Tag Archives: Emmylou Harris

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.

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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.

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One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

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Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.

Demos revisted – Two versions of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl

Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions

Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.

Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.

Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.

Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.

Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.

The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.

What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.

Welch
This is how they do it.

*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris

Boulder to Birmingham is Emmylou Harris’s shattered – and shattering – response to the death of Gram Parsons, from her solo debut Pieces of the Sky (she had put out a pre-Parsons folk record, Gliding Bird, that had sunk without trace, and so Sky is usually considered her debut proper). Pieces of the Sky features many of the same musicians who had played on Parsons’ GP and Grievous Angel, which I have written about before here. In that post I made a few grouses about the work of the backing band – Elvis Presley’s TCB Band – on those albums. Some of those same guys are present here too (James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Ron Tutt), along with such quality players from the world of country rock as Bernie Leadon, Ben Keith, Billy Payne and Byron Berline. But Harris and producer Brian Ahern pulled much greater performances from the supporting cast than had been evident on Gram’s records, though. With Emmylou leading them, the band do far more than just take care of business. This isn’t showbiz. Instead, there’s a real emotional wallop on this record that I don’t find on the majority of Parsons’ solo material (but do find on the first Burritos record, just in case it seems like I’m being a Gram hater. Parsons was a frequently inspired songwriter, but I think his best recorded work was done with Chris Hillman, not James Burton, regardless of who was the better guitar player).

Harris is a reliable singer and can breathe life into even the flimsiest material (God knows she’d have to do some of that in her time), but when paired with a song of substance, she’s devastating, the keening edge of her voice just cutting right through to the song’s emotional core. But in all her long career, she’s probably never topped this vocal, and as a writer, she’s never topped this song.

The aural integrity of the recording and the quality of the musicianship evident on this record don’t come cheap, though, and Pieces of the Sky was apparently the most expensive country record ever made at the time of its release. Fortunately it was a mainstream hit and began Harris’s successful Nashville career, which lasted until 1995, when, in her late forties and facing diminishing returns in the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill, she released Wrecking Ball and began a second career that straddled the worlds of alternative rock and trad country.

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Gramming – The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons

There are sound reasons why the Eagles are a favourite punching bag for a certain type of music fan. But watching the first two hours of a three-hour (!) documentary film about them last night, I started imagining an alternate reality in which they’d put off making Desperado for a year and instead looked up their old hero Gram Parsons, backing him up they way they’d backed Linda Ronstadt.

Of course, that version of the Eagles contained a former Burrito Brother in Bernie Leadon, the guy who put the most country into the Eagles’ early sound, which may or may not have made that series of happenings more likely. But it’s interesting to imagine what music Parsons might have made with a slick country-rock band. For he never really worked with such an outfit: the Burrito Brothers were anything but slick on their debut album, and dispensing with their roster of little-known session drummers for full-time Michael Clarke for Burrito Deluxe didn’t exactly help them to tighten up. The TCB band on GP and Grievous Angel, meanwhile, well they sure were slick and they sure were country, but rock was quite beyond them.

Which was the point when Parsons hired them, but I’m afraid I’ve never found their work on those two Parsons records completely satisfying. I’m too seldom surprised by anything they do. In contrast, I’m constantly surprised by the Burritos. They throw every idea they have into their arrangements. They lurch through their songs, with spirit and feel prized more highly than precision. Mistakes are made and left in (my favourite is the little cough on Parsons’ (?) vocal in the left channel during the third chorus when he blows the high note (‘she’s telling dirty lies’) and the audible grin with which he sings the rest of the song.

This may sound like corny indie fetishising of the lo-tech and amateurish, but I assure you it goes deeper than that (that’s not really my style nowadays anyhow – I’m a Steely Dan fan). For all that Parsons wanted to make pure country music in 1973, he was a more interesting musician to my mind when he was mixing country up with other forms of music. The R&B influences (present in the song choices, sure, but also in the performances) on Gilded Palace, the Dylanisms, the psychedelic pedal steel guitar (played through Leslie speakers and fuzzboxes) – you add it all up and you get that thing Parsons called ‘Cosmic American Music’. On GP and Grievous Angel you get country music, with slightly chintzy Vegas trimmings, and somehow the band just don’t sound as invested in the songs as they do on Emmylou Harris’s early records, on which their playing is superb: tasteful, but empathetic and soulful too.

I guess I value Gilded Palace more because of it’s staggering/swaggering joie de vivre. It’s full of spirit and the excitement of experimentation, which makes his later work feel a little ossified by comparison. There’s great songs on those two solo records. No one with ears that work could deny Gram and Emmylou harmonising on Love Hurts, I totally understand why people get so excited by $1000 Wedding, and Streets of Baltimore is a great song, well sung. But if I was going to recommend one record to fully convey the Gram Parsons experience to someone who’d never heard him, I’d unhesitatingly point that person in the direction of The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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Flying Burrito Brothers, 1968