Category Archives: Roots & Folk

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’


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.

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.

Listening to Donovan (1965-70)

There’s an excruciating few minutes of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965  movie  ‘Don’t look back’  where Donovan and Bob Dylan encounter one another at a post-gig party in London’s Savoy Hotel.   Possibly, this wasn’t their first meeting but it comes across that way in Pennebaker’s movie.  The typically chauvinist British media had been baiting Dylan about this new British pretender to his ‘throne’ from the moment he first arrived in the country and Dylan was obviously curious.  Early in the film, he and his Sancho Panza / Tour Manager Bob Neuwirth are seen riffing on the whole ‘Donovan thing’ – quite clearly, they don’t have much idea about who he is, which could have been why the Savoy encounter was set up.

Donovan is ushered into a bearpit atmosphere like an unsuspecting  human sacrifice and performs two songs, only one of which made it into Pennebaker’s movie.  This is ‘To sing for you’, a typical early -period Donovan folk ballad; inoffensive but slight.  Dylan responds by grabbing the guitar and producing a sneering, powerful version of ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’; at that time a relative newcomer to his setlist.   And, as the man himself might have said, you don’t need a weather-man to see which way this wind was blowing.  Seen through Pennebaker’s lens and editing, the encounter ended Dylan 1 Donovan 0, and that’s pretty much the way  the world has seen it ever since, hasn’t it? 

Dylan looks the other way at the Savoy Hotel, 1965 

A less well-known story from this encounter is that Donovan’s other contribution to the cosy singalong was a new song he had written as a tribute to Dylan and entitled (ahem…) ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’, which apparently caused consternation in the room because it used exactly the same chords and  verse structure as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.   Donovan had – allegedly – assumed that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ melody was a traditional tune rather than something Dylan had written and that it was therefore ‘up for grabs’.  Dylan soon disabused him of the notion and ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’ was apparently consigned to the dustbin of history.  Also, significantly, Dylan apparently asked Pennebaker not to film this episode, yet ‘To sing for you’ does appear.  What seems more likely is that Donovan’s ‘Tambourine Man’ tribute/pastiche just ended up on the cutting room floor.

Whatever the case, there is a school of thought that suggests that Dylan knew plenty about Donovan’s music by the time they met and that he actually wasn’t scornful of Donovan at all.   He had probably listened to Donovan and correctly concluded that there wasn’t that much common ground between them lyrically and to say that Donovan was like Dylan because they both  played acoustic guitar is,  at best, facile.  

The fact that we still tend to see it that way is at least partly because of the way the media depicted it at the time.  The press loved nothing better than to set up ‘rivalries’ – usually involving The Beatles – where none really existed.  Beatles v Stones, Beatles v Beach Boys, Liverpool’s Beatles v London’s Dave Clark Five and so on.  When they emerged, The Byrds were America’s answer to The Beatles, so when a young guy with a beatnik look playing an acoustic guitar made it on to ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and started to have some chart success with songs like ‘Catch the Wind’ , the Dylan v Donovan conflict was only just around the corner. 

The fact is, the press were being rapidly outflanked by what they were still referring to as ‘The Beat Boom’ and certainly didn’t know what to make of Dylan.  His lyrics were ellipitical and sometimes impenetrable, his singing voice was, let’s say,  an acquired taste, his attitude in press conferences was often combative and anatagonistic, he was smart, sharp and engaging – more like John Lennon than anyone else.  Donovan Leitch, meanwhile,  was almost a polar opposite – soft-spoken, slightly fey and without Dylan’s ‘edge’.   The results, however, were similar; where Dylan confounded the media with snappy wit and New York attitude, Donovan utilised rambling Celtic hippy platitudes to similar effect; both were intent on keeping the press pack at a safe distance wherever possible.  Still, Donovan played an acoustic guitar and sang the odd protest song, so for the lazy, outdated, bamboozled hacks of mid-60’s Britain, he would do as this month’s anti-Dylan – and he was British, too.

Quite what Donovan made of all this is unclear, but he is unlikely to have felt too happy about it.  The truth is, by 1965 he was probably savvy enough about the music business to understand the perils of becoming pigeonholed as a Scottish bloke with a denim cap and an acoustic guitar.  His late ’65 album  ‘Fairytale’ featured a self-penned song that clearly offered him one way out of his unwilling role as the ‘British Dylan’.  This was ‘Sunny Goodge Street’,  a wonderful, jazzy, impressionistic picture of bohemian London in the pre-hippy era.  Recorded in September of 1965, it stood out from the broad mass of his output mainly because it featured a discreet jazz trio – flute, cello and drums – playing behind Donovan’s acoustic guitar.

“Hope you like my new direction….”  Donovan in 1966.

Donovan’s unwillingness to be Dylan’s stooge was one of the factors that led to a radical change of approach which began when he started working alongside producer Mickie Most.   Most had gained a reputation as a dynamic producer with a gift for picking likely hit records, but had generally worked with pure pop acts like Herman’s Hermits.  His interest was purely in the singles charts – his disdain for albums was well-known – but Donovan’s desire to escape from the ‘folk ghetto’, not unlike Dylan’s,  led to this most unlikely of collaborations.   In Donovan, Most saw a songwriter capable of producing ear-catching melodies and  lyrics that tapped into the prevailing hippy zeitgeist, whilst in Most, Donovan had found a producer who knew how to frame his songs for the pop charts.  It’s perhaps also worth noting that whereas Dylan’s move from folk to rock & roll became a hotly debated topic among the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic, Most and Donovan headed in the same direction with only a fraction of the same ‘static’ from the public.

The first fruits of this new  electric collaboration came in January of 1966.  The song recorded that day was ‘Sunshine Superman’, which featured Jimmy Page on electric guitar.  Most had successfully persuaded Donovan to move away from folk and towards psychedelic pop and this was the first evidence of his change of direction.

Due to arguments about distribution between Most and Pye – Donovan’s record company – it would be nearly a year before the ‘Sunshine Superman’ single was released in the U.K. and by the time it emerged , Donovan had already recorded two albums of material which came out in the USA as the ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’ albums whilst, with typical industrial efficiency,  Pye compiled one album – the U.K. version (released in June 1967)  of ‘Sunshine Superman’ – from the two.

Donovan &  Most in 1967 – “LP’s, Mickie – like this, but bigger”

Donovan’s re-invention of his career under Mickie Most’s tutelage had established him at the hipper end of the pop/rock spectrum.  During 1966-7, he became a regular on shows like the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ and it was his singles rather than his albums that drew most people’s attention and achieved most success.  All of which was a shame, because the two 1966 albums he recorded featured some seriously accomplished songs such as ‘Season of the Witch’, ‘Fat Angel’ ;The Trip’, ‘Young Girl Blues’ and a whole sub-set of ‘London’ songs – ‘Museum’, Sunny South Kensington’, and ‘Hampstead Incident’ to sit alongside ‘Sunny Goodge Street’. 

Donovan was really on the horns of a dilemma.  He had clearly hoped that his Faustian pact with Mickie Most and a move to a more ‘produced’ or ‘electric’ sound – utilising  imaginative  arrangements by John Cameron or John Paul Jones – would help him to escape the Dylan comparisons and bring his music to a wider audience.  On the other hand, the elongated dispute between Pye and Most was preventing him from releasing any albums in Britain at a time when he was in the midst of this risky strategy.  With hindsight, this had a hugely negative impact on his career in the UK – between 1965’s ‘Fairytale’ and 1970’s ‘Open Road’,  whilst numerous singles made him a chart regular, only 3 of the 6 albums Donovan recorded saw a UK release.

In truth, his real problem was that he was with the wrong kind of record label.  Pye had grown out of a Cambridge-based company who made radios and televisions.  To them, their record label was simply another asset  and they were content as long as it made them money.  However, their first instincts were always commercial rather than artistic and they probably had a minimum of insight into Donovan’s frustrations.  They had other artists – The Kinks, Petula Clark, The Searchers, Sandie Shaw – who seemed to churn out the ‘hits’ uncomplainingly, so they approached their dispute with Most with little apparent regard for the impact it was having on Donovan’s career.

To illustrate Donovan’s ongoing problems with Pye and Most, it is instructive to step back briefly and contrast his fortunes with those of another promising singer/songwriter of the same era and how he fared by comparison.  Across at Decca – another ‘old school’ record company – another young singer/songwriter, Cat Stevens, was enduring similar frustrations for different reasons.  Decca were trying to groom him as a pop idol in the way they had with other male singers such as Tom Jones.  After an initial burst of successful, highly-arranged singles (‘Matthew & Son’, ‘I’m gonna get me a gun’) and equally successful British tours,  Stevens had insisted on a different,  more folk-rock approach for his second album,  ‘New Masters’, (1967) which duly sank,  almost without trace.  Subsequently, he became extremely  ill with tuberculosis and after a lengthy convalescence of over a year was released from his Decca contract, eventually finding a home at Island Records, where he was treated far more sympathetically, paired with like-minded producers and musicians, effectively being allowed to make music the way he wanted.  The next few years offered a graphic endorsement of  Chris Blackwell’s artist-centred ideology as Stevens went from Decca’s forgotten prodigy to Island’s international superstar via a series of albums that almost defined ‘soft rock.’

Cat with dog; about 1966 at a guess.

By contrast, Pye and Mickie Most were more interested in maintaining Donovan’s position as a heavy hitter in the singles charts.  Most’s hostile attitude to long-players was probably mirrored by long periods of relative indifference on the part of Pye.  By the time Donovan and Most parted company in 1969, the long-playing album had begun its long period of market dominance, yet the Donovan albums with which most people in the UK were likely to be familiar were a series of budget-price compilations of his early, folky songs on the Marble Arch label.  Pye really didn’t know how to develop ‘album artists’ and Most didn’t want to, so through 1966 and 1967,  Donovan’s profile remained that of a singles artist. 

Eventually, Pye caught up with the growing impact of the long-playing format and, almost as though they were trying to atone for their laxity to that point,  issued the lavish two-album box set ‘A Gift from a Flower to a Garden’ (1968) and the under-rated ‘Donovan In Concert’  (also 1968).  Despite this, Pye’s  reputation as a pop label worked against them and both records under-performed, not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of their critical reception; the ‘In Concert’ album in particular is a superior example of the genre and places Donovan before an adoring Los Angelino audience with an accomplished backing band of seasoned UK jazzers.   Two further studio albums followed – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (1968) and ‘Barabajagal’ (1969), the former notable for the presence of three-quarters of Led Zeppelin plus Allan Holdsworth on the title track, the latter because of the presence of another Most act, the Jeff Back Group, on about half of the tracks.  Again, whilst singles were released and made an impact on the UK charts, these albums were only released outside the U.K.

Donovan and family in gypsy mode…..not too clever on the M25

Despite his success in the singles charts, Donovan was clearly totally frustrated by the impasse between Most and Pye.  He split with Most during the ‘Barabajagal’ sessions and formed his first proper ‘band’, Open Road.

Pye didn’t really sign any genuine rock acts until 1969/70 when they belatedly launched a ‘progressive’ offshoot in Dawn Records. This label ran (with decidedly mixed results)  for the next 5 years, but ironically – given that it had been set up to promote rock acts – Dawn’s greatest success was in the singles market with Mungo Jerry.  Open Road signed to Dawn, as if to signify a new era for Donovan.  However, the band only survived long enough to make one eponymous album before Donovan left to finish off  another project – a double album of children’s songs released in 1971 as ‘H.M.S. Donovan’.  Neither of these albums made any real impact, though the ‘Open Road’ album had its moments.

Donovan re-emerged in 1972/3 having ended his long and frustrating association with Pye.  He now signed to his American label, Epic, for the whole world and produced a series of albums (‘Cosmic Wheels’, ‘7-Tease’, ‘Essence to Essence’) which, whilst they didn’t disgrace him, certainly failed to make much of an impact.  Through the punk era, he became almost a walking watchword for hippy excess and stoned cosmic gobbledygook, only becoming partially rehabilitated when Gap used ‘Mellow Yellow’ for a TV ad campaign a few years back.  Now, all the ‘missing’ albums have finally seen a CD release in this country, with numerous extra tracks added and we can get a better picture of a guy whose career seems dogged by adversity – firstly dismissed as a poor man’s Dylan, then enmeshed in a business dispute that blighted his career in this country and finally written off as a hippy has-been.  It all seems a little unfair; the mid-period of his career from about 1965 to 1970  saw him writing a substantial number of interesting songs,  producing music of considerable quality and working alongside seriously talented session-men .  History could and should have been a little kinder.

Listening to Lanterns on the Lake

When you write about music, even at a humble blogging level like this, there’s an inevitable tendency to train-spot…..ah yes, well this band have obviously been influenced by X.Y and/or Z.  Of course, it’s natural enough; to any reader that may not have heard the band in question,  it ‘s a sincere attempt to offer them a way in to that band’s music.  It’s a (probably futile) stab at describing  the indescribable, the intention being that the reader’s interest is sufficiently piqued so that they check out said band. 

However, it does, of course, have its downside.  If I were to write that Newcastle-upon-Tyne six piece Lanterns on the Lake sound like a cross between Neil Young and Showaddywaddy (happily, they don’t sound like either) then I am automatically setting up expectations in the minds of readers that may be misleading.  Any band worth its salt are a good deal more than the sum of their influences and so it is with LOTL.  

So, keeping that in mind, let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way.  LOTL’s music is rooted in the traditions of English folk music and they join a growing roster of artists based in the north-east – The Unthanks and the excellent Johnny Dickinson are others – who are integrating the folk tradition into a more expansive framework.   What that means for LOTL is to place their words in a musical framework that evokes the whole Opal/Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval ethic of intimate lyrics delivered against a widescreen backdrop of chiming guitars and  echoing piano – with judicious use of electronics as well.  Hazel Wilde’s naturalistic vocal delivery merely accentuates that connection, though other band members also sing lead on certain numbers.  Brooklyn’s Hem are another point of comparison and there are others, but, as mentioned previously,  LOTL are, of course, far more than the sum of their influences.

Lanterns on the Lake are  Hazel Wilde (vocals, guitar), Adam Sykes (vocals, guitar), Paul Gregory (guitars, electronics), Brendan Sykes (bass), Sarah Kemp (violin) and Ol Ketteringham (drums, piano).  This is not a band of teen prodigies; all of them have played in and around Newcastle for some time with other bands, but have been working as LOTL since 2008.

After a couple of well-received independently produced EP’s, they signed with the (apparently) über-cool Bella Union label, have presumably given up their day jobs and have put out their first full-length album, recorded on a modest budget and entitled  ‘Gracious Tide, Take Me Home’ , which, as debut albums go, is an absolute snorter.  They have also played at Glastonbury and recorded a session for BBC’s Radio 6, so they are already some way up the music biz food chain and, given the almost universally positive reviews accorded to the album,  seem set fair for the proverbial ‘Big Future’.  Let’s hope so; we need more music like this…and less Neil Young & Showaddywaddy.

LOTL will be touring the UK in November to promote their album and if they’re anything like as good on stage as they are on CD, it should be memorable.

Details of the tour can be found here:

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 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’

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)

Listening to John Martyn…..

