Tag Archives: Neil Young

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.

Cortez the Killer/Through My Sails – Neil Young

Zuma (1975) was the first Neil Young album to feature the second line-up of Crazy Horse, with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals in place of Danny Whitten, who had died a few years earlier of a heroin overdose.

Whitten had been a strong guitarist, with a rhythm-guitar style that still bore traces of the soul and doo-wop he had played when Crazy Horse had been Danny and the Memories. His contributions on guitar and harmony vocals were crucial to the success of Evetybody Knows this is Nowhere, the first record Young cut with Crazy Horse. While Young did include Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on his records after Whitten died, they weren’t Crazy Horse records. Crazy Horse is a particular thing, and with Whitten gone, it didn’t exist.

When Talbot met Poncho, he had a hunch that he would click with Neil, and so he hyped Neil on him, insisting that Poncho could fill Whitten’s shoes. While Young did indeed like him, he quickly realised that Poncho was inexperienced and his guitar playing was still rudimentary, so he’d need to keep things simple for Poncho’s benefit. Zuma accordingly became an album of big, simple songs with big, simple chord changes, ideal for breaking in the new guy.

Fortunately simple suits Neil Young. He can take three or four chords and build a world out of them. He can make Cortez the Killer, for one thing. If you’re in any way a fan of Neil Young’s guitar playing you’ll probably know it, but if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. It may be his finest moment as an electric player: throughout the song’s seven minutes, Young’s playing is edge-of the-moment, incandescent.

Behind him, Crazy Horse rise to the occasion, as they always seemed to when Young’s songs demanded it. It’s a return to the sort of hypnotic, churning groove they patented on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Ralph Molina in particular plays a blinder; it may be his finest moment on any of Young’s records.

Cortez fades out and gives way to Through My Sails. The emotional transition is so perfect, you’d think that the two songs must have been designed to fit together this way: Cortez, the shattering end of something important; Through My Sails, the sound of someone summoning the strength to begin again.

In fact, Through My Sails had been recorded at an entirely separate, earlier recording session with Crosby, Stills & Nash for an aborted second CSNY album, to be called Human Highway.

Accounts differ as to what scuppered the record. Some say that Nash and Stephen Stills were still uneasy with each other having fallen out a couple of years earlier over Rita Coolidge; others put it down to the drugs (in his book, Wild Tales, Nash said they fell out over “some business, some cocaine thing”). Accounts even differ as to when Through My Sails was recorded – some sources say that it was recorded on Young’s ranch in 1973 as part of the first Human Highway session; others that it was cut during the rehearsals on Neil Young’s ranch for the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.

Most agree, though, it features Young on acoustic guitar, Stills on bass and Russ Kunkel on congas, with Crosby, Stills and Nash all adding their harmonies, and for a band not always known for their restraint (Stills is an incorrigible overdubber), it’s a sparse, beautiful performance. The four may have produced more technically impressive, tighter group vocals, but they never sounded more human.
Human Highway.jpg
No, this is not a real album cover, but it is the picture that was intended as the cover, and it’s a pretty impressive mock-up

 

 

Left of the Dial – The Replacements

What’s this? Wasn’t I meant to be writing about British folk? Yes, I was. I’ve got half an entry on Bill Fay saved in my drafts folder. But this morning on my way to the office I listened to Left of the Dial and on my first day back at work after a holiday, low in mood and feeling unwell, it made me feel as energised as it did when I first heard it as a teenager. So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve talked about my love of Tres Chicas here a couple of times before, even recently. They’re a little-known country-singing trio that made two records a decade ago. Even then they were all music-biz veterans. Lynn Blakey, the most prolific of the group’s three singer-songwriters, has been making records for over 30 years.

Blakey was a touring member of the Georgia indie band Let’s Active in 1983-4, and it was during that time that she met Paul Westerberg and inspired one of his greatest songs, Left of the Dial. Different sources tell the story differently, but this is what Westerberg had to say about it to Rolling Stone:

Left of the Dial is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out.

It’s pretty cool knowing the back story to the song, but if Left of the Dial were just a paean to Lynn Blakey, it wouldn’t quite be what it is, or mean so much to so many. It’s not even just a love letter to college radio. Above all, Left of the Dial seems to me to be about the endless movement of a young band on the road, the excitement, the hardships, the possibilities, the romance. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of knowing something probably won’t happen, but treasuring the possibility that it just might.

Westerberg’s great gift was to be able to harness that kind of romanticism to noisy, sloppy rock’n’roll (and then to let it show on the quiet acoustic songs – only Neil Young is Westerberg’s match at being able to switch from full-on rock to quiet acoustic and sound utterly himself when doing both), and for all that Left of the Dial’s parent album Tim was the most produced Replacements record to date, it’s still endearingly messy. After all, the Replacements were never about tightness or technique. They were about the excitement of a captured moment. While there’s a lot wrong in technical terms with the studio recording of Left of the Dial (the band always sounded slightly out of control, even at moderate tempos, but surely they didn’t want their guitar sound to be quite so tinny, or the drums quite as lacking in body?), in every important sense, Left of the Dial is perfect. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m twenty years younger, about to embark on all the adventures life in a rock’n’roll band can offer.

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The Replacements: l-r Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson

Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Hey, Who Really Cares – Linda Perhacs

LA was crawling with singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, from the stunningly talented likes of Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill, through the foursquare and reliable Jackson Browne/JD Souther types, to the pleasant but inconsequential talents like Ned Doheny and Pamela Polland.

Laurel Canyon is the part that stands for the whole of the LA singer-songwriter scene, but Linda Perhacs was a Topanga Canyon resident, and the difference was all the difference. Physically further removed from Hollywood than Laurel Canyon, Topanga in 1970 was where Neil Young had made his home, and Young’s rather-be-on-my-own attitude epitomised the Topanga spirit. Perhacs was not a joiner or a hustler, wouldn’t have fit in among the more ambitious Laurel Canyon crowd, and indeed would probably never have been heard at all if composer Leonard Rosenman hadn’t have been a patient at the Beverly Hills dental practice where she worked.

In Perhacs’ version of the story, it was only after many appointments that Rosenman asked her what she did when she wasn’t working and, sensing she could be a gateway to the hippie community he wanted to access in order to come up with the right kind of a music for a TV project he was working on, asked to hear the songs she wrote in her spare time.

Rosenman was impressed by what he heard, particularly the song Parallelograms, and told Perhacs he wanted to make an album with her and would secure the budget needed to make it happen.

Hey, Who Really Cares appeared on Parallelograms, and became the theme for Matt Lincoln, the short-lived TV series for which Rosenman had been commissioned to provide music. It’s a stunning piece of work. In feeling and mood, it recalls the moody medievalisms of David Crosby (songs like Guinnevere, Where Will I Be and The Lee Shore) and Clouds-era Joni Mitchell; musically, the fingerpicked chords with ringing E and B strings sound a little like Love (on, for example, Maybe the People Would Be the Times and Alone Again Or). The sinuous bass guitar, meanwhile, reminds me of nothing so much as PFM backing Fabrizio de André. Perhacs’ voice is clear as a bell, often sounding like that of a cut-glass British folk singer. It’s a beautiful song, with some heart-stopping melodic twists and turns, and a wonderful arrangement by Rosenman. If Perhacs isn’t quite up there with Sill, Mitchell, Buckley, Crosby et al., she was light years ahead of many of the cowboy-chord mediocrities whose music receieved greater exposure than hers.

The hype over “rediscovered” artists can be off-putting, and their art seldom lives up to the grand claims made for it. At the time that Linda Perhacs’ 1970 album Parallelograms began to be reissued (and at this point, it’s been reissued five or six times by as many different labels), I was hyper wary – the media fad for freak folk was at its height, and I’d been left mystified by the popularity of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, and astonished at the reverence being afforded to Vashti Bunyan’s 1970 precursor, Just Another Diamond Day. So with Banhart singing Parallelograms‘ praises to the UK monthlies, it seemed wise to steer clear.

A shame. Some records, some artists, really are deserving of their reputations. I’ve chosen Hey, Who Really Cares as a representative track, but if you like it, you’ll dig the whole thing.

Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

Lotta Love – Nicolette Larson

So here’s an embarassing confession. I wrote this on an evening train from Manchester to London only to find the next day that I’d already published a piece about this song! Oh well, I like this one better, so I’ve junked the old one. This is what happens when you’ve been running a blog for three and a half years and lack of Wi-Fi means you can’t check your archives…

Imagine an album produced by Ted Templeman, and featuring the instrumental talents of Paul Barrere, Victor Feldman, Michael McDonald, Billy Payne, Klaus Voorman, Herb Pedersen, Fred Tackett, Albert Lee, Chuck Findlay, Jim Horn, Plas Johnson and Eddie Van Halen. Released on Warners, with a cover photo by Joel Bernstein. That record would be basically the most 1970s thing ever. Or maybe the second-most 1970s thing ever, after Rickie Lee Jones’s first album.

That record is Nicolette, the solo debut album by Nicolette Larson, which spawned a huge hit single in her version of Neil Young’s Lotta Love.

Larson had sung backing vocals on Young’s Comes a Time, which featured his own ramshackle reading of Lotta Love, on which he was backed by Crazy Horse rather than the Stray Gators, who were on the rest of the record. Lotta Love, Young has said, was his response to his road crew playing Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours day after day. That isn’t exactly the same as an attempt to write a Fleetwood Mac-style song, and Lotta Love didn’t have the lyrical depth of a Stevie Nicks composition, the deceptively lushness of a Lindsey Buckingham arrangement, or the steady groove of anything graced by John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. Frankly, it’s a little hard to hear Young’s reading of Lotta Love as in any way Mac influenced.

Larson’s Lotta Love (which she claimed Young encouraged her to record after she heard the song on a cassette tape Young left in his car), on the other hand, sounds like Stevie Nicks being taken to the disco. The standard mix of the song, rhythmically, is pure Mac, with Fleetwood’s trademark heartbeat kick-drum pattern (most associated with Dreams) present throughout verses and choruses, with a subtle hint of disco in the middle-eight’s four-on-the-floor kick drum and busier hi-hat figures. On top of this rhythmic chassis is electric piano, a prominent sax riff and soul-influenced rhythm guitar, all of which take it a way away from FM territory. Ted Templeman (Doobie Brothers, Van Halen) was an astute producer who knew what would sell. Fleetwood Mac playing disco? In 1978? That’d sell. It did.

Fortunately the record feels a lot less cynical than that makes it sound. Larson had a quite wonderful voice, and on Lotta Love her enthusiasm for the material was palpable. In harmony with Young on Comes a Time, she sounded a little like Emmylou Harris, but on her own record, her voice stood revealed as its own thing: soulful, sweet but slightly husky, and touch of grit in her higher range. With such strong material to work with, the success of Lotta Love was the most natural thing in the world. Unfortunately, Larson (not a prolific songwriter herself) would seldom have such strong material to work with; a forgettable duet with Steve Wariner is her only other notable chart success, and her albums are stuffed with little-known songs by fine writers of the calibre of Andrew Gold, Jackson Browne and Holland-Dozier-Holland, almost as if she was hunting for another Lotta Love in the overlooked work of these big-name writers. It never quite happened;  not as simple as it seemed, Lotta Love’s brand of deceptively casual perfection proved impossible to recreate.

Larson died in 1997, of liver failure and cerebral edema. She was 45 – far, far too young.

larson

NYCNY – Daryl Hall

We’ve talked about Daryl Hall before, and even relatively recently. But there was only room in February’s entry on She’s Gone, which you’ll remember I put forward as one of my absolute favourite records, to touch in the briefest possible fashion on Sacred Songs, Hall’s first solo album, recorded in 1977 and eventually released by RCA in 1980.

Hall was not the only prescient musician who appears to have felt the tides turning against them around 1976 and 1977 and responded by reinventing themselves (Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and to some extent David Bowie did likewise), but when listening to Sacred Songs, Lindsey Buckingham always comes to mind.

But Sacred Songs is stranger even than Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly rewarding Tusk. Despite the note on the sleeve that said “Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham”, Tusk is not an auteur work. Buckingham may have wanted Fleetwood Mac to become the Clash, but that was never even close to possible. The band contained two other singer-songwriters, neither of whom had any real wish to follow him down that road. And so when producing Stevie Nicks’s and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham dutifully gave them relatively straightforward treatments, only occasionally lacing them with the off-kilter touches that characterised his own material on Tusk. So Buckingham pulls in one direction with his songs, Nicks and McVie pull in another with theirs, but the mediator between the two factions is, strangely, Buckingham himself. One moment he was cackling his way maniacally through the bizarre What Makes You Thing You’re the One, the next he was empathetically layering endless delicate guitar and vocal overdubs on to Nicks’s oceanic Sara, possibly her masterpiece.

Sacred Songs covers similarly broad territory. Hall allows himself to be everything he can be on the record. A ballad like Why Was it So Easy could have fit happily on any Hall & Oates album, but NYCNY is genuinely startling in its aggression. This song would certainly not have fit on Abandoned Luncheonette.

The standard critical line on Sacred Songs is that it’s the result of exposure to art rock, punk and new wave while living in New York and hanging out with Robert Fripp. And that seems almost certainly true. But, as with Buckingham’s Tusk-era material, NYCNY is fascinating in the ways it fails to be punk rock; after all, an imperfect copy of an original idea tells us as much, maybe more, about the copier than the copied. NYCNY is mixed dry and close, the musicians’ playing is clipped and precise, Hall hits too many notes over too many octaves to ever be confused with Johnny Rotten, and he can’t sneer like Tom Verlaine. Above all, he’s exuberant in a way that few punk rockers would have allowed themselves to be.

Sacred Songs isn’t a classic. Ultimately Daryl Hall was a soul man, and anyone with working ears would rather hear him sing She’s Gone than holler and squeal his way through NYCNY, however much fun it is. But Sacred Songs is an noble attempt by a substantial artist to push themselves beyond anything they’d done before, and it remains completely fascinating.

hall

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except, this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Consider this a late entry in the harmony series. I had it written and lying around but left it out as I’d written about these guys several times before, and CSNY seemed too obvious an inclusion in a series about harmony singing. But I’ve been reading Graham Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, a Christmas present from my dad, and found myself listening to it today as if for the first time. It really is a stunning piece of work.

In May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students protesting against the American incursion into Cambodia at Kent State University in Ohio. They fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. The students, needless to say, were unarmed. The shootings killed four, paralysed another and left eight more seriously injured. The US public, already polarised over Vietnam, became more divided still between those who were outraged that the state would turn its guns on its own citizens and those who thought the little punks had it coming. John Filo, a journalism student, took a photograph of a young woman called Mary Ann Vecchio (then 14 years old and visiting the campus) kneeling over the body of a dead student called Jeffrey Miller and screaming in horror. That Pulitzer-winning picture was only the most potent symbol of that divide. It was by no means the only one.

Neil Young read about the events at Kent State, and saw that terrible picture, while in the company of bandmate David Crosby. There and then he poured his disgust into a blunt D-modal outburst called Ohio: a riff, a verse and a chorus. Recorded as a band, live off the floor and without overdubs or frills, Ohio was a record too serious in its intent to bother with fripperies like ornate melody and elegant vocal harmonies, the usual calling cards of CSNY.

Ohio’s B-side was a Stephen Stills composition called Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, a southerner with a military-school upbringing, was a more conservative figure than his bandmates. He would later suffer from delusions, fuelled by his insane cocaine intake, that he had served in Vietnam, earning himself the mocking nickname “Sarge” from his road crew. His own thoughts were, accordingly, harder to gauge.

Its presence on the flipside of the explicitly condemnatory Ohio cast Find the Cost of Freedom as a sorrowful response to Kent State, whether or not Stills had actually written it as such*. But Find the Cost of Freedom, contemplative and ambiguous where Ohio was declamatory and furious, never identifies the dead it mourns. Who is being hymned here? US troops? Vietnamese civilians? Student protestors? All three? Its power lies in this ambiguity.

I’ve said before that I’m not all that big on Stills’s work generally, preferring the Crosby & Nash duo albums to any CSN or CSNY record. But even to a Stills sceptic like me, Freedom is a tremendously powerful record. Like Ohio, it features little of the bombast and posturing that characterised CSNY’s music in 1970. Instead its simplicity and brevity are stunning. It stands on equal footing with Ohio, which is a highlight of Neil Young’s catalogue. The transition from four voices in unison to four voices in harmony**, spread wide across the stereo image, may be the most spine-tingling moment on any CSNY record.

CSNY

*In his memoir Wild Tales, Nash hints that other songs were under consideration to be on the B-side of Ohio, suggesting that Find the Cost of Freedom had been written before Kent State, though he doesn’t come out and say it in so many words.

**Recorded, says Nash, live with the four band members sitting in a square and facing each other.