Category Archives: Music – Acoustic

1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’

IF

The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

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Watching The Staves @ The Hare & Hounds, Birmingham 28 November 2012

Catch ’em while they’re hot, as they say….and having recently been on the Jools Holland TV show, The Staves are about as hot as a trio of close harmony singing sisters from Watford can get.

I’d already seen them at the 2011 Moseley Folk Festival in what must have been a very early gig for them and they held the attention of the mid-afternoon crowd with the  quality of their singing and their material .  So, when they showed up at a local watering hole, it seemed rude not to go, really.  As a pub, The Hare & Hounds has little to recommend it, but the larger upstairs music room is excellent, with a high stage permitting decent sightlines from anywhere and good acoustics as well.

The Staves Portrait

The Staves – wonderful singers with an air of faded innocence

Things have moved on at a smartish lick for the Staveley-Taylor sisters since I last saw them.  Apart from the Jools Holland thing – which seems to have galvanised their career in a similar fashion to The Civil Wars last year – they have toured the UK a couple of times,  then toured in the USA with Bon Iver,  played support to them in front of thousands at Wembley Arena and released their first album,   ‘Dead & Born & Grown‘ (produced by eminence grise  Glyn Johns and his son, Ethan) in October.

The portents are promising for Camilla, Jessica and  Emily, who seem every bit as nice as those names would suggest.  Their Watford origins are clearly important to them and they come across with that heady mixture of Home Counties posh with a smidgeon of North London streetwise; the first comment from Emily after they came on stage was ‘Bugger me, it’s hot in here!’, but she said it ever so politely……

Hot, it certainly was, like a sauna, frankly – and packed as well.  As a former smoker I knew that there was an exit at the back of the room where folk could slip out for a crafty ciggy so I headed back there, reasoning there would be some kind of relieving smoky breeze wafting through from time to time.  Also, I knew that the room at the H&H is small enough that you get a good view and reasonable sound from pretty much everywhere.

And so it proved.  The Staves seemed genuinely puzzled by the fact that people actually shut up and listened to their songs, only making appreciative noises (with –  distressingly – some of that awful transatlantic whooping) between songs.  I guess it’s possible  that they have been playing some real toilets on this tour with audiences who just talk over the band.  Not in Kings Heath; people were there to hear the girls sing and how they obliged…

Staves on Stage

The Staves on stage

I think pretty much everything they did was from the marvellous new album and they seemed able to reproduce those fiendishly complex harmonies without any apparent stress – a wonder to behold.  You have the feeling that bigger challenges and more complex times lie ahead for these girls if they are to retain that sense of slightly faded innocence that characterises much of their output and also their approach to performance.  Catch ’em whilst they’re hot, but also before they lose the free-wheeling charm that makes them so special.

Michael Chapman: Postscript

Well, the Saturday of the Moseley Folk Festival was – like the weather – a bit of a mixed bag.  At least it didn’t rain.  Michael Chapman came on in mid-afternoon and delivered a brisk 45-minute  set that mixed up fleet-fingered instrumentals with songs like ‘Mallard’ and ‘Soulful Lady’.  The former was introduced as a “song about the fastest steam train in history; the ‘Mallard’ was clocked leaving Peterborough Station at 126.3 mph……I played in Peterborough once and left nearly as quickly…”

Of course, a lot of the club-orientated between-song banter was lost in the windy spaces of Moseley Park, but the man got a warm reception for his efforts, even though I suspect that many of the crowd had never even heard of him.

Michael Chapman on stage at the Moseley Folk Festival

Michael was followed on an adjacent stage by a band called Kidnap Alice, whose lead singer (Alice, of course) had a remarkably powerful voice but whose material (bluegrass/folk with a tinge of soul) didn’t really do the voice justice.  I decided to wander around the periphery of the arena and have a look at one of the CD stalls, run by Rise Records from Bristol/Cheltenham. The guy behind the counter was wearing an extremely covetous black t-shirt with a 1960’s Island Records logo on it and I was just waiting to ask him where he got it when in walks Michael Chapman and stands next to me.

