Tag Archives: string bending

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s autumn. Time to talk about folk-rock. Here’s a sort-of repost from a couple of years ago to get us underway

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what The Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and Fairport parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave, too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again, to form the Albion Band with the folkiest of English folk singers, Shirley Collins.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s patronage of Trevor Lucas, the band spent half of its time backing a singer and songwriter of no more than average ability, the likes of whom you could find any night of the week in a provincial folk club. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them something to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny did what Boyd had wanted to her all along and went properly solo. Partly this was a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job with Warner Brothers, but during the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album they cut Silver Threads & Golden Needles, an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers, too. While most have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version, Fotheringay slowed it down, put it in waltz time and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

If you were to call Sandy Denny the finest interpreter of British folk song who ever lived, I’d not argue. With this track, she stakes her claim as one of the finest interpreters of song full stop. She gives a completely authentic country performance without ever softening her southern English accent – Patsy Cline would have understood and recognised the emotions Denny expresses here.

NYC-born Jerry Donahue, meanwhile, comes at this country-folk blend from the other direction. Most of what you hear in Donahue’s playing is country-music derived, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him “the string-bending king of the planet”) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

His string-bending is rarely better showcased than on Silver Threads: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw a completed album’s worth of stuff recording for that second album (2, which came out in 2008). If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be.

The track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway, formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band (and later to join Fairport). Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on the four) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

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Fotheringay l-r Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway, Trevor Lucas, Sandy Denny, Pat Donaldson

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Still No Clapton, Part 5 – I’d Run Away by the Jayhawks

The first batch of these posts that I did at the very end of 2013 I called “No Hendrix, No Clapton, No Vai”, and not because I dislike those players. It’s impossible to have any feel for rock’n’roll music and dislike Jimi Hendrix. I’m not a shred fan, but I can appreciate Steve Vai’s chops and dedication to his craft, and I genuinely loved No More Amsterdam, his 2012 co-write/duet with Aimee Mann. God, even some Clapton is OK, too, though don’t get me started on his politics. We’ll be here all night and I’ll lose all my good humour.
The point of doing these, then, has been to talk in brief about some tracks I might have struggled to discuss at length in a conventional post, but also to pick out some less heralded players along the way. Sure, J Mascis and David Lindley aren’t unknowns, and Robbie Robertson is a bona-fide legend, but they’re all at least a step down in renown from Clapton and Hendrix, who simply are rock guitar for many people, or Vai, who stands for the 1980s shredders (a school of metal-ish guitarists whose extreme technical proficiency was their key selling point for many of their fans, and who are still high-profile players in guitar geek circles).
Not every great solo proclaims its greatness by being the centrepiece of a classic song, or by lasting for minutes on end, or by being the work of a celebrated player. Today’s choice is indicative of this.
The dominant instrument on my favourite Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, is not Gary Louris’s guitar, but Karen Grotberg’s underrated country-soul piano. The band always sounded more expansive with her on board, and her harmonies sweetened the pinched and nasal vocal blend of Gary Louris and Marc Olsen. All in all, she’s the easily overlooked Jayhawks MVP, like a great defensive lineman.
Nevertheless, Louris remained a powerful presence as lead guitarist. Louris’s playing is ultimately blues derived – most of the licks he plays, Chuck Berry played first – but the Jayhawks have always drawn strength and vigour from Louris’s lead guitar interjections. They add uncomplicated vigour, a swagger even, to a group who’ve rarely strayed all that far from medium-intensity mid-tempo country-rock.
His solo on I’d Run Away is a perfectly constructed little gem with the full range of Louris tricks: an ear-grabbing opening lick that sees him making use of the Vibrola arm on his SG for a strong vibrato, some melodic double-stop licks and a bit of old-fashioned bluesy pentatonic wailing of the type that’s been the backbone of rock guitar since Mr Berry, I guess. It’s the highlight of a song that in typical Jayhawks fashion mixes breezy music with doleful lyrics.

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Gary Louris, still rockin’ that Vibrola-equipped Gibson SG

Still No Clapton, Part 4 – Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few days. Mel and I were in Venice from Thursday to Sunday. Back now, ready to crack on with the last couple of these. So, David Lindley, as promised. Yes, I know that two Jackson Browne-related pieces within a couple of weeks of each other is not great timing, but I imagine it’ll be a while before he comes up again!

