Category Archives: Music

Double Live Gonzos, part 5: Live – Donny Hathaway

Welcome to the series finale! It’s been fun reconnecting with some old favourites. I’m going to finish with the record I know least well of the bunch. I’ve known it for a mere 18 months. My apologies for keeping you waiting for this: I was ill one weekend, then away the next, so I’ve been scribbling this 20 minutes at a time during lunchbreaks. Anyway, it’s been fun. Maybe I’ll pick five more and do this again next year.

“It’s unlikely any party we ever attend will be as great as that documented on these recordings from two shows,” said Quietus writer Wyndham Wallace discussing Donny Hathaway’s 1972 live album, simply called Live. I’d reserve that particular accolade for Exile on Main Street, which sounds like the greatest party in the world going on in the room next door. Wallace does identify the key to Live, though – its communality. Sentimental I may be, but nothing gets me like music bring people together, and no live album documents that happening more clearly, or more movingly than this.

A 50-minute single-disc album, Live‘s songs were culled from two separate shows: one at the Troubadour in LA in August 1971, and one at the Bitter End in New York two months later. The band was nearly the same for both shows: Fred White (later of Earth, Wind and Fire) on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, Mike Howard on rhythm guitar and Earl DeRouen on congas. Phil Upchurch played lead guitar at the Troubadour, replaced by Cornell Dupree for the Bitter End gig.

The players are superb throughout, especially White and Weeks, and Hathaway is in excellent voice. More interested in singing good songs than in furthering his rep as a writer, he concentrates mainly on material by others, tackling Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. All three of those songs were less than a year old, yet You’ve Got a Friend and What’s Going On are greeted with rapturous applause and screams of recognition from the audience. Clearly they had become classics in a matter of months.

The album begins, audaciously, with What’s Going On. It was a brave move to cover a song of this quality by a singer of Marvin Gaye’s talent, and you might think that, however sturdy the song is as a piece of writing, a live version sung by someone other than Gaye and lacking the strings and horns of the original recording would be just a shadow of the song we all know. It’s a testament to Hathaway and his band that you’d be wrong. He and the band pull it off handsomely.

The power of the Motown sound was simplicity. Other than James Jamerson, the players stuck to simple parts, executed flawlessly. Hathaway and his crew only numbered six players (his electric piano, two guitars, bass, drums and congas), so they all had what any Funk Brother would have considered a luxurious amount of space, and they filled that space wisely. James White plays some expansive drum fills later in the song,  while one of the guitarists (Phil Upchurch?) adds melodic interjections based on the backing vocal arrangement, in call and response with Hathaway’s vocal. Willie Weeks, meanwhile, pays due respect to Jamerson by more or less recreating the great man’s celebrated bass line. No extra stuff necessary.

Towards the end of the song, the band play a jazzy four-chord turnaround. This bit of harmonic playfulness serves as a prelude to the pair of long instrumentals that dominate the album, The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside), on which the band will really show what it can do instrumentally.

The first of them is The Ghetto, which may be familiar to those who don’t know the original track as the hook on Too Short’s 1990 single of the same name.

The live performance, taken just a hair faster than the album cut, is dominated by Hathaway’s Wurlitzer electric piano, but Weeks’s kinetic bass, Mike Howard’s guitar comping and Earl DeRouen’s congas play vital supporting roles, all growing more agitated as the track developments. After Hathaway’s impressive solo ends, he introduces DeRouen, the keys and guitars take a backseat, and DeRouen, Weeks and White take the spotlight. After a couple of minutes, DeRouen and White break it down further, beginning a three-minute break during which the pair play in a Afro-Latin style (I want to say Cuban, but I lack the ear to identify the particular style), before Hathaway, assuming the role of the music teacher, teaches the men and women in the audience two lines he wants them to chant for him: the simple, familiar “the ghetto” for the men, and “talkin’ ’bout the ghetto” for the women. As scholar and Hathaway fan Emily J Lordi points out in her book on the album, Hathaway’s music is full of moments like this, and the very reason that The Ghetto and Everything is Everything (Voices Inside) have words at all is that Hathaway knew how powerful a communal experience they could become in concert.

To skip forward a track (we’ll come back to Hey Girl), Hathaway’s reading of You’ve Got a Friend works in the same way: its power lies in the extent to which the audience becomes part of the performance and enact the very message of the song.

At the chorus, responding to how many people are singing along with him, Hathaway doesn’t sing the melody in the chorus; he steps back after the first four words, lets the audience carry it, enjoys the moment and sings a little harmony and a little counterpoint. He sounds like he’s singing the whole second half of the song through a huge grin. He encourages the audience to carry on singing the title phrase during the outro and , satisfied with what he’s hearing, remarks “this might be a record here”; this despite having been asked by Atlantic not to mention that the shows were being recorded.

Hathaway and Roberta Flack had recorded a duet version of You’ve Got a Friend around the time he played the Troubadour show in October 1971. It was released in May 1971 (the same day as James Taylor’s), and it’s perfectly good, but it doesn’t capture the communality that makes the performance on Live so powerful and life affirming. How could it? Hathaway and Flack were just two people. At the Troubadour on that August night in 1971, Hathaway was joined in song by hundreds, who let him know unequivocally that he had a friend too. What a song, and what a singer.

