Tag Archives: rock

A night in the house Richard built

The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, Portland, February 2019

No one could accuse Richard Thompson of being on-trend. For almost half a century he’s written songs and played a guitar, rarely rising above the status of cult hero, musician’s musician, or – the most back-handed compliment of all – critics’ darling.

On a snowy February night at Portland’s Revolution Hall, he’s still at it – touring with his band and playing songs from a record he released last year. As for trends, some 850 people have come out, filling the venue to capacity, to hear him do so.

It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the Englishman (at this stage a living folk-rock legend) perform. The first was in a packed tent in rainy field in the Irish midlands more than a decade ago – the stand-out track that afternoon being a version of “From Galway To Graceland“, his song about a Elvis fan who makes that trek, believing she’s set to marry The King.

In 2011 and 2015 I attended his shows – the latter an acoustic set, not unlike a show in Thompson’s living room – at Vicar Street in Dublin. These two gigs had all the traits of the first – blistering guitar work and an acerbic, if not outright sarcastic, stage manner.

Revolution Hall last Monday was more of the same: the guitar and the palaver, underpinned by the songs. New ones too – at least half the set was composed of tunes from “13 Rivers”, Thompson’s most recent release – a stronger, leaner set of songs than his some of his recent albums.

As befitted the time (Monday night, heavy weather, mid-winter), the set leaned toward the ominous on occasion (new song “The Storm Won’t Come” in particular), before Thompson – job done, Stratocaster turned down – produced the classics, the old favorites he’d advised then audience to wait around for, at the start of the show.

These included – most notably – a version of Fairport Convention’s “Genesis Hall”, dusted off and remodeled after almost 50 years, “Beeswing”, “Wall of Death” and – his calling card (and possibly his albatross) – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, whose opening riff was enough to justify the audience’s weeknight trip through snow and ice.

The highlight – for me, at least – took place during the first encore, when Thompson performed “Dimming of the Day”, his love song for onetime wife Linda Thompson, solo and acoustic. The performance was simple, stark and clear – no irony, no pyrotechnics. Who doesn’t want a love song – albeit a desperate, pleading one – to end the evening?

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George casts a long, long, long shadow

George Harrison.

George Harrison.

The Beatles’ White Album contains a great many things for me. The proto-punk of “Helter Skelter”, the arpeggio wonder that is “Blackbird”, John Lennon’s heartfelt song to his absent mother, “Julia”.

And then there’s “Revolution 9”, the musique concrète sound collage that I only listened to for the first time in full this past week.

But, after almost three decades of listening and distilling the double album – the 50th anniversary of which falls later this month – what stands out to me, first and foremost, is George Harrison’s songwriting. Specifically, his two songs “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”.

While the rest of the White Album sways from musical beauty to discordant freak-out to music hall fluff – often in the course of a couple of songs – these two Harrison tracks appear as something different, music on and from a different level (given “Long, Long, Long’s” genesis in Indian meditation practices, perhaps “transcendent” is the word).

Dissecting them for meaning is somewhat pointless – they exist in the ear and the soul. One’s a song about love’s importance (“Long, Long, Long”), the other’s a song about love’s potential, with one of the most perfect guitar solos in popular music (courtesy of an uncredited Eric Clapton).

Both have been written over at length (my favored account of each is contained in Ian McDonald’s classic “Revolution In The Head“), as has the White Album itself, not least because a newly-remastered, bells ‘n’ whistles release is in the offing.

All this attention has brought me back to the original album, and listening to it has brought me back to Harrison’s songs. As the man, and the band, and the album itself – despite reissues – slip into history, his music sounds completely fresh, completely now.

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You can’t always get what you pay $399 for

1035x776-PosterDesert Festival? Why didn’t they just call it Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and have done with it?

Music fans who like to mix their morbid curiosity with four course paired-wine dinners will be reaching for their wallets on Monday, when tickets to a three-day music event next October go on sale.

Call your dad, and your granddad too. Because Desert Festival’s six acts – Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters – fall firmly into the catch-’em-before-they-pass-away category.

The festival’s blurb speaks of a “once in a lifetime” event, with the acts “serving up three incomparable nights of rock’n roll”.

It neatly skips past the large, existential elephant in the room – the fact, given the age of the performers, this is indeed very likely to be a “once in a lifetime” chance to see rock’s 1960s survivors in one place. That said, grim mortality never went that well with the 60s’ spirit (though perhaps the Stones could repurpose Miss You at short notice if needed).

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Putting cynicism to one side (always necessary when reading about the Rolling Stones), and discreetly ignoring the mind-blowing ticket prices (general admission starts at $399, with an extra $99 to pitch your tent, and that’s before the wine pairing) could it all be worth it?

If you’re a hedge fund manager flying business class to Palm Springs the answer is a comfortable ‘yes’, not least because you can squeeze six legendary acts into three days while enjoying four course meals ($225, plus fees). Stomaching a Neil Young rant on the evils of corporate America is unlikely to present a problem breeze, particularly given the excellent bar facilities.

But for fans who are – to put it bluntly – poorer, there’s a less of a pull. Any rock listener worth his or her salt has seen some or all of these acts previously or, if they’re like me, has turned down the chance to.

More to the point, the groundbreaking recordings many of them have made have become, after half a century in some cases, separate from the acts themselves.

The 20-something Bob Dylan who performed the thin, wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde will not be in Indio, CA, nor will the angry Pete Townshend behind Won’t Get Fooled Again or the Roger Waters  who co-wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond for his pal.

This music is out there, with a life of its own, long distanced from its composers.  Very little can bring us back 50 years in music, history or people’s lives – not even the opening riff of Satisfaction.

Mind you, it would be worth $399 to see the look on the hedge fund manager’s face when Bob Dylan embarks on an hour of Frank Sinatra covers.

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

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On ‘Blonde On Blonde’

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

I’m past the stage of thinking that a record can change your life. I’ve spent hours, days, sometimes even weeks lost in certain albums. And for me, that’s enough.

Any more – such as 18 discs of out-takes from one album – is too much, even if that album is Blonde On Blonde.

But not for many Bob Dylan fans, a sector admittedly not known for taking half-measures. Next month Columbia Records will release The Cutting Edge: The Bootleg Series Volume 12, 5,000 copies of which will be packaged in a limited collector’s edition, comprising 379 tracks crammed onto those 18 compact discs.

The ‘thin, wild mercury sound‘ has got a whole lot thicker.

News of The Cutting Edge made me wonder just how much Bob Dylan any one person needs to hear in their life; it also helped me realise that I’m becoming a simpler type of fan – one who’s happy with the original records, thanks.

I’ve been through my outlaw phase. The early days of bootlegs on eBay or, before that, Saturday afternoon visits to an old basement record store on Wicklow Street (whose name eludes me), which offered shelves of cassettes, all manner of live shows, outtakes and unreleased demos.

I still prize my Blood On The Tapes bootleg – the alternative Blood On The Tracks, cut by Dylan in New York with a stripped-down backing band shortly the later sessions used in the official release. And maybe one or two others.

But there it ends. It’s years since I’ve hunted down a particular session and, as time has passed, much of the better stuff has been cleaned up and officially released anyway.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan, 1963

The complete Witmark Demos, a bootleg passed to me with reverence by a college pal, was issued back in 2010. After a rush to the record store on the day of its release I returned home, slipped on disc one and waited to hear, down the decades, the coughing kid with the rough, golden touch I’d listened to 15 years earlier.

It sounded like what it was – a demo of a young, talented kid, rushing through what he had. The silver thread was missing.

Since then I’ve told l myself that I’ve changed – the younger man willing to spend hours listening to the same 1962 radio session over and over doesn’t have the time or the interest anymore. (That’s not to take from a powerful Death Of Emmett Till on the same recording).

But then I put on the studio albums, and one in particular always delivers – Blonde On Blonde, the record that emerged from the 379 tracks that make up The Cutting Edge.

Its 72 minutes brings much to mind – the Eason store on Church Street in Athlone, long gone, where I bought my first copy; the long, Guinness-and-chianti fuelled nights in college where it was a constant soundtrack; the many moments over the years when it’s come on, or come to mind. Different places, different times, different people – and always the same shambling opening line: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good”.

But it’s not a nostalgia trip. The album is as live an experience today as it was when I first heard or, or when Dylan first cut it, in a studio in Nashville almost half a century ago.

And at its centre is a song I still can’t get my mind around, with lyrics which have haunted me down the years – heat pipes coughing, ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of a woman’s face, harmonicas playing skeleton keys and all-night girls riding the ‘D’ train.

One version of Visions Of Johanna is enough for any man.

Blonde On Blonde hasn’t changed my life, it’s just been a constant part of it.

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50 years on, bidding farewell to The Dead

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

What a long, sometimes strange, trip it was.

This weekend, after 50 years of music and two decades on from the death of Jerry Garcia, the original members of the Grateful Dead will take to the stage for the last time.

Fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field – some of whom paid $11,000 for their general admission ticket – can expect a blueprint Dead performance: four hours of music, built around the jazz-inflected solos and space rock jams that the band’s become renowned for over the past half century.

For some it’s the end of an era, one rooted in a 1960s San Francisco that seems impossibly distant from 2015. For others it’s ‘did they not wrap up years ago’?

For those of us in between, it’s a case of mild nostalgia leading to a dig through the archives.

Or, as WH Auden wrote on the death of earlier cultural giant: “A few thousand will think of this day
as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual”.

Grateful_Dead_-_Workingman's_DeadMy own interaction with the Dead’s music is, by a fan’s standards at least, lamentably limited. In fact it’s mainly based around two albums, a pair of stripped-down acoustic recordings released within five months of each other in 1970 – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Both were recorded at a time when the band was under financial and other pressures – Phil Lesh later recounted how Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Box Of Rain were inspired by the terminal illness of Lesh’s father.

The albums are peopled with characters from the first half of the American 20th century – some real (Casey Jones, Mississippi John Hurt) some an amalgam of the nameless thousands (the cut-adrift singer of Brokedown Palace, the drifter happy to meet a Friend Of The Devil).

One song in particular has stood out in the 20 years or so since I first heard it.

Ripple is the axis on which American Beauty turns, an existentialist lyric in an easy turn of phrase, on top of a gentle melody.

Owing more Thoreau than Timothy Leary the recording stands, 45 years later, as a call to self-reliance:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.

To those who listened, the Dead brought us this far – now we’re on our own.

 

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The punk persistence of Patti Smith 

patti-smith-horsesIt’s almost 40 years since Patti Smith released Horses – a recording she will perform live in Dublin next Monday.

As music, as image, as artefact, Horses stands apart – a repository of Smith’s punk reveries and the deconstructed rock music of her band.

The record propelled the poet-singer to stardom, of a sort – as a boho-punk queen who blew aside the machismo that saturated the first generation of rock music. The music on Horses was as direct as the singer’s stare on the front cover of the album.

The record itself is full of literary and musical influences, from Arthur Rimbaud to The Ramones, Wilhelm Reich to Them.

But you can also hear something on Horses that goes back beyond these inspirations, past the iconography, the legend and the acclaim that surrounds the album, to a younger Patti Smith.

By the time Horses was recorded, in 1975, Smith had been pursuing her muse for eight years, since leaving her New Jersey home aged 20 for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, by way of Brooklyn.

She’d waitressed, attempted to work as a book restorer, been a clerk and a salesperson, all jobs which helped her scratch out a living while writing poetry and painting.

justkidsedit1Her memoir Just Kids recounts these early, almost always drizzly New York days; and the nights spent in cold-water flats or, at the outset, sleeping in doorways or rough in Central Park. There are moments of bright light too, afternoons spent with her partner Robert Mapplethorpe at Coney Island, evenings in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel with Harry Smith or William Burroughs.

The commitment to writing, the mental persistence of these early days in the face of poverty and doubt and illness, lies at the heart of Horses.

Tracks like Land (which paid tribute to Rimbaud) or Gloria (a track which begins with an anti-prayer – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” – before reincarnating Van Morrison’s original) stand out on early listens of the album.

But its core is the simpler, touching Free Money, a song which gives us Patti Smith before she became the Patti Smith. There are no allusions to French symbolist poets or cries to God here.

Addressing her penniless lover Mapplethorpe, Smith instead asks: wouldn’t it be great if we won the lottery?

Every night before I go to sleep
Find a ticket, win a lottery,
Scoop the pearls up from the sea
Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.

She never did, of course. Instead she pulled her way up page by page, pushing and persisting until she sounded a call which resonated with thousands of others like  – and unlike – her.

Drudgery, rejection and poverty turned to poetry and music – that’s what makes Patti Smith punk.


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