To say that John Martyn was a complex character is to state the overwhelmingly obvious.  I had a number of encounters with John over the years and all shed a slightly different light on said character.  The first John Martyn that most of us encounter is via his records – the soulful, poetic singer-songwriter with the slurred vocals and fluid guitar style.  That’s what initially sucked me in; I’d originally heard John on the 1968 Island sampler, ‘You can all join in’, to which he contributed the wonderful ‘Dusty‘, which, if anything,  evoked another Scottish folkie, Donovan .  Later, in the early 70’s,  I bought a copy of ‘Solid Air’ and was immediately hooked. 

John came to play at the folk club at my college around this time and we were all entranced by his onstage banter and the way he was clearly able to lose himself in singing and playing.  We were also probably further influenced by the fact that he came on stage carrying his guitar in one hand and a half-pint beer-mug stuffed with small spliffs in the other.  His idea of between-song banter was to finish one song, light up a spliff whilst he talked about the next one, then pass the spliff down to a member of the audience once he was ready to play.  This was John the stoned, genial hippy – a reputation he was to retain throughout his career.

By the time I encountered John Martyn again, he had reinvented himself as a rock star. One balmy summer’s evening in 1978, I saw him playing solo in Regent’s Park.  He played a tremendous set, featuring a lot of the songs from his recently issued ‘One World’ album and making  frequent use of the echoplexed electro-acoustic style that had by now become his trademark.  Some of this show subsequently appeared as part of the bonus disc in the expanded re-release of ‘One World’ that appeared a few years back.  What was clear was that John Martyn had largely left the folk idiom behind.  Of the newer songs, only the marvellous ‘Couldn’t love you more’ from ‘One World’ seemed to be in that tradition.

John Martyn in action during the late 70’s

The cast-list from the studio version of ‘One World’ revealed the impact of John’s 1976 sabbatical in Jamaica and his move towards a rock sound.  Lee Perry and Rico Rodriguez contributed to the album and the likes of jazz drummer John Stevens, Jade Warrior flautist Jon Field and Steve Winwood were also on board.  ‘One World’ also featured the marvellous ‘Small Hours’, John’s echoplex epic recorded on a lake in the middle of the night, with grumbling geese and lapping water in the background.

I was selling records in Manchester by the time ‘One World’ appeared and I recall we had tremendous problems with UK pressings of the album.  ‘Small Hours’ was so quiet at some points that any slight ‘surface noise’ seemed horribly magnified.  We ended up importing American pressings of the album, which were infinitely superior.  I seem to recall that we also contacted John direct and bought in 50 copies of the ‘Live at Leeds’ live album that he was selling out of his front room in Hastings.

Having become very friendly with the local Island Records promo rep, Terry, I was by 1980 well-placed for my first actual meeting with John Martyn.  He was touring around his new album, ‘Grace & Danger’, which largely chronicled the breakdown of his marriage to Beverley.  He had found common cause with Genesis drummer Phil Collins, who was going through a similar divorce and the two of them formed a mutual support group whilst working on the new album. 

Terry and I travelled down to see John play at Loughborough University.  With him on stage were Phil Collins on drums & vocals, Alan Thomson on fretless bass and Danny Cummings on percussion.  Times had changed; John looked fit and well and wore a dark suit.  There was also a  notable absence of between-song ramblings and absolutely no boozing or spliffing onstage.  Backstage afterwards was a different story, however, with Messrs Martyn & Collins like a Cockney wide-boy double act; very friendly and keen to discuss the gig.

What I didn’t tell either of them was that ‘Grace & Danger’ had come as a bit of a disappointment to me after ‘One World’.  There was a certain blandness about the production (by Collins) and the playing.  Even a raucous version of The Slickers’ ‘Johnny too bad’ somehow seemed a little contrived.  This was definitely John Martyn’s most ‘mainstream’ album to date.

John Martyn in the 1980’s

The following year, John was back on the road on his own for what was to be his final tour as an Island artist for a while.  Terry and I travelled over to see him play a solo gig at what used to be Huddersfield Polytechnic.  The person I met backstage couldn’t have been more different from the genial geezer I’d encountered in Loughborough.  For one thing, he spoke throughout in a heavy Scottish accent, seemed morose and ill-at-ease and fairly battered Terry with a host of teething troubles about the tour – the hotel was crap, he didn’t want to do an interview with local radio in Leeds the next day, he didn’t like the venue he was booked into in Liverpool etc etc.  The gig was similarly downbeat; an unduly respectful crowd failed to bring John out of his shell.  He played an abbreviated set with no encore and left for his hotel immediately after coming off stage.

John departed to Warners shortly afterwards, having been offered more money and the opportunity to continue his working relationship with Phil Collins, who was signed to Warners in the USA.  He made two fairly wretched albums for them, trampling on his legacy by re-recording some of his earlier songs, but didn’t really make it in America and was without a major label contract by 1983.

It would have been around this time that I had my third and final encounter with John Martyn.  By this point, I’d moved to Newcastle and one Sunday afternoon, I wandered up the hill to the local shop to get a paper and some milk.  Two blokes were standing outside; one of them was clearly John Martyn.  I greeted him and asked what on earth brought him to the depths of Sandyford on a Sunday afternoon.  Simply put, he blanked me, saying (in his Cockney persona this time) “You’ve got the wrong bloke, mate.”  I was quite astonished; it’s not that I expected him to remember me, but I couldn’t see why he wished to remain incognito.  I must have looked a right eejit, standing there in front of him with my jaw flapping.  Before I could say anything else, his companion (no idea who he was) asked me if I knew anywhere in Newcastle where there was an open off-licence at this time of a Sunday.  These, of course, were days when you couldn’t buy booze ‘out of hours’ and before supermarkets opened on Sundays.  I said that I couldn’t help them with that and they promptly walked off.

By the following year, Warners had passed on any more John Martyn albums. Chris Blackwell had been keeping an eye on John’s lack of progress  so he welcomed him back into the fold at Island for his last hurrah, 1984’s ‘Sapphire’.   Not too many John Martyn fans know this album and not many of those that do rate it particularly highly, perhaps because Robert Palmer’s production favours lots of layered synths rather than fingerpicked acoustic guitar.  Even so,  the title track is a genuine 24 carat JM classic and there are other excellent tracks like ‘Mad Dog Days’, Fisherman’s Dream’ and a wonderful, heartfelt rendition of ‘Over the rainbow’.    Unfortunately, ‘Sapphire’ turned out to be a false dawn.  1985 saw the release of John’s final album for Island; the anodyne ‘Piece by Piece’.  After that, he never recorded for a major label again.

Details thereafter are sketchy.  John made a series of albums for small labels and moved to Kilkenny in the west of Ireland, where the BBC made an excellent documentary about him a while back.  Years of sex and drugs and rock and roll began to catch up with him quite quickly as he hit his fifties and his health declined.  A cyst on his right leg burst and poisoned the limb, resulting in a partial amputation, but he continued to tour, playing from his wheelchair and, of course,  joking about not getting legless on stage.  This ‘gallows humour’ was typical of the man but his insistence that only he was to blame for his predicament (probably true) and that he regretted nothing  – well, I wonder. He died, aged 60,  last year.

This year has been a good year for the re-issue of some ‘classic’ albums in expanded 2-disc (or more) formats.   John Martyn’s ‘Live at Leeds’ is one of these and contains a few surprises; notably that two-thirds of the original release wasn’t even recorded at Leeds University at all.  The story of this album is that after ‘Inside Out’, John wanted to put out a live album.  Island didn’t agree, but were happy to let John sell the album by mail order and even organised EMI to press up a limited run (with an Island catalogue number) of 10,000.  This run rapidly sold out but has been re-released subsequently, though with no great concern for quality control.   Recorded shortly before his Jamaican break, ‘Live at Leeds’ almost represented the end of the beginning as far as the itinerant folky John Martyn was concerned.

The new deluxe edition does ‘Live at Leeds’ justice with  excellent reproduction, extra tracks and rehearsal takes, but it’s some way from being the original album.  Of that release, only ‘Bless the weather’ and ‘Make no mistake’ are from the 13/2/75 Leeds University gig.  The remaining tracks were recorded at a gig in London around the same time and do not appear here.  Joining John on stage for this gig were two musicians  who were regular compañeros at this time; free jazz drummer John Stevens and long-time drinking and sparring partner Danny Thompson from Pentangle and elsewhere.  There is a great story about ‘Danny Tomkins’ (as JM banteringly refers to Thompson throughout) nailing  a rug to the floor one night (after a particularly heavy session)  with JM trapped & paralytic underneath it – and that’s where he awoke the following morning, pinned to the floor with a horrible hangover.

The ‘Cinderella’ of this album is undoubtedly former Free guitar god Paul Kossoff, who appears only at the end of the gig and on one of the rehearsal takes.  Like Martyn himself, Kossoff suffered with addiction problems that ultimately killed him.  At the time of this gig, he had hardly played at all for 18 months  Here we yet see another John Martyn – the compassionate friend who wanted to help Koss back on his feet.  However, there are problems on a couple of fronts.  Firstly, Kossoff is clearly in too fragile a state to play the whole gig and what we do hear of him reveals him as a shadow of his former self.  Secondly, from a musical perspective, Kossoff’s blues-infected Les Paul is simply too powerful to play comfortably alongside Thompson’s upright bass and John Stevens’ delicate polyrhythmic style.  Whilst JM’s echoplexed acoustic seems to fit in quite well with the jazzy rhythm section, Kossoff’s electric wailing unfortunately doesn’t.

Thompson and Martyn’s offstage antics were matched only by their onstage banter and if there is a problem with the Deluxe ‘Live at Leeds’, this would be it.  It’s shocking, I know, but both Danny and Johnny would seem to have taken some refreshment before coming on stage and more (champagne, for an unspecified birthday) arrives in mid-set.  This makes them even more garrulous  – and profane – than normal and whilst the naughty-boy swearing and politically incorrect banter doesn’t actually bother me, it just makes me think that here is another John Martyn – the dickhead who just doesn’t know when to shut up and play.  The cover of this expanded version of ‘Live at Leeds’ even features a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker about the profanity!  Whatever the case, some of the ‘bantering interludes’ between songs  and between Martyn and Thompson (in particular) stretch towards the 10-minute mark and though there might be some amusement first time around, I doubt if anyone could bear listening to all this ‘Jack the Lad’ prattishness on a regular basis.

Johnny & Danny looking well-refreshed…..

Still that’s what you have to accept with John Martyn;  on one hand, the brilliant songwriter, the great guitarist, the innovative user of effects, the iconoclast and the Samaritan/ suspected ‘softy’, but on the other, the bipolar bad boy with a taste for all manner of restricted substances and a tendency to ‘go on a bit’ at times.  I think it’s probably fair to assume that the one side of the coin couldn’t have prospered without the other side, so in the end, we just had to accept JM as he was, warts and all.

What is a pity was that his appetites got the better of his talent in the last 20 years of his life.  If you compare his output from the mid-1980’s with his near-contemporary and Island stablemate, Richard Thompson, it doesn’t really bear too close an examination.  In the final analysis, though, he was an extraordinary talent whose early career (at least) produced some unforgettable gems.

Listening to Richard Thompson’s ‘Dream Attic’……….