Hey Girl is the final track from the Troubadour half of the album. If the album has a weak moment, it’s probably this. Hey Girl, a tricky composition by Earl DeRouen full of restless modulations, seems a little gauche in the company of songs by Gaye, King and (later) John Lennon. The modulations, impressive on a music-theory level and played with aplomb by the band, don’t mask the fact that the tune is hard to get a handle on, and the lyric lacks any hook phrases you can hang on to, other than the title. Why it was used and, say, the Bitter End recording of Leon Russell’s A Song For You* wasn’t is a bit of a mystery.

The second half of the album was recorded over several shows at the New York club the Bitter End. Unlike the Troubadour, the Bitter End was a dry venue (no alcohol on the premises), and, posits Cornell Dupree, who took over from Phil Upchurch on lead guitar, this is likely a big reason that the New York audience was rather more restrained than the Troubadour crowd. Nevertheless, Hathaway and his band were again in excellent form.

The first track on this side is Little Ghetto Boy, written by Earl DeRouen and Charles Howard. The song is dominated by its long verses, and has no real chorus, so initially seems as evanescent as Hey Girl, even while Hathaway’s delivery becomes more and more passionate. But when the verses are eventually supplanted by the band singing in unison “Everything has got to get better”, while Hathaway ad libs freely around them, it’s the moment of focus, of catharsis even, that Hey Girl lacked, and so it’s much more successful, both as a song and as a performance.

We’re Still Friends is a heavy 6/8 blues (somewhat akin in feel to Led Zeppelin’s Since I’ve Been Loving You, but a little lighter on its feet), decorated by Dupree’s spine-tingling lead guitar. It’s one of only two tracks on the album on which Hathaway has a writing credit (the other is The Ghetto), which may explain its presence on the album, but it earns its spot through a really strong performance, and a vulnerable vocal from Hathaway that switches mood repeatedly; sometimes the singer’s acknowledgment of this “strange and wonderful” friendship seems straightforwardly celebratory, but at other times it seems a mask for a despair that the singer can’t bring himself to acknowledge.

Jealous Guy, from John Lennon’s Imagine album, had only been out a few weeks when Hathaway and his band tackled it at the Bitter End. It’s a radical reworking of the song, as radical as the reinvention Lennon gave it when he turned Child of Nature (written in Rishikesh while on spiritual retreat) into Jealous Guy, a song of quasi-penitence addressed, as most of his songs were in the 1970s, to Yoko Ono.

Hathaway gives Jealous Guy a slow quarter-note feel with, bizarrely, barrelhouse piano interjections. It shouldn’t work. The effect should be bathetic. It almost is. Yet somehow, the audacity pays off, and it works brilliantly. The only thing I don’t like about the performance is the moment when he sings “I don’t want nobody looking at you”. Lordi praises this as undercutting the hypocrisy of Lennon’s text by exposing it, but to me it’s too obvious a strategy. I feel like it’s clear in Lennon’s recording, and Bryan Ferry’s, that the singer is merely excusing his behaviour rather than truly trying to atone. This tension at the heart of the song is better left implicit. Nonetheless, Hathaway’s vocal performance is impassioned, and the arrangement is wonderfully imaginative.

Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) finishes the album. Although it’s positioned as the closer on the album, and works well there, the full live album from the Bitter End reveals it was actually The Ghetto that closed the set. Nonetheless, it’s a 13-minute soul-jazz party, with four solos from Hathaway, Mike Howard, Cornell Dupree and Willie Weeks (the “baddest bass player in the country”), whose solo is a masterpiece of tension building. Dupree is excellent, too – fluid and lyrical, in contrast to Howard’s tense and rather dissonant passage, full of bent notes on his guitar. At times, Hathaway can be heard, off mic, singing the “I hear voices, I see people” refrain. Perhaps the New York audience was less familiar with him than the LA crowd, but they don’t join in. It’s a bit of a shame, but still, it’s a pretty amazing way to close the album, and reminds us again of the breadth of Hathaway’s musical vision – to label him merely (merely!) a soul singer when he operated at this level as an improviser is absurdly reductive.

Unlike the other live records I’ve written about, this one has made me work. I’m far less familiar with Donny Hathaway than I am with the rest of the artists I’ve written about, and to put what I was hearing in its proper context, I’ve gone through his studio records, his other live albums and read a bunch of articles and books. (That’s part of why this has taken longer than I planned.) I’ve seldom been more glad I’ve put the effort in though. Hathaway, it seems to me, is undervalued as an artist, and often excluded by rock writers and canon-formers in favour of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

Sure, in a hard-headed analysis he maybe didn’t operate at Gaye’s level as a record maker, at Wonder’s level as a writer or Franklin’s level as a sheer vocal force, but still, a music-critic discourse that makes insufficient room to celebrate and analyse the gifts and accomplishments of Donny Hathaway (and if you want proof of that, Lordi’s book is the first and only book on the man) is excluding an artist of rare achievement.

hathaway live

*This would surface on the posthumous 1980 live collection In Performance.

 

 

 

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Double Live Gonzos, part 4: Live at Leeds – John Martyn

John Martyn died on 29 January 2009 – 10 years ago today.

Like much else about its creator, Live at Leeds isn’t what it seems. It’s purportedly a straightforward recording from 13 February 1975 of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and John Stevens playing live in the students’ refectory at Leeds University. Actually, Live at Leeds was (according to Martyn expert John Hillarby’s sleevenotes of the most recent re-release) put together from various live shows across the country from the same tour.

This is not an uncommon practice in the world of live albums. Many is the live record that has received in-studio touch-ups (The Last Waltz among them) or includes a track or two from a different gig to the one the album documents. I have even heard one producer explain how he and a band (he didn’t say who) recorded the audio for the group’s live DVD in the studio due to a malfunction with the equipment on the night of the gig. Using the audio from a handheld camera used for audience shots to guide them, the players replayed their performances, punching in bar by bar to recreate the feel, tempos and articulations of the live show. Compared to that, Live at Leeds is a paragon of honesty.

A single album, containing just six tracks, Live at Leeds had been assembled with Island Records’ help (they supplied the mobile recording truck), but in the end they decided not to release it, feeling the project had limited commercial viability. Anticipating the developments in punk rock by a couple of years, Martyn decided simply to press it up himself and sell 10,000 copies by mail order from his house in Sussex. As well as artist and producer, he became (with his then wife Beverley) record company and distributor. While his judgement was correct in terms of the artistic worth of the record and his fans’ eagerness to hear it, the strain of doing all that work himself led him to require several months off afterwards, during which he went to Jamaica, befriending and collaborating with several local musicians, including Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Live at Leeds begins with a majestic 18-minute reading of Outside In that takes up almost the whole of the first side. They’re different beasts, but this version is the equal of the studio take. Which is to say, it’s up among the best recordings Martyn ever made. I miss the astonishing power of Remi Kabaka’s explosions on the tom-toms (if you don’t know it, check it out to hear what I mean), but John Stevens is a master of creating atmosphere with cymbals and toms. The studio take is warm, molten; the Live at Leeds Outside In is music of vast cosmic spaces.

The listener unfamiliar with Martyn’s work and his technique with the Echoplex will be likely be confounded by how much sound is coming from just three players*. By this stage, Martyn was an Echoplex master, probably the greatest exponent the machine ever had. His searing, distorted lead guitar (played, remember, on a Martin acoustic) more than compensates for the absence of Bobby Keyes’ lyrical saxophone on the original. I do wish I knew what he was singing, though.*

Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most beloved songs, is a thing of aching beauty. Solid Air the album was where Martyn truly honed his instantly recognisable vocal style: slurred, husky, imitative of a tenor saxophone in both timbre and approach to phrasing. After a long opening track that’s all but instrumental, hearing Martyn slide into the opening line of Solid Air is a shivers-down-the-spine moment.

The performance is a stunner. Tristan Fry’s vibraphone, so crucial on the studio recording, is hardly missed; this version is about John Martyn’s voice and the way Danny Thompson supports it with his bass. Stevens keeps to a supporting role, patiently keeping time on the hats, with few flourishes. He was wise enough not to break a delicate spell.

“I tell you what, this is a good’un,” says Martyn before launching into Make No Mistake, another highlight from Inside Out (have I told you how much I love Inside Out? For heaven’s sake, go and listen to it now if you’ve never heard it. It’s strange and so wonderful). Make no Mistake is a vehicle for some of the album’s best improvisation between Martyn and Danny Thompson. After about three minutes of relatively contained playing (though Thompson is nimble and lively throughout), the pair of them just take off, with Martyn playing fast, scalar raga-like lines as Thompson uses the bow to reinforce the Indian feel. The musical chemistry between the pair was something very special indeed.

It segues into Bless the Weather, which the audience recognises from its first two chords. Taken at a brisker tempo than the familiar studio recording, with Stephens playing pattering 16ths, this is a very free version, informed by how far Martyn’s explorations in jazz had taken him in the four short years since Bless the Weather‘s release. “Bless the weather that brought you to me,” Martyn sings, “curse the man that takes you home,” the substitution of “storm” for “man” making plain perhaps what lay behind the metaphor all along.

A little over three minutes in, the players abruptly shift into a slower, more shuffle-based feel, as if reprising Make No Mistake. Stephens dispenses with his 16ths to converse with his snare and toms, and the group end the song with a strong major-chord resolution. “Nice one, Danno!” Martyn calls out over the audience’s applause.

A brief Man in the Station follows, with Stephens’ most rock-influenced playing of the set (conventional boom-tssch, two-and-four stuff that even simpletons like me can manage), while Thompson’s kinetic bass playing fills in all the gaps left by the lack of a lead guitar.

The song is followed by the only sustained bit of on-stage banter (to use a word I’d really rather not have to; there is no other word for it though). Martyn, in cockney-geezer mode** advances the opinion that Ravel’s Balero was written as, how to put it, a soundtrack for intercourse. (The strong language explains the parental advisory sticker that accompanies recent editions of the record.) The jokes don’t stand up massively well to repeat listening, but I do think they’re a worthwhile inclusion; this is what seeing Martyn play was actually like. He and Thompson did spar, verbally and physically***, and there was an aggressive edge to it at times; a live record that excluded that element of the John Martyn live experience would lose something fundamental.

