Tag Archives: Royal Albert Hall

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

natalie-merchant

* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

Advertisements

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.