Tag Archives: live music

More Live Gonzos, part 2: Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Bob Dylan & the Hawks

So much about our reactions to this record – or, at least, my reaction to it, but I suspect yours, too – comes down to its place in the history, the mythology, of rock ‘n’ roll. This is one of those albums where not knowing anything about the circumstances in which it was recorded really does put you at a disadvantage when trying to understand what you’re hearing. So I need to begin by going over some of the context in which Dylan and the Hawks toured. Many of you will know this all already. My apologies. I’ll try to be brief.

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan played a short acoustic set on the Saturday night and decided that he wanted to play electric the next night, with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Alan Lomax – festival organiser, esteemed song collector and son of the even more esteemed song collector John Lomax – had been disparaging about them when introducing them*, angering Dylan and many younger musicians present. Perhaps Dylan just wanted to be provocative. He was certainly that. Dylan and his pick-up band played primitive, barely rehearsed versions of Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and Phantom Engineer. Some cheered, some booed, Lomax was enraged, Pete Seeger said he wanted to cut the power cable with an axe, and Dylan left the stage after three songs, only returning to play It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue after he was practically begged to by Peter Yarrow.

See? So much mythology already, and we’ve not even got to England yet.

Mary Martin was assistant to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. She was born in Toronto, and on her trips back home would head to Yonge Street to watch matinee performances by her favourite band, Levon & the Hawks. They’d previous backed up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, but had struck out on their own, looking to extend themselves. When she heard that Dylan was looking for a band, she recommended the Hawks. Duly impressed, Dylan invited Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm to play with him, bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, and they did a couple of shows together, prior to a full tour: Forest Hills, the Hollywood Bowl. Soon, Bob got to know the rest of the Hawks, then took them all on the road when Kooper and Brooks dropped out of the tour after two shows, citing safety concerns.

The gigs were stressful, with Dylan’s electric music not always going down well with audiences. Helm was soon out, too. He later said it was the only time he found he couldn’t follow his own maxim and whistle while he worked. It was one thing to be booed at home, he told Richard Manuel. Quite another to go thousands of miles from home just to be booed there, too. He was replaced by Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff and then Mickey Jones.

Jones was an interesting fit for Dylan. Formerly Trini Lopez’s drummer, Jones had a degree in business administration, was pudgy and not all that hip: a slightly oafish guy with a slightly oafish style behind the drum kit. Compared to the graceful Levon Helm, Jones played like a caveman. Yet, for the increasingly cantankerous Dylan, fed up with booing crowds and keen to just drown them out with sheer noise, Jones was perfect. So what if he only had two drum fills in his locker? He hit hard and played them with authority. Dylan and a band that was no longer really the Hawks (and certainly wasn’t yet the Band) went to Europe.

The gigs there were a mixed bag. Some towns seemed more receptive to Dylan’s electric music than others. Legend long had it – a legend kept alive for decades by bootleggers – that everything came to a head on the final night of the tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where, near the close of a particularly spirited and aggressive electric set, someone in the audience called Dylan “Judas”, and Dylan responded with a furious Like a Rolling Stone – the last song of the last night of the tour. Mike drop.

As I keep saying, so much myth. The incident did happen, but earlier in the tour, in Manchester, at the Free Trade Hall. (Audio of the Royal Albert Hall show does exist; by then, Dylan and the Hawks sound tired. Some of the aggression has gone from the music, and Dylan struggles to hit notes).

In 1998, the Manchester gig – long bootlegged – was released officially by EMI as Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. And that, finally, is what we’ll be talking about today.

Like all the shows on the tour, the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig was split into two sets. The first was played by Dylan alone, just guitar, voice and harmonica, the second with the Hawks: Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass and Mickey Jones on drums.

Two albums and five singles since Dylan started incorporating electric instruments and full-band arrangements into his recorded music, it seems unlikely that audience members would have expected The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Oxford Town or even something like It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which while fitting in to Dylan’s protest-song oeurve is full of subjective, poetic imagery. But, if anyone had been expecting those songs, they’d have been disappointed – even by his acoustic set. Dylan played seven songs, of which three were from the still-to-be-released Blonde on Blonde. Most were solo renditions of songs whose studio recordings featured a band. All were deeply personal, gnomic and surreal – songs that defied any imposition on them of a narrative. As much as he would during the electric set, Dylan pleased himself when playing acoustic.