The only surprising thing about Richard Thompson’s new album, ‘Dream Attic’ is that it hasn’t been released on the English Heritage or National Trust labels.  Of course, neither organisation operates a record label, as far as I know, but if they did, Thompson’s status as a full-blown ‘national treasure’  would surely guarantee him as their first recruit.  He’s now been making solo albums for nearly 40 years and it’s  difficult to remember a genuine turkey among them.  He has steadily built a large army of dedicated fans (mainly men of a certain age, one suspects) for whom he can do little wrong.  Where opinion divides, it is usually around the issue of whether his best live performances are those where he plays completely solo or those with a band.

With his latest album, we get the best of both worlds, or at least we do if we’re quick off the mark.  ‘Dream Attic’ is available in what is presumably a limited run as a two-CD package, with one disc of band versions and one of largely solo acoustic demos.  Thompson has been down this road before to some extent; the 1996 ‘You? Me? Us?’ double set featured an ‘electric’ disc and an ‘acoustic’ disc  with a couple of duplications, but here we have all 13 songs in 2 distinct versions.  Comparisons therefore become inevitable, but as someone who generally prefers the acoustic RT, I would concede that a few of the ‘rockier’ numbers do work better as band outings.

The conceit behind these ‘band’ versions is that they were recorded live at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall back in February.  The band  comprises Thompson himself (guitars, vocals) with Michael Jerome (drums, vocals),Taras Prodaniuk (bass, vocals), Pete Zorn (multi-instruments, vocals) and Joel Zifkin (electric violin, mandolin, vocals).  It is, of course,  unusual to record an album’s worth of new material in a live setting, but the performances are generally good and sometimes better than that.  The band offer sympathetic support to Thompson and he responds with some incendiary electric guitar playing, particularly on the impressive ‘Crimescene’  and elsewhere. 

The ‘Demos’ are also pretty good, though the songs that work best are the slower, ballad titles.  Much has been made of Thompson’s caustic attack on Sting in ‘Here comes Geordie’, but like all his ‘comedy’ songs (‘I agree with Pat Metheny’, ‘Now that I am dead’ and so on) it’s a song that provokes a wry smile on the first few hearings, but after that goes largely unremarked.  Frankly, poking fun at Sting is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket and Thompson can surely find worthier targets.

Sonically, the main departure is the inclusion of Joel Zifkin’s violin in the musical mix on the live album.  As far as I can recall, Thompson seems to have avoided working with violinists for quite a while now, probably in order to avoid the inevitable echoes of Fairport Convention’s  ‘Liege & Lief’-era sound but Zifkin is at least free of the folk fiddle clichés that Dave Swarbrick brought to Fairport’s table and concentrates on adding a little ‘colour’ to proceedings rather than trying to engage Thompson in high-speed, twiddly-diddly duels.

Even so, whilst there are some great songs on ‘Dream Attic’, it’s not an album for which I can offer unreserved praise.  The problem for me lies with the arrangements, which sometimes seem to recycle the same old riffs that Thompson has regularly exhumed ever since he left Fairport.  Only in the 90’s when he worked with Mitchell Froom at Capitol did he seem to leave most of that tired English folkery behind.  For me, songs from those years like ‘Ghosts in the Wind’, ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Bathsheba smiles’ showed a breadth of imagination in their arrangements which is largely lacking here.  It’s a pity because songs like ‘Crimescene‘  and ‘Stumble On’ are vintage Thompson and deserve a slightly more innovative approach.  The one exception to all this is undoubtedly ‘Big Sun Falling in the River’ in which lyric, arrangement and instrumentation blend perfectly.

‘Dream Attic’ has garnered almost universal praise from all quarters, so I am clearly out of step with the majority viewpoint here.  As I’ve said, for me, it’s  another good, but not flawless, addition to the RT canon.  Personally, I still prefer him solo and acoustic, but if he is going to work with a band, it would be nice to see someone else having a bit of input into the arrangements, offering a gleaming framework for his marvellous songs rather than just a backing band recycling folk-rock pleasantries from the early 1970’s.