Monthly Archives: February 2011

Listening to the Nyckelharpa

Where all this started is with  Bazar Blå  (literally ‘Blue Bazaar’), who  are a 3-piece Swedish folk-band.  Their music is inspired by the Swedish spelman tradition whilst leaning slightly towards the music of other cultures, notably the Middle East.  They are Johan Hedin (Nyckelharpa), Björn Meyer (Bass) and Fredrik Gille (Percussion).

They’ve been playing and recording since the 1990’s, but I’ve been listening to 2 of their more recent albums – 2004’s ‘Nysch’ and 2009’s ‘Lost’, both of which are extremely good.  Many non-Scandinavian readers might be completely unaware of what a nyckelharpa is and explaining the details is probably going to stretch my extremely limited musical knowledge beyond its comfort zone, but I will try.

Nyckel’ is the Swedish word for key and this gives the clue to the nature of the nyckelharpa.  The instrument is roughly the size of a guitar and is generally slung round the neck and played with a bow.  The ‘neck’ of the nyckelharpa is festooned with wooden keys, which are used to change the pitch of the instrument.  This means that the nyckelharpa has more in common with the hurdy-gurdy than with the violin.  Whilst there are a number of variations, modern chromatic nyckelharpas tend to have 16 strings – 3 melody strings, 1 drone string and 12 resonance strings. 

Finnish nyckelharpa player Ärto Järvela

If you need more information, you’ll have to talk to an expert!  What interests me about the nyckelharpa is its sound, akin to a Hardanger violin, but with a fuller tone.  It’s an ideal instrument for exploring the massively rich traditions of Swedish folk music with its astringent harmonies and stately polkas, often infused with overtones of melancholy – the Swedish Blues. 

My introduction to the folk music of Sweden came about 40 years ago via a jazz album – Jan Johansson’s timeless ‘Jazz på Svenska’, (Jazz in Swedish) released in 1964.  It’s a wonderful record, only just over half an hour long, but with its stately, sombre mood and sparse arrangements for Johansson’s piano and Georg Riedel’s bass, it is an absolute classic and one of my favourite albums of all time.  Johansson plays a selection of a dozen or so classic Swedish folk tunes with extraordinary delicacy and lightness of touch,  refusing to cut loose and over-elaborate.  People will say that there are echoes of Brubeck and even (gawd ‘elp us) Jacques Loussier, but ‘Jazz på Svenska’ is far better than any such comparisons might suggest.

When I first heard this album in the 1970’s, most Swedish folk music was operating beneath the radar of utlendinger like me.  Sure, if you lived there, particularly in ‘folk-rich’ areas like Dalarna & Oppland, there was plenty going on at local level, but at a time when other cultures were actively championing the folk music traditions of their countries (Planxty & The Chieftains in Ireland, Fairport Convention et al in the UK, Alan Stivell in Brittany etc, etc) the Swedes seemed somewhat reticent.  Occasionally, something would poke its head out of the pine forests – there was an album on Sonet by some spelmanslag fiddle orchestra, but that was presented almost as an ethnographic exercise.  Organist Merit Hemmingson and her band produced a few albums of Swedish folk-meets-Jimmy Smith stuff, but no-one was really moving things along until relatively recently.  This always struck me as bizarre for a country with such a strong sense of its own traditions, but there were probably reasons and they are a trifle murky.

The revival of ‘Roots’ culture came late to Sweden.  Now there are bands like Bazar Blå, Frifot and the excellent Väsen who happily update the folk tunes of their country for modern audiences, both at home and in the midwest heartlands of Scandinavian/American Minnesota.  Hoven Droven have successfully blended Swedish folk with thunderous guitar rock;  finally, it’s all happening….

Bazar Blå on stage

So, what took the Swedes so long?  The answer is probably connected with their cultural interconnection with Nazi Germany during the 1930’s and the War Years.  In the Nazi worldview, one of the scourges of 1930’s society was what they referred to as ‘decadent art’.  This meant most jazz and dance music of the times, most ‘modern art’ and anything where any Jewish influence could be detected.  For the Nazis, a key concept was that of ‘das Volk’; not just a head-count of the German race, but an over-riding semi-mystical concept of collective memory, linking to the ancient tribes of Germany.  In this context, cities were bad news for the average German.  These healthy Aryan sons of the soil came from solid rustic roots, tied to the land and to tradition, only to be corrupted by the Jewish-inspired decadence of modern urban life.  In an effort to combat this, Hitler and the Nazi ideologues encouraged camping and hiking, trying to reconnect post-Weimar Germany with its bucolic Teutonic roots.

Predictably, the Nazis were looking for fellow-travellers and inevitably looked south to their Germanic neighbours in Austria, but also looked north, to the Norse sagas and folk traditions of Norway and Sweden. 