There’s an uncanny quality to Dylan’s performances throughout the acoustic set: his voice is slurred, thick, tired, as if in slow motion compared to his guitar. His harmonica playing is something else again: riveting, filled with tension and melodic surprises. It’s consistently the best thing about the acoustic set in Manchester. He does a creditable job on all the songs (the idea, raised by Robert Christgau and some others that, in Christgau’s words, “the folk set stinks” is nonsense on two fronts; it’s not folk, and it doesn’t stink), but inevitably songs like Visions of Johanna feel like preparatory sketches compared to the oil-painting masterpieces that are the recorded versions.

So the folk purists (we’ll come back to them) wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted from either half of the show. At no point in any of these songs does Dylan make any political point other than assert his right to perceive his world his way. What, then, was different about the acoustic set, other than the method of presentation gesturing at folk/protest? Why was that half of the gig received equitably enough, but not the second? And anyway, isn’t asserting the validity of your own perception a form of protest?

Dylan reappeared for the second half of the concert with the Hawks, and after tuning up, the band kicked into Tell Me, Momma – a song that Dylan never recorded in the studio and that never reappeared in his set after the 1966 tour.

On this song, Mickey Jones could almost pass as Levon Helm – all cantering kick drum and triplet fills. Dylan sounds like a different person to the world-weary soul who’d trudged through the acoustic set: listen to him deliver the “ohhhh” that begins the third verse: he sounds ready to helicopter off into the rafters. Robertson’s lead lines are, of course, at the fore, but Hudson, Danko and Manuel are doing great support work, too (a note for fans of Manuel’s underrated soul- and R&B-inflected piano: this is one of the few songs where he’s particularly audible).

The audience don’t sound delighted by the performance, but there’s no booing or slow handclaps either. Which makes Dylan’s drawled – and clearly pre-rehearsed – intro to the next song (“This is called I Don’t Believe You. It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”) sound like a provocation. If he had been aggrieved at the response his new music drew from some quarters, he didn’t always help himself with his on-stage demeanour.

Originally one of my favourites, this performance is one I’ve come to feel differently about over the years. Yeah, there’s a power to Dylan’s vocal (this is the Dylan of a thousand parodies: hitting the last word of every line ludicrously hard, seemingly making his mind up about which note to go for at the very last second), and the band, particularly Danko, rock viciously hard. But nowadays, even given the undeniable vigour, I find that Dylan’s squalling harmonica gets wearying, particularly as he plays over Robertson constantly. And something about the song has paled for me. Perhaps it’s just not that strong as a piece of writing. As theatre, though, it’s quite something, and Dylan’s delivery is incredibly intense. He was clearly working through something with the song: with one obvious exception that we’ll come to, no other song in the set has the same level of spit and vitriol.

The first wave of slow handclaps break out after this song, so perhaps the audience could feel Dylan’s hostility and decided to feed it back to him. While the set was likely preplanned, Dylan’s electric adaptation of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, the traditional song he’d recorded on his first album, once again seemed to be making a point. It’s pretty great, though. Robertson gets to do something other than claw angular noise out of his guitar, and Manuel’s solo (his only one of the whole gig) has some very cool R&B licks in it.

An excellent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues follows. Danko is, again, crucial and his rumbling bass underpins the whole thing as Dylan’s at-the-end-of-my-rope vocal (the shudder he injects into “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot” is goosebump stuff) and turns the R&B-flavoured Highway 61 Revisited cut into something desperate and sick-sounding.

Afterwards, someone in the audience shouts something as Dylan begins to introduce the next song, and a slow handclap breaks out but just as quickly dies away again, but there’s clearly some disquiet: hecklers call things out (none of which I can hear quite clearly enough to identify) and others seem to answer them in disagreement. Eventually someone says something that raises a large cheer and a fast handclap, but Dylan and the Hawks just roll over them with what must surely be the best version ever of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; so alive, so powerful, so funny – it makes the Blonde on Blonde recording sound like it was played on toy instruments by a group of matchstick men.

On One Too Many Mornings, I find myself wishing for a subtler drummer than Mickey Jones, but it’s nice to hear Danko harmonising with Dylan on the word “behind” at the end of each chorus (the only backing vocal in the whole gig, I think, unless I’ve missed one). Ultimately, though, One Too Many Mornings sounds a bit insubstantial in the company of the Tom Thumb’s Blues, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, et al. Many have speculated that Dylan included it because the line “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” could be repurposed as another comment on his going-electric controversy. Could well be, but speculating on the motivations of someone as mercurial (and, it should be said, as drug addled) as mid-1960s Bob Dylan is a fool’s game.

Again, the slow handclaps break out after the song finishes, and what sure sounds like abuse and invective is hurled at the stage. Which is when Dylan sat down at the piano to play Ballad of a Thin Man – his “furious, sneering, dressing-down of a hapless bourgeois intruder into the hipster world of freaks and weirdoes” (to borrow Andy Gill’s useful phrase).

It is, as drummer Bobby Gregg commented to Dylan, a nasty song, and this is a particularly nasty version of it, especially as Dylan’s piano mike is, for whatever reason, a lot quieter than his front-of-stage mike, especially in the opening verse. The buried vocal only seems to make it more vicious. Mickey Jones gives the drums a ferocious pounding – those snare flams before the start of the second verse just leap out of the speakers – and Garth Hudson provides creepy-as-hell organ commentaries on Dylan’s bizarre scenarios. It’s possible that Hudson never played better; this is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.

Then somebody shouts “Judas” at Dylan.

This moment, one heckle near the end of the gig, is as much as anything the reason why we’re still listening to it nearly 55 years after it happened: one comment from an angry, disillusioned fan that hit Dylan particularly hard.

Obvious things first. Dylan is Jewish. The majority of his fans presumably knew that. His real name was common knowledge. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus has been used for centuries by antisemitic Christians to justify their bigotry. It still is; Mel Gibson, unforgiveably rehabilitated by Hollywood, provides only the most famous recent example of Catholic anti-Jewish bigotry.

To have called Dylan a traitor would have been one thing; to call him a traitor in such a racially aggravated fashion was something else again, and Dylan’s hurt and anger is palpable. If we assume the best of the man in question – that he wasn’t actually trying to be racist – it was still a colossally stupid thing to say, and the fury of the following version of Like a Rolling Stone is completely understandable, and to the extent that Dylan’s ire is aimed at this one man, it’s deserved.**

Anyhow, Dylan is so stung that after replying “I don’t believe you” (the amount of time he spends delivering the word “believe” suggests he really doesn’t; this isn’t Dylan going for rhetorical effect), it takes him another 10 seconds or so to deliver a riposte. All he can manage – this man, so famously quick and biting in his wit – is “You’re a liar”. After which, he tells the Hawks to “play fucking loud”, and they do.

Probably no rock group had played louder at that point, in Britain at least. Cordwell’s contention in later life was that the volume was what bothered him. Dylan and the Hawks were so loud you couldn’t hear the words, and for a folkie, that was an unforgiveable transgression. He also contends that the sound in the room was nothing like as clear as the recording taken from the mixing desk. These are both plausible arguments, not that that excuses the language used to express his displeasure.

If Dylan did break the fragile covenant that exists between folk musician and audience (musician is not a performer or a star; musician is not separate to or more important than the audience; musician is merely servant of the song, etc.) by plugging in and turning up, this is the moment where there’s no going back. Righteously furious, the version of Like a Rolling Stone that followed the “Judas” incident threatens to come apart all the way through. Dylan doesn’t so much sing as yell. Mickey Jones plays the same violent eight-stroke (or sometimes 16-stroke) snare fill at the end of nearly every line of the song and hits his cymbals so hard it’s a miracle they survived the assault. It has none of the R&B underpinnings of the studio cut. It’s just a solid block of force; heavy metal avant la lettre. If you’re not into it, it’s completely intolerable. It’s magnificent, it’s righteous but it’s also a line being crossed.

When I first heard this record, I was completely gobsmacked by it. I’d heard nothing as intense. I listened to it over and over for months. But of course, the music derives a large part of its power from the context – the myth – that surrounds it, and once that’s familiar and taken for granted, some of that power does dissipate, and it’s a hard recording to fit into your life unless you’re going to it wanting to engage in the mythology surrounding it. Really, part of the reason I chose it for this series was to see if writing about it made me engage with all the extra-musical stuff the way I did when I first heard it.

To my surprise, it did. It made me recall how I felt hearing it at 21, a budding Dylan fanatic, eagerly on the side of questing, visionary Dylan against those unimaginative dullard folkies. Later I became a dullard folkie myself, and began to understand the reservations that some of them had about his electric music and the sinister aspect of crushing resistance to it with sheer brute volume.

While it’s obviously an important record – much more so than many of his studio albums – it’s not one about which I feel unambiguously positive. It doesn’t showcase the best of the Hawks, it’s not subtle, or warm, or friendly, or communitarian. There’s always a nihilistic edge to Dylan’s absurdity that’s juvenile when it’s not just silly. But for all that, its power is undeniable. The effect of Dylan’s collapsing the walls between pop and folk echoes down the decades, and can still be felt today.

bob_dylan_free_trade_hall_electric_judas_manchester_0
Dylan on stage in Manchester (l-r Rick Danko, Dylan, Mickey Jones, Robbie Robertson)

*In Maria Muldaur’s telling, Lomax “introduced the Butterfield band as a group that was purely imitative, asking ‘would we put up with it anyway?’ or something to that effect”. Others, including Joe Boyd, who was working the festival, said Lomax referenced the great blues music that the audience had already heard that day, then said something like “let’s see if these boys can play this hardware at all”, referencing the amplification that was anathema to him and many other folk-blues purists.

**Who was the man? The likeliest subject appears to be John Cordwell, then a trainee teacher living in Manchester, but Keith Butler also claimed to have been the heckler. Butler was shown in Eat the Document, having walked out of the gig, telling a reporter: “Any pop group could do this rubbish. It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting. He’s a traitor.”

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.

Lo Moon @ Omeara, 23/05/18

Like everyone else when they first hear Lo Moon, my response was incredulity. How had Talk Talk or Mark Hollis’s lawyer not issued a copyright-infringement suit against the band, or at least against singer Matt Lowell’s vocal cords? As absurd as Lowell’s similarity to Hollis is, though, I found that I liked the music anyway, and Real Love and This Is It became part of my regular listening.

The other day I got round to checking out the whole of the group’s self-titled debut album, so I’d be prepared for their debut London show, which took place at Omeara last night. The album is, I think, a qualified success. It’s worryingly top heavy (ten songs long, and with only Real Love really bolstering the back half), but there’s still five or six excellent tracks on there. The album has been impressively produced by Chris Walla and Francois Tetaz, and mixed by the reliably great Michael Brauer, so it sounds first rate, too.

The mix of prominent drums, icy synths and reverb-drenched guitars is, of course, hugely ’80s-tastic, and in serious debt to Colour of Spring-era Talk Talk and Songs from the Big Chair-era Tears for Fears; there’s not much here you haven’t heard other artists do first. But Lo Moon basically get away with it – partly because the best stuff (Real Love, This is It, Loveless, Thorns and Do the Right Thing) is too good for it to really matter how obviously it apes its influences, but also because there’s something so guileless about Lo Moon’s borrowing that it’s hard to hold it against them. It’s not like they’re jumping on an already established Talk Talk bandwagon here, although possibly they’re unknowingly creating one.

So last night I went with Sara and fellow copy editor Nick to see them at Omeara, the first show of a 2-night stand at at the venue. We arrived just in time for Lo Moon to come on and, while the gig was listed as sold out on the venue website, the room didn’t feel quite full – a few no-shows maybe, but a solid turn-out. Thankfully, the sound mix was clear and lucid, unlike last time I went there, where the sound problems clearly put the band off.

Live, the band are very impressive. Matt Lowell seems a little awkward between songs, but he hits all the high notes cleanly and swaps between guitar and piano adeptly. Guitarist Sam Stewart (son of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, but we won’t hold his dad’s music against him) works mainly in texture, since his melodic parts are so simple, and he does it very well. He and bassist Crisanta Baker did an excellent job of recreating the recorded arrangements by playing extra synth parts and triggering stuff – few young bands have their stage sound figured out so smartly or split the load between themselves so efficiently. There are no passengers in Lo Moon.

That includes touring drummer Stirling Laws, who was commanding from behind the kit. I don’t know whether he played drums on the album, but he played those (very astutely arranged) drum parts flawlessly: he balanced the kit well, provided an authoritative backbeat and his right foot socked home, whether it was the simple 4/4 of Real Love or the swung, syncopated kick pattern of Loveless. The latter song also features mighty triplet floor-tom rolls in the chrous, and Laws pounded them out with real power and verve.

A young band touring their first album necessarily can’t play a long set, which turned out to their advantage. In the longer term, Lo Moon might need to vary their palette a little to keep audiences with them for 90 minutes or more, since so many of their songs are long and mid-tempo. But their current live show is impressive for a band that’s still developing.

Spoon @ the 100 Club, 27/02/17

Over more 20 years and eight studio albums, with another about to drop, Spoon have been a marvel of consistency. There’s not a weak record in their discography, not even the by-their-standards callow debut, Telephono (which leaned heavily on a Pixies influence long since outgrown). Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction, the group’s mid-career masterpieces, are as good as indie rock has gotten in the band’s lifetime. They’re one of my favourite bands, but I caught on late, and still rue the fact that I never got to see them on their way up, at small venues where I could all but reach out and touch the band.

Oh yeah, until Monday night, when I saw them play at the 100 Club in London.

For the unfamiliar, the 100 Club is a semi-legendary basement venue in an unlikely location on the north side of Oxford Street. Wrong, because it belongs by temperament on the other side of the road, in Soho. To get to it, you have to enter what looks like an office building, dodging the tourists and shoppers as you go. It’s a low room, wider than it is long, with bars at either end of the room, well away from the stage (what a joy not to have your enjoyment of the gig affected by the noise from the bar). The crowd in front of the stage can only be maybe 10 people deep. It’s not the perfect rock venue (the pillar right in front of the stage is not ideal), but it’s a pretty damn good one, and the smallest place Spoon have played in the UK in many a year.

The band were warming up for a tour that begins in the US in a week or two and returns to Europe in the early summer, when I’ll be seeing them from the balcony of the Kentish Town Forum. I like watching bands from the balcony – you can see more, and I love watching drummers from an elevated angle. But if you can’t be up high, the next best thing is to be up close, and at the 100 Club, I was really close.

Spoon were superb, and could as easily have been midway through a tour than warming up for it. It’s sometimes said that the hallmark of someone who’s really good at something is that they make it look really easy. I don’t know if it’s always true but I’d lean towards maybe not on Monday’s evidence.

I watched the band members carefully through the set, looking for the cues they were giving each other; the eye contact and little gestures, sometimes even shouted instructions. What was clear was how hard they all worked, all the way through; there are no passengers. All five men break into a sweat within a few songs, but even given the high work rate of all involved, some contributions stood out. Alex Fischel, who plays guitar, keyboards and percussion, conspicuously worked his arse off all night. Jim Eno – possibly the world’s greatest drummer – hits the drums a lot harder than I perceived from the balcony at Shepherd’s Bush. Finally, Britt Daniel – by most accounts a quiet and focused individual offstage – is a charismatic frontman and a well-practised engager of audiences. He held the audience in the palm of his hand, and his voice, hoarse and congested-sounding though it is, is capable of surprising purity and vulnerability on quieter songs.

The new songs – Hot Thoughts and Can I Sit Next to You plus two others I didn’t know, sounded great, just as good as anything they’ve done before, so I’m pretty excited about the prospect of a new album and another London show in the next few months. God bless Spoon. May they live another 20 years.

spoon

*On penultimate song My Mathematical Mind, the cymbal-crashing finale of the song was rawly, viscerally thrilling. Eno so rarely draws attention to himself in his playing that when he does it’s a proper treat.

Happenings

Hi everyone.

One of my many projects at the moment is kicking the songs I’ve been working on into finished shape and determining the tracklisting for the album I’ve been trying to make over the last couple of years.

I’ve finally determined a pool of 15 songs, which I’m now trying to cut down to a final 10, with the others to be used as B-sides for singles or EP tracks. It’s a slow process for me as I’ve never done an actual physical release before, and want to take the time to get it right, and I was inspired to really take the time to do it well after seeing how well my friend James McKean’s record No Peace for the Wicked, came out: it’s brilliantly sequenced, and the artwork is also amazing.

In the meantime, I continue to write, and help Melanie and Yo bring their own projects (a second EP and a new album respectively) to completion.

On Sunday 21 August I’ll be playing solo at The Gladstone Arms in Borough, London (probably my favourite venue in the city, so I’m thrilled about finally doing a solo show there), and on Sunday 18 September I’ll be playing the Acoustic Folk Highway night at the Harrison near King’s Cross.

So there’s lots going on as ever. If you’re interested in hearing some of the completed mixes for the album, you can find them in the embedded Soundcloud player below:

The Posies @ the 100 Club, 06/04/15

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be among the lucky souls who saw Jon Auer play at the Islington, a gig that is probably among the best half-dozen or so I’ve ever been to. It made me reconnect with his music in a big way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years listening to, not just his music, but power pop-type stuff generally.

As a teenager I was really into the idea of bands that mixed “proper” songwriting (meaning, I guess, Beatles-derived chord changes) and vocal harmonies with loud guitars and prominent drums, and the Posies did that as well as anyone since their illustrious forefathers Big Star (so well that Auer and fellow founding Posie Ken Stringfellow became members of the reconstitued Big Star, though if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know that). But that Jon Auer show got me really excited by the possibilities of that kind of music again, so seeing the Posies when they came through London again was hard to turn down.

The press photos that I’d seen used to promote the tour only showed Auer and Stringfellow, so I was half expecting a duo show. Instead it was Jon and Ken with drummer Frankie Siragusa, an LA-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. No bassist, but lots of parts being triggered by Stringfellow from his keyboards (and possibly pedals – I couldn’t see his feet from where I was).

Auer and Stringfellow seem hugely excited by playing with Siragusa, and sure enough, the dude can drum. He’s a bit of a monster, in fact. Unfortunately the mix privileged his playing over everything else, making it hard to hear the guitars and at times even the vocals (the songs where Siragusa kept time on the hats were OK; the ride cymbal was pain-threshold volume, though), which made it a little tricky to follow all the details of the new songs the guys are playing on the tour.*

Even amid the clang of cymbals, the quality of the new songs – and the evolution they represent for the band – was clear. Auer’s Unlikely Places, built on top of a robotic single-note riff, was an early highlight; single Squirrel vs Snake mixed a ’60s bubblegum melody with clever wordplay, and took on greater force than its studio counterpart; The Plague (for which they were joined by singer Gizelle Smith) welded together several hugely different sections into a seamless whole; and The Sound of Clouds was pensive, near-weightless and utterly lovely. All are in their different ways unlike anything they’ve done before.

The older songs were great, too, even without a bass player. Dream All Day got an early airing, Throwaway and Please Return It (two old favourites of mine, and the former a new favourite for Mel) were paired in the middle of the set, and Burn & Shine was a showcase for Siragusa’s fine drumming. He pretty much aced what must have been a hugely demanding song to be playing nearly 90 minutes into a set that had already thrown him some challenging material.

My favourite on the night, though, was The Glitter Prize, from 2010’s Blood/Candy, another song with Gizelle Smith guesting. The 3-part harmonies were glorious, and sent me scurrying off to iTunes to pick up an album I hadn’t got round to yet. The recorded version is superb, too. Its mid-tempo 4/4 groove puts me somewhat in mind of Fleetwood Mac, as does the mix of male and female harmonies – co-writer Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) also sang on the track. It’s an unusual sound for the Posies, who normally rely purely on the Auer/Stringfellow vocal blend.

I’d seen the Posies from far away at the Reading Festival, and I’d seen Auer close up at the Islington, so yesterday I payed particular attention to what Ken Stringfellow was doing. He’s a quite terrific singer, able to push his voice into screamy rock territory, sing full-throated top-line harmonies à la Graham Nash and dial it down to a delicate, intimate whisper, but his versatility last night on the guitar and keyboards was hugly impressive, too. Which reminds me, I should really dig out his first solo album, Touched – a record I’m rather fond of but haven’t listened to in full for a couple of years.

Quibbles with the sound mix aside, it was a fine show, and it’s great to see Auer and Stringfellow playing with so much enthusiasm after what must have been a horrible year for them**. It’s not an easy task to carry an audience with you for 20-odd songs when most of the crowd have never heard over half of them, but the guys managed it. I’m already enjoying spending time with their new record and looking forward to the next time they’re in London.

https://i2.wp.com/theposies.net/wp-content/themes/vigilance/images/top-banner/Posies-photo-2-OK.jpg
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Never stop, guys.

*The tour is in advance of the release of new album Solid States. They are selling pre-release copies at the merch table though.
**This past year their drummer Darius Minwalla and former bass player Joe Skyward have both passed away.

 

 

Lou Barlow @ the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen – review

If you’re wondering why I’m taking time out of our annual contemplation of British folk rock to discuss the new album by king of lo-fi acoustic balladry Lou Barlow, it’s because it’s been a very Barlow-focused few days. Last Friday I picked up the new record in advance of seeing him play at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen on Monday night.

A good call as he played eight out of its nine songs.

It was a low-key and intimate show in front of a couple of hundred people, with a solo Barlow playing acoustic guitar, a baritone (?) ukulele and his vintage synth, on which he played some wobbly solos, using a loop pedal to keep the guitar/uke accompaniment going.

This was the type of Lou Barlow show I’ve always wanted to see. When I caught the New Folk Implosion playing at Reading 2001, they were great but they stuck to songs from the Dare to Be Surprised and The New Folk Implosion eras, the material from One Part Lullaby being untranslatable to the live stage by a three-piece band. Sebadoh at Dingwalls last year were good but scrappy, long on their more aggressive material and short on the mid-tempo love songs that has been their strongest suit from Bubble & Scrape onwards. It’s arguable, though, that Barlow’s greatest contribution to pop music is all those four-track acoustic records he’s made (Lou B’s Wasted Pieces, Free Sentridoh: Songs from Loobiecore, Most of the Worst & Some of the Rest, The Original Losing Losers, Winning Losers, et al.) – just banging it out quickly and cheaply and meaning it: a parallel, acoustic path to his early post-hardcore heroes Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. Barlow has always been one of the most plain-spoken of songwriters, and at times his earnestness has been hopelessly out of step with trends in mainstream pop and indie, but it sure seems refreshing to me right now.

His gig on Monday night was in that spirit. There was no support band. He set up his own stuff, manned his merch table before and after, and wandered on to the stage through the audience, briefly ducked behind the curtain then plonked himself on to his stool, hiding all the time behind his big curly mop (I’m sticking with Jerry Garcia rather than Jeff Lynne as my point of visual comparison, but the consensus appears to be hardening behind 1970s-era Lynne).

He played about 20 songs in his 90 minutes, a mix of “Lou Barlow” songs, three or four Sebadoh songs and a couple of Folk Implosion tunes (including Natural One, accompanied by a hilarious story about singing it at a karaoke bar that he went to with Sleater-Kinney). He’s become a pretty useful guitar player down the years, but he remains endearingly unsure of himself, occasionally fumbling intros and starting again (a recurring between-song riff centred on the idea of the Folk Police finding his fingerpicking technique wanting). His work on the synth and loop pedals was, as I say, wobbly, but Lou is not the right guy to expect technical perfection from.

Highlights for me included C + E, which is my favourite from the new record and embodies pretty much everything I’ve loved about Barlow’s music since I picked up my first Sebadoh album (III, bought second-hand from Gumbi’s in Southend in 1998); Boundaries, which really should have been a Sebadoh song; and Too Pure, which actually is a Sebadoh song, and one of the very finest. But the show was compelling all the way through, and it’s a joy to see a guy who’s been doing this a long time still working at the top of his game. I went with Mel, Yo and Kit. Yo, a long-time fan but someone who’s stayed less engaged over the last decade than me, was pretty much blown away. Mel’s a newcomer to Barlow, only being familiar with the new record and a few songs I’ve put on mixes for her, but she really liked it too.

If he could now make a sequel to One Part Lullaby (my push-comes-to-shove favourite Barlow record: 13 doozies, all brilliantly constructed and arranged) with John and Wally, I’d be the happiest long-time fan in London.

Lou & Justin
l-r Justin Pizzoferrato
and Lou Barlow

The Gladstone Arms to close?

The Gladstone Arms, a pub on Lant Street, Borough, may be forced to close. Its owners have applied to Southwark council for permission to demolish the pub and replace it with a 10-storey block of flats. Their proposed site being less than two minutes’ walk from Borough Tube station and little more than 10 from London Bridge, the flats would, I expect, fetch a pretty price, despite the available plans from Black Architecture suggesting that the block would be of no architectural moment whatsoever.*

It would provide Zone 1 with another nine luxury flats (I use that qualifier advisedly) that it doesn’t need, at the cost of a community resource it does. The Gladstone seems to me (I’m no insider, though I’ve played there probably 10 times with either James McKean or Yo Zushi, pop in there on occasion for a pie and/or a drink after rehearsal round the corner, watched friends play there, and know a former member of the pub’s staff) to be in a pretty healthy state, with Sunday evenings being perenially popular. I doubt that any pressing financial need to close is behind the application. Simply, when Sartorio Ltd bought the Gladstone from Punch Taverns in 2014, it bought a patch of land on which it could build for profit. That there was a pub on top of the land being bought was a mere detail to be worked out later.

Pubs close all the time (a BBC report from earlier this year says the figure is 29 a week), with changing demographics, the smoking ban, high beer taxes and cheap supermarket alcohol usually blamed. Not all of these ex-pubs deserve eulogies: a lot of boozers are horrible, staffed by the unfriendly and incompetent, and patronised by the aggressive and the cretinous, with beer that I wouldn’t wash my dog in, had I a dog. And I say that as someone who still always chooses a pub over a bar or a cafe as a preferred hangout, and this long, long after I stopped drinking alcohol.

The Gladstone is different: a considerate neighbour (the manager insists that drummers play with hot rods or brushes rather than sticks, in deference to nearby residents) and a genuine centre of a community of musicians and music fans, who all hold it in high esteem, its loss would be felt far beyond its immediate environs (it rankles that, as a resident of Lewisham, I can’t sign the e-petition on Southwark council’s website). Again, the bar or restaurant promised by the developer for the ground floor is unlikely to give as much to the community as the Gladstone does and would no doubt continue to.

This has to stop. Piece by piece, London is being lost to the people who live and work in it. In a system that worked, planning laws would prevent this. Let’s hope that just this one time – for heaven knows that planning laws don’t usually work – a valuable piece of a community can be saved and the profiteers sent packing.

thegladinside

*Black Architecture is a practice that is capable of good work, as its King’s Cross “Veggie Pod” scheme for Gasholder No 8 evidences. The proposed Lant Street block, though, is just a collection of identical units built off site to be connected to the building’s concrete core. We shouldn’t knock down so much as a sandcastle to make way for it, let alone a thriving pub like the Gladstone Arms.

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem