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Music changes and music endures

Browsing in a record shop this weekend, I saw a copy of an album by The Pretty Things for sale at the whopping price of £95 ($125 or thereabouts). It surprised me because a) they were not that big a name back in the day and b) I suspect that a lot of people today have not heard of them.Unknown

When it comes to records, of course, that does not necessarily make a difference. It is rarity and condition that counts, and this was an original, not a re-pressing.

Still, it got me to thinking about how music — like art — can be appreciated after the fact. Vincent van Gogh was not at all famous when he was alive and was certainly not a commercial success. Similarly, Mozart  struggled and ended up in a pauper’s grave.

This is not to say The Pretty Things are destined for late greatness (although I know one Millennial who rates them quite highly). I, for example, am still not overly familiar with their work. My main recollection was when I was around 14-years old and my father came harrumphing into the house to say he had just heard them on the radio and  that “They were singing about drugs!” It was not an endorsement.

It is just that seeing their album at such a price in the shop reminded me that things get judged differently over time. ABBA is a prime example. No self-respecting rock-prog musico like me would have dreamed of listening to them back when they were chart-toppers. After “Muriel’s Wedding”, however, things changed. Still not a huge fan, but I do listen with some pleasure because they are clever.

And I am constantly reminded of something Rick Wakeman told me when I interviewed him for my old employer Reuters. He said he had met a young fan with a copy of one of his oldest albums. He asked the fan why he was listening to that old stuff, and the fan said something like: “It’s old for you, but I have only just heard it”.

Music changes and music endures.


Music travel: The birthplace of country

DSC04611Claiming that your town is the birthplace of a genre of music as big as country seems a bit risky. But the U.S. town of Bristol (Virginia/Tennessee, explanation later) does have some justification.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of The Victor Recording Machine Company showed up with a mobile unit, invited locals from the area into town and recorded them in what are now known as The Bristol Sessions. It marked the public debut of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, among others.


Rolling up in Bristol for a family wedding, I managed an hour at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Well worth it. It is a small, well-appointed museum that explains it all.There is an very good orientation film, a lot of musical instruments, photographs, a working radio station (WCBM 100.1 FM MHz) and a fabulous little gift shop for music geeks (I bought some picks and an LP of the sound track to Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series and fled before I spent more).DSC04613

I did not have time, but the town itself has a lot of music venues as well as the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival.

The quirky think about Bristol, meanwhile is that it straddles the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. State Street is the border, with markers running along it where the yellow lines are (below).

Peer made his recordings at the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company, which was at 412 State Street, on the Tennessee side. The museum is in Virginia . So while Bristol in the birthplace, there is plenty of scope for debate about which state is (although Tennessee probably gets the nod).DSC04626

Robert Plant’s new gig


robertplacefromTWanvilartsWhat do you do when you are a 70-year-old rock legend with time on your hands? Well, go on the road again with a new band, of course. It’s the music, stupid.

Robert Plant (ex of Led Zeppelin, as if it needed to be said) has spent much of 2019 touring UK civic centres with a new band. I got to catch him early on when he was  ever so gently testing the waters  with Saving Grace.  When I saw him in February (in Basingstoke) he made a surprise support act appearance for veteran folk-rockers Fairport Convention on their winter tour.

The music was tight yet relaxed — a contradictory combination that testifies to years of experience. The 40-minute set could easily have gone on to a full concert as far as the surprised audience was concerned.

On offer was an eclectic mix of folky-bluesy-jazzy tunes that never once disappointed.

There was, for example, a wonderfully harmonious rendering of Doc Watson’s “Your Long Journey,” a melodious delivery of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” and a haunting version of a Plant favorite, the spiritual “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.”

The latter — theme tune to the TV series Boss — put chills down the spine.

Also outstanding was “Season of the Witch,” an interpretation of the Donovan classic that somehow (and delightfully) morphed temporarily into Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

It was a test run, so not everything was clicking. There were times, for example, when the guitar work seemed misplaced. But Plant’s famous voice has held up really well over the years (as have the long curly locks, though now they are now quite a bit greyer).

It was beautifully augmented by co-singer Suzy Dian, who looked to be more than 40 year’s Plant’s junior but whose voice sounded as if she were born to sing with him.

The harmonies were spot on. So much so, in fact, that Plant melded with Dian better that he did with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand, which was no mean accomplishment. Backing them was Tony Kelsey on guitar and mandolin, Matt Worley on banjo and guitar, and Oli Jefferson on drums.

Saving Grace comes across as a synthesis of two of Plant’s more successful post-Zeppelin ventures: 2007’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand and 2010’s Grammy-nominated Band of Joy. The former was a melodic dip into country; the latter a more hard-hitting strain of folk-rock.

Both were excellent, so Saving Grace is brimming with promise.

(This is an updated and edited version of an article  I wrote for No Depression roots and Americana website).


Remembering the (musical) dead

I have always wanted to see the iconic grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery. But as I have said on numerous occasions, you cannot got anywhere without running into music (or “Music everywhere” as I sometime tweet. So naturally I ran into the graves to two major contributors to music, albeit from different ends of the spectrum.

First, was Bert Jansch (and his wife who died only a few months after him). Bert was ex-Pentangle, of course, but also  author of one of the best folk albums I have, simply called Bert Jansch.


Second was Malcolm McLaren, promoter and manager of Sex Pistols and New York Dolls.   I was in America when punk was hot and missed most of if it because I was in Americana territory, not New York or LA. So Malcolm does not mean as much to me as Bert, but his grave is very cool.

Highgate Cemetery, Malcom McLaren


Stretching bluegrass

When asked by No Depression to review Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen’s album If You Can’t Stand the Heat, my initial reaction was “Bluegrass again? What more can you say about it?” Plinking banjo, thumping bass, and a good deal of yee-haw. Good fun, but often not much difference between one song/band and another.

franksolivanWell, I was wrong, of course. Frank Solivan and his band Dirty Kitchen (more about the name later) have created an album that is just about as eclectic as bluegrass can get. Their label, Compass Records, says the band is “defining what bluegrass means in the 21st century.” Sales hyperbole aside, they have a point.

There are some traditional songs on If You Can’t Stand the Heat. Try “Lena,” about as frenetically bluegrassy as it gets with as much plink and yee-haw as you could want. Or listen to “Crooked Eyed John” — slower, but hillbilly as all get out (to use a culturally appropriate phrase).

Other tracks, however, diverge quite substantially from the genre even while they remain true to the instrumental basis of bluegrass in the background. A lot of it is catchy and highly enjoyable.

“Shiver,” for example, is borderline rock with opening mandolin and guitar chops that bring Little Feat to mind. It is not that heavy, but it’s close to anthemic (and my choice for best song).

“Crave,” the first track on the album is plaintive and harmonic. A bit pop, a bit folk, and a bit country, it is one of those songs that has the music nerd in me tearing his hair out to decide what genre it is. But it is decidedly not traditional bluegrass.

In the same vein, “Set in Stone” is rather bluesy, with haunting vocals and a touch of the Western about it.

Then there is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which is bound to be the best-known song on the album and may well be there to catch the eye. For me, it is never going to replace the Steely Dan original. But the band does use it quite successfully to show that bluegrass instruments and style can stretch quite far without being ridiculous or a spoof (such as the wonderful Hayseed Dixie).

None of this, of course, would be possible if Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen were not a collection of really fine musicians. This comes across in every song, with Solivan standing out on mandolin, Chris Luquette on guitar, and Mike Munford on banjo — all held together by Jeremy Middleton on bass. This band is very tight and the solos are impressive. They are clearly accomplished performers.

As for the name, Dirty Kitchen is an in-joke referencing Solivan’s gourmet cooking. This is apparently so good there is a side project — “The Dirty Kitchen Experience” — in which Solivan prepares a three-course meal for paying customers, followed by a concert with the band.

If that kind of thing takes off with other bands,  I may have to become a food reviewers.

(This is an edited version of a review I wrote tfor No Depression roots and Americana website).


From My Archives: “This is Reggae Music”

A recent tweet from the splendid music blogger Every Record Tells A Story  got me thinking about an LP I have that I have not listened to for a while — “This is Reggae Music”.  ERTAS had just bought a copy of the album. I am not sure which version but the cover was green, which Discogs tells me was a double, produced in 1976 or 1978, and probably released by Island.

My copy has a yellow cover, a single disc and was bought by me in 1975 when I was doing my undergraduate degree at university (yes, I am that old). It was released by Trojan, the British reggae, rocksteady and dub pioneers that started bringing the West Indian sound to the UK in 1968.

I mention this not out of any kind of competition (I am not that kind of collector and zzthisisreggaemusicye_101bwould lose overall to ERTAS if I was), but because it puts my version of this various artists classic into a historical context. It was released to get the middle-class long-haired boys and hippie girls of 1975 Britain (prog and glitter rockers in the main) into a genre that had the unfortunate birth pangs of being adopted by skinheads.

Boy, did it work — certainly for me —  which is why a second volume was released. But this single volume was reggae dawn for many.

From the ethereal opening lines of the eponymous first track by Zap Pow — This is reggae music, hear it in the stars — to the thumping protest of The Wailers “Concrete Jungle” — No chains around my feet, but I’m not free — the album still sends me into swaying raptures.

Along the way are a few now well-known artists such as Jimmy Cliff (“Hey, Mr Yesterday”) and The Maytals (“Funky Kingston” and “Louie, Louie”). Among other tracks, there is  a very sexy number from Lorna Bennett (“Breakfast in Bed”) and a Bob Marley-produced number from Owen Gray (“Guava Jelly”).

This compilation really is one for the ages . For reggae fans it is a must; for those not into the genre, here’s your intro. This is reggae music.

Beautiful music video of Grave Lines

New music video filmed by my son, Joshua Gaunt (aka Josh, but not around me). It is of the band Grave Lines. I know I am biased, but I think the filming is great. (I also really like the music).