Category Archives: Music

Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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Here comes your band (25 years later)

Pixies, Roseland Theater, Portland, Nov. 2018

Pixies, Roseland Theater, Portland, Nov. 2018

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the Pixies (always with the definite article) were about the most mysterious band I’d ever encountered.

Back in the early Nineties the internet didn’t really exist (at least not for me), and music magazines were expensive. My teenage knowledge of the band and it’s music was therefore mainlined from their albums.

Throughout those years Black Francis seemed like some caterwauling, demented monk, hellbent on screaming his visions of violence, Catholicism, and sadomasochism over an explosive quiet-loud-quiet sonic tapestry.

Needless to say I couldn’t get enough. Even the last album of the classic Pixies era, the patchily-reviewed ‘Trompe Le Monde’, seemed daring and exotic to my 15-year-old ears – and even more mysterious than the other records, now that the band were singing zeitgesty tunes about the Roswell Incident.

Then, of course, the Pixies split up. In the years that followed neither Black’s solo material or Kim Deal’s outfit The Breeders – great as the latter were – could fill the gap. By the time the original band reunited in 2004 I was far too deep into a British folk music obsession to bother spending a three figure sum to see them in a big, windy park.

Slicing up eardrums.

Slicing up eardrums

And that was where I thought I’d leave it. Once every six months I’d blast ‘Surfer Rosa’, maybe read the odd interview, but I never really believed I’d see the Pixies live.

Until last month, when I did. Well, technically speaking at least. It might have been by way of seeing two bands on two different nights in two separate venues, but, either way, I finally ticked another one off my musical bucket list.

First up was Kim Deal at the Wonder Ballroom a few weeks back – a show I wrote about previously. This week it was the turn of her three former bandmates, Black, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering, touring as the Pixies with Paz Lenchantin replacing Deal, at the Roseland Theater.

It was a big night for 39-year-old me, and an even bigger one for the 15-year-old that’s still some inside my head. Where was my mind? Somewhere between being knocked out by the rapid-fire dispatch of indie classics, and being a little down about the fact that I never caught the original band in their prime.

Nowadays it seems that the Pixies constantly tour – and it shows. This was a tight set, with barely a missed note (if you discount Lenchantin’s wobbly vocal on the encore ‘Into The White’). At times it was a little too tight – no sooner had one all-time classic ended than Black was off again, lashing into the next tune.

If it felt a little overpolished at times, well, so be it. Mind you, their thunderous takes on newer songs ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ and ‘Head Carrier’ left little to complain about. And did I ever think I’d hear their version of Neil Young’s ‘Winterlong’?

Throw in ‘Something Against You’, ‘Nimrod’s Son’, and the Nineties Irish indie disco staple ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, and you had the makings of a good, and seriously loud, night. My only complaint was that it wasn’t 25 years ago.

But, as Black Francis would have screamed back then, ‘Cookie, I think your…tame!’

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Free jazz has killed my CD collection

Will I play these again?

Will I play these again?

I own hundreds of CDs. More actually, well into the four figures. I know this because, before moving to the U.S., I had to pack and carry four cratefuls of them to be shipped.

As I did so, I wondered: what’s the point? Do I need these things? Will I ever play most of them again?

And then I reassured myself that of course I would, that they were a vital part of who I was, that they were intrinsic to my well-being. Many of them had been a part of my life for years, so how could I live without them? Seriously?

It’s now November 2017 and I’ve not listened to a CD properly in 16 months. As I type this, the same crates are lying in my basement, alongside my CD player (which, damaged in transit, hasn’t worked since I arrived in Portland). With the exception of taking the occasional disc to the car to ease the commute, I haven’t unboxed any of them.

And – though I never thought I’d write this – it hasn’t mattered. Like most amateur music listeners, I now listen to music via a streaming service, aware that the sound quality is not as good, that the speakers are not as hi-tech as those with my old CD player, and that my booklet-perusing days are all but over. The audiophile I want to be is horrified.

Jan Garbarek. Pic: Yancho Sabev

Jan Garbarek. Pic: Yancho Sabev

Sometimes I feel a pang of regret – like, for instance, when I gaze upon my beautiful copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology. But rarely.

Rarely that is, unless I want to listen to music issued on ECM. The German jazz-classical label opted to keep its output off all streaming services in recent years. Not being able to listen on Spotify was bad enough – knowing that I had dozens of ECM albums sitting in boxes close by was a tease.

As time passed, the only reason I had to buy a CD player was to listen to Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, and others who’d recorded for the label. Now that last reason’s fallen.

Last week ECM, making somewhat sniffy noises about piracy, relented, and placed its back catalog on a number of streaming services.

It’s great for me. I can now listen to Art Ensemble of Chicago while driving, or Tomasz Stanko while working out, or Dave Holland’s free jazz while writing blog posts (the latter’s probably not wholly advisable).

But, now that the initial excitement has faded, I’m left with an existential music listener’s question. Will I ever listen to my once-beloved CDs again?

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Songs about pints, pals, and public transport

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

It might sound a bit, er, poncey, to describe Guy Garvey as an heir to John Betjeman.

But, as the years pass, the more I listen to the Elbow front man’s songs, the more he strikes me a type of minor laureate, an increasingly-beloved back-of-the-commuter-carriage commentator on Modern Life.

Not that commuting is the only thing the two artists have in common (although, it must be said, some of their better known works concern travelling on the rails – see Elbow’s song ‘Kindling’, or Betjeman’s poem ‘Middlesex’). They’re both Englishmen whose lyrical writing highlights the everyday, sometimes banal yet occasionally sublime, aspects of Englishness.

John Betjeman, 1961

John Betjeman, 1961

And so Garvey will start a song by singing of “lippy kids on the corner again”, sounding like a middle aged grouch, only to shift the tune to a heartfelt cry for the loss of innocence: “Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys!”

Betjeman, for his part, was adept at highlighting the ordinariness of life’s most profound moments:
“She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa…”

They have something else in common too. Just as I read Betjeman’s  ‘A Shropshire Lad‘ as a song, with it’s musical cadence and rhythmic lines, so many of Garvey’s lyrics read well as simple, heartfelt and heartworn, odes.

Not just to train stations, or home, or the north of England, but to a certain slightly awkward, and very male, mix of nostalgia, friendship, and affection.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey

Garvey and Co. showcased this at the Roseland Theater in Portland last weekend, with a stirring performance of ‘My Sad Captains’, a song about, having a few pints with the lads, and pushing the boat out a bit, like you used to do 20 years before.

Another sunrise with my sad captains
With who I choose to lose my mind
And if it’s all we only come this way but once
What a perfect waste of time…

There’s nothing rock and roll about the song, let alone sex or drugs – it’s really just a stirring musical account of a hangover. But in Garvey’s hands, even a hangover is a chink through which we can see some universal light.

For each and every train we miss
Oh my soul
A bitter little Eucharist
Oh my soul…

Trains, ales, and a few Northern lads having the craic? I’m sure Betjeman would approve.

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Kim Deal’s back – and she’s got business

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

A rainy night in Portland this week brought me back to drizzly 1990s afternoons on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge.

The link was a band from Dayton, Ohio. Before last night, the closest I got to seeing The Breeders perform was buying a bootleg cassette of a Dublin show of theirs, from a guy with a suitcase on a bridge over the Liffey.

Those who lived in Dublin in those days will remember this guy, or one of a dozen of his competitors, who flogged their wares from mobile displays (the more mobile the better, if the cops were around) on the bridge, or on Henry Street, or outside the Bank of Ireland at College Green.

Their market was – I’m guessing – the hardcore fan, those who couldn’t sleep unless they had a permanent, low quality, record of AC/DC’s 1991 show at the Point Theatre.

Not that I was a super-fan, or anything like it. I went to the bridge for a simpler reason. As a poor student at the time, the IR5 I spent on the Afga C 60 – with black and white photocopied insert, color being extra – was less than the IR30 it would have cost to buy The Breeders’ two CDs back then.

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Of course, the quality of the bootleg (recorded from a microphone in the crowd, not the sound desk) was a pale shadow of what the band sounded like on the night they played the Temple Bar Music Centre in 1994, or ’93.

I bet neither could compare to the on-point performance I witnessed at the Wonder Ballroom last night – one which brought me right back: beyond Portland, or Dublin, to the first time I heard ‘Last Splash’ as a teenager, led to it by multiple viewings of the ‘Cannonball’ video on 120 Minutes.

Minutes before Kim Deal and her band mates took to the stage last night a pal remarked that being turned on to Pixies – Deal’s other band – was a seminal moment for many music fans of our generation. It was equally so with The Breeders.

All the stuff that blew me away back then did it all over again: that one huge bassline, Kelley Deal’s Hawaiian guitar effects, the 1 minute and 45 seconds of perfect pop that was ‘Fortunately Gone’, ‘Divine Hammer’s’ crescendo, which closed out an encore.

But enough nostalgia. Forget Dublin bootlegs, and ‘No Aloha, and “want you, cuckoo, cannonball” – the highlight of the night was ‘Wait In The Car’, a new track released just before the tour.

Above trashing drums, a distorted, chopping guitar, and a drilling lead line, Kim Deal’s refrain sounded like Your Mom the Nasty Woman. “Wait in the car – I’ve got business,” she snapped.

The Breeders are back.

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Out of season – and with good reason

Rain in Portland, winter 2016

Rain in Portland, winter 2016

As an Irishman, winter’s here.

It began on November 1, not December 21 – the incomprehensibly late date observed in the United States.

The timing of the seasons is something the Celts got right. The drenching skies, low clouds, and fading daylight of November mean winter, not autumn/fall.

Leaping into the hardest season on the morning after Halloween means that, by the time Christmas arrives, you’re halfway through. And the days are getting longer by then, too. How could winter just be starting at that time?

I picked up the ‘winter in November’ belief at school in Ireland, and I’m fairly sure that it’s a commonly-held belief there to this day.

So, it’s hard – as someone who now lives in Oregon – to accept that the forthcoming 48 hours of chilly rain is just another fall weekend. And don’t get me started on the other cultural divide that pops up at this time of year – the pumpkin spice latte.

Whether I’m living in the right season or not, I’m guaranteed to be doing one thing this weekend – spending too much time sheltering indoors. Which for me, means a lot of time listening to music.

And what better music to listen to in Portland, in November, than an album called ‘Winter Light’, by an acoustic jazz combo called ‘Oregon’.

Who says I’m not in tune with the seasons?

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Woody lives!

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.

The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.

My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.

Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.

My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.

Every verse hit home, not least the last:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.

All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.

So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.

Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.

I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.

Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.

As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.

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‘Like an enormous yes’

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

The words ‘jazz poetry’ are enough to make any sane person reach for their Revolver.

The mental image is the old stereotype of a turtlenecked beatnik, rambling at a dozen pals in a basement coffeehouse, as his roommate attempts to accompany him with some beginners’ clarinet.

But poetry about jazz is a different proposition, and something that’s likely more palatable. This occurred to me recently when Sidney Bechet’s recording of ‘All Of Me’ shuffled onto my speakers, showcasing the New Orleans native’s soprano sax lines, loud and clear.

The same sound prompted the British poet Philip Larkin, a jazz record reviewer in his spare time, to pen an ode to Bechet, and the New Orleans sound and scene that he emerged from.

‘For Sidney Bechet’ is not unlike one of jazzman’s own solos – compact, emotive, perfectly poised. It pays homage to the front (and back) rooms of The Big Easy, and recognizes the voice that Bechet and his contemporaries gave to its community a century ago.

What’s more, Larkin also provides the single best description of jazz in words – a sound which falls “like an enormous yes”. Play that thing!

‘For Sidney Bechet’

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.  My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

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Chasing Trane, 50 years on

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

I clearly remember the first time I played a John Coltrane recording.

It was in early 2000s, on a searingly-bright weekday morning in a house I shared with a group of others in Killester, Dublin. The previous night had been a late one, and I was feeling tender in body and mind as I gripped a coffee cup and pressed ‘play’ on my newly-purchased ‘Blue Train’ CD.

My initial response was faint recognition – I was sure I’d heard the title track at some point before, probably from a TV show or movie. But in my tired state, I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed – Coltrane’s first solo, a blistering example of his famous ‘sheets of sounds‘ technique, underscored with stabs of trombone and trumpet from Curtis Fuller and Lee Morgan.

I’ve probably listened to the track 100 or more times since that morning, to the extent that I can anticipate every note and shift, every soloist’s exit and entrance. Coltrane’s performance stands up to repeat listening, as do the performances of all six musicians on the session. (It took just one listen to Paul Chamber’s short bass solo to dispel my years of rock music-based, dismissive ignorance around rhythm section solos.)

I’ve also listened to plenty of other Coltrane recordings since that morning – from his groundbreaking take on ‘My Favorite Things‘, to his spiritual suite ‘A Love Supreme‘, to his genre-twisting take on ‘Greensleeves‘.

But I always return to ‘Blue Train’, the pulsing, pushing hard bop number that kicked off what became one of Coltrane’s top-selling albums. And it was the song I turned to this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the saxophonist’s 1967 death, an event which remains a painful loss for jazz fans and for any lovers of unfettered, creative expression.

And ‘unfettered’ is the word. Although Trane would record freer, more adventurous music in the 10 years after ‘Blue Train’, none of it quite combines the Atomic Age feeling of motion, speed, progress, and freedom that this recording does. Just try keeping your foot still.

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More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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