The final song in the set is an 8-minute version of Skip James’s I’d Rather Be the Devil, which Martyn had recorded (brilliantly) for Solid Air. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t get to the same territory as the studio recording. Partly this is down to having fewer instruments, and partly it’s that Stephens isn’t quite the right drummer for the job. Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks, who played on the original, is maybe not the first player who comes to mind when thinking about powerful rock drummers, but he invests those tom fills with plenty of thump, and breaks them up with snare flams, cymbal crashes and hi-hat fills. Stephens has a lighter touch, plays with brushes and sticks mainly to the toms, which lack the low end of Mattacks’. Consequently, the song has a lighter, hoppedy-skippedy kind of feel, at odds with the claustrophic paranoia of Martyn’s vocal.

Disappointing it may be that the gig ends on an unsatisfying note, but Live at Leeds is still absolutely essential for the John Martyn fan, whether casual or deep. The best of it (essentially the first four songs) are incandescently brilliant, the relationship between Thompson and Martyn seemingly telepathic. Martyn’s run of records in the seventies (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday’s Child, Live at Leeds, One World and Grace and Danger) is as good a sequence as anyone else’s in popular music, and Live at Leeds is a vital part of it; I’d recommend it ahead of Sunday’s Child, Bless the Weather and even Grace and Danger.

john martyn

*I’ve got the “precious babies” bit, but what’s the first thing he says? It sounds like “Fillet o’ fish”.

**One of the odd things about Martyn was that he had, essentially, two accents. Sometimes he spoke in gruff Glaswegian, at other times, like a working-class Londoner (despite having been born in New Malden, Surrey). He’d adapt his voice depending on the audience and his location, seldom acknowledging the oddness of the habit.

***The album was originally going to be called Ringside Seat, and a photo shoot was arranged in which Martyn and Thompson were in a boxing ring, in gloves and shorts. Inevitably, they started hitting each other for real.

Double Live Gonzos, part 3: The Last Waltz – The Band

A *triple* live gonzo, no less, and a movie. And if I refer to my 2002 four-CD box set, then its twice the length of the triple-album original. I’ve been thinking hard about what version to work from, and I’ve decided not to do a song-by-song rundown since I’m much more familiar with the expanded edition, and that’s just too long. Instead, I’ll shoot from the hip. Bang it out.

Robbie Robertson had long been comfortable with the idea that he and The Band were a big deal. When he decided that The Band should call it a day (and the jury’s out on whether he had decided they should split or simply stop touring; it does seem as though his assertions that it was the latter were just a fig leaf to cover the former), the idea of a farewell concert seemed obvious. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of booking Winterland, why not invite your all celebrity musician buddies and influences along? And why not get the world’s premier film-maker to come as well, and shoot it on 35mm for posterity? And why not let Bill Graham add a Thanksgiving dinner to the evening, and charge fans over $110 in today’s money to be there?

Don’t get me wrong. I love The Band, and Robertson’s songs, and I’m glad Scorsese was there to capture it all. But yeesh, plenty of bands of comparable stature have settled for smaller gestures when deciding not to go on tour again.

But for all the whiff of self-regard it gave off, The Last Waltz is still a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Not because of how well The Band played, but because they were able to put together a mini Woodstock in their own honour for one night only: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr John and, um, Neil Diamond. The Band were always a group beloved by musicians; plenty were happy to come along and pay their respects.

The Last Waltz, as well as being a concert and a live album documenting that concert, is also a film by Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s, which makes it worth seeing by definition. It is beautifully shot, and edited (by Yeu-Bun Lee and Jan Roblee) with a real eye for the interaction between musicians. Bil Graham felt that the movie failed because it didn’t include the audience. Graham was no film critic. It’s precisely because it’s laser- focused on the musicians that it works so well. If you’re not a musician, watching it will show you a lot about how players on stage function as part of an ensemble. If you are a musician, you’ll see people who do what you do routinely, but raised to an art form.

Now for the inevitable “but”, though. At The Last Waltz, the music wasn’t always that good. “These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job,” said Roger Ebert perceptively, reviewing the movie The Last Waltz in 2002, and he was bang on. By 1976, every member of the band looked older than his years (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robertson were only 33 at the time of the concert; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson was 39), and there was a weariness about some of the performances, even on their final day of labouring.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, so here they are in a big glut to get them out the way:

  • Up On Cripple Creek, which opens the album, had to be sped up to a workable tempo for the film. The version on the album, not sped up, is sluggish and a chore
  • Danko’s voice on It Makes No Difference is thin and wispy, while Manuel’s falsetto on I Shall Be Released is excruciating
  • The guys take a full minute or more to hit the groove when playing Caldonia with Muddy Waters; before that moment, it’s a joke
  • Garth Hudson’s synth sounds are regrettable throughout
  • No one in the audience cared about Bobby Charles, or that he wrote See Ya Later Alligator
  • No one on the stage told Clapton that All Our Past Times is a godawful dirge he couldn’t sing in tune
  • Joni Mitchell’s Furry Sings the Blues is not a rollicking good tune for a celebratory concert
  • Tura Lura Lural?
  • Neil Diamond??

So it’s very far from flawless. But much of it is incandescently good. So let’s talk about those bits.

The movie, in the canniest move the Scorsese made when assembling the film, begins with an abridged version of the encore, The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Don’t You Do It, sung by Levon and Rick. It’s smoking.

Richard Manuel’s voice was a sadly diminished instrument by the time of The Last Waltz (that’s Robertson singing the top harmony on Cripple Creek, not Manuel; in the movie, there’s a shot of Robertson and Danko singing the chorus; Manuel is in the background, playing piano with his mouth firmly shut), but in his lower range he still possessed an exciting, powerful growl. And he seldom sounded more believably desperate singing The Shape I’m In than he did here. The studio cut on Stage Fright sounds mighty tame in comparison.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is almost unbearably poignant, particularly in the movie. Watching Levon Helm once more assuming the identity of Virgil Caine, with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s gorgeous horn arrangement, is the most moving moment of the whole concert.

WS Walcott Medicine Show and, even more so, Ophelia both absolutely cook. Levon was definitely the group’s MVP that night – unlike Danko and Manuel, his voice was strong and rich as ever, and his mixture of grace and power behind the kit on these tunes a marvel.

Halfway through Caldonia (presumably the moment the group realises it’s embarassing itself), the players raise their game and the second half of the song and all of Mannish Boy are dispatched with everyone they have. No one would listen to The Band and mistake them for a great true blues band, but they do a far better job with Mannish Boy than any all-white, 80% Canadian group has any right to.

Coyote and Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell are both excellent, and highlight the band’s adaptability (Helm’s and Robertson’s particularly). Coyote is an incredibly demanding song compared to, say, Who Do You Love (played with old boss Ronnie Hawkins) but the ensemble play it pretty much flawlessly. Ditto Shadows and Light, which on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is arranged for multi-tracked voices and Moog synth. The Band’s ensemble arrangement, which Barney Hoskyns has said was conceived by/with John Simon, was true to their own spirit and that of Joni’s Hejira-era songs.

Van Morrison blasts his way through Caravan, and it’s glorious.

Dylan’s set, though,while obviously the most keenly anticipated moment of the night, is something of a headscratcher.

Dylan let Scorsese film only two songs, worrying that his presence in the movie would take attention away from Renaldo and Clara, his hybrid concert movie/drama filmed during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (hmm, good call, Bob). Watching the songs in question does improve on merely listening to the man and his one-time backing group stumble though them, but still, no one’s finest moment.

My friend Yo Zushi said of The Last Waltz generally, and Dylan’s performance particularly, that “this wasn’t any kind of last waltz, not in some end-of-an-era sense. […] The stark reality is that this was actually just Robbie Robertson’s leaving do. […] Dylan’s (and Young’s) attitudes made it clear that this was an occasion to mark with a good-luck card and some drunken acts people regret the next day.”

Yo’s a little more down on the gig than I am, but I do think he’s hit on what explains Dylan’s sloppy, seemingly drunken, set – much the least together run of songs in the whole concert. Compared to everyone else, even Young (who chose a pair of sombre, Canada-themed songs to perform), Dylan sounds relaxed, goofy, out for a good time. Nothing, Dylan seemed to recognise, could match what these men did in 1965-66 (Planet Waves and Tour ’74 had proven that), so why not just have a little fun?

So that about covers the concert. But there’s the not inconsiderable matter of the Last Waltz Suite – of which two moments rank up with the very finest things The Band ever did. Scorsese filmed two performances by the group on a soundstage, inserting them into the movie in appropriate places: a lovely performance of a new song called Evangeline with Emmylou Harris and a version of The Weight with the Staples.

Assembled because Robertson felt that country and gospel were both under-represented on the set list at the Winterland and the group wanted to pay proper respect to its influences, the two songs are, as I say, masterpieces. Evangeline shows that even at this late stage in The Band’s career, Robertson could still write songs that seemed somehow timeless. At his best, he had a way of connecting with the very essence of America’s folk music forms and placing them in the context of his extraordinarily adaptable rock band (note that pianist Richard Manuel drums, bassist Rick Danko plays fiddle, drummer Levon plays mandolin and organist Garth Hudson plays accordian). Evangeline is his final success with The Band, and all the more poignant because of it.

The Weight is, if anything, even better. It replaces the down-home bar-room piano and acoustic guitar for a smoother, uptown arrangement with organ, grand piano and electric guitar (two in fact), and brings in the Staples, with Mavis taking verse two and Pops verse three. With the Staples on board, The Weight became emblematic of all that was best about The Band, and not just in musical terms. As Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns have noted, this performance emphasises the “community” and “plurality” of The Band’s music: “when the group took the stage with the Staple Singers, they brought together men and women, black and white, young and old, north and south”.

Whether these thoughts occured consciously to those taking part, who can say (though Robertson has always appeared to be aware of his music’s place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I daresay the thought has crossed his mind). But the point is, while the moment may have been premeditated, the power of the effect makes that entirely irrelevant. Hearing – and even more impressively, seeing – Mavis Staples completely lose herself in the song towards its end, ad libbing, clapping and whispering “beautiful” as the echoes of last harmonised “aah” fade away, who could disagree with her?

Ultimately, The Last Waltz is better watched as a movie than listened to as an album. As a document of what became of those Woodstock-era stars, it’s invaluable, and as a way to understand the dynamics and interplay of live performance, there’s nothing that touches it. It looks and sounds great, too. But there’s no denying that The Band were on the downslope by this time, that Richard Manuel’s voice was getting haggard and that his drinking was doing visible damage to his body**, and that, simply, the world of music had moved on and The Band were yesterday’s men.

lastwaltz1

All-star singalong finale: l-r Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (organ), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hudson, Ringo Starr (drums)

*Of course, I do know why Diamond was there: Robbie Robertson produced his Beautiful Noise album, and presumably Robertson, Bill Graham or both felt Diamond would be good box office. But he’s so out of place. It kills me that George Harrison (who championed The Band in the press endlessly) or the Grateful Dead (who played with them at Watkins Glen, Woodstock and the Festival Express tour, and who were back in SF having finished a tour the previous month) weren’t there, while Neil Diamond was.

**Robertson’s rationalisation for ending The Band as a touring unit was that “the road” was so demanding as a way of life that it can kill you. He talks in the film about the “great ones taken by the road” (I may be paraphrasing and that might not be an exact quote, but it’s very much the gist).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t accord with his stance a few years earlier when he had to magic the Moondog Matinee project out of thin air to stop his bandmates killing themselves through drink and drugs in their downtime. What did he think Manuel and Danko would do if no longer part of an active, touring rock group? He must have known that they’d form little pickup bands and go straight back out. Which is what they did. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Robertson, a), just didn’t want to be in The Band any more and, b), if something bad did happen with Richard or Rick, he didn’t want it to happen on his watch.

Farewell, 2018

So the end of another year. I hope you’re all well and have made it to the end of this one unscathed. It’s a worrisome year we’ve got coming up here in the UK; I have a feeling that, more than ever, we’ll have to take our small pleasures where we can find them.

Doing this, not that you’d know it from the infrequency with which I post, is one of mine. I won’t promise to posting more this coming year – it didn’t go well last year. I’ll just see how it goes. But I’d like to thank anyone who reads this blog for keeping patience with me. I know there are some regulars out there, and I’m very grateful to you.

To round off the the year, here a few things I did in 2018 that I liked, if you didn’t catch them first time round.

Thanks again, and a Happy New Year to you!

I’ve Never Heard… Hotel California by the Eagles

I’ve Never Heard… The Wall by Pink Floyd

Long Strange Trip

The Lookout – Laura Veirs

A Love of Your Own – Ned Doheny

Veteran Artists Who Went New Wave

Everybody Knows – The Jayhawks

Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King

Scream for Me, Sarajevo

Double Live Gonzos, Part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

Double Live Gonzos, part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

On 18 November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV’s Unplugged strand. I’ve been meaning to post something about the resulting show/album since I saw someone post something on Facebook about the 25th anniversary of the recording last month. Other writing commitments and general seasonal business got in the way. I decided to write about the record as the first in a series of posts about live albums (all old staples of my record collection).

So here we go, the first of them (which as we shall see isn’t a double album and is generally not very gonzo).

*

They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.

Joel Stillerman, Executive Producer, MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded at Sony Music Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, on 18 November 1993. The show’s production team had been after Nirvana for a while, although quite what they had expected the band to do in such a setting is a little mystifying. Nirvana had included a couple of acoustic songs on Nevermind, but essentially they were a rock band, and an unusually raw and ragged one at that. Whatever it is that MTV producer Alex Coletti had wanted them to do at the outset, Nirvana’s performance turned out to be one of the absolute signature moments of the show. In the annals of MTV Unplugged, it’s Nirvana, Clapton and then everyone else.

The first problem the band had when approaching the show, other than Kurt Cobain’s basic unreliability due to his drug use, was material. That old saw about a song not being a good song if you can’t play it with one acoustic guitar or a piano is actually a vast oversimplification. Would Strawberry Fields Forever sound like Lennon’s best work played on one guitar? Would, say, I Feel Love sound like a classic that needed to be heard over 12 minutes to get the full impact if played by one earnest guitar player? Cobain was a first-rate songwriter, but that didn’t mean that all of his songs sounded their best played on an acoustic guitar and a brushed snare drum. They relied on the intensity of a full-bore rock band to put them in their proper context. Shorn of the power of volume, which of their songs would work?

Something in the Way and Polly from Nevermind were natural fits, of course. As was Dumb from In Utero, and it would have been easy enough for the band to imagine About a Girl being played on acoustic guitars. What else would they do, though? They needed, like, 10 other songs.

In the event, they chose to play acoustic arrangements of a few other Nirvana songs, then filled the rest of the set with works by other songwriters. Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic had always sought to deflect attention away from themselves and on to their peers and influences; it was a big part of how they handled their runaway success, and a very laudable part, too. So naturally, they covered shambling twee-pop duo the Vaselines for the umpteenth time, recorded a song popularised by Lead Belly (a big hero of Cobain’s since Slim Moon had played him Lead Belly’s Last Sessions in the late 1980s), did an obscure David Bowie song (again, a favourite from the early days of the band; this time the man who got Cobain hooked was Chad Channing, Nirvana’s pre-Grohl drummer) and invited their friends the Meat Puppets to sit in with them as they played no fewer than three of the band’s songs.

Having already expanded to a four-piece for the In Utero tour with the addition of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, the band also incorporated cellist Lori Goldston for the Unplugged show. When Curt and Cris Kirkwood sat in on bass and guitar for the three Meat Puppets songs, Goldston and Smear sat out, Cobain put down his guitar and Novoselic moved to play second guitar.*

They began with About a Girl, sounding a little tentative; Cobain’s tempo in the intro is all over the place. As it progresses, the band seem more at ease, and the song, played acoustically rather than electric, sounds more Lennon-esque than ever (despite, or perhaps because of, its bizarre key change from E minor to C# for the chorus).

Come as You Are, enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrates the good and the not-so-good of the band as an acoustic ensemble. Cobain is as committed vocally as he was in any rock show, and Grohl’s adaptation to the acoustic environment is impressive for a legendarily hard-hitting drummer. But Novoselic is often ahead of the beat and Smear, whether by lack of imagination or diktat from Cobain, never explores what different voicings or complementary parts could do for the song. Cobain plays the riff; Smear doubles it. Cobain strums open chords; Smear does too. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s noticeable how arranged the next two songs are in comparison.

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (the Vaselines cover misidentified by Cobain as a rendition of a Christian song) sees Novoselic pick up an accordion (his first instrument) while Grohl plays bass and pedals his hi-hat. Immediately, the sound opens out, and the effect is charming even if the song’s snidiness is not as clever as it thinks it is.

The Man Who Sold the World sees Nirvana stretch the Unplugged format. Cobain refused to play unless he could use his usual Fender amp and effects pedals, so Alex Coletti had the set dressers build a box to disguise the amp and make it look like a monitor wedge. His tone was horrible (the result of playing a rare Martin dreadnought, a D18-E, that came outfitted with two large magnetic pickups. It sounded so bad that Martin ceased production after one year). However, if Cobain hadn’t insisted on using his amp and pedals, we’d not have got the gorgeous arrangement the band put together for The Man Who Sold the World, where Cobain’s guitar and Goldston’s cello merge and become one instrument for around a minute in the outro. As for the reading of the song itself, it’s spellbinding, with one of Cobain’s best vocals. In Bowie’s recording, the jolly organ and the let’s-all-play-our-scales chorus distracted the listener somewhat from the song’s unsettling premise; Nirvana cut right to the heart of it, and there is unease (dread, even) in Cobain’s voice as he sings it.

Next were two songs from In Utero. For my money, of Cobain’s material, Pennyroyal Tea was the only song to fall down in its acoustic incarnation, despite his instruction to the band that he would be playing it by himself (he phrases it as a question – “am I going to do this by myself?” – but it’s clearly not a question). The idea of Cobain doing one of his songs solo, all the audience’s attention on Cobain’s voice and lyrics, sounds great. The problem is that, structurally simple and melodically repetitive, Pennyroyal Tea feels like an unfinished first draft without Dave Grohl’s bombastic drums and vocal harmonies. Dumb fares much better – again, its the extra touches (Grohl’s harmonies and Goldston’s cello) make it sing.

Polly and On a Plain were dispatched without fuss, the latter adding a note or two of levity to the performance with a lyric that contained several in-jokes and an admission from Cobain that he didn’t always know what he was trying to say. Grohl later said that he felt Cobain wanted to bring the Unplugged performance “down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level”. If so, Something in the Way succeeded in this aim. The cello is, again, a nice touch.

The three Meat Puppets songs are all great. I’m a particular fan of Oh Me, which has a gorgeous E major riff and a lovely short lead guitar passage by Curt Kirkwood that’s beautifully phrased and possibly the prettiest moment in the whole set. Kirkwood’s guitar playing is impressive throughout, actually, from the fingerpicking riff to Plateau to the pentatonic lead at the end of Lake of Fire.

Looking at the gig as a whole, the Nirvana songs that work best acoustically for me are About a Girl and All Apologies. I genuinely can’t choose which versions I prefer, the acoustic or album versions. That said, there’s something about the version of All Apologies on Unplugged – it’s so naked and vulnerable, and in the end as Cobain and Grohl sing the mantra “All in all is all we are” in harmony, so weirdly celebratory, it may even beat the In Utero recording, which is probably my favourite song on my favourite Nirvana album.

Which just leaves Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana’s take on Lead Belly’s take on In the Pines. Cobain had history with this song. As we said earlier, he’d been listening to Lead Belly since he was played Lead Belly’s Last Sessions by Slim Moon, founder of the indie label Kill Rock Stars, in the late 1980s while living in Olympia. In Nirvana’s early days, he and Novoselic had a side project with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel playing electric arrangements of old blues songs: they cut their version for Lanegan’s solo debut album, The Winding Sheet, a record that everyone in the band thought was magical and was consciously trying to emulate in their Unplugged set.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is hard to write about now, with so much myth-making surrounding it. Suffice it to say, it’s as breathtaking as everyone says it is. Cobain’s vocal in that final verse is unearthly, his screech on the word “shiver” so hair-raising it seems to bring the whole band to a halt, as if they’ve been shocked into silence by what they’re hearing. The band did no encore. As Cobain protested to Coletti when he tried to talk them into doing another song, there was no way they could top what they’d just done.

