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How an 1843 benefit became a 1960s hit

I am reading David Olusoga’s brilliant history book “Black and British: Forgotten History” , which I highly recommend. He has a documentary on it too, but I have yet to see it.

The book only touches on music, of course, as most of it is about racial attitudes from Roman days through the slave trade and Windrush Generation to today. But I came across this music gem.

In the Victorian period, Olusoga talks about the popularity of black entertainers. He tells the tale of one William Darby of Norwich, whose father (at least) was African.

Darby was in the circus — a mighty horseman, apparently — and eventually ran his own show. He changed his name to Pablo Fanque and sometimes did benefit shows, including one in Rochdale in 1843 for a Mr Kite.

Now we skip forward to 1967 and John Lennon is in Sevenoaks to film the video of Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields. He drops into an antique shop and finds a poster for said 1843 show, billed as “For the Benefit of Mr Kite”. You know the rest. Most of the lyrics were taken from the poster.

David Crosby, Shunned Survivor

I caught up with the documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name” recently. Flawed, but I can recommend it.

The doc was directed by Cameron Crowe, who was also behind “Jerry Maguire”, “Almost Famous” and “Vanilla Sky”. I have to admit though that for me his claim to fame is as writer of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — a masterpiece for many of us.

Crosby is famously a survivor of various drug addictions. Asked in the film why he was still alive, he had no idea. You could not help admiring his efforts towards normalcy.

There has to be a reason, though, that so many of the people he worked with — Graham Nash, Neil Young etc — won’t talk to him any more, even after rehabilitation.

The highlights in the doc for me were less about Crosby than they were about the people he hung around — The Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia etc. His visit to the house where CSN got together — the basis for “Our House” — was quite moving in some ways.

There was not enough completed music in the doc — too many snippets — which I alway find frustrating. It did, however, make me re-listen to an album of his that I reviewed a couple of years ago.

I headlined it David Crosby Trying To Get Back To The Garden, which having seen the doc is most appropriate.

For Your Consideration

One of the weird things about writing music reviews — which I do for No Depression from time to time — is that I have been receiving “For Your Grammy Consideration” emails.

I don’t have a vote, which is a shame because I would go for Jake Blount’s “Spider Tales”, my review of which you can see here.

(That album, incidentally, has just co-won the “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass“. Blount is the second black artist to receive this prize; the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens was first. The PR blurb rightly notes that Blount’s win is a “reminder that the banjo is first and foremost an African and African-American instrument”.)

But vote or not, I am being sent some interesting press releases as a result of getting on some Grammy list or other. I just got this one, for Johnny “Asleep at the Wheel” Nicholas’ “Mistaken Identity.” I had not heard it, but it sounds more than interesting if you like Americana.

The point here is to repost the wonderful video/doc that comes with it. A fine piece of filming and a musical and cultural ride.

R.I.P. Peter Green

The death of Peter Green has prompted me to re-publish this article I wrote in 2015 about a remarkable piece of rock history. It appeared on Reuters.

A blues fan’s 1967 reel-to-reel tape recording of four then-relatively unknown British musicians is to be released on CD in April, capturing live what today would be dubbed a supergroup.

John Mayall, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were together for just three months that year as part of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers band.

R-6976991-1468083379-7687.jpegThe music was recorded in five clubs in and around London, including The Marquee and The Ram Jam. It is, for blues aficionados, an immersion into musical history.

And it sounds like a 1960s live electric blues performance should: rough, echoey, raw. 

The four musicians all went on to various degrees of fame. Mayall is still an active blues man at 81, the “godfather” of the British electric blues that swept the country in the 1960s and helped promote it beyond its black roots base back in the United States.

At various times and in various incarnations, his band has featured Cream’s Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, The Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor, Canned Heat’s Harvey Mandel, and ubiquitous drummer Aynsley Dunbar. 

Green, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, is considered one of the world’s great electric guitarists. He dropped out of sight for a number of years with mental illness before re-emerging with various bands.

His song “Black Magic Woman” was a global hit for Latin rockers Santana.

Bassist McVie and drummer Fleetwood formed Fleetwood Mac, at first a blues band with Green, then later with a new line-up one of the most successful pop-rock groups of all time

The new release – “John Mayall’s Blues Breakers – Live In 1967” – was restored by Forty Below Records. It is suitably basic and the company admits it is “certainly not hi-fidelity”.

Among the more interesting tracks are “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a Willie Dixon song that later graced Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

There is also a rollicking version of “Hi Heel Sneakers” and a leisurely “Stormy Monday” along with 10 other tracks.

The album is to be released on April 20 in Britain and April 21 in the United States. It ain’t pretty – but it’s the blues.

A timely review of angry black roots music

(I wrote this review for No Depression, the roots music website, before the explosion of anger on America’s streets. As the title says — timely.)

Sometimes an album is more than the sum of its parts, providing a little something extra on top of a good listen. So it is with Jake Blount’s new release, Spider Tales, a collection of black American roots music whose title refers to Anansi the Spider, a trickster who battles the powerful in the Akan people’s folklore and remained a presence in storytelling by enslaved peoples in the American colonies.

JB20_ecoverAt one level, the work is a quasi-historical dive into the nearly forgotten contribution African Americans made to country, bluegrass, and folk. Blount’s old-time banjo and fiddle take you right onto that Appalachian porch (although the music is not all from that region, stretching as far west as Texas).

But it’s no dispassionate retelling of history. There are bursts of anger in the music about the years of discrimination suffered by black Americans — a theme Blount first touched on in his 2017 EP Reparations and a large part of his motivation as a musician.

“I am not here to make happy music,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for lighter moments. Take, for example, the lead-off track, “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone.” Gently swaying banjo-picking is accompanied by the sound (and sight in the video) of Appalachian flatfooting from Nic Gareiss, making for an instrumental that is hard not to dance along to. Collected by Alan Lomax in 1942, the song is credited to Lucius Smith, a black banjo player from Sardis, Mississippi.

The tone turns more serious, however, for “The Angels Done Bowed Down,” a gospel number Blount traced back to American Negro Songs, a 1930 master’s thesis by John Wesley Work III, a scholar of African-American folklore.

With lyrics such as “Come back, angels, bolt the door / The time that’s been, will be no more,” Blount interprets it as a plea for divine intervention against the unjust. His vocal performance on it is quite haunting; it is almost impossible to listen to without starting to sway.

Even more pointed is a quite remarkable track thought to be first recorded in the early 1920s by Josie Miles, a blues singer from Summerville, South Carolina.

“Mad Mama’s Blues” is a nothing less than a call to violence by someone who is furiously oppressed, beaten black and blue.  The singer says right from the start that they want to set the world on fire and has “murder in my eyes.” There is a call for gunpowder and dynamite because “I want to wreck the city / I’m going to blow it up tonight.”

Blount says it is such an overt call to revolt that he is surprised Miles was allowed to record it.

Nicely produced and immaculately performed, Spider Tales is an album that’s both entertaining to listen to and enlightening to think about.

 

 

 

 

Influential albums

The challenge on Facebook was to list 10 albums over 10 days that were “influential” to my music taste without saying why (and to nominate each day some other poor devil to join in).

Influential is not the same as favourite. Few of the albums I chose were the one’s I initially thought I would put up. But in the end they covered rock, prog rock, world, reggae, folk, rockabilly, jazz, folk-rock and blues.

Here, I briefly explain my influence picks. Just because.

Twist and Shout – The Beatles

imagesFirst serious album (ok, EP) I ever bought. My 11 year-old friend Tommy was horrified in 1963 that I had not heard of The Beatles, so I ran out, listened to and bought this one. I have been a Beatles fan, rock fan, music fan ever since.

The song “Twist and Shout” still ranks as one of my favourites (although to be honest there are too many to list now).

 

 

Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

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No surprise here. My all time favourite since I first heard it lying on the floor of the Alzir Institute student house.  It taught me that rock could be complex and thoughtful, shaking your brain as much as your body.

It still speaks to me and I imagine it will as long as I breathe.

 

Music of the Incas – Pachacamac

Unknown-2I had a friend at University who was one of the quietest, most modest people I knew. He asked me if would like to hear his band play. On the stage he came, turning into a ponchoed madman with pan pipes and armadillo charango. I loved it.

This album, which I bought as a result, started a long love of world music that stretches well beyond the Andes.

 

Natty Dread – Bob Marley & The Wailers

Unknown-7I was at a student disco when the DJ put on “Lively Up Yourself”. I got through about four bass notes and one “wooo” before I rushed up to him and asked who the hell that was. Bought the album next day. Loved reggae ever since.

My only regret is that the one time I saw Bob Marley it was a real disappointment. The acoustics were foul and he was just going through the motions. Shame.

 

Martin Carthy – Martin Carthy

R-3741673-1342524585-3194.jpegAlways kind of liked folk music, but this one cemented it. Just a simple series of acoustic songs by one of the greatest English folk singers. Helps that I can play some of the songs myself.

It is said Carthy influenced Dylan, Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. He certainly influenced me — pushing me into an appreciation of British roots music

 

 

The Rosslyn Mountain Boys – The Rosslyn Mountain Boys

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Barely anyone reading this (or my Facebook post) will have a clue who this is. They were a widely popular local band in 1970s Washington DC. They were fantastic, but never quite made it

I cheated a bit where this is concerned as I don’t think I had the LP then. But their live gigs at the old, original Birchmere in Arlington turned me into a fan of the rockabilly and outlaw-country strain of Americana.

 

Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy – Return to Forever (featuring Chick Corea)

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Hadn’t listened to this for years, but it made a surprise appearance when I realised it was my introduction to jazz — at least jazz that was not trad. So it made the list of “most influential”.

There is another list this would go on. When I saw them play, Stanley Clarke was the bassist. Absolutely astonishing — best I have ever seen.

 

 

The Rock Machine Turns You On – Various

I have written in depth about this album. You can see the details here. Suffice it to say that it introduced me to Leonard Cohen and Taj Mahal.

Those two have played a part in my music life ever since.

I got to meet Taj and interview him in 2012. Leonard Cohen, in the meantime, gave a concert in London that my son and I will never forget – a real father-son bonding moment.

 

Commoners Crown – Steeleye Span

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I like folk from anywhere, but this one sealed my embrace of British folk-rock roots. Goblins and guitar riffs — say no more.

Maddy Prior’s soaring vocals continue to this day to make Steeleye a band well worth seeing. I got to interview her a year or two ago and, much to my delight, she was as friendly and down-to-earth as her music.

 

 

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin

Unknown-4For me, this is the Zeppelin album. Not that the ones that followed weren’t great (most of them were). But this was was blues.

It took Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Mayall and even the Rolling Stones to a new level. So consider it the combo of all those influences that have made be a blues buff. (Also got to interview Jimmy Page once — one of the nicest musicians I have met).

 

 

 

 

Satire and country from Western Centuries

There is a lot of Nashville in Call the Captain, the new album from Seattle-based band Western Centuries — the collaborative songwriting group of Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller. Not surprising, perhaps, as it was produced by Nashville producer Bill Reynolds.

Take as an example “No Cure,” a jaunty little number that belies its classic country tale of  the heartbreak that comes with a cheating partner.

I hear the back door slamming but I pretend I don’t
Maybe I’ll try to catch him but chances are I won’t
And with the scent of another lingering on your skin
Your lips keep lying but your eyes say where you’ve been

Can’t get more country than those lyrics. What’s more, it’s all accompanied by some fine pedal steel, played skillfully and subtly throughout the album by Nashville-based “guest” Thomas Bryan Eaton. (Jim Lauderdale is another high-profile guest on the album, lending vocals to two songs.)

There is also a similar country-heartbreak feel to “All the Things That I Could Say to You Right Now,” with its message of staying true to (possibly unrequited) love.

But Call the Captain is no one-trick pony. The country sound (with a tad of bluegrass, Cajun, and rock thrown in) is also the backdrop for heaps of satirical derision poured on what the band sees as the evils of modern life — mainly religion, greed, and colonialism.

Heading the list is the splendid (and pointed) “Long Dreadful Journey,” which the band itself describes as “an anti-dogmatic, anti-religious, anti-colonial, anti-gospel gospel song.” You’ll have to listen to it, but here’s a hint: There’s not much left for the meek to inherit once the self-righteous are done.

As might be expected from a band that marches to a generally liberal drum, President Donald Trump does not escape the scorn, at least as far as his new Space Force is concerned.

Miller, a founding member of Donna the Buffalo, has written a satirical zinger about the new branch of the U.S. military. It is done in a cheerfully nationalistic ’80s style, rather reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett.

I want to join the Space Force / And wear a silver suit
I’ll have a day-glow ray gun / And a box to store my fruit
We’ll cruise around the galaxy / Taking all the bad guys down
No crime will go unpunished / Cause the Space Dogs are back in town

Call the Captain is good music  — nicely produced, fun and at times heart-warming. Well worth a listen, but I bet even better to hear live (one day).

 

(Review first published on No Depression website)

 

Music History: The Troubadour

IMG_1744I spent most of my teens living in and around London during the mid-’60s to early ’70s. As a result I saw many of the great bands live and in their heyday — Beatles, Zeppelin, Who  — as well as many in the next tier down such as Santana, ELP, Joe Cocker and John Martyn.

What I did not do, was go to many of the historic venues (unless you count the Hammersmith Odeon (which you should). I have now remedied this a bit with a gig at the Troubadour on Old Brompton Road. Wonderful place. Good food. Excellent drink. And, most importantly, a cosy basement area for music with a storied history.

My first question was whether it was this Troubadour or the one on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles that was the “real” thing. They answer is, of course, that they both are – but London’s is the original. The LA venue was opened later and based on the London one, including the historic sign (above)

As for the bands that played on Old Brompton back in the early days, well, hold your breath: Dylan, Hendrix, Paul Simon, Keith Moon, Charlie Watts, Sandy Denny and Sammy Davis Jr.

But it has not stopped. More recent performers have included Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ed Sheeran, The Chemical Brother and some Rolling Stones. (I saw Geraint Watkins, but that is a different story).

Now add to all this some non-music history. The British satirical magazine “Private Eye” was conceived at the Troubadour and Britain’s early Ban the Bomb activists met there,.

Not for the first time in my life, I which I could time travel back (knowing what I know now, of course) and just hang out.

 

When a tribute is not a tribute

IMG_1738My friend and I were sitting in a pub waiting to see The Australian Pink Floyd in the theatre across the road. A discussion ensued about what we were about to see. Was it a covers band? Was it a tribute band? Neither, I said, it is a recital band.

For those not familiar with The Australian Pink Floyd, they are exactly what it says on the tin — Australians who play Pink Floyd. But they are more than that. They are superb, have played in 35 countries and sold more than four million tickets along the way. They do not pretend to be Pink Floyd, they just play the music magnificently  — Astronomy Domine, Pigs On The Wing, Money, One Of These Days, Welcome To The Machine, you name it.

The pub issue at hand was whether covers band or tribute band was the correct term. I will get to my suggestion – recital band – in a bit, but I argued that neither of these descriptions fit the bill for the kind of performance we were about to hear.

Covers band was clearly inappropriate because that implies a degree of deliberate deviation from the original. Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower in such a way that it has become the better-known version. So many people have covered  Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that its has turned into a schlock pop song rather than the dark spiritual it was supposed to be.

For me,  the greatest covers artist ever was Joe Cocker, not just for With A Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles) but for a  repertoire including  You Can Leave Your Hat On (Randy Newman), Delta Lady (Leon Russell) and The Letter (The Box Tops).

No, The Australian Pink Floyd is not a covers band (although they could be if they wanted, I suspect). They play Pink Floyd but only interpret it in their show’s marvellous onstage graphics (e.g. a pink kangaroo rather than pig).

So we come to tribute band, a term that I feel would be demeaning to this particular set of musicians. Tribute bands tend to imitate others. That does not mean they are not enjoyable. A year or two ago I saw The Bootleg Beatles at a festival. The music was good, but I found the dressing up as various-era Beatles, the fake Liverpool accents and the reference to each other as John, Paul etc to be circus-like. Fun, but not altogether serious music.

The Australian Pink Floyd does not pretend to be the real band in any way at all.

So, I came up with recital band. I have believed for many years that the more complicated rock and pop music will one day be treated as reverently as some classical music is today. When the London Philharmonic plays Beethoven, it is neither a cover nor a tribute. It is a recital in the sense of re-citing the music, playing it as it was originally written to an audience that cannot hear the original.

And we cannot really hear the real Pink Floyd live. Only three band members remain and they are highly unlikely to get together again.

So think of The Australian Pink Floyd as ground-breaking orchestral musicians somewhat ahead of their time – seriously, if highly enjoyably, presenting Pink Floyd music pretty much as it was written. It is trend that doubtlessly will grow as our heroes from the 1960s, 70s and onwards pass on.

As for the pub discussion, all I can say is that at the break in concert, by friend turned to me and said” “A recital band it is, then”.

R.I.P. Paul Barrere of Little Feat

IMG_5743I interviewed Paul Barrere in 2010, just before he went on stage at the Cropredy Festival (where I took this picture of him performing). Ironically, it was the day after the death of Little Feat drummer and founding member Richie Hayward.

The article I wrote for Reuters can be found here.

Little Feat were one of my favourite bands at university in the early 1970s and I still love them. It is so sad that Paul has now gone too.