Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine – Claire Hamill

Another rainy autumn day, so wet I decided not to go for a run this morning, but to put it off till the afternoon instead. Giving me the time to write about of Island lesser-known folk revival-era artists

The cover of Claire Hamill’s debut album, One House Left Standing, shows the 17-year-old singer sitting on the wheel of some machine or other, while behind her stand dozens of cranes, which, far away though they may be, are plainly enormous. Heavy clouds hang threateningly overhead. It’s a striking image, contemporary and monochrome, the individual and the social context, far removed from the sort of thing one normally would expect to see on the cover of an Island Records folk album from the early 1970s. Island weren’t hugely big on making prominent social statements in their album covers back then.

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Hamill, as we have discussed, was very young when her first record was released. Precocious and talented, but callow (callowness is a bit of a recurring theme with British folk-revival artists). She wore her influences on here sleeves, most obviously Joni Mitchell. She covered Urge for Going, backed by Terry Reid, Simon Kirke from Free, Tetsu Yamauchi and Rabbit Bundrick, on her first album. The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a dead ringer for Clouds-era Joni  (being particularly reminiscent of the atmospheric medievalisms of Tin Angel). Her reading of Urge for Going, commendably ambitious though it is, is hamstrung by her inability to control her voice in its lower registers.

The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is much more successful. Once again, it sees Hamill backed by some heavy-duty talent: John Martyn on guitar and Paul Buckmaster (the arranger most famous for his work with Elton John) on cello. That’s the benefit of having Chris Blackwell produce your album: the access to, and money to hire, the best musicians. As well as Reid, Kirke, Martyn, Rabbit and Buckminster, the album saw contributions from saxophonist Ray Warleigh, who had illuminated Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock the year before, and David Lindley, Kaleidoscope leader and longtime guitarist for Jackson Browne. Seldom will you find an album as full of great instrumental performances as Claire Hamill’s debut.

Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a strong-enough song and performance to justify the input of such stellar musicians. It was not the way of Drake, Martyn, Sandy Denny, Mike Heron or Robin Williamson to include contemporary details in their songs. Probably they were aiming at a timelessness they didn’t feel could be achieved with too many references to what was going on outside their own headspaces. Perhaps they couldn’t see outside themselves, or just weren’t interested, for reasons temperamental, emotional or chemical. The young Hamill did, and while the piling on in The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a little overdone (she was only seventeen, remember!), there’s a bracing streak of social-realism to a verse like this:

When he goes out on a Thursday
That’s the only day he leaves
For his unemployment benefit
And his weekly groceries
And he will never say a word
And if he does he’s never heard

And he’s the man who cannot see tomorrow’s sunshine

Hamill never became a big star, or even an enduring cult on the level of Martyn or Reid. Instead she has a solid reputation among fans of this sort of early-seventies singer-songwriter music, but also among fans of the twin-guitar UK prog band Wishbone Ash, whom she joined as backing vocalist in the early 1980s (around the time recent recruit John Wetton, ex-King Crimson, left the band to form the chart-topping horror show Asia), and devotees of new age music (1986’s Voices was composed of layers of her voice, many of which had been sampled and heavily processed – it sounds like Enya sitting in on a Cocteau Twins b-side). She’s a minor figure compared with Denny, Martyn, Drake, Richard Thompson et al., but worth checking out for the curious.

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Claire Hamill, One House Left Standing, 1971

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Genesis Hall – Fairport Convention

Golly, it’s an early masterpiece of British folk-rock…

Early Fairport Convention is so wet you need to towel down after listening to it. It’s so green it gives you verdirgis. Their path to artistic maturity required them to toughen up and stop being so damn callow, which they never did entirely. Only Fairport could have put their excruciating version of Million Dollar Bash on the same LP as Genesis Hall (Richard Thompson), Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny) and their genuinely groundbreaking reading of A Sailor’s Life.

Unhalfbricking is the album in question. 1969. Two Thompson songs, two Denny songs, a trad/arr., and three Dylan songs, with two more emerging as outtakes on a reissue. Flawed as it is by the godawful Dylan covers (and no, I’m not going to give Si Tu Dois Partir a pass either – sorry, Fairport fans. I’m no Dylan diehard but I don’t hear any of the stuff that made Dylan and the Band’s version of these songs great in any of the Fairport versions), Unhalfbricking stands as their finest album of mostly original songs. Still, it seems strange, looking at the start of their careers and knowing the later songwriting accomplishments of Thompson and Denny, that they ever needed to lean so heavily on another writer’s songbook.

But what is great about Unhalfbricking is great indeed. Undeniably great. All-time great. Who Knows Where the Time Goes was voted the best song ever by Radio 2-listening folk fans, and I’m of no mind to disagree. It’s plainly wonderful. A Sailor’s Life is perhaps the most important performance in the whole of British folk-rock, in which, writes Rob Young in Electric Eden, ‘All the elements that we might associate with English electric folk are switched on.’ Fairport would continue to explore this new sound on Liege & Lief, but nothing is ever as exciting the second time around.

But, for listeners, probably the first time they heard Fairport sound genuinely confident and muscular was not on A Sailor’s Life. It was on album opener Genesis Hall, Richard Thompson’s first masterpiece.

Thompson has explained that the song is about a Drury Lane squat and how his policeman father was one of the squad sent in to evict the squatters. Thompson, seeing ‘both sides of the quarrel’ but naturally sympathising with the squatters, and being appalled at the level of violence used by the police, wrote Genesis Hall in response. A taut waltz, played with vigorous force by drummer Martin Lamble, it’s as chill as a November morning; Denny’s performance of Thompson’s passionate, if somewhat dramatic lyric, achieves its force through its icy calmness.

Lamble was in fantastic form all over Unhalfbricking, and if Who Knows Where the Time Goes was his most emotional performance and A Sailor’s Life his most exploratory (it’s a cliché, but his cymbal washes really are incredibly evocative of the ocean spray), Genesis Hall finds him at his most authoritative. His shocking death in a van accident on the M1 after a show in Birmingham denied us the opportunity to hear him on the Liege & Lief material; his death was a musical as well as personal tragedy for the band. His replacement, the inimitable Dave Mattcks, is himself a fabulous drummer, but he sounds to me like a player who tends to sit back and respond to the dynamics of the rest of the band, whereas Lamble tended to lead them. Certainly no one who’s played Genesis Hall as the drummer in Fairport (a roll-call that also includes Gerry Conway, who I’ve raved about before here) have grabbed the song by the scruff of the neck like Lamble, with his triplet tom-rolls and crisp snare flams. Far more than any song they’d recorded up to 1969, Genesis Hall put the rock into folk-rock.

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Fairport convene on the lawn, probably not during autumn

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some more contemporary acoustic folk rock with  double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine:

Streets of Arklow – Van Morrison

Rained mega-heavily this morning. I worried for a second is was going to get in through the sash windows. The joys of an English autumn! No better time, then, to go on a sodden travelogue with Van the Man.

In 1973, Van Morrison took a holiday in Ireland, having not set foot in either the Republic or his native Northern Ireland since leaving for America after Them broke up in 1967. He had by this time released his early single, Brown Eyed Girl (which to this day is still probably his defining song, tired of it though he, and many of us, may be), he’d made his masterworks Astral Weeks and Moondance, established his critical and commercial reputation in America, gone through a divorce from his first wife Janet Planet and become engaged again, and was fresh off a long tour (which would later yield a live album, Too Late to Stop Now, recorded in Santa Monica, LA and London). So the Irish holiday was a chance to recharge his batteries after a few years of sustained activity. It certainly worked in that degree; he ended up writing the bulk of Veedon Fleece during this period, and began laying down tracks in California a month later.

Beginning with Moondance, Morrison had settled into an idiosyncratic groove, creating a sound that mixed country, gospel and soul with a strong celtic feel in lyrics and instrumentation. But the albums – fine though they are, and sometimes transcendent (check out Listen to the Lion from St Dominic’s Preview for evidence of that) – lacked just a little something of the questing, exploratory jazziness that was the essence of Astral Weeks, with the majority of the tracks being conventionally structured, relatively concise songs built on a rock/R&B rhythm section. Veedon Fleece, then, as a return to the jazz-infused, pastoral and acoustic sound of Astral Weeks, was perhaps a little unexpected, even unwelcome, for those who had come to associate Van with the commercially successful sound that he had been working with since Moondance. Of his peak-era studio records, it’s consequently the least well known, the hardest to find in record shops, and least likely to be heard on the radio.

This is the casual listener’s loss, as Veedon Fleece is a masterpiece, one that feels like an attempt to be Astral Weeks on side one and Moondance on side two, an audacious ambition if ever there was one. Its first side is perhaps the best 25 minutes of music he ever assembled (Fair Play, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man?, Streets of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River), and if it wasn’t for a couple of slightly pedestrian tracks on the second side, Van would have succeeded in his grand plan to bridge the two sides of his creativity in one record. As it is, his first two Warners records remain his essential must-buys, but Veedon Fleece should be on your shopping list ahead of St Dominic’s Preview, His Band and the Street Choir, Hard Nose the Highway and the rather drippy Tupelo Honey.

Veedon Fleece is perfect late-night autumnal listening, its tone accurately captured in the cover photo of Morrison sitting on the grass outside a house in the country near Dublin Bay with two Irish wolfhounds, the grass he’s sat on almost preternaturally green, the sky behind him threatening yet more rain. I picked Streets of Arklow as representative of the album’s sound, tone and lyrical themes, but could have picked anything off side A or one of a few songs on side B. If you’re not familiar with Veedon Fleece, track down a copy.

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Outtake from Veedon Fleece cover shoot, 1975

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some more contemporary acoustic folk rock with  double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine:

Played Out – Peter Bruntnell, featuring Rumer

Forgive me a non-British-Folk-Revival digression. I’ll get back to that good stuff at the weekend.

A few days ago, wasting time on YouTube, I saw a sponsored video come up in the corner. ‘Peter Bruntnell ft. Rumer – Played Out’.

What? The Peter Bruntnell? The Rumer? The Played Out?

Played Out is the highlight of Bruntnell’s 1999 album Normal for Bridgwater. Played Out is 14 years old. Typing that makes me feel pretty old myself. I clicked on the link, watched the video. It’s actually six months old now, but passed me by at the time. It’s a video for a re-recording of the song included on a recent best-of called Retrospective. The video shows Bruntnell, Rumer and band playing the song while sitting in a circle in an empty pub, possibly the same Camden pub I saw Bruntnell play in one Sunday afternoon in 2001, a pub that gave every impression of being Bruntnell’s local.

It’s a nice video, conveying a musicianly comradeship that may be longstanding or may be an invention of the video’s director. I’ve no idea if Bruntnell and Sarah Joyce knew each other previously or if their duet on Played Out is a record-company wheeze to boost Bruntnell’s chances of sales and airplay, but watching them, it doesn’t look or feel like a cynical exercise.

To the song, then. Like, I expect, the majority of Joyce’s fans (among whom I don’t count myself, although she’s got a nice voice), I’d rather the song had been a proper duet, with her taking a verse or two. Granted, that would have changed the meaning of the song, but that’s often what duets do, and the Normal for Bridgwater version (on which Bruntnell has the full-band backing of country-rock outfit Son Volt) is still out there for those who want to hear it. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent version, played with restraint and empathy by a good band, and sung very well by Bruntnell, whose voice has always sounded lived-in but has acquired a greater depth and slightly woodier quality than it had when he first cut this song in 1999. It’s a little slower, more reflective, less mournful, all of which is to the good. I could have done without the vocal processing and see no reason why Joyce’s backing vocals should have been doubled then both tracks panned not-quite-hard-right in the stereo field (narrowing the stereo for the benefit of radio? Really, guys?). But these are minor quibbles, and, without wanting to be too negative, I don’t expect great-sounding records from anyone in 2013.

Bruntnell’s a guy whom I go long periods without listening to, just digging out Normal for Bridgwater every so often and reminding myself of how low-key but very effective his songwriting can be (Bridgwater only comes unstuck when it tries to rock, on Shot From a Spring and Lay Down this Curse). If anyone who hadn’t heard NFB, By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix or Handful of Stars was led to investigate Bruntnell and his old records by the presence of a big name on a single by a little-known singer-songwiter, then the new version of Played Out has done its job as a piece of realia, and as a musical item it needs no extra excuse. Slightly distracting mix decisions aside, it tops even the mighty fine original.

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Peter Bruntnell, still from Played Out video

River Man – Nick Drake

The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival

When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).

If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.

This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.

Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.

Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:

I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.

So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.

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Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine:

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s got even more autumnal since my last post. So let’s get back to it.

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what the Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and the band therefore parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again to form the Albion Band.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s backing of Trevor Lucas, they spent half their time backing a singer and songwriter who had no business performing anywhere but provincial folk clubs. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them a good song to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny went properly solo, partly a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job at Warner Brothers movie studio. From the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album came this track, in which the finest interpreter of folk songs that Britain’s ever produced tackles a country standard flawlessly. Her vocal is a completely authentic country performance, without ever softening her southern English accent.

On Silver Threads, while Jerry Donahue plays some of the most spine-tingling guitar solos ever committed to tape, the track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway. Formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band, Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on ‘four’) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

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Fotheringay, publicity shot

Stormbringer – John and Beverley Martyn

Every year I find the same thing: as the mornings get darker, the days get shorter and the nights colder, only one kind of music really seems to satisfy me. Jazzy folk rock. I want to hear double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums. The perfect autumn music. Here’s the first in a series of posts I’m going to do over the next week or so on some favourite records and artists: expect Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Pentangle, Fotheringay and the like. No apologies for returning again to the music of John Martyn…

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words ‘Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?’ to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, probably a bigger ‘name’ than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to ‘John and Beverley Martyn’.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – ‘When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him’ (White Bicycles, 2006). But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, who was the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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