MTV Unplugged in New York is not a flawless album. It’s full of mistakes and flubs and missed notes. The arrangements are sometimes simplistic, the guitar tones tinny. It is, though, an incredibly human album. A lot of listeners have no use for live records; why hear a rough approximation of a song’s studio incarnation when you could listen to the real thing? But for fans who do love live records, it’s the humanity that we’re drawn to, I think: the subtleties of real-time reaction between musicians, the knife-edge moments where the performance seems dangerously close to coming apart but doesn’t.

Unplugged in New York is full of those moments, and if you’re of the opinion that Nevermind is too slick to be the real Nirvana and In Utero downplays the band’s melodic side too much (I hold neither of these opinions, by the way), I can easily see how Unplugged could be your favourite Nirvana album. Even without electric instrumentation – the serrated edge of Cobain’s distorted Fender, the thrilling power Grohl brought to the snare drum and cymbals – it genuinely captures the spirit of the band, and remains essential.

unplugged

*The mix for the audio released, by Scott Litt, puts Cobain’s guitar a little off centre to the left and Pat Smear’s about halfway over to the right. Curt Kirkwood plays Smear’s guitar, which Litt turns up for the three songs and brings slightly closer to the centre. Novoselic’s guitar on those is about halfway to the left and tends to come in and out of the mix, plainly audible in some sections and all but absent from others.

Matthew Sweet @ Islington Assembly Hall, 18/12/18

Matthew Sweet had a cold, which was a little unfortunate, but he’d not played in London for a long time (a guy behind us said 20 years, but surely it couldn’t be that long?), so the show had to go on. While he got his disclaimer in early, he actually coped well vocally, and only on one or two songs was his voice noticeably hampered.

His band, made up of long-time drummer Ric Menck, guitarist Jason Victor and bassist Paul Chastain, were as great as you’d hope, and if Victor isn’t quite Richard Lloyd or Robert Quine, he was still damn good, and supplied the sort of pointed, squalling solos that so distinguised Sweet’s work in the early 1990s. The mix was a little off (bass guitar had no definition, at least where I was standing, and, of course, the vocals were too quiet and the cymbals too loud). But seeing as my friend Nick Frater, who was standing in another part of the room, told me that for him the kick/snare mix was poor, which I didn’t feel was the main problem, perhaps the room swallows up different things depending on where you stand.

Sweet has been busy in the last few years, with an album in 2017, Tomorrow Forever, and a release of outtakes, Forever’s Daughter, just dropped. His set contained five songs from the two records, along with one from Sunshine Lies, but otherwise the set was drawn from his classic trilogy of 1990s albums: Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.

Early highlights of the set for me included Byrdgirl, from Sunshine Lies, and Winona, from Girlfriend – a Neil Young-like country-tinged ballad, built on the simplest of chord sequences and rhythms. The original is decorated with gorgeous pedal steel by Greg Leisz, but Jason Victor did a great job on lead guitar of capturing the weeping feel of Leisz’s playing.

Divine Intervention followed and was appreciatively received, but I was more taken with Sweet’s reading of Someone to Pull the Trigger from Altered Beast. While on record the harmonies and sparkling guitars can sometimes sweeten songs that are crushingly despondent, in live performance the song had a rawness that was very affecting.

We’re the Same, from 100% Fun, was the moment where Sweet’s cold got the better of him vocally. The high notes on the recording are a long way up, so Sweet’s decision to sing the chorus an octave down and have Chastain and Victor cover the high parts was a wise one, but even so Sweet struggled with the high notes. It did hamper the song a bit, but colds are colds. We were lucky he was able to sing at all.

You Don’t Love Me, Girlfriend‘s darkest moment, was a little uncomfortable. The recording smoothed some of the song’s rough edges off with piano and pedal steel. In live performance by a four-piece band, it felt much starker, and as the song neared its end and Sweet sang ad libs while Victor played a molten Neil Young-like solo, it was almost too raw.

New song I Belong To You lightened the mood a bit, but what really got everyone up again was a three-song run of early-’90s classics: Girlfriend, I’ve Been Waiting and Sick of Myself, which was absolutely great. I’m a huge fan of the latter song, and have written about it before, so it was a treat to see Sweet and Ric Menck pound out that deathless guitar-and-drum riff.

After Sick of Myself, rather than walk off, Sweet played feedback and divebombed his guitar’s tremolo arm for several minutes, before cueing the band (who did walk off for a while) into The Searcher from Tomorrow Forever.

Maybe it’s because Sick of Myself was an unimprovable end to the show, or maybe I was a bit grumpy because I’m about 15 years past the point of ever wanting to hear another electric guitarist attempt to deafen everyone with feedback (it’s not 1993 anymore and my ears don’t need the unnecessary beating*), but the encore fell a little flat to me. The Searcher was not a song many in the audience knew, and while Evangeline was, and it was inevitable that Sweet would play it, I’d have rather it had been folded into the main set and there had been no encore.

All in all, though, it was a really good gig. At times I missed a little of the light and shade of the recorded arrangements, and felt that if Sweet had swapped his semi-distorted electric for an acoustic on a few songs, it would have changed things up in a nice way, but there’s simply no arguing with songs as good as Sweet’s, or a band as good.

May he come back again, a little sooner next time.

*For the same reason, the next person who wolf-whistles two inches from my earhole had better run.

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.