Jackson Browne could write a tune and turn a phrase. It’s been said many times before, but “Don’t confront me with my failures; I had no forgotten them” is an astonishing lyric for a 17-year-old to have written (even if no one that age could truly understand what it is to irrevocably fail at anything), so let’s give the man his due. At this best, he has been a very powerful writer.

But, to be picky, within Browne’s work there has always been a sense that, just maybe, the head is faking the heart’s business (as Ian McDonald once said of Elvis Costello); the same man that could craft something as sharp as the line above from These Days could also write something as gauche, as unwieldy and as far removed from the syntax and rhythm of everyday speech as, “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light/You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight” (and this in a song that is widely loved).

So Browne needed David Lindley, then, to add fire to his music, to cut through the bullshit and the extended metaphors, to be both head and heart at the same time. Lindley plays with a fierce passion, his deft technique always evident but never at the expense of meaning. Within Browne’s music, he clarifies, he amplifies and he puts into sound what it is Browne’s trying to say in words: think of those two, sobbing high F notes he plays at around 4.10 on These Days – for all that the song’s lyric is impressive, nothing in the words communicates regret and sadness like those two desperate notes from Lindley’s guitar.

Lindley’s slide playing is hugely inventive, and his renown rests largely upon it, but the song I would nominate as containing my favourite Lindley work isn’t a slide piece. It’s Late for the Sky, which is a masterclass in how to play lead guitar alongside a singer. Containing beautiful short solos during the intro and the coda and a long one about three minutes in (after the first chorus), Late for the Sky also sees Lindley weaving sinuous lead guitar lines in and around Browne’s vocal. His tone is thick and creamy, and his rapid vibrato (if I’m hearing right, he uses a horizontal technique rather than the rock player’s up-and-down method, possibly more derived from his slide playing than from classic guitar) and slowly released bent notes (see 3.26) essentially narrate the song with Browne, who was truly blessed to have him in his team.

If I could play electric lead guitar like anyone, it would probably be David Lindley.

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Lindley in familiar lap steel mode

A recent recordeding – live one-take performance, no overdubs

Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

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Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing

Still No Clapton, Part 2 – To Kingdom Come by The Band

This is an article about Robbie Robertson the guitar player rather than Robbie Robertson the songwriter. And so I’m obliged to start with Dylan’s quote about his one-time sideman:

The only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound

I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to the Band’s music. How many times have I listened to The Band and Northern Lights, Southern Cross? 50, 80, 100 times each? If you add in the number of times I’ve listened to the 1966 Dylan/Hawks set from Manchester Free Trade Hall, I may have as many as 500 hours or so on just this one group. I know the Band’s music well, I know Robertson’s playing well. I still have no idea what Dylan was driving at.

Playing with Dylan, Robertson’s solos were apt to be scrappy and messy. He bit hard into notes, and played without much vibrato. If he played one note and held it, you wouldn’t think, Ah, yes, the tone and control of a natural lead guitar player, as you would with, say, David Gilmour. Robertson’s attack, the lack of refinement, was the whole point. As Barney Hoskyns noted in Across the Great Divide, there has always been something of the enthusiastic amateur in Robertson’s playing.

The step change in his style occurred during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Partly because he’d played enough solos to last him a lifetime and partly because of the discipline enforced on the group by recording to a cheap mono tape machine at low volume in a clangy basement, Robertson emerged a different player. His new style was sensitive, tasteful, based on a deep feel for the song and an understanding of how and where one should play to complement, but not compete with, the singer. It is this version of Robertson that is a guitar genius.

A key text for me has always been To Kingdom Come. The second track on the Band’s debut, Music from Big Pink, contained the only Robertson lead vocal (until Islands‘ Knocking Lost John) in the Band’s catalogue and the only extended lead guitar break on the whole of the first album. As such, it debuted all the facets of his new style: a superlative tone, a mastery of structure and repetition, a much more prominent vibrato, and a string bending technique that begins to anticipate the great Jerry Donahue (who widened the folk and country guitar player’s vocabulary immeasurably with his arsenal of contrary-motion bends and double-stop bends that go up by different intervals). Most evident, though, is the soulful influence of Curtis Mayfield, audible in the R&B/gospel licks that Robertson was now interweaving with his bandmates’ vocals. He retained enough bite that you still knew it was him, but what was gone, at least from his recorded work, was the frantic quality that his playing had in the early years. Leaving this behind, he truly became the mathematical guitar genius Dylan had praised so highly a couple of years before.

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Robertson, latter days with the Band

Some of the author’s own work. The author is not Robbie Robertson unfortunately: