Tag Archives: Music

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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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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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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The next time you hear “Ride On”…

Jimmy MacCarthy

Jimmy MacCarthy

There is something peculiarly folk music about the fact that the name of the man who wrote some of Ireland’s greatest modern ballads is not widely known, internationally at least, despite his songs travelling the world.

This occurred to me recently when I stopped into Kells Irish pub in downtown Portland one evening, and heard the performer on stage break into “Ride On”. The song was made famous, of course, by Christy Moore, on his 1984 album of that name and in thousands of live performances since.

The singer in Kells duly cited Moore’s performance of the song. I’m sure he has, at one point or another, performed “Missing You”, or “No Frontiers”, two other staples of modern Irish folk music.

And which were written by Jimmy MacCarthy – a name, though not as well-known as Moore’s or The Corrs’ (who’ve also recorded his work), ought to be.

“Ride On” alone secures MacCarthy a place in the choir of great Irish songwriters; the addition of “Missing You” would settle any debate on the matter.

But his greatest composition, to my mind, remains his poignant ballad about the tragic boxer Jack Doyle. Outside of song, Doyle’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story is relatively well-recounted. “The Contender” charts the Corkman’s rise and fall across five verses, from “the contender to the brawl”, as MacCarthy frames it.

It’s a masterclass in songwriting, a work that’s tragic without being sentimental, that’s affectionate but open-eyed. Perhaps fittingly, my favorite version of the song is the one below, recorded live by Moore in 2006. (MacCarthy’s own studio version, from his 2002 album “The Moment”, sounds overproduced, though his live performance of the song, which I saw in Wexford that same year, was wonderful).

Accompanied by guitarist Declan Sinnott, Moore mixes up the pride and the pathos of Doyle’s story. He also pays tribute, at the outset, to the man who wrote the song.

The next time you hear “Ride On” then, or the great London-Irish emigrant song “Missing You“, or even The Corrs’ breathy take on “No Frontiers”, tip your hat to Jimmy MacCarthy.

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Dylan and the Dead (literary greats)

Bob Dylan, 1984

Bob Dylan, 1984

What do Sully Prudhomme, Count Maurice (Mooris) Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Henrik Pontoppidan and Halldór Kiljan Laxness have in common?

Well, firstly they were all writers, though I confess to not having read any of them.

But they are also members of a select club, one which an ageing American musician joined this week (not that he had a choice in the matter).

Like Bob Dylan, they are all Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Unlike Bob Dylan, their work can hardly be considered popular consumption in 2016.

And yet at one time all were considered authors who produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as Alfred Nobel put it.

Of course, one man’s ideal direction can lead to another’s blind alley. Dylan’s elevation to the canon of literary greats speaks more about the Nobel Prize, and artistic awards in general, than it does about a 75-year-old’s musician’s creative output.

The hat-tip may have seemed revolutionary to subscribers of literary magazines but don’t the classic works of Greek tragedy – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides – have their roots in choral songs? Two thousand years later, weren’t the chanson de geste – the 13th century epic poems that laid the basis of French literature – sung, not read?

And now we argue about whether the author of ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ deserves a spot at the table of greats?

As Dylan himself stated many lifetimes ago, when asked if he was “a singer or a poet”: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man”.

Which may explain why, as the critics got their quills in a twist this week, the songwriter was at the Chelsea Theatre in Las Vegas doing what he does, singing, dancing and making no reference to the world’s premier literary award.

He not busy being born and all that…

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

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