Swedish-German musical relations were also influenced by different views on music and politics in Sweden and Germany. For Nazi politicians, music and politics ran together and music was to give expression to Nazi ideology. In Sweden, music and politics were to be kept apart. Most Swedish composers and musicians defined their engagement with Nazi Germany as purely musical work. The Nazi government, for its part, used Nordic composers and music to confirm Nazi ideas on race biology and to spread Nazi propaganda.

‘Music & Politics’

Swedish anti-aircraft defence, 1940

Sweden remained neutral in both the World Wars of the last century and during World War 2 they did good business with Nazi Germany, shipping timber and iron ore into various Baltic ports.  However, it’s likely that the kinship went deeper than that.    In the 30’s, folk traditions were big news in Sweden as well, though they probably lacked the overtly political overtones found in Germany.  Some of this was about a reaction to the frightening pace of 20th Century life – cars, planes, electricity, bombs, factories – all of these things had rapidly and forever changed the landscapes of the pre-Industrial world.  For some, a retreat into the traditions of folk art meant a  reassuring reconnection with an era that had now largely been consumed and superseded by ‘the Modern’. 

The Swedish word folklig is still a word with mainly positive connotations—for example, meaning “natural,” “original,” and “simple.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept was often used to describe an authentic national culture that was threatened with extinction and had to be saved by collecting “folk culture,” among other things (Frykman 1993: 140, Lilja 1996: 31). Many people in Sweden during the first half of the twentieth century considered a concern for folklig musik as a remedy against “foreign mass culture,” and an effective protection for “the preservation of Swedishness” (Ling 1979: 22, Bohman 1979: 56–57).

‘Music & Politics’

Like most European countries, Sweden was infected with the virus of Fascism during the 1930’s but their tendency towards liberalism and tolerance meant that it never gained the same foothold as it did in Germany & Italy.  Swedish neutrality both before and during World War 2 was a question of brinkmanship; knowing when to resist and when to give ground to the combatants.  Once the Nazis had occupied Denmark and Norway, Sweden was trapped in its Baltic pond, heavily dependent on German goodwill for its survival.  Under the circumstances, economic and cultural interaction between Sweden and the Nazis was less of a source of controversy than any military involvement.   For their part, the Nazis enthusiastically espoused the folk art and music of their northern cousins.  Somehow, Sweden managed to maintain her neutral stance throughout the War, but the association of folk traditions with right-wing politics meant that once the Nazis had been defeated, younger Swedes were looking to American jazz and rock rather than to their own cultural heritage.  Folk music survived domestically but  inevitably diminished as its practitioners grew older and died.

After Jan Johansson came the ‘Roots’ movement of the late 1960’s, who were able to adopt the instruments and the repertoire of Swedish folk, free from the taint of wartime politics.  Since then, the tide has gradually turned, with Swedish folk bands making significant inroads internationally via labels like Northside and even ECM.  Availability of CD’s via the internet has also had a major impact as even the smallest of Swedish labels is now able to reach an international audience.  I read somewhere that there are now an estimated 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden – it would be interesting to compare that with 50 years ago.  Also,  the nyckelharpa is finally beginning to escape its parochial roots and become part of that repertory of international instruments – sitars, koras, tabla drums, uilleann pipes and the like – which are cropping up on recordings of music divorced from their immediate origins.  A case in point would be the Spanish nyckelharpa player Ana Alcaide; born in Madrid and now resident in Toledo, she won an Erasmus Scholarship to study at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. 

Ana Alcaide

Already a competent violinist, Ana adopted the nyckelharpa during her stay in Sweden and apart from playing in various Celtic bands in Spain has also recorded 2 CD’s of solo nyckelharpa material which taps into the music of Spain’s Sephardic communities alongside material originating in Sweden, Germany and Greece.  Bazar Blå, too, are blending their indigenous folk tunes with the tonalities of music from Turkey, Lebanon and further east.  Their percussionist Fredrik Gille plays a whole range of instruments, but is particularly adept with the bendir or Arabic frame drum, itself a distant cousin of the Irish bodrhán.  This is nearly as much a key component of the band’s sound as Hedin’s nyckelharpa.

At one point, it seemed as though the Nyckelharpa was destined for obscurity and even complete oblivion, but the revival of the Swedish folk tradition and the emergence of World Music means that it may well now reach a wider audience than ever before.

Recommended Playlist

Väsen – ‘Essence’ (1994) / ‘Live at the Nordic Roots Festival’  (2001)

Bazar Blå – ‘Nysch’  (2004) / ‘Lost’ (2009)

The Nyckelharpa Orchestra – ‘Byss-Calle’  (2000)

Ana Alcaide – ‘Viola de Teclas’ (2006)

Jan Johansson – Jazz på Svenska’ (1964)

FA Youth Cup Round 5: Manchester United U-18 v Newcastle U-18

United’s youngsters went into this 5th round tie at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground tonight with two of their most potent weapons missing through injury.  Will Keane and John Cofie have been enormously prolific this year, but both were confined to the sidelines tonight.  Keane has a ‘dead leg’ but should be fit for the Academy game against City’s ‘Elite Development Kindergarten’  (or whatever they call it) at Carrington on Saturday. Cofie, meanwhile, had minor knee surgery on Monday and could be out for the rest of the season.

Not ideal in the light of the fact that Newcastle’s youngsters were unbeaten since October; however, they had required extra time to get past Grimsby in Round 4.  Mind you, without Keane & Cofie, United had fielded an experimental front two of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Gyliano van Velzen in Saturday’s Academy game at Crewe and suffered a 5-1 thumping.  Not surprising , therefore that Tunnicliffe was back in midfield for tonight’s game with Ravel Morrison playing in a free role behind Van Velzen.

Straight from the kick-off, United established a dominance that remained largely unchallenged for the duration of the game.  It was founded on the midfield duo of Tunnicliffe and Paul Pogba, with Morrison dropping off to link play.  These three have the look of future first-teamers and they can only have impressed the watching Sir Alex Ferguson.  For all their dominance, though, United struggled to get the breakthrough that would undoubtedly have arrived if Cofie or Keane had been on the field.  Van Velzen has made an uncertain start to his career in Manchester and only looked comfortable when drifting across to his natural position on the left flank. 

Larnell Cole and Jesse Lingard occupied the wide positions but neither of them are the most robust of specimens and both were up against fairly rugged full-backs.  As a consequence, they tended to drift inside too often, leading to  a lack of width and major crowd scenes in the  penalty area whenever United got close to the Newcastle goal.  Even so, Lingard had United’s best early chance, blazing over from the angle when he should probably have hit the target.  Morrison was ghosting around; one minute deep in midfield , the next wide on the left, forever probing for an opportunity.  He it was who came closest to breaking the deadlock  after 20 minutes with a sweeping cross-shot that glanced off the base of the post, then set up Tunnicliffe for a powerful shot that was hit pretty much straight at Newcastle goalkeeper Jak Alnwick.

Ravel Morrison in action

Goalless at the interval and it was hard to understand how that had happened, but it had been a similar story at Crewe on Saturday where United  – again with no real strikers – created dozens of chances but only managed to take one, whilst Crewe created about seven chances and scored with five of them.  The fear was that history was going to repeat itself and a couple of half-time substitutions plus a more organised approach from Newcastle in the opening minutes of the second period saw them gaining more of a foothold in the game.  Even so, another melee in the Newcastle area saw Morrison poking a shot wide from about 10 yards out when he should have done better – sometimes you do feel that Ravel’s rather languid approach works against him.  Still, that’s what they say about Dimitar Berbatov and he’s our top scorer.

As if to prove the point, it was Morrison who provided the game’s decisive moment after 64 minutes.  Pogba chested a high dropping ball down to him  about 15 yards from goal and he danced past a couple of challenges, then looked to have been driven too far to the left , before pivoting and sending an unstoppable left-foot shot flying past a bemused Alnwick and into the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Newcastle tried to come back but found themselves in danger of going further behind as United concentrated on hitting them on the break.  In the latter stages of the game, both Larnell Cole (twice) and the tireless Tunnicliffe went close but one goal was all United needed and they closed out the game in relative comfort.

Next up in Round 6, United face a short trip down the M62 to face those loveable scamps from Liverpool, which may well bring Will Keane and Tom Thorpe up against their England captain Connor Coady.  The game is due to be played on February 26th.   Should United survive that, there’s the possibility of a semi-final over two legs against Chelsea, though their 6th round opponents, Watford, may have other ideas.  All in all, a dominant showing from United tonight but they need to get Will Keane (and hopefully John Cofie) fit if they are to win the tournament this year.

Listening to Torbjørn Sunde

When my friends are being kind about me – and thankfully, they usually are – most of them, I think, would take the view that I am reasonably well-informed about huge swathes of the musical landscapes that are available to us spoiled Westerners.  Years of major- label reissues, the emergence of niche labels which focus on specific sub-genres and the availability of internet downloads mean that pretty much everything is out there if you delve long and hard enough and exercise a degree of patience about these things.  Hard to say where a ‘healthy interest’ tips over into an obsession but I would acknowledge that I sail pretty close to that line at times.  I should probably get out more….
Of course, my interest isn’t totally comprehensive.  Like everyone else I have my blind spots; to offer just three examples,  I have no time whatsoever for Rap, Hip-Hop and its adjuncts, Heavy Metal and its multiple variations is a place I have no wish to visit and MOR Rock of the Elton John/ Rod Stewart/Queen ilk just makes me nauseous.
However, when it comes to jazz – and jazz from Scandinavia in particular – I would see myself as being particularly well-versed in what’s been going on there since the 1970’s.  In this very blog, I have written about the likes of the Espen Eriksen Trio, Huntsville, Susanna Wallumrød, Food, Jesper Bodilsen, the Michael Aadal Group, Hilmar Jensson…and so on.  By any normal reckoning, most of these performers would be reckoned ‘obscure’ to non-Scandinavians and perhaps to many who live over there.  For me, it’s a pure delight to be able to write about the wonderful music that has emanated from Scandinavia over the last 30-odd years and hopefully encourage some of those who visit here to check it out.
The problem is that there’s really too much of it for even my ears to take on board; the music isn’t always easy to come by, with some of the more obscure stuff available only via limited and arcane outlets.  Even so, when it comes to Torbjørn Sunde’s brilliant album ‘Meridians’  (ACT Music, 1998), I have to hold my hands up and confess to being completely blindsided.  Here’s a guy who I know of from his presence in some of those glorious Terje Rypdal bands of the mid to late 1970’s and as such, just the kind of artist I would normally keep a weather eye on.
Furthermore, he’s a great trombonist and I was blogging only recently about Curtis Fuller and how the trombone has almost become an exotic instrument in recent years.  I mentioned contemporary trombonists like Robin Eubanks and Annie Whitehead, yet neglected this guy,  whose brilliant, atmospheric playing was a key feature of Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ (1975).  Also, it’s not as though ‘Meridians’ found its way into the world via some obscure Norwegian label from Ytre Langvekkistan specialising in Sami reindeer-herding songs.  The album came out on Siggi Loch’s ACT label, now a major player on the European jazz scene.  OK, so ACT maybe wasn’t such a big deal until the Esbjörn Svensson Trio began to reinvent the European Jazz wheel around the Millennium.  Even so, ‘Meridians’ is an album that really should have cropped up on my radar before now.

There are a number of factors  that make ‘Meridians’ such an effective album.  Firstly and most importantly, it features some very fine playing by an ensemble who are generally far better known now than they were then.  Back in 1998, it’s doubtful whether too many  Eurojazz aficionados had heard of players like Rune Arnesen or Eivind Aarset, though they would certainly have heard of Terje Rypdal.  He guests on one track here and it’s probably the pick of the bunch; a near-10 minute long epic called ‘Kjære Maren’  which beautifully revisits the synth and cymbal-driven grooves of late 70’s Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Waves’. Bassist Bjørn Kellemyr, another Rypdal alumnus,  is also on board for this one  and Arnesen’s drumming effortlessly evokes the style of Jon Christensen.  The synth backdrop comes from  Bugge Wesseltoft who, back in 1998, was just beginning to make waves with his New Conceptions of Jazz ensemble and who features on keyboards throughout the album.

Another, more recent mainstay of Norwegian jazz is evoked in the funk-driven ‘Confronting Hemispheres’, where Sunde’s electronically manipulated trombone sounds not a million miles away from Nils Petter Molvær’s trumpet stylings.
Perhaps more surprising are ‘Vertigo’  and  ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, two tracks, where Sunde, apart from playing beautifully, also adds wordless vocals – I think it must be him as no other vocalist is credited.  These two tunes have the music of Brazil in their DNA  and this, plus the aforementioned wordless vocal immediately puts you in mind of what was, for me,  the ‘golden age’ of  the Pat Metheny Group  in the late 80’s ,where David Blamires and the late Mark Ledford contributed so much to the sound and mood of classic albums like ‘(Still) Life Talking’ and ‘Letter from Home’.  Ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena also features on ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, managing to sound like an entire rainforest.
I offer these points of comparison – Metheny, Molvær, Rypdal – simply to provide some context.  ‘Meridians’ borrows from these sources, but manages to be considerably more than the sum of its parts. 

As far as I can ascertain, Torbjørn Sunde continues to work actively as a sideman – principally with Norwegian artists – and also gigs with his own band in Norway from time to time.  Finding exact information can be difficult even when you can decipher Norwegian-language websites; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong place.  Since ‘Meridians’ there seems to have been just one Sunde CD – a Chet Baker tribute – but sadly, no sign of any projects with the same scope as this.

Perhaps someone out there can offer some updated information?  In the meantime, do try to track down a copy of ‘Meridians’ – it should still be available via the usual outlets.