So, I introduced myself and thanked him for a really enjoyable set, all of which seemed to ruffle him slightly – no idea why…  Anyway, I then mentioned my last sighting of him at Manchester Uni back in 1978 and he corrected me by informing me that his drummer on that tour had been Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements, not Keef Hartley as previously stated.  I’d like to tell you that we spent a leisurely half-hour shooting the breeze about the good old days, but it wasn’t to be.  Michael was there simply to grab a copy of one of his own cd’s to give to a journalist or suchlike and was gone as rapidly as he’d arrived.  Oh well, it’s not every day that you get to personally thank the artist for their performance.

The rest of the day was pleasant enough; Moseley Folk Fest has a very easy-going vibe in tune with its surroundings ( a private park to which all Moseley residents are given a key), but most of the rest of the day’s music was OK if unremarkable.  A lot of the crowd (and compere Janice Long) seemed very enthused about a band called The Bees, who came on just as it was getting dark, but I found them ordinary for the most part.  Willy Mason was impressive; coming across like an electric Townes van Zandt and  girly trio The Staves sang beautifully.  Bill-toppers Tinariwen were, as expected, hypnotic, but were also curiously understated and far from bringing the day to a rousing conclusion, everything just sort of petered out.  Still, a pleasant day, the weather was kind and, best of all, we were home inside 15 minutes…

Listening to Michael Chapman

“We’re all getting older” is something I tend to hear pretty often from my peers these days.  In fact, for me it’s rapidly acquiring the axiomatic blandness of similar clichés – ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps!’ – and other such brain-numbing public domain doggerel.  Wretched though it may be, it does at some level function as a kind of unspoken code that – for now, at least – renders unneccessary those excruciating litanies of ailments, aches and pains, details of hospital appointments and trips to the doctor, lists of medications and suchlike that seems to be the province of people somewhat closer to the exit door than (hopefully) we are.

How much more difficult it must be for our generation of ageing rock and rollers, who are still out there raging against the dying of the light on CD and in the clubs and concert halls of the 21st century…

Having given this some thought, I’ve decided that piano players have, in general, got the best deal here.  Firstly, you can (by and large) sit down whilst performing.  Secondly, you don’t (necessarily) have to sing.  Thirdly, you don’t have to blow into anything.  Fourthly, the manual dexterity required to hammer out a tune on the piano is markedly less than guitarists or cellists need.  This perhaps explains why people like Stan Tracey, Professor Longhair and Duke Ellington (to name but three) are or were able to perform quite happily at an age where many singers and trumpeters had just run out of puff.

Consider the case of Robert Plant.  In 2007, Led Zeppelin reformed for a one-off gig at London’s O2 arena to raise money for a fund sponsored by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.  Forget Michael Jackson or Glastonbury or the Gentle Giant Reunion Tour; this was quite simply the hottest ticket for any event of the last 25 years.  In all probability, only a reunion of the remaining Beatles could have topped it. 

Led Zeppelin at the O2 Arena in 2007

I will confess that whilst I have heard/seen bits of audio and video from this show, I found it impossible to watch and/or listen to it for long.  OK, so Planty looks a bit raddled and Jimmy Page’s hair has gone white, but that’s OK.  Where it all fell down for me was in one area – the vocals.  You would have to say that when Zeppelin recorded ‘Immigrant Song’ back in 1970, it’s unlikely that anyone said to Robert Plant “Better watch it with all that wailing over the intro, Planty, because you won’t be able to reach all those high notes when you’re 63.”  Although by 1970 it was probably beginning to dawn on the likes of Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Dylan, Wilson and other 1960’s heavy hitters that their back catalogue just might ensure them a comfy middle age, I suspect that few of them envisaged that they would still be out there as rock and roll pensioners.

Robert Plant went into that O2 gig off the back of a critically-feted album and a highly successful World Tour with Alison Krauss which seemed to provide his career with a whole new chapter.  Then, suddenly, he’s back on stage with LZ, trying to reach all those ludicrously high notes and, of course, it just wasn’t happening – in fact for those of us who remember the original recordings, it was pretty painful listening.  What was equally inevitable was the clamour for the band to follow up this one-off gig with a mega-tour across the USA for which they were no doubt offered gazillions of dollars.  Around the world, there’s a whole generation of Zeppelin fans who were probably still in nappies when the band broke up, but who grew up listening to all those albums – in fact, it would be interesting to know just how many hard rock and heavy metal bands around the world took their inspiration from Led Zeppelin.  I suspect the tally would run into thousands.

