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’

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.

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:

http://www.5gig.co.uk/lanterns+on+the+lake-tourdates/

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.