Listening to Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire (hereafter ‘EW&F’) are a band with a long (and often illustrious) history and have been active since 1969, when Maurice White, sometime  drummer with the Ramsey Lewis Trio,  formed the original version of a band that has been through countless personnel changes and stylistic shifts over the years.

My first exposure to EW&F was via their 1975 album ‘That’s the way of the world’,  the soundtrack to a ‘warts’n’all’ movie about the music industry that sank without trace despite featuring a young Harvey Keitel.  The movie may have been dross, but the music certainly wasn’t; EW&F came across as a funk band with rock sensibilities and with a fondness for quoting John Coltrane riffs in the middle of songs – guaranteed to get my attention……

Mid-70’s Earth Wind & Fire

This was a time when black music had only just emerged from the straitjacket of black entertainers trying to be like white entertainers;  the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a golden age for soul music on record, with Motown & Stax at their peak, but many black performers, on stage at least, were still dressing in suits and tuxes and still channelling the showbiz schmaltz of a bygone era.  For all the brilliance of their recorded output, artists like Otis Redding,  Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Smokey Robinson were – to a greater or lesser extent – still locked into that whole white crooner thing.  In truth, Sinatra had probably stolen it from earlier black singers anyway, so it could be argued that they were just stealing it back again. 

Even so, it took a new generation of performers to create a stage persona that owed more to the speech, dress, values and conventions of  black communities worldwide than it did to any cheesecake Hollywood mythology.  There were a number of factors in play that helped this process; one was the way in which black Americans rediscovered their relationship with Africa, culminating in the huge mid-70’s success of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ saga – both in book form and on TV.

Even before that, though,  jazz artists like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp (to name but three) had begun to evoke the spirit of their African ancestors through their music – and sometimes via the adoption of African or Muslim names.  As the 60’s turned to the 70’s, soul artists like James Brown and Wilson Pickett  travelled out to Ghana & Nigeria to play at huge festivals – something often explained as ‘reconnecting with their African ancestors’.  Hmmm….

Dizzy Gillespie in African mode….

Also, in America at least, there was a leakage of ideas, music and attitudes between  disaffected white kids and the coming generation of black kids.  However  you view the ‘counter-culture’ of the late 1960’s, it has to be said that the hippies were generally less hostile to black people and black culture than their parents had been. On the West Coast, a band like Santana could boast a black bassist, several Hispanic musicians and a white keyboard player.   Doesn’t sound too radical in 2011, which I guess is a measure of how far we have travelled since Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on the bus back in 1955.

I’m not enough of  a sociologist to connect all the dots in the picture of black urban life in American cities in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, but we all know about the growth of the Black Power & Black Arts movements, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, the subsequent riots in Watts , Harlem and elsewhere and the attempts of black communities to rebuild afterwards. 

We also know about the 1969 Woodstock Festival and how a generation of young white Americans were defined (for the wider world, at least) by Michael Wadleigh’s split-screen extravaganza of a movie that appeared the following year.  But there were black performers at Woodstock, too and whilst Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix were seen (and marketed) as ‘rock’ performers, one of the sensations of the film were Sly & the Family Stone, who would have been new to most of us.  Combining earth-shaking bass with agile vocals and  punchy brass, the Family Stone were dressed to impress as well and though their impact musically was fleeting, they brought home with considerable force the idea that black could be beautiful on its own terms.  ‘Woodstock Nation’ rapidly became a myth that outstripped its prosaic origins and even survived the ‘anti-Woodstock’ of  Altamont just a few months later.  It was a groovy marketing idea, man, and the record and fashion industries weren’t about to let it go.

Sly in tassel  mode

Black Power, Black Pride, the need for inner-city regeneration and the impact of the Woodstock myth all came together with Wattstax, firstly an event, then later a movie and an album.  This wasn’t some romp in the fields of upstate New York, but a one-day concert staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum  in August 1972 to commemorate the  anniversary of the Watts riots.  Tickets were sold at $1 each and the attendance was allegedly in excess of 100,000, though it seems far less in the film of the event. Jesse  Jackson was on hand to remind the crowd of how strong they were as a community and Stax Records airlifted in many of its roster to play – The Staples Singers told people to respect themselves, veteran maverick Rufus Thomas did the Funky Chicken in an outrageous hot pink suit with short trousers whilst headliner and emergent black superstar Isaac Hayes arrived on stage wearing a lot of gold jewellery and tinselly clothes to a build-up that wouldn’t have disgraced the Second Coming.

The movie ‘Wattstax‘ appeared the following year and Mel Stuart’s direction was notable inasmuch as it gave as much time to the ordinary people of Watts as it did to the performers.  There are interviews –  sometimes jovial, sometimes deadly serious – with local young people, often aided and abetted by Richard Pryor’s clowning  and then there’s lots of lovingly filmed footage of the audience arriving in their finery and inside the Coliseum on a sunny afternoon enjoying the music.  Viewed nearly 40 years down the line, it’s this footage, rather than the musical content, that sticks with you.  Here’s our community, it seems to be saying, and ain’t we fine ?

Rufus Thomas at Wattstax

‘Wattstax’ was just the tip of the iceberg.  Elsewhere, established artists like Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye were struggling to break the chains of the Motown Charm School and speak with their own authentic voice.  James Brown was cementing his position as the man who could get down with politicians as well as with his own brothers & sisters, but there were a whole host of 1960’s soul stars – Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations – who never really made that transition from Soul Men to Soul Brothers.  In their place came a groundswell of new bands and performers, many of whom were signed to record labels more generally associated with rock music and who blended soul and funk with jazz, latin and rock textures to form new hybrids.  As well as the eternal James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, there was Malo,  The Meters, Tower of Power, Mandrill, Bobby Womack, Harlem River Drive,  Phil Upchurch, The Crusaders, The Ohio Players,  ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks and Rufus (w/ Chaka Khan)  – all of whom were black performers or largely black bands making some outstanding records in the early to mid-1970’s.  Also notable was the image these bands were projecting – gone were the tuxes and process hairdo’s; instead we got Afros, leather and fringed buckskin at the hippie end of the spectrum, trending towards satin, spangles and eyeshdow among the more pop-orientated bands.

Mandrill, early ’70’s

And so to Earth, Wind & Fire, who  had moved west from Chicago and had signed a deal with Warner Brothers which saw them making little progress to begin with and undergoing  frequent personnel changes as they searched for their ‘signature’ sound.  After a tour where, somewhat mystifyingly, they supported arch-hippie and folkie  John Sebastian, Columbia bought out their Warners contract, heralding the start of their rise to prominence.  The comings and goings to and from the band over the years could keep me busy here for several thousand more words, but I would never presume to be an EW&F completist, so I will restrict myself to noting the arrival in 1972 of two key figures; vocalist Philip Bailey, whose high falsetto was such a trademark of 70’s EW&F and keyboardist Larry Dunn whose versatility and chops were so fundamental to the band’s  sound.  Dunn would later go on to guest with and produce the superb Latin/Fusion ensemble Caldera, but more of them another time.

I’ve been listening to an  album  released in  2002 and called ‘That’s the way of the world – Alive in ’75’, which demonstrates all of the qualities that made them such a class act, not so much transcending genres as obliterating them.  This live CD – as the title would suggest – was recorded at various US dates on the band’s breakthrough 1975 tour and the setlist inevitably favours the then-current ‘That’s the way of the world’ studio album, which generated a huge hit single in ‘Shining Star’  and a trademark anthem in the album’s title track.  For me it surpasses ‘Gratitude’, a 1975 double album with considerable duplication of songs, if not performances, mainly because it sounds like it was all recorded at one gig – actually it wasn’t but who cares?  There is schmaltz, of course, with Philip Bailey holding forth about lurrrvvve to all the (squealing)  ladies in the house, but this was 1975, after all and Bailey’s quasi- libidinous ramblings can’t detract from an on-the-money performance that reveals 1975-vintage EW&F to be every bit as good on stage as they were in the studio.    

EW&F on stage….

All the classic EW&F ingredients are on show, a tight rhythm section, the punch of the (then) recently-added Phoenix Horns, brilliant keyboard textures from Dunn and last but not least, Bailey and Maurice White heading up a vocal ensemble that could virtually embalm you in sugar-sweet harmonies or play it low-down and funky with the best of them.  At the core of it all is Maurice White’s songwriting and Larry Dunn’s arrangements,; all killer, no filler, as they say.

Of course, performers continued to come and go, though Dunn remained a constant , and EW&F ultimately got dragged into the black hole of Disco as the 70’s came to an end.  Such was the fate of many black funk musicians who followed the money trail.  By the 80’s, most of those early 70’s  funk bands had given up the game or climbed into spandex jump suits.  Exceptions would be The Meters, who by the late 70’s had  sorta, kinda morphed into The Neville Brothers and Tower of Power, whose horn players reassembled the band whenever they weren’t playing sessions for all & sundry. 

EW&F’s stage shows became increasingly mind-boggling with the band disappearing from the stage in pyramid-shaped spaceships; a sort of black Spinal Tap in some ways.  They were never really a disco band – as bassist Verdine White (one of three White brothers to play in EW&F) said; “I guess you could say we were at the party but didn’t get on the dance floor”.   Even so, by the early 1980’s, the die was cast and the band’s output became subject to the law of diminishing returns, with Parliament and Funkadelic picking up the baton for pure funk and outrage. 

The cover for Parliament’s UK 12″ single, ‘Deep’ – probably my favourite record cover of all time and all done pre-Photoshop

Earth, Wind & Fire still continue in some form or another to this day, but I would guess that routine has long eclipsed innovation in what they do.  No more Coltrane quotes during the instrumental passages, I suspect.

Facing the final curtain…..

Last time out, I was blogging about how the Transfer Window had come and gone with little or no activity at Manchester United, but that’s not to say that significant changes aren’t afoot.

For a start, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has returned to Norway to manage one of his former clubs, Molde, whilst the last couple of weeks have seen two high-profile players announce their retirement from the game.  First of all, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar announced this season would be his last, whilst this week saw Gary Neville acknowledging that it was time to ring down the curtain on what has been an illustrious career.

Of the two, Van der Sar will be the one whose departure will have the biggest impact, mainly because there is no obvious successor to him currently at the club.  Young keeper Ben Amos is too inexperienced at this level, whilst long-time understudy Thomas Kuszczak is generally regarded as being a bit unreliable.  New signing  Anders Lindegaard made a solid debut in the FA Cup tie at Southampton, but rumours persist that United will bring in another more experienced keeper in the summer.

Van der Sar has undoubtedly been United’s best goalkeeper since we lost Peter Schmeichel in 1999.  His calm, typically laid-back Dutch personality informs everything he does; in fact the only time I’ve seen him truly excited was after the Champions League final victory over Chelsea in Moscow.  Gabriel Clarke, or one of ITV’s pitchside crew, grabbed him for an interview just a few seconds after his decisive penalty save from Nicolas Anelka in the shoot-out.  “Edwin!” gushed the reporter, “Tell everyone at home how it feels to win this trophy!”.  Van der Sar looked dazed but happy and adddressed the watching millions as follows……..”Well, err, fucking hell..err……”  was about all he managed to say before being rugby-tackled by Rio Ferdinand and half a dozen other delirious Reds.  Priceless. Frankly, his reaction made more sense than any amount of psychobabble from the talking heads in the studio.

“We’ll always have Moscow….”

Gary Neville will be missed far less on the pitch, if only because of the emergence of Rafael da Silva as a natural successor and Gary’s own decline over recent years.  Nev has been dogged with injuries for about the last four years and it seems a long, long time since he was at his best.  In common with many other United fans, I would have to say that the announcement of his retirement has probably come a year or so too late.  His occasional first-team appearances this year have demonstrated only that whilst the spirit was undoubtedly still willing, the flesh was having none of it.  I can understand his reluctance to quit; gritting your teeth and facing down your demons is almost a patented Gary Neville trait, but Fergie should have had a quiet word with him at the end of last season – you never want to see a great player embarass themself and Nev has come close to that on more than one occasion recently.

Media coverage of his retirement has been quite amusing as pundits have struggled to give Nev the credit he deserves without saying what we all know to be the truth .  That truth is that he’s been everything you would want a United defender to be – committed, loyal, brave.  However, he’s also a prime example of a player for whom hard work and dedication rather than any innate skill took him to the very top of his profession….and make no mistake about it, he was the best for a few years there, particularly when playing Sancho Panza to Beckham’s Quixote down United’s right flank.  For me, only Brazil’s Cafu and Argentina’s Javier Zanetti were his equal….

A lot of United fans will see Neville’s retirement as another sign that an era is drawing to a close.  There are already murky rumours that Paul Scholes will follow Neville into retirement at the end of this season and whilst Ryan Giggs must have a ‘Dorian Gray’-style portrait stashed in his attic, even he is unlikely to go on beyond next season.  I suppose that we should be grateful to have had the services of these great players for so many years – and more to the point, the most successful years in the club’s history.

Gary Neville – the badge-kisser who really means it…

What I’m wondering is, where does the club go from here?  Whatever Ferguson says about there being ‘no value in the market’, other clubs would beg to differ.  The whole Carroll/Suarez/Torres merry-go-round will not have troubled United fans too much as we are currently over-burdened with good strikers – Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov plus loanees Welbeck, Diouf and Macheda and strong prospects in the reserves – Morrison, Keane and King, in particular.  Oh, and then there’s Michael Owen, whose recent interviews on MUTV reveal a man with the demeanour of someone who’s just realised his ship sailed a few years ago now.  He, too, may retire in the summer, but his sharp instinctive finish at Southampton shows he still has something to offer, though probably not at United.

Midfield remains the problem area, with Scholes not as effective as in the early months of the season, Carrick not the same player since his achilles injury last year, Anderson, erratic to say the least of things, Fletcher running around a lot and Gibson lumpen.  Giggs has come on to save our bacon in the away games at Blackpool & Southampton, but to expect him to go on pulling rabbits out of hats indefinitely is wishful thinking.  Looking at the reserves, Paul Pogba  and Ryan Tunnicliffe are nowhere near ready to step up yet; they’ll need another year of occasional Carling Cup and substitute appearances at least.  No-one else there really looks up to it.

We really need a marquee midfield signing this summer, but no-one really springs to mind right now.  The problem is that we are still cruising along at the top of the Premiership and looking forward to a winnable tie against Marseilles in the next round of the Champions League.  Fergie would probably say ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ but whilst we may get away with it this year, time and tide – as Gary Neville would no doubt agree – wait for no man.

Fergiewatch # 6: Few changes at Sleepy Hollow

Transfer Deadline Day yesterday and, of course, the really big deal of the day saw United youngster Cameron Stewart turning his loan deal at Hull into a permanent transfer.  Good luck, Cam; probably a wise decision with Nani, Valencia and Obertan ahead of you in the queue for the right side of midfield.

Obertan has allegedly put in a transfer request; errr, désolé Gabriel, but the Transfer Window just closed.  Seems a weird piece of timing, but there you go.  I wondered what lay behind the recent attempts to convert Obertan into a central striker ( a miserable failure at Southampton on Saturday last) and maybe the two issues are connected.  The thing is that no-one can yet be sure how Valencia will be when he returns from his long lay-off at the end of the month, so maybe Obertan’s chance will yet come.

Football’s equivalent of the Chattering Classes have been in full swing today, chewing over the implications of yesterday’s feeding frenzy that saw Torres off to Chelsea and Andy Carroll trying to use Liverpool’s bid for him to leverage more money out of My Cashly’s  battered piggy-bank.  Didn’t work, his bluff was called, so Carroll is now a Dipper.  This surely makes him the most ludicrously overpriced English centre-forward since Garry Birtles – and hopefully, he’ll be similarly effective.

Andy Carroll wants yet more money…..

One thing is for sure, there are a lot of bruised Dippers and Geordies out there, wondering how they can afford to have their Torres/Carroll tattoos removed.  Both players were, to use an overused adjective, ‘iconic’ figures in the sense that they had publicly identified themselves with the ‘mythology’ of their (former) clubs and were seen as figureheads by the supporters.  Every club has been there; United fans went a good way down this road with Wayne Rooney earlier this year and are probably now wishing they hadn’t made such a fuss.

Some – like Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole – are never forgiven by fans of their former clubs and you do suspect that Carroll would do well to avoid Bigg Market for the next few centuries.  Torres, being Spanish, wouldn’t have any reason to return to Liverpool anyway (except when Chelsea are at Anfield or Goodison Park) but,  after all,  that’s as much a case of good breeding as anything else.

Time will tell who’s come off best in this day of Duelling Chequebooks – Chelsea have presumably paid top dollar to bring in a new sulky striker to replace their existing sulky striker(s) but if Ancelotti can motivate him, Torres is a force to be reckoned with, albeit one that is alarmingly injury-prone.  As for the Dippers, the more bullish would say that they’ve invested in potential with Carroll but £35 million represents a big gamble and if his off-field antics are as colourful on Merseyside as they were on Tyneside, he’ll probably be on the front pages as often as he is on the back pages. 

My Little Torres

The jury is still out on Carroll in terms of how good a player he actually is and how able he is to deal with the demands of fame. Either way, he’s ridiculously overpriced – this was a transfer inflated by the following factors: Torres asking to leave so late in the ‘window’ (££££) and leaving Liverpool little time to find a replacement (££££), Carroll being one of the only young English-born strikers of any consequence right now (£££££), the need for the Red Sux suits to offset the anger of Dippers’ fans  at Torres’ departure  and be seen to back Dogleash(££££) and the need to make the fee so huge that Ashley couldn’t ignore it (££££).

Meanwhile, back at Sleepy Hollow, all was calm.  Phelan took Fergie his afternoon cup of cocoa and everyone settled down for a nice nap.  Amazing how the Moral High Grounders have been praising City, Arsenal and United for their restraint in the midst of all this mayhem.  This is a bit like applauding Glenda Hoddle for not making any offensive comments about disabled people this week.

A lot of United fans, mindful of the club’s reputation for lavish spending in years gone by, will still feel uneasy at the lack of activity last month.  Fergie’s insistence that ‘there’s no value in the market’ doesn’t hold any more water now than it did when he first said it and since when did that stop United from spending anyway?  Of course, the man who brought us the godlike talents of Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba would never stoop to such flagrant spendthrift behaviour anyway, even though he’s broken the British transfer record on about 9,000 occasions.