseball Project could add to their excellent repertoire. Next was Mississippi John Hurt’s Louis Collins, a great old song that just reeks of old America. As some one who hates pinning artists down by genres, I was amused to read Hurt’s Wikipedia entry: “Hurt’s influence spanned several music genres including blues, country, bluegrass, folk and contemporary rock and roll.” Given that his earliest ‘hits’ were ragtime, I guess that covers pretty much every popular music genre with the exception of jazz-fusion and hiphop.

Rod then took centre stage for two nice songs of his own, Stamping Ground and Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong, and his warm dobro-playing added a roundedness to the sound and was a perfect complement to Rachel’s guitar and voice. For the next song, though, Rachel sang a cappella – a beautiful rendition of Untitled from The Bootlegger’s Daughter:
The well is deep with water,
The well is deep my son,
The hills of green and lustre,
The glades of gold are spun.
Our prayers are in the seedlings,
Our dreams are in the sun,
To the gates of Eden reaching
Till the harvest moon has come.

We were then treated to a trio of new songs from the album that’s soon to be released – Goodbye Amsterdam, You’ll Do and a gospel number, He Started Building My Mansion In Heaven Today. This last one reflects Rachel’s Oregon upbringing in a ‘right-wing radical Pentecostalist’ family, the bonds of which she hasn’t entirely shaken off, at least musically.

After a beer break (bottled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for me, Coke for Mr P) the pair came back with Sunshine Girl, the song from The Bootlegger’s Daughter that Bob Harris played a lot on his Radio 2 show, for which Rachel was clearly very grateful. Whisperin’ Bob has lots of followers in this country and there are other North American artists whose UK careers have been boosted by Bob – for instance, thanks to Bob, Sam Baker is probably better known here than he is in the USA, with the exception of his native Texas.

Then Rachel sang an intense version of Up The River by Laura Viers, a fellow Oregonian, and we stayed in the Pacific North West with Spokane, off the new record. Rod chipped in with a lighter take on Lindisfarne’s mega-hit Meet Me On The Corner and then the pair played a new one, Here In My Bed, and mentioned that they’d rehearsed before the tour in Rod’s hometown of Rothbury, which had only recently got out of the papers following its Raoul Moat infamy. Scary.

Finally, we got a drinking road-song from Rod, Whiskey Highway, and another new one from Rachel called House Of Cards. They returned for two deserved encores, Under The Big Top, from City Of Refuge and another sing-along gospel number, I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted To This World. It had been a fine evening of old-time Americana with a singer-songwritery twist, and the pair were also genial hosts, with the two of them cracking jokes and Rod teasing Rachel for her ‘Mary Poppins’ fake English accent – which she does very well, I might add.

Rachel’s one of those hard-working musicians who hits the road for most of the year, working the clubs, and recording her own material and releasing it herself. These one- or two-people operations are perfectly sustainable if you’re a good enough musician, but I wonder if it’s the hard work bit that gets most wannabes worried. For too long, the major labels have pampered their stars into thinking they don’t have to do it for themselves, but there are no new major-label stars any more. I have an inkling that we might look back on the current shake-up in the music biz and see it as a good thing rather than a disaster, for now the spotlight is fairly and squarely on the music and the people who make it.

Here are Rachel and Rod from the show singing Karen Kane and Up The River:

The Sixteen Tonnes and Jason McNiff, The Stag’s Head, Hoxton, August 8th 2010

August 10, 2010

Venerable Sunday afternoon club Come Down And Meet The Folks (hosted by Alan Tyler of Rockingbirds fame) used to happen at the Apple Tree near Mount Pleasant. We spent many a fine time there with artists such as Emily Barker, Case Hardin, James Walbourne, Doug Paisley, The Coal Porters and more, and I was disappointed when they moved to out-of-the-way Hoxton. The good news is they’re moving back to the Apple Tree and this gig was the last at the Stag’s Head.