Anyway, by all accounts the rest of the band were up for one last big payday but Planty said ‘No’.  Quite why that is, I couldn’t tell you, but at least one of the reasons surely had to be a recognition on his part that too many of the original vocal parts from the Zeppelin songbook were now beyond his range.  That much was clear from the O2 and even beforehand on the faux-Moroccan album (‘No Quarter’) he’d done with Jimmy Page in the mid- 90’s, where he was clearly finding it a struggle to hit those top notes.  Personally, I admire Robert Plant’s decision to favour dignity over cash, but there again, I was lucky enough to see Led Zeppelin several times in their prime.

All of which rambling and ruminating brings me (finally) to Michael Chapman, who I am looking forward to seeing at the Moseley Folk Festival this coming weekend.  Last time I saw Michael was at Manchester University when he toured to promote ‘The Man who hated Mornings’, which would probably have been about 1978.  On that occasion, he played largely in an ‘electric’ trio with Rick Kemp on bass and Keef Hartley on drums, but these days, he tends to play alone.  Michael Chapman is in his 70’s now and has been playing music for a very long time.  Although his origins are in Yorkshire, he first surfaced on the Cornish folk club scene in about 1967.  Like many others,  I first became aware of him thanks to the late John Peel who played his albums and featured him on numerous sessions from 1969 through into the early 70’s. 

Michael Chapman in the 1960’s

Chapman’s inspirations were clear enough; blues greats like Big Bill Broonzy, contemporaries like John Fahey and Bert Jansch and – of course – Bob Dylan, but he brought a rugged, world-weary sensibility to his singing and songwriting that made him a great deal more than just the sum of his influences.  He was also a terrific guitarist and the four albums he made for EMI’s Harvest imprint in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s are sprinkled with a number of short and often jaunty instrumentals, the most renowned of which is undoubtedly ‘Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime’  from his best-known and possibly most accomplished album, ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’.  Released in 1970, ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ was Peel’s nominated ‘Album of the Year’ for that year and one of the best folk-rock albums of all time.  The album features some of Chapman’s strongest songs – ‘Kodak Ghosts’ , Postcards of Scarborough’ and ‘Stranger in the Room’ and is enlivened by the likes of Paul Buckmaster, the late Johnny van Derek, Mick Ronson and Rick Kemp.   Ronson was soon to surface in David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band and though it might seem a long way from Chapman to Ziggy Stardust, you have to bear in mind that Bowie and Chapman shared a producer (Tony Visconti) and a cursory comparison between ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ and Bowie’s more or less contemporaneous ‘Hunky Dory’ reveals a smaller gap between the two than you might expect.

According to Chapman, Ronson was near-neighbour of his in Hull and he tried to recruit him to his ‘road’ band.  However, Ronson was already playing with the other ‘Spiders’ in a local rock band and wanted Chapman to take them on as ‘a package’ whilst Chapman only wanted Ronson.  Bowie was more amenable to Ronson’s thinking and thus were the Spiders from Mars born.

Michael Chapman in the 1970’s

After Chapman’s Harvest contract expired in 1971, he moved to Decca and between 1972 and 1978 made a series of 5 albums where he probably plays more electric than acoustic guitar.  With hindsight, I’m not sure that this did him any favours.  All of the albums have their moments – ‘Firewater Dreams’, ‘Northern Lights’, ‘It didn’t work out’ etc  but his slightly jagged electric guitar playing somehow lacks the clarity and precision of his acoustic picking.  In this era, he would usually appear in the aforementioned ‘electric trio’ format, usually with Rick Kemp and Keef Hartley in tow.   After the 1978 tour where our paths last crossed, Chapman’s Decca contract expired and he largely sank from view as a ‘major artist’.  Recording for a series of independent labels, he produced instructional discs for guitarists and a series of obscure and out-of-print albums that few outside of the UK folk circuit got to hear, though he always seemed to retain a strong following in Germany.  In 1988, See for Miles released a CD compilation of his work at the BBC between 1969 and 1971, but this failed to produce a full-on rediscovery of his work.  Another problem was that his albums were so bloody hard to get hold of; copies of the original Harvest vinyl albums would change hands for sizeable sums and nothing else much seemed to be available on CD apart from the BBC album.  I did manage to pick up a re-release of ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ on C5 Records in the late 80’s, but the other Harvest albums remained unobtainable until Repertoire began to re-release them in 1997.  The Decca albums were similarly hard to track down, though they, too, have eventually re-appeared. 

Through all of this, Michael Chapman was operating below the radar of most people.  He toured as a duo with Rick Kemp during the 90’s, owned and ran a studio in his adopted hometown of Hull and released the occasional album on independent labels, but it seemed as though there was to be no major revival in his fortunes.  Then, a couple of years back, his old buddy Bridget St John decided to return to live performance in the UK after hiding away in the States for the last 30 years.  Chapman appeared alongside her as support act and second guitarist and this presaged a relative flurry of releases of both re-packaged material from the 1960’s and 1970’s and newer compositions as well.  The release that has probably attracted the greatest interest is ‘Trainsong: Guitar Compositions, 1967-2010 ‘, a double CD of solo guitar instrumentals recorded for the specialist US folk imprint Tompkins Square,  who have released (or re-released) albums by a diverse range of artists, including  Robbie Basho, Tim Buckley, the brilliant Richard Crandell and Prefab Sprout.

‘Trainsong’ sees Chapman revisiting numerous old chestnuts and updating them for the digital era.  Of course, this is a dangerous game but, for me, the only track on the set that doesn’t work is the re-recorded ‘Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime’ – to be honest, I know the original too well and this new version just doesn’t cut it. Otherwise, the album is a largely triumphant revamp of former glories and there are some newer tracks – ‘La Madrugada’, ‘Elinkline’ and The Last Polish Breakfast’ to name but three, that are right up there with any other instrumentals he’s recorded at any time during his career.

I also managed to get hold of an excellent recording someone made of Chapman live at a Brighton venue earlier this year.   What this shows is that not only is his bluff Yorkshire  banter still in good nick, but so are his fingers, because the performances of some of the more challenging pieces from ‘Trainsong’ are right on the money.   Also, the passing years haven’t discernibly impeded his vocal style; he’s perhaps a little hoarser than in his heyday, but his vocals always sounded slightly gruff  anyway.  He now seems to be as close to a major renaissance as he has ever been.  He toured in the States with the late Jack Rose and seems to have acquired a major fan in Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – in fact they have toured and recorded together. 

 Michael Chapman during a recent performance

All in all, his return to the public eye has been free from the issues that Robert Plant had to wrestle with.  Chapman looked and sounded 50-ish when he was in his 30’s,  so as long as the arthritis doesn’t kick in, he should be fine for a few years yet.  It will be good to see him again.

Michael Chapman is appearing at the Moseley Folk Festival in Moseley Park, Birmingham this coming Saturday (4th September).  Desert-rock specialists Tinariwen top the bill.  Tickets for the day are now sold out, but you may be able to pick up one outside from a tout (at a premium, no doubt).

Listening to Pat Metheny

The release of a new Pat Metheny album would once have been enough to have me scurrying down to my local record shop to snag a copy and it’s a testimony to my views on his recent output that I’ve had a download of his 2011 release, ‘What’s it all about’  sitting unaired on my hard drive for several weeks now.

Now that I have got round to listening to it, I have to say that it’s pretty much as advertised – a 10-track collection of cover versions played solo on a variety of acoustic guitars; beautifully recorded, played with restraint, affection and great technique.  It’s also bland, anodyne and devoid of any of the wit and invention that characterises his best work.  OK – to be fair, this can probably be seen as a ‘hommage’ to a collection of tunes that have great personal meaning for Metheny, but it does extend a worrying streak of indifferent recordings that stretches back to the 1990’s.

 Aptly titled……

There are probably at least 3 different Pat Methenys; all of them reflecting a distinct aspect of his character.  Metheny the Jazzer has made everything from industrial noise/free jazz (‘Song X’ – 1986, ‘ Zero Tolerance for Silence’ -1994) with the likes of  Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins to post-bop  guitar trio jazz (‘ Day Trip’ – 2005, ‘Question & Answer’ – 1989) with musicians such as Roy Haynes, Bill Stewart, Dave Holland and Larry Grenadier.  Dependent on your taste, some of these albums are top-notch whilst others are just noise.  Rather like The Black Crowes wanting to work with Jimmy Page, Metheny’s free jazz/Ornette  moments reflect his desire for a balls-out harmolodic thrash with an early hero, but in truth, it’s not really him.  What Ornette actually thought about what was essentially a Metheny ‘vanity project’ is open to speculation.  In recent years, Metheny has also produced two albums alongside pianist Brad Mehldau that are impressive on numerous levels but don’t exactly push the envelope for this type of jazz. 

Metheny the Fusion Fan has – since about 1977 –  largely operated via his ‘Pat Metheny Group’ aggregation alongside long-term collaborator Lyle Mays and a rotating crew of top players.  Routinely derided by hair-shirted jazz purists as ‘fusion-lite’, the PMG  gave Metheny an outlet for his rock god aspirations and for about 10 or 12  years from the mid-80’s acted as a focus for his most dynamic and inventive playing and composing.  They were also terrific on stage. The PMG probably reached their zenith in the late 80’s, but continued to deliver the goods at a high level until 1997’s ‘Imaginary Day’.  That album incorporated a wealth of different strands of jazz, rock. funk, techno and world music. to the extent that there was probably nowhere left for them to turn afterwards.  Subsequent albums – only 2 in 14 years – have suggested that this is a seam of ideas that Metheny has now worked out.

Pat Metheny – a bit too tasteful

The third Pat Metheny is something of a sentimentalist and this version has tended to sneak out via his acoustic ballad recordings over the years.  He has made albums with Charlie Haden, Jim Hall, Gary Burton and on his own that reflect a cardigan and slippers performer sliding into middle-aged spread.  ‘What’s it all about’ comes under this heading and is one of the more explicitly mainstream of Metheny’s projects.  Of course, not all of this stuff is worthless fluff; 1997’s ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ with Charlie Haden is a terrific album, but – let’s face it – was bought by an awful lot of people who would generally not be considered  jazz aficionados.  Like ‘What’s it all about’, it’s the kind of CD you can slip on between the crudités and the tapenade at any well-mannered dinner party and will happily snuggle up to both ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Aja’ with equal fondness.

Pat Metheny is a couple of years younger than me, but in common with many people in their mid-fifties, he’s perhaps tending to opt more frequently for the comfortable option rather than the challenge of the new.  His problem is that whilst he has produced a body of work within the jazz mainstream, he’s also a child of The Beatles generation and additionally grew up with the twang of midwest country guitars in his ears.  This means that he’s subject to a raft of different influences and sometimes struggles to choose between them.  ‘What’s it all about’ is clearly an attempt to create an album with a specific ‘late-night’ mood that draws on his many influences, but unfortunately lacks the dynamism and clarity that characterises his best work.  Let’s hope he opts for something a little more challenging in future.

Listening to Espers

I would have to say that I came to Espers via the side exit.  I found myself increasingly drawn to an album of traditional folk songs given to me by a mate.  The album was called ‘Dear Companion’, a 2007 recording by a Philadelphia-based folk singer called Meg Baird. 

 Meg Baird on stage

‘Dear Companion’ is an album of the kind of full-on folk music that I normally avoid like the plague.  Baird works alone and accompanies herself throughout  on guitar and dulcimer.  Originally from New Jersey, she has allegedly  traced her ancestry back to some real 19th-century Appalachian Mountain folks, although the tracks on ‘Dear Companion’ borrow heavily from the folk traditions of this country as well.  ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ is a song I recognised from one of Anne Briggs’ early ’70’s albums and there are a number of grim traditional ballads of medieval mayhem like ‘The Cruelty of Barbry Ellen’ and ‘Maiden in the Moor Lay’. However, for me, the best song on the album is Baird’s own ‘Riverhouse in Tinicum’, a song that has a much more contemporary feel to it. And that really offers a clue to a quite different Meg Baird; the one whose Jacqui McShee meets Sandy Denny vocals are a major component of Espers.  Having enjoyed ‘Dear Companion’ so much, and with Baird routinely described on sundry websites as the lead singer in Espers, they were always going to be my next port of call.

What I found was that Espers are also based in Philadelphia and have thus far recorded four albums – three of original material; (I [2004], II [2006] and III [2009]  plus an album of covers ; ‘The Weed Tree’ [2005] )

They began as  a core trio of  Baird (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Greg Weeks (guitars/bass/keyboards/vocals) and Brooke Sietinsons (guitar/vocals).  This trio were largely reponsible for the band’s first album, which drew a good deal of critical acclaim.  For their next project, the covers album ‘The Weed Tree’, the trio was augmented by Swedish-born cellist Helena Espvall, percussionist Otto Hauser and bassist Chris Smith.  The expanded sextet have since produced two further albums which have  developed  their slightly tremulous folky origins into something far more muscular and owing more to rock than to folk.

The six-piece version of Espers…looks familiar somehow…..

If Baird’s vocal stylings are one distinctive characteristic of Espers , another is probably Greg Weeks’ enthusiasm for broadening the palette of the band’s sound.  Weeks frequently shares vocal duties with Baird, but it’s his talents as a multi-instrumentalist that have propelled Espers beyond their folk roots.  There is a geekish quality about Greg Weeks.  He suffers from acute tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome that must render the act of creating music fairly hellish at times – and his CV features no less than four solo albums alongside his work with Espers. 

However, he also has a fondness for unearthing vintage keyboards in junk shops and rebuilding mellotrons.  If anyone can be said to have pushed the envelope of the Espers sound, it’s probably him.  There were signs from quite early on , but when the band followed up their successful debut album with ‘The Weed Tree’ we soon saw from their choice of covers that someone in the band had been listening to something other than Fairport Convention.  Alongside the fairly predictable ‘Rosemary Lane ‘ and ‘Black is the colour’ from the Folkies’ Handbook, ‘The Weed Tree’ also features left-field offerings such as The Durutti Column’s ‘Tomorrow‘ and a 10-minute acid-guitar blowout version of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Flaming Telepaths’.  This might seem startling enough, but when I read an interview with Weeks where he cited Egg’s ‘The Polite Force’ and the brilliant post-King Crimson ‘McDonald & Giles’ album as being on his Desert Island Discs hitlist, it all began to make sense.  For Weeks, as for me, 1970 was clearly a landmark year.

Very familiar…inner gatefold from Bronco’s ‘Ace of Sunlight’ (Island Records 1971)…plus ça change…..

Stylistically, tracks like ‘Flaming Telepaths’ and ‘The Weed Tree’s ‘ only original track, ‘Dead King’  took Espers out of the folk ghetto and launched them into deeper waters.  On 2006’s  ‘II‘,  the six-piece band produced denser textures, though the drum sound was still throttled back.  Massed acoustic guitars and Espvall’s cello usually provided a bedrock for most of the songs, with vocals layered on top and a widening palette of other instruments – electric guitars, recorders, synths, flutes, mellotrons and random swirls of electronica – used as embellishments.  The songs got longer, too, with nothing under five minutes in length and frequent instrumental forays by Weeks.  ‘II’ is a compelling album, but there is something vaguely indigestible about it; the mix has a slightly cluttered quality  and the vocals occasionally get lost in the richness of the arrangements.  It’s almost as though Espers had been let loose in a vintage instrument shop and decided to use everything they found.  For all that, ‘II‘ has some great songs and firms up the experimental forays of its predecessor.  The new fuller sound invited comparisons with bands like Hem, Midlake and some of David Roback’s ventures – notably Opal – and had journalists straining for new categorisations to pigeonhole the Espers sound.  Psych-folk, anyone?

It would three years before the third  album of original Espers material (‘III’ – is there some kind of Led Zeppelin thing going on here?) appeared in 2009.  ‘III’ has a fuller sound and a wider range of material.  Drums are much further forward , but the vocals have been restored to some kind of centrality in the mix, which makes the album more coherent somehow.  Some of the songs are almost conventional in their structure and arrangments and whilst the doomy psychedelia of previous recordings has not disappeared entirely, it does seem to be more integrated into the band’s overall sound.  Having said that, I’m not sure that the songs on ‘III’ are as memorable as on previous albums somehow.  Oh well.

Espers are probably about due another album, but the collective bonds that tie them together are looser than in some of their contemporaries.  Baird, Espvall and Weeks have all produced solo albums, Baird and Espvall worked with Sharron Kraus on another album of traditional tunes and most of the band moonlight with other performers.  The success they have had with Espers will probably mean that there will be more from the band in due course, but I suspect that the further they depart from their origins in folk music, the tougher it may be to keep this maverick ensemble together.

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’ 

http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2009-2/garberding.html

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’ 

http://www.music.ucsb.edu/projects/musicandpolitics/archive/2009-2/garberding.html

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)