Never Any Clapton, Part 3 – Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival

“It’s the economy, stupid”

That’s what political strategist and Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville said when asked what made John Fogerty a great guitar player.*

Economy – that is to say, careful use of resources – is pretty much the defining characteristic of Fogerty’s Creedence-era music. In this, the band was utterly unlike its peers from across the bay (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and so on), who lived to draw things out on stage, to explore their material from every angle over 10, 15, 20 minutes. Creedence on the whole got in and got out again quickly, and Fogerty was disinclined to include anything in a song that didn’t have to be there. OK, the band had their extended moments (most famously the 11-minute recording of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, but  I think the 4-minute edit with only one solo is self-evidently superior), but Fogerty’s songs are largely pared down to the bone: 2- and 3-minute affairs with two verses and three choruses, usually without a middle eight, and an arrangement based on little more than two guitars, bass and drums.

Guitar solos, too, are rarer than you’d think in Creedence’s music, and often they’re just a few bars long. A couple of bars of through-composed melody (semi-chordal or  pentatonic) to provide a change of feel or texture prior to the final verse or chorus.

A key solo in the Fogerty canon, partly because it was from a relatively early single and partly because it’s so illustrative of his style on so many CCR songs, is the solo from Proud Mary.

There’s a little lick that guitarists love. With your index finger, you play a triad on the same fret across the D, G and B strings (that is, the way you play an A chord), then add your middle finger on the one fret up on the B and your ring finger two frets up on the D. This gives you a triad a fourth above your base chord. You can use hammer-ons and pull-offs to give you all kinds of melodies – single note, double stop or triad- based. You can play this lick starting on any fret, so it works in any key. It’s in innumerable Keith Richards riffs. It’s the beginning of Robbie Robertson’s intro to The Weight. It’s the Rebel Rebel riff, the Block Buster riff. It’s everywhere.

Two thirds of the Proud Mary solo is just playing around with these ideas. The key isn’t the notes Fogerty plays, it’s the rhythm of them, especially when he plays melodic ornamentations like that sliding double stop and that delightful little hoppedy-skippedy tune that comprises the second half of the solo. He’s not just playing straight sixteenth notes or eighth notes with no swing or syncopation; Fogerty absorbed too much from Chuck Berry and Little Richard for that. With him, rhythm is always key, whether he’s soloing or not.

CCR

*I jest, of course. I’ve no idea what kind of music Carville is into. But he lives in New Orleans, so maybe he does like a bit of Creedence. After all, no band from California ever sounded more authentically Lousianian than CCR.

 

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Never Any Clapton, Part 2 – Hello by Lionel Richie

I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.

By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louie Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.

The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco).

Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic

He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, I seldom add string bends to my lead playing, as my technique isn’t what it might be even when I switch to a 10-gauge-eqipped electric, so I love hearing a solo that avoids the technique entirely yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.

Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.

In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.

Louie SHelton

*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.

Mark Hollis RIP

Anyone hearing The Party’s Over in 1982 might not have seen it coming, but Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis was a rare thing in pop music: a genuine original. Over the course of five albums, from The Party’s Over to 1991’s Laughing Stock, he guided Talk Talk’s evolution from Duran-aping synth-pop B-leaguers to avant-garde experimentalists.

Throughout it all, Hollis never lost his compositional savvy, even as the structures of the songs became looser and more extended. You can’t write It’s My Life, I Don’t Believe You or Life’s What You Make It and be deaf to the charms of melody. Nevertheless, the Talk Talk that made Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock placed more emphasis on mood, atmosphere and texture than immediately accessible tunes. Consequently, even as their art became more powerful and distinctive, the group began to fade commercially, and found themselves sneeringly dismissed by critics who didn’t like (or in some cases even get) what they were doing.*

Mark Hollis passed away on Monday at the age of 64 after a short illness. Tributes poured in from musicians and fans, a real gamut-running selection, a who’s who of the last 20 years of music. Talk Talk do seem to have inspired a particularly passionate devotion in a lot of people. It’s not just the gorgeous, detailed arrangements and the loving care lavished on instrument sounds by engineer Phill Brown. It’s the vulnerability of Hollis’s voice, I think. An unusual voice – quavery, a little thin, a little forced-sounding, and consequently very human. His voice made more sense the more records the group made: by Spirit of Eden it was impossible to imagine any voice inhabiting those songs but Hollis’s.

After Talk Talk released their final album, Hollis made one solo record (after a gap of seven years), and was then basically done. He wanted to concentrate on being a father and couldn’t do that as a working musician. What an admirable choice to make, and how admirable the resolution he showed in sticking to it. Hollis’s life in music was exemplary in many ways, and perhaps in that way most of all.

RIP, Mark.

*Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock both made the top 40 of the albums chart in the UK, but the group had no hit singles with new material after Life’s What You Make It. So it’s not true to say that SoE and LS sunk without trace, which is an implication I’ve seen a lot over the last few days.

**The 1992 Rolling Stone Albums Guide gave Spirit of Eden precisely one star – “Instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year”

Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

Let’s start with a big one.

Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.

To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.

Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.

It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.

Dust

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.

 

 

 

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.