In fact, the pub is shutting, which gave something of a party atmosphere to the proceedings. My first memory of a pub-shutting party was at the Gun Barrels in Selly Oak, Birmingham. This event coincided with the Birmingham premiere of The Last Waltz (so it must have been summer 1978), as I’d been to the cinema with some friends and then took the bus out to Selly Oak to say goodbye to the old pub. When we got there, there were fire engines and police cars, and the road had been blocked off by the sheer numbers of people drinking heavily and making off with ‘memorabilia’. It was subsequently rebuilt in horrible one-storey red brick and is now a student bar and club, full of shotz and vomiting. Apparently, it’s a ‘Scream’ pub (a Mitchells and Butlers brand), which tells you everything.

Anyway, back to sunny Hoxton, where the pub garden was beginning to fill up and the free barbecue was lit. Astral and I enjoyed a couple of pints of Landlord (unusual for a back-street traditional boozer) and then switched to the delicious Dark Star Hophead that was being served in the garden. We then headed inside to see troubadour Jason McNiff (below left), whose brand of Dylan-inflected confessional ‘folk’ appeals very much.

Jason’s still a young man, but he’s busked all over Europe from a young age, and there’s a continental flavour to much of his sound, particularly Italian and East European. This romantic strain was emphasised as he started his set with a Leonard Cohen cover Lover Lover Lover and included another, Lady Midnight, later on. The rest of his set dipped into his four-album back catalogue, with Pilgrim Soul and Delia as highlights, plus a fine song I hadn’t heard before, April Cruel.

The Dylan resemblance has perhaps been overplayed as his sound is more Leonard Cohen, but he’s also a good picker in the 60s style of Davey Graham and a lot of those Transatlantic artists. It would be wrong to think of him as a throwback, though, as his talent gives a timeless edge to his songs.

After saying ‘hi’ to friends G, A and N, we settled down for a rollicking set from Liverpool band The Sixteen Tonnes. The five of them (lead guitar, guitar and vocals, mandolin, bass and drums) squeezed onto the stage and launched into a very entertaining selection of pub-country-rock pop songs – It Makes A Grown Man Cry, You Might Not Know It (But I Do), Heartache, Pale Blue Eyes (no, not that one…), Make My Sorrow Wait, Early Morning Rain and more.

I was amused to see that the lead guitarist was the young red-headed chap I’d last seen crowd-surfing at the Jeff Tweedy solo show at the Union Chapel the other month. Yes, you read that right, but he crowd-surfed at the instigation of the annoying comedian who was inexplicably the support act. Anyway, I complemented the surfer on his moment of glory and he seemed chuffed.

The beer was definitely working its magic by now, and the crowd received The Sixteen Tonnes very enthusiastically. They were great fun and just right for a boozy Sunday afternoon. After they’d finished, I bumped into Ramblin’ Steve from the What’s Cookin’ club and he confirmed that there’ll be no more shows at the Sheep Walk in Leytonstone, which is a shame, but the North Star gigs will continue. As with Come Down And Meet The Folks, it’s a friendly live music pub-club run by an enthusiast and deserves support from London’s gig-goers. Long may they both continue.

The Hamsters, Great British Beer Festival, Earl’s Court, London, August 6th 2010

August 8, 2010

Friday evening at the Great British Beer Festival is a sight to behold. Hundreds of beers and hundreds of people drinking them. Silly hats seem to be de rigueur, as do amusing t-shirts and three or four drunk friends. The Suit, Al the Manc, Nice One (thanks for the photo below), the Piper’s Son and I rose above all that nonsense and concentrated on our beer-tasting duties. I’m pleased to say we performed admirably and had some delicious brews.

The Great British Beer Festival includes live music and tonight’s entertainment was provided by veteran pub-rockers The Hamsters, who specialise in Hendrix and ZZ Top covers, alongside general boogieness in a pub sort of way. I was never going to be in a situation to give a full review – after all, the beer was the priority – so here are my notes in their entirety:

Hamsters, tush, gimme all yr loving, purple haze, all along watchtower, lots of bog standard blues. Silly guitar

Well, if only I could describe every gig in just 18 words, but it’s a fine summary. And my favourite beer? That would be the overall champion, Nottingham’s Castle Rock’s Harvest Pale, a hoppy beer which has a refreshing bite and enough malt to make it interesting – I love hops, but too many modern summer ales have insufficient malt and are very thin. Harvest Pale received an honourable mention from me back in June at the Big Session Festival, so I’m glad the experts agree with me. Cheers!

Mark Kozelek, Union Chapel, Islington, July 29th 2010

July 31, 2010

In the mid-90s, Mark Kozelek‘s band Red House Painters made a name for themselves playing slow, introspective rock. Variously (and horribly) dubbed ‘sadcore’ or ‘shoegazing’, the band in fact stretched those genres’ boundaries, with intelligent lyrics and greater melodic and lyrical variety than most of the bands they were bracketed with. Not that I knew any of this at the time – their career coincided with my ‘baby gap’ years – and I didn’t come across Mark until I heard a couple of his solo AC/DC cover versions. These extraordinary reworkings were eventually collected on Mark’s first solo album, What’s Next To The Moon, in 2001. So extraordinary, in fact, that you really have to listen to Mark’s version of Love At First Feel:And if you don’t know the original, here it is:Up to that point, Mark’s solo work had mostly been covers, but he got together again with some of his Red House Painters colleagues to form Sun Kil Moon and in 2003 they released the impressive Ghosts Of The Great Highway, featuring some mighty Crazy Horse-style jams, heavy workouts and several songs about boxing, including the brilliant Salvador Sanchez. Mark was still recording cover versions, however, and his 2005 Sun Kil Moon album of Modest Mouse covers, Tiny Cities, is excellent.

2008’s April showed a band at the peak of their game, so I was eager to hear Sun Kil Moon’s latest album, Admiral Fell Promises, released a couple of weeks ago. In typically perverse fashion, this is perhaps Mark’s most solo effort, in fact, and features ten songs with Mark on Spanish guitar and vocals. The style has Spanish inflections (apparently he’s been obsessed with Segovia recently), but it’s underpinned by the unmistakable relaxed sound of Mark’s native San Francisco too.

Astral came with me to the gig (partly with the lure of some delicious homemade food in the bar beforehand), but she’s not a big fan. In fact, I don’t know many other fans – although Parky joined us for the gig – as I think a lot of people find Mark’s music rather distant and uninvolving. He comes across as a something of a grump, which is OK by me but which doesn’t commend him to the ‘touchy-feely’ school of singer-songwriting. It does lead to some fun from the stage, however, with Mark perennially haranguing his audience for being boring and male (actually not at this show – the mix was much closer to 50-50 male-female than most gigs I go to). He clearly tries hard to be friendly and nice, but I don’t think it comes easy to him.

This aloofness doesn’t bother me, as I’m not seeking to become personal friends with an artist on stage. It’s one of the most prevalent singer-songriter fallacies to associate the singer with the lyrics and, because of the personal meaning one attaches to the song, to make a personal link between oneself and the artist. I’ve met plenty of people who really think that so-and-so songwriter is one of their greatest friends, only they haven’t met them yet…

The lack of bonhomie and anecdotage actually helps Mark’s shows, though, and when he started off with Ålesund from the new album, I thought how much I enjoy sitting, listening and concentrating on his music. A whole show of solo songs is not an easy trick to pull off, as I mentioned in my Jeff Tweedy review, and I suspect many audiences wouldn’t have the patience for it, even if they liked the sound. It’s not a laidback gig, but concentration and patience is rewarded handsomely.

After two well-sung ‘standards’, Duk Koo Kim and Moorestown, we had three songs from the new album, Half Moon Bay, Third And Seneca and You Are My Sun. The first of these has a personal appeal, as Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, is where I head to in October each year to meet up with fellow ‘Rusties’ (Neil Young nuts) to jam, laugh, drink, sing, chat and enjoy the music before heading off to the International Rust Fest and the wonderful Bridge School Benefit shows.

Mark’s guitar-playing is very accomplished – though it’s never been sloppy and his Segovia fixation has clearly upped his guitar-playing to a very impressive level. Next is another audience favourite, Carry Me Ohio, followed by a lovely rendition of Red House Painters’ Katy Song. The Leaning Tree, from the new record, was equally good and was followed by Australian Winter, another of the globe-trotting songs from that record.

The geographical nature of much of the new work reminds me of Phosphorescent’s recent majestic album Here’s To Taking It Easy, which has a similar vibe of being in the world but not of it, despite its relaxed sound and reflective tone. The last song of the show was Heron Blue, from April, but an enthusiastic audience (who had listened in admirable silence all night) brought him back for three encores – Void, Blue Orchids and abridged rendition of Bay Of Skulls from the new album. To be fair to Mark, he said he hadn’t played it live before, and the song’s closing passage is a bugger, so we’ll forgive him.

I’d enjoyed the evening a lot, though I understand why Mark is something of a minority taste. He doesn’t want to be your friend, his songs are unadorned and he ‘doesn’t do “jolly”‘ as Martin Carthy calls it, but that’s fine by me. Here’s Half Moon Bay from the new album:

Giant Sand and Kristin Hersh, The Barbican Centre, London, July 22nd 2010

July 27, 2010

Disclaimer: this first paragraph contains personal reminiscence concerning Giant Sand (left) and their small part in Astral and me getting together. Don’t worry – it won’t get mushy, but if you want to skip to the gig review, please head for the second paragraph. OK… One of the very first times Astral and I met was at a Giant Sand gig at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. It wasn’t our first date as such (that honour went to the Iggy Pop show at The Forum in August of the same year), but it was a fine evening with, as I recall, that big eight-piece Giant Sand line-up that included soon-to-be Calexico founders John Convertino and Joey Burns, and, I think, Vic Chesnutt too. And any woman who likes Giant Sand has got to be cool, yes? That’s what I thought too, and I was right.

This show at the Barbican was billed as a Giant Sand 25th anniversary special called In Their Own Worlds: Giant Sand featuring Kristin Hersh + Howe Gelb & A Band Of Gypsies. I assumed that it wasn’t Jimi’s Band Of Gypsies, and sure enough the online notes explained that these were a band of Spanish gypsies from Cordoba with whom Howe had recorded his latest album. But first Kristin Hersh. I’d been a huge fan of her band Throwing Muses back in the 80s. Indeed, in 1988 at that same Mean Fiddler in Harlesden mentioned above (which will mean nothing to you if you skipped the first paragraph), I saw Pixies supporting Throwing Muses in a 4AD Records special. One critic described it as, ‘the finest double act since the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill,’ which is distasteful but funny – and quite possibly true. The mainstays of Throwing Muses were Kristin and her half-sister Tanya Donnelly (later of The Breeders and Belly) and their music was somewhat disparagingly called ‘art rock’, but I found it strong and upfront. The two women didn’t pull their punches and many of the songs were candid and painful, though lots of their tunes were also melodic and highly danceable.

For tonight’s proceedings. Kristin took the stage just armed with her acoustic guitar and launched into Gazebo Tree from 1998’s Strange Angels:
I’m better off inside,
Strip and you lose your hide,
Bless my baby eyes,
Don’t you know Jesus died?
Spare me your moon shining
In my rainy gazebo tree…

In my experience, Kristin’s had the curse of the ‘kooky’ label for much of her career and, yes, she is eccentric and her lyrics and songs veer towards the strange, but she’s tough and clear in her vision – and she plays those barre chords on the guitar like a demon. Among one or two newer songs, including Mississippi Kite from her Crooked album, she played the Throwing Muses song City Of The Dead, and Teeth from 1994’s Hips And Makers:
What I said was get me a drink
What – am I supposed to sit
And look at you all night?
All girls cry,
Like I said, I don’t know why.

It was a great performance and left me wanting to hear more from her – it’s been too long.

After she’d left, Howe loped on stage with the current incarnation of Giant Sand and, despite the 25th anniversary blurb, delivered a set of mainly new and unreleased songs, which is very refreshing. They’re still dominated by that dusty desert sound that has been so influential to the modern ‘alt-Western-country’ sound, but as they appear to be so laidback, it’s easy to underestimate how weird some of Howe’s material can be. Along with the relaxed strumming style you might associate with the American southwest, you can also hear little snatches of JJ Cale’s dusty blues, a bit of Tom Waits’ junkyard jazz and even a touch of Captain Beefheart from that far-out sometime desert-dweller Don Van Vliet. The set kicked off with Stranded Pearl from 2008’s ProVisions and we were also treated to the late Vic Chesnutt’s Expiration Day, made popular by Widespread Panic. It was an enjoyable and restrained set, with Howe as the genial and dry host, as ever.

After the beer break, the band returned to provide an atmospheric live backing to Kristin reading from her forthcoming autobiographical reminiscence Paradoxical Undressing. The title refers to the peculiar tendency of some hypothermia sufferers to remove their clothing, making the condition worse. Kristin explained that, for her, it related to her feeling of laying herself bare on stage through her music even though she is, like many performers, shy and not at all confident. Interestingly, a few days after the show, I was watching a repeat of Tony Palmer’s 70s All You Need Is Love TV series and an interview with Janis Joplin’s biographer Myra Friedman, who said that the one overwhelming feeling that she had about Janis was how frightened she was – ‘of everyone and everything’ – which is an extraordinary and thought-provoking thing to say about such an apparently confident and ‘ballsy’ performer. Anyway, Kristin’s readings were funny, insightful and alarming by turns, and the band’s gentle noodlings complemented the readings well. I’ll definitely get the book when it’s published. You can read more about it in this Guardian interview.

The last act of the evening was Howe returning with his gypsy friends from Cordoba for a very enjoyable set of songs in very much the Spanish style. The guitar-playing was excellent and the band added a little oomph to what otherwise would have been a very laidback evening of music. At the end, Kristin came on to join Howe and the band in a fine version of Wayfaring Stranger, and we were treated to two great encores – loud rocker Thin Line Man and gentle song The Last Time. It had been a very entertaining evening and exceeded my expectations – I’ve come to regard many of these multi-star Barbican evenings as forced and lacking in something, but this time Howe, Kristin and the boys did just fine.

PS  This is my 100th blog posting for the year. That’s been a lot of music, but it’s been good. Remember, folks – live music is better…

Tim Eriksen, The Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon, July 20th 2010

July 25, 2010

This gig first came across my radar a few weeks ago when we saw Cath and Phil Tyler at the Leigh Folk Festival. Cath used to be in American ‘punk-folk’ band Cordelia’s Dad, who supported Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo back in the day and whose leader, Tim Eriksen, was coming over to play a gig at the Magpie’s Nest folk club. Having read rave reviews about him as a fiddler, banjo-player, solo traditional singer and self-styled follower of ‘hardcore Americana’, I was keen to hear him sing and play. The Betsey Trotwood used to be inhabited by pissed hacks from The Guardian, but they’ve all either been laid off or relocated to the swanky and unaffordable new Guardian offices at King’s Place, leaving the Betsey in the hands of ale-drinkers and music lovers.

I’d been to the Betsey’s upstairs stage before, but never down into the tiny basement where this gig was taking place. There were about thirty people there, which meant it was packed. I spied Magpie’s Nest maitre d’ Sam Lee and then spotted Sam Beer, ace guitarist and mainstay of fine country-rock band the Treetop Flyers. Just as I was idly pondering whether or not I’d see him, blow me down – there was top young folk singer-songwriter Sam Carter, too. So, there were a trio of Sams, plus I recognised Helene Bradley from the Memory Band and one of the clog-dancing girls from the Demon Barbers too. Believe me, I’m not name-dropping (can you seriously imagine a folkie version of Heat magazine?), but suggesting that a high proportion of this tiny audience were singers and musicians who were keen to see Tim – and probably to steal off him, too, if I know folkies…

Before he took the stage, there were a few floor spots, including an impressive display of jigs from 11-year-old fiddler Billy, but then Tim decided to start his set from the dark at the back of the cellar room rather than on stage, which was inspired. The rather spooky old song Farewell To Old Bedford resounded from the dark behind me and it was clear right away how strong Tim’s voice is:
Farewell to Old Bedford, I’m bound for to leave you
Likewise those pretty girls I nevermore shall see;
My portion is small but I truly confess it
What little I have, it is all my own…
Eight drams a bottle is, and I don’t care for folly,
I play on my fiddle and dance all the time,
My fingers are frozen, My bow it needs rosin,
My soundpost is down, and my bridge it won’t stand

Next was a lovely old song, Friendship, for which Tim played the fiddle. He thanked ‘Ed’ for lending him tonight’s fiddle and banjo, saying that he borrowed instruments on the road instead of taking his own, as it would be too expensive paying for them to travel with him all the time. One of the most telling pieces I’ve read about ‘how to make a living playing music’ starts with the condition: ‘If you are a very materialistic person, skip this article, I don’t think you are going to like what it says.’ Most of the rest is about how not to spend money, given that the well-off musician is – and always has been – a rarity. So here’s Tim Eriksen, sometime professor of music, creator of the Cold Mountain soundtrack and one of the foremost exponents of American old-time song, and he can’t afford to take his instruments with him on the road. Bet they won’t tell you that when you audition to appear on the X Factor.

Tim was complimentary about the sound of Ed’s fiddle and suspected it might have been due to the elastic band holding it together, giving it an authentic ‘rattle’. He claimed that old-time American fiddlers would place the detached rattle from a dead rattlesnake into their instrument to give it a resonant buzz. As Tim admitted, there’s something of the didactic professor about him, but his between-song expositions and explanations were fascinating and to the point, and his enthusiasm and knowledge shone through. The rest of the set comprised all sorts of songs, sacred and profane, many of them from Tim’s home state of Massachusetts. In fact, he’s something of an evangelist for what he calls ‘Northern roots’ – the often forgotten old-time music of New England – and points out, with some justification, that the notion of ‘old-time American music’ can lead one to think only of Appalachia and the South.

There was then a break, during which I bumped into Sam Beer in the gents, who was raving about Tim’s songs and singing. I introduced myself and agreed that there’s something about going to ‘the source’ with these songs, often unaccompanied and with their roots deep in not only European culture but in all likelihood native American and African culture too. After recharging my pint (with some very lovely own-brewed Betsey Bitter), we reconvened downstairs for more songs and tunes. Tim introduced us to his bajo sexto, a Mex-Tex twelve-stringed guitar with a strong bassy sound (that’s it in the photo above left), and led us in a stirring rendition of The Bonny Bay Of Biscay-O. He also sang Golden Harp accompanied by banjo and, not coincidentally, talked about ‘sacred harp’ singing, a compelling collective harmony-singing style which still survives in the States, and ‘shape note’ music, which is a way of arranging and notating music so as to be easily understood even by the ‘non-musical’. He also threw in some evocative overtone singing, which was impressive.

It’s all fascinating stuff and a reminder that the human voice is the most valuable and versatile instrument in the musician’s collection. Recently I’ve subscribed to Jon Boden’s excellent A Folk Song A Day podcast project, in which Jon aims to sing – unaccompanied – a song a day from Midsummer this year through to Midsummer next June. He’s said that he’s not just interested in traditional ‘canonical’ folk songs, but also football chants, old music-hall numbers and popular songs, nursery rhymes, skipping songs and so on. It’s a wonderful project and evolving day-by-day, so go and take a look and have a listen.

I’d had a memorable evening in the hands of a master of song. Tim is a powerful singer, a fine musician and a fascinating story-teller, and hearing him sing and play makes you want to hunt out more songs and stories uncovering that rich background of genuine ‘folk’ music from, well, all over the world. Here he is singing Friendship:

14 Cousins, The Grey Horse, Kingston upon Thames, July 18th 2010

July 20, 2010

There’s no nicer way to waste a Sunday afternoon than by sitting in the Grey Horse in Kingston, sipping beer and listening to some good music. I joined Al the Manc for several pints and a few hours in the company of Peter Bruntnell’s occasional pub band, 14 Cousins, with Andy Winfield on guitar, Mick Clews on drums and Malcolm Hoskins on bass. This is no cheap pick-up band, though – between them, they’ve played with Paul Carrack, Little Sister, Juice On The Loose, Ralph McTell, The Shortlist and many more, so they know their stuff.

We’d seen them in the same place back in March and the setlist was similar, but once they got into the groove, it was a great afternoon (and early evening) of music. Here for our listening pleasure was what we got. And all it cost was a fiver in the jug that was passed round.
First set:
Heart Of Darkness (Sparklehorse)
Albuquerque (Neil Young)
Come Home, Baby (Muddy Waters)
The Heart Of Saturday Night (Tom Waits)
Ohio (Neil Young)
Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)
Since I Met You Baby (Ivory Joe Hunter)
Goin’ Back (Carole King)
Second set:
Inner City Blues (Marvin Gaye)
You Don’t Know Me (Ray Charles)
Tulsa County (The Byrds)
The Girl Of My Best Friend (Elvis Presley)
The Shape I’m In (The Band)
From a Buick 6 (Bob Dylan)
Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young)
Watching The River Flow (Bob Dylan)
My Back Pages (Bob Dylan)
Third set:
What’s Goin’ On (Marvin Gaye)
Jump, Jive And Wail (Louis Prima)
Standing On Shaky Ground (Delbert McClinton)
Into The Mystic (Van Morrison)
Powderfinger (Neil Young)
That Was Your Mother (Paul Simon)
I’m Not That Cat Anymore (Doug Sahm)
Wichita (The Jayhawks)
Cold Turkey (John Lennon)
Encore: Promised Land (Chuck Berry)

As I suggested before, sitting in a pub listening to fine musicians play great songs is better than sitting in a big pricey venue, surrounded by tatty merch and people taking pictures of each other while talking loudly. Give me the pub any time. In fact, I’m seriously thinking about making my own ‘stand’ concerning live music and the cost of concert tickets. Watch this space…

Here’s a video from last November of Peter and the boys playing My Back Pages. It has dodgy sound and the wrong title, but it gives you a good impression of the boozer – with the bonus of the pissed headbanger in the background.
And here, just because it’s one of my all-time favourite songs, is Dusty Springfield singing her unsurpassable version of Goin’ Back.

Black Mountain, The Lexington, Islington, July 13th 2010

July 19, 2010

Vancouver-based band Black Mountain first came to my attention at the Green Man Festival two years ago. I think I’d heard a couple of their songs before then and liked the pounding rock riffs done in a slightly psychedelic vibe, but live at Green Man they were great – very heavy indeed. I immediately bought their latest album, In The Future, and loved it. So I was keen to see them play this intimate pub gig, even though it meant racing across from the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras on my return from sunny Paris. I even handed over a 5 Euro note at the bar instead of a fiver… oops.

The gig sold out ages ago, but there was plenty of room up front, so I parked myself stage centre for support band Dark Horses, a psych-rock outift from Brighton with a heavy edge. They have a real 60s vibe to them, with cool Bridget Riley-style lighting, and the lead singer wears a poncho, for goodness’ sake. She has a great voice, though, and the music’s pleasantly trancey and slightly gothy. There’s also a cool-looking leather-clad dude bashing a big metal can with a chain – he’s called ‘Tommy Chain’, according to their MySpace page. I was half expecting Velvet Underground stage performer Gerard Malanga to join him in a frenzy of whips, but alas no. All good stuff and I must check them out again.

Black Mountain took the stage to a big cheer, but it was apparent fairly quickly that there were guitar amp problems. For a lot of bands, that wouldn’t be a huge problem, but Black Mountain’s guitarist, Stephen McBean, is a maestro with a huge array of effects buttons and pedals, all of them put to brilliant use. The show stopped several times for him to fiddle with the amp, change it for another one and then change back, but it didn’t spoil the evening – in fact, it gave the band a chance to interact with the audience more than perhaps they would have done.

There were a couple of songs from the first album, but the core of the set was comprised of songs from their last album, the excellent In The Future. Queens Will Play was very swirly and psychedelic – sort of Jefferson Airplane meets Motorhead. Co-singer Amber Webber has a fine voice and at times sounds like Siouxsie. In fact, much of the music does, too, at the heavier end of not-quite-goth Banshees. That reminds me, I must dig out the wonderfully over-the-top Banshees live double album Nocturne that used to scare the bejeebers out of friends when I played it in my student days… “I’m your little voodoo dolly!”

The drumming was top-notch as the band launched into the frantic drive of Tyrants‘ opening bars and the song gave the keyboard-player a chance to shine. He has an old Moog, an organ and regular keyboards, and he showed wonderful versatility throughout the set.Tyrants is a slower song than most of the others and has a Floydish vibe, but more Moogy, then a bit of Stairwayish flute, but all with a psychy background and vocal.  And then there’s an almost heavy metal crunch towards the end. Perhaps there’s one change of pace too many in the song, but it’s all done with great flair.

Evil Ways is another keyboard-player’s dream in the style of Jon Lord (of Deep Purple fame). By the way, I wonder if anyone else remembers that Paice, Ashton and Lord movie that used be shown in the late 70s as support for the main feature (that’s if they didn’t show that tedious travelogue short about hang-gliding in the Alps). If memory serves, it was certainly a worthy forerunner to Spinal Tap in its hilarious pomposity…

Angels is another slower song, but with its 90s-esque keyboard and girl/boy harmony in the chorus it reminds me of a heavy version of Suede. The major influences on the band, though, are resolutely at the heavy end of rock – Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Deep Purple and proggier bands such as Focus – but it would be very wrong to think of them as mere copyists. They have very much their own style and sound and the newer songs, from the soon-to-be-released new album, have a bluesier and more sensuous vibe about them than those on the last album. Several times they really hit a fine groove while jamming away.

The mighty Wucan from In The Future features an irresistible riff and a Kashmir-ish drone in the background on the keyboards, but what made it memorable was another amp blow-out, which forced the Moog solo to become extremely extended – to brilliant effect. From hard rock, the sound morphed into a Krautrock jam and finally into a fully blown Kraftwerk episode. I loved it and wonder if they’ll keep this super-extended solo in the set even when there aren’t amp problems. It was then time for the blissed-out and acoustic Stay Free. The gentle rhythm and high vocal reminds me rather of Something In The Air, and it shares that song’s indefinable wistfulness, a nostalgia for something you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s echoey, bucolic and just beautiful. I wouldn’t complain if the band pursued the acoustic route a bit more in the future.

The climax of the show, not surprisingly, was Stormy High, the stand-out track from the last album, with its pounding drums, crunching riff and chanting vocals. It ended what was a great evening from a very fine band. I’ll certainly see more of them in the future. And talking of In The Future, here’s Wucan from that album: