Category Archives: Music

Quiet is the real loud – Nick Cave in Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portland

Death, anger, violence, retribution – no one said a Nick Cave concert was going to be easy.

Lyrically (and musically too, on a few of the numbers) his performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this week was raw id – as the 59-year-old prowled the stage like an enraged preacher.

Words were declaimed, rather than sung:

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brother’s heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red…
Tupelo!

So Cave described the coming on a devastating flood on the Mississippi town, while his band, the Bad Seeds, created an apocalyptic din behind him.

Later in the evening, early lines in “Stagger Lee” gave us an indication of the direction the murder ballad was set to take:

So he walked through the rain and he walked through the mud
Till he came to a place called The Bucket Of Blood…

But the real sturm und drung wasn’t to be found in such surging, nihilistic narratives. Towards the end of their two-and-a-half hour performance, Cave and his cohorts dimmed the lights, fired the projector, and slipped into the stately “Distant Sky”, a recent composition widely speculated to be about the tragic death of the singer’s son.

"Distant Sky" at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

“Distant Sky” at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The song is a narrative of escape, as one lover tells another that it’s time to leave a painful place. It opened with Cave himself speaking his lines, to the sound of a church-like organ: “Call the gasman, cut the power out, we can set out, set out for the distant skies”.

Then the lights dimmed, and a ghostly image appeared behind the band – that of soprano Else Torp, who echoed Cave’s call to leave:

Let us go now, my darling companion
Set out for the distant skies
See the sun, see it rising
See it rising, rising in your eyes

The specter and the singer made for a ghostly, poignant performance, undercut by the grief of Cave’s lyrics: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us…but they lied”.

The performance also made for something far more desperate and affecting than the earlier, louder songs – not least for Torp’s painful prayer at the song’s end.

Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
This is not for our eyes

It was a moment of grief mixed with resurrection mixed with pain, that left the audience of 2,800 people standing and sitting in respectful silence.

Not for long. Within minutes “The Weeping Song” brought us back to the preacher Cave, pacing and proclaiming.

But the effect remained – for some emotions, quiet is the real loud.

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PJ Harvey at the Crystal Ballroom

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Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.

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‘We know where you live’ – Radiohead in Portland

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

Radiohead, Portland, April 2017

As I walked out of the RDS on the night of June 21, 1997 little did I realise that it would be 20 years until I saw Radiohead perform again.

Or that it would be in a city on the other side of the world, a few thousand miles from where Thom Yorke once floated down the Liffey.

But Portland, Oregon, where the band played last weekend, has one thing in common with that summer’s night in Dublin – plenty of rain.

My abiding memory of the RDS show is Yorke, arms extended, singing “rain down on me, from a great height“, as the heavens opened over Dublin.

Portland’s Moda Center is an indoor basketball arena, so there were no such apt theatrics last weekend. Instead there occurred a performance far more powerful than the one I’d seen during the band’s purported OK Computer heyday.

In fact, Radiohead appear to have left their most popular album behind; only ‘Airbag’ and ‘No Surprises’ were aired at the Moda Center (the latter was admittedly one of the highlights of the night, not least for the reaction to it’s “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us line“).

Instead, some 20,000 of us were treated to a loud, jittering, two-drummers-and-plenty-of-knob-twisting production that – days after Khan Sheikhun gas attack and shortly before the U.S. dropped the GBU-43/B MOAB bomb – seemed perfectly in tune with the times.

Songs like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ were full-on sensory attacks, performances whose lyrics (“women and children first, and the children first, and the children“) did little to reassure.

Even when things quieted down, during ‘Lotus Flower’ or ‘You and Whose Army?’, the tension remained, the sense of dread shifting from the public to the personal.

It erupted close to the end, with the performance of ‘Burn The Witch’, a song of round ups, gallows, persecutions, and paranoia, an anthem an the age of ICE arrests.

“Burn the witch, we know where you live,” intoned Yorke.

The Nineties couldn’t have seemed farther away.

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Amy Winehouse, a room, and a song

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

“She was the last real individualist around.”

So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.

What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)

Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.

Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.

“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”

So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.

The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.

Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.

She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.

‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.

Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.

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Teenage Fanclub and what they did to me

Teenage Fanclub at the Wonder Ballroom, Portland, March 23, 2017

Teenage Fanclub at the Wonder Ballroom, Portland, March 2017

Teenage Fanclub look a bit different now to how they did the first time I saw them.

Back then it was the mid-1990s, the height of Britpop – a genre that never fitted a band with C86 roots. I was 18 and all I knew of Blake, McGinley, and Love was ‘Sparky’s Dream‘, which I’d heard on a compilation tape, and the fact that Kurt Cobain had called them out years earlier as “the best band in the world”.

They played the cavernous Point Depot in Dublin, a docklands warehouse poorly equipped for sound. Nonetheless they pulled off a great show, topping a bill which included the Manic Street Preachers and Beck, and rounding out a long evening of loud music and warm beer.

(My abiding memory of that night, 20 years ago, is of a local grungy long-hair stepping onto the stage from the audience, and banging away on a tambourine as the band encored with ‘The Concept’. Rock on!)

Fast forward two decades and we’re all a little different. Gone is Norman Blake’s floppy hair, while Raymond McGinley looks uncannily like my doctor. Gone too, are the thousands who saw them in Dublin – Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, while boasting a healthy crowd, isn’t quite full.

And, needless to say, I feel a couple of lifetimes away from the teenager who nodded away to ‘The Concept’ in the Point.

What hasn’t changed is the music. In the intervening years, Teenage Fanclub have released album after album of perfectly-pitched guitar pop. The hooks never flagged, the melodies were never second rate.

They also never attained the status heralded by Nirvana’s front man but, if they had, it’s unlikely I’d have seen them up close in Portland this week.

Seeing though? More like hearing. Visuals were never to the fore for Teenage Fanclub. In Portland, just as in the Point and in Whelan’s (the Dublin venue where I caught them with Jad Fair, in 2002), they led with the songs. And what a batch – the 90-minute set covered music from their first album (set closer ‘Everything Flows’), through the middle years (‘Start Again’, ‘About You’ – a snippet of which below) to their 2016 release ‘Here’ (‘I’m In Love’, ‘I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive’).

Also in the mix is, of course, ‘Sparky’s Dream’, the song that started it all for me, and whose lyrics resonate even more now than they did 20 years ago: “That summer feeling is gonna fly – always try and keep the feeling inside”.

Teenage Fanclub? The best band in the world. Again.

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Lou and Laurie’s rules for life

'Here he comes, all dressed in black.' Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

I don’t associate Lou Reed with lifestyle advice. Nor his wife Laurie Anderson. Groundbreaking, avant garde, rule-shredding music – yes. How to maximize your living minutes – not really.

Until I came across, via an Open Culture post, Lou and Laurie’s three rules for living well. Anderson revealed these during her acceptance speech at Reed’s 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

She and Reed developed them because, as she warns, “things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on”.

The rules are short and simple.

  1. Don’t be afraid of anyone
  2. Get a really good bullshit detector
  3. Be really, really tender

And what better to accompany them than Reed’s great song of empathy, his “hand in the darkness so you won’t be afraid”?

There – you’re living better already.

 

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Morning glory – but life’s a different story

NME - August 1995.

NME, August 1995

Is it 25 years since Britpop emerged? Yes, as BBC’s Radio 6 Music has persistently reminded me in recent weeks.

My first, immediate, thought on being reminded of this is: what the hell happened to the last two decades? It seems like only yesterday that I bought a copy of Blur’s “Parklife” as a birthday gift for my sister, and only a couple of months since “Don’t Look Back In Anger” was released.

But no. We’re as far from the heady days of “Animal Nitrate” and Ocean Colour Scene now as we were from The Beatles back then. And to be honest, given the output of some Britpop bands (that’d be Ocean Colour Scene again), 25 years isn’t far enough away.

While I listened to, and liked, some Britpop, it was never truly my thing. For every spin Elastica got, the first Radiohead album probably got three. Damon Albarn’s pubs ‘n’ dogs Essex stories paled in comparison to what I considered to be, at the time, much more important – the po-faced politics and visceral sonic stab of “The Holy Bible“.

Not being inclined, then, to listen to hour-long ‘wish you’d been there documentaries’ on the part of various English journalists and DJs, it recently occurred to me – what’s my one quintessential Britpop song? What single tune summed it up for me?

There could be only one, a release that towered above the rest. It has it all – the middle-class obsession with property, city dwellers who are “successful fellers”, Benny Hill-esque models falling around haystacks, and Damon Albarn’s vocals. The video was even directed by Damien Hirst. What could be more 1995 than all that?

Not to mention the fact, 20 years older and supposedly wiser, I still kind of like Blur’s “Country House”. Even if that “reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” line gets stuck in my head for days afterwards, every time.

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A four-letter word that woke me up

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Clyde Stubblefield. Pic: Paul VanDerWerf

Who listens to radio anymore? I mean, really listens? Who has the time to tune in faithfully to a favorite show, to sit down, not distracted by driving or screens or other commitments, and take it all in?

Not me. My radio listening tends to be on my morning commute, a half hour grabbed as I stop-start along the Sunset Highway out of Portland. Along with 45 minutes on the return leg in the evening.

It’s a far cry from my teenage years in Ireland, when I’d tape Dave Fanning’s 2FM evening show, or my 20s when Donal Dineen’s Here Comes The Night was required late evening listening. Dineen, in particular, was a curator non nonpareil – what blossomed into an obsession with Prestige-era Miles Davis recordings developed from his playing “It Never Entered My Mind” on a couple of consecutive summer nights back in 2000.

It’s a while since I’d experienced that sort of inspired broadcasting. Occasionally, back in Dublin, I’d pick up something new from In The Blue of the Night or, if I had time, BBC’s 6 Music, but it was a rare thing.

Then I moved to Oregon and, in the process, discovered KMHD,  a public radio jazz station that broadcasts in the Portland area. Initially I listened as a breather from the increasingly-depressing news cycle; within days I had awoken to the razor-sharp music choices, and was hooked. The morning and evening shows offered a decent cut of those great ’50s Prestige recordings (way beyond Miles, I might add), mixing them up with recordings from local scene artists, modern UK, and European jazz – all sweetened with sizeable dollops of soul and funk.

A case in point – when Clyde Stubblefield died last weekend I knew Derek Smith’s The Morning Session show would celebrate his work. Then, on Tuesday morning, straight after the 8 a.m. news, I duly heard “Funky Drummer”, the James Brown side that features Stubblefield’s legendary drum break.

Now, for the first time in years, I’m coming across new (to me) music and wanting to take note of tracks, artists, and albums. Where once I sat with my finger above the ‘record’ button on my cassette radio now I search KMHD’s website and build Spotify playlists. When I turn on the radio these days, it’s not for a half-hour’s mindless humming, but to source new sounds.

To that end, here’s a short playlist of tracks gleaned from the station’s broadcasts over the past few weeks. The music’s mostly modern, with a couple of classic artists thrown in. It’s a brief, listenable testament to why I’ve fallen in love with radio again.

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Just a little bit of rain

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.

It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.

Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.

This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.

And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.

Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.

Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.

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Keeping the hoping machine running

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

On an afternoon in February 1940 a songwriter, tired of what he saw as the blind patriotism of the then radio staple “God Bless America“, sat down in his New York City hotel room and typed out a series of verses that he’d worked on over the preceding months.

The writer was Woody Guthrie and the result was his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” (which he’d originally, and sarcastically, titled “God Blessed America For Me”).

In the 80 or so years since, the song and its lyrics have become some of the best known and most sung lines in the American songbook.

But “This Land” was a slow starter. Having written the song Guthrie sat on it for four years, during which time he performed around New York city, including on the subway (above), and served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. When he returned to the song to record it, in 1944, he dropped two hard-hitting verses, one concerning private property and the other hunger.

(The latter was the most biting verse in the song, containing the lines “one bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the Relief Office I saw my people, as they stood hungry, I stood there wondering, if this land was made for you and me?”)

This was unsurprising perhaps. After four years of war Guthrie no doubt felt the need to cast his song, written in anger, in a more unifying light. And so the version he recorded for Moses Asch in March 1944  is one laced with hope.

On the day that’s in it, hours before a new and divisive president is inaugurated in Washington, D.C., its lyrics are worth reading. Because if you can’t keep the hoping machine running, what can you do?

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

 

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