28 March 2009


Here's another song. I wrote and recorded it this week. I'd like to develop it a bit more - maybe with some piano. Use the link below to download.



15 March 2009

The Lily

I had a lot of fun writing and recording this! It came about after I thought of some silly lyrics about guilding and a lily.

the lily


01 February 2009

In My Dream

I wrote this song last week. I had just spoken to a man who was telling me how his wife had Alzheimer's, and there was something about the care in his voice that I found really moving. This got me thinking about some lyrics for a song about how illnesses might get in the way of what could have been a great love affair.



23 January 2009

Shallow Day

This song is more recent. Last summer I picked up my viola for the first time in years, and after some messing around I found that I really liked the sound that it made when combined with a harmonica. Kind of rustic (if not Waltons-esque). Having said that, if the conductor of the orchestra I play in hears this, he'll probably have words to say about my tuning.

I wrote the lyrics while standing on a picket line in the rain! The other singer is me as well.

Click here: Shallowday.mp3


All I Need

Here's another song I wrote years ago, called All I Need.

Click here:


18 January 2009


Here's another - this is called Times, and it's one of the first songs I ever wrote.



Devil at my Deathbed

I've decided that it's about time I started posting some of my own songs online, and rather than set up a myspace site, it makes sense to have all of my music stuff on the one site.

So for starters, here's a song I wrote and recorded this weekend - it's a bit rough and ready, but it is supposed to be the dying confession of some dodgy old New Orleans criminal, so with any luck the style fits.

Devil at my Deathbed


30 August 2008

Neil Diamond - If I Don't See You Again

Neil Diamond’s 2008 album, Home Before Dark, opens with its best song. He didn’t choose the single with the catchy but annoying name, Pretty Amazing Grace (it’s good isn’t it – you don’t like it, but it’s good) as its first track; nor did he choose the title track as song number one. Instead, he went for the nearest song the record has to an ‘epic’ – the seven minute If I Don’t See You Again, a work of simplicity and elegance which evokes all of the best work from Diamond’s career.

It is said that having produced Johnny Cash’s last few albums, helping create that trademark powerful American acoustic sound, Rick Rubin actively wooed Neil Diamond, to persuade him to let Rubin produce him too. The initial result was the album 12 Songs, and Home Before Dark is their follow-up album. Some people will undoubtedly have sniffed at the idea of Rubin, for many the epitome of cool, approaching that walking Brooklyn-LA cliché, Neil Diamond. But listening to If I Don’t See You Again, perhaps they can begin to see what the attraction was.

Starting with what seems at first to be a hesitant guitar pattern, Diamond swiftly transforms that sense of uncertainty into what it really was all along: a stately and respectful initiation into the world of lost love. He eschews angst and rejects the temptation to engage in hand-wringing; instead he lets the song do the talking. Similarly, and it seems a strange point to make, his diction is near-perfect. Every word is given its due space, without ever being swallowed or deprived of half of its sound, because Diamond’s story is a precise one. Lose half of it, and you lose the essence of it. There are no spare sentiments here, and there are no superfluous words – no yeahs, no oohs, none of the posturing that can give pop performance its edge, but which can give pop and rock songwriters an easy way out when they can’t think of what to say, when they don’t know what they mean to say.

There are very few songwriters alive who wouldn’t benefit from a small dose of this sort of discipline, which was probably instilled in Diamond in his days as a jobbing songwriter on Tin Pan Alley – where only the finest, most rounded songs found their way out of the Brill Building into the charts, in the hands of the public’s latest flavour of the month. All the way through If I Don’t See You Again, Diamond’s phrasing and lyrical sense bring to mind his earliest songs, full of a concise eloquence which told you all that you wanted to know about the song’s characters. Songs like Solitary Man:

I’ve had it to here being where love’s a small word
Part-time thing, papering
I know it’s been done having one girl who loves you
Right or wrong, weak or strong

Don’t know that I will, but until I can find me
A girl that will stay and won’t play games behind me
I’ll be what I am
Solitary man

In a similar way, in If I Don’t See You Again, Diamond tells it like it is, but more than that, he tells it as if he is telling like it is. In other words, listening to this song is like sitting down and being told personally by Diamond how he feels. Even the odd line which doesn’t ring quite so naturally, in actual fact adds to the sense of genuine occurrence and feeling, as when you think about it, when they’re telling such a sad and emotional story, who gets it out in word-perfect fashion? We probably want to say “This is the perfect time to go”, but sometimes we won’t get it right – there’s no second chance, and before we know it, we have said “The time is perfect to go”. That’s what he sings, and we believe him all the more for it.

An element of this song that will be immediately recognisable to long-time Neil Diamond fans is his sense of drama. As the song moves on from that graceful beginning, his voice builds in urgency and regret at the same time, as if the ever-increasing band are egging him on, forcing him to get it all out before they all implode, unable quite to release themselves from the restrained, powerful shackles Rubin has placed on them. So the singer dispenses with the gaps between the lines that the first verse features (retaining them only at the end of subsequent verses), piling on line after line of words which with a combination of literal truth and simple metaphor keep the listener firmly rooted in the land of the real.

If I don’t see you again
We ran a whole other race
Two strangers meet on the road
And find their time and their place
We never once had to lie
We’d passed the age of consent
If I don’t see you again

But still you get the sense that his own songwriting won’t let him dawdle, and so without moving beyond the simple three chords that form the basis of his (and so many others’) art, he introduces a new melody, which switches between the chords every bar, rather than every two bars. At the same time the melody goes higher and higher, before realising that “hardly anyone cared”, and settling back to that repeated line, the title of the song. Indeed, what follows now is the introduction of the third and final musical motif, a gentler and questioning melody – providing space for an ambling organ to enter the fray, but also for Diamond’s voice to take us up, faster, louder, as his feeling of expected loss becomes ever more urgent.

Neil Diamond’s voice has always been sonorous and deep, a baritone of real beauty, but now, with years on the clock, he doesn’t over-use it as he did in the eighties, as the pop songwriting deserted him and he crafted songs based only on the emotion (which itself was often hammed up). No, this song is no Heartlight, which was inspired by another piece of mawkish emotion (the film ET). Now, there’s a real fire in his voice, which takes you right back to his earlier days, back even before the fire in his music came from his experimentation with interesting existential songs, like I Am…I Said, and African rhythms, right back to when he wrote songs about his childhood. The song Shilo was a masterpiece of late sixties pop, using a contained, thoughtful musical accompaniment alongside ambitious and striking lyrics, so that the music gave the thoughts time to breathe. This was the young man Diamond, singing about the boy Neil and his imaginary friend, and as the self-imposed limits on rock and roll aggression reflect the material limits on life of a poor boy growing up in post-war Brooklyn, the singer virtually cries his every word:

I wanted to fly
She made me feel like I could
Held my hand now I let her take me
Blind as a child
All I saw was the way that she made me smile
She made me smile

Forty years later, the technique is the same – just as the song’s lyrics recall Diamond’s earliest work, skipping straight back over his often embarrassing attempts at rootless nostalgia (September Morn) and spiritual self-examination, so Rubin’s major musical achievement has been to listen to Diamond’s sixties work, and strip back the sound of his later excesses so as to arrive back in those younger days. The result is equally powerful.

It’s time for saying goodbye
Cos if I stay for too long
You’d get to know me too well
And find that something was wrong
The time is perfect to go
Before the curtain descends
Right now when both of us know
That everything’s got to end
If I don’t see you again

Only once in this key set of lyrics does the drama of the piece show itself in the written word, as he sings of the curtain descending, giving the strong impression of the two of them playing out some of movie or play, rather than a normal life or love story, as would have been suggested by there being two curtains which simply close. But this is a fleeting image, because after all, they’re not there yet – he’s saying, I’ll go now, before all of this happens. Let’s keep it simple, as just like before, it all has to end. But just let me see you again. And that, importantly, is where the tensely-coiled fervour of his voice has been leading: the realisation, both strong and uncomplicated, that just to see his love is to change everything in some profound way. He doesn’t say it quite like that, but only because he doesn’t need to. The words create the gaps between them, and his voice gives them their weight.

In his early days as a live performer, Diamond was given the advice that he should always leave his audience wanting more. It was advice he took only sometimes when making records. Moving on from writing and recording short, sharp, intelligent poppy numbers, Diamond began to make longer songs, with more mature sentiments than the likes of Shilo. But even some of his best songs from that period in the early seventies leave nothing unsaid, no verse left unsung, no metaphor left unexplored – for example the charming Canta Libre, from his excellent album Moods:

I got music running my head
Makes me feel like a young bird flying
Cross my mind and laying on my bed
Keeps me away from the thought of dying

Several decades later, Diamond seems more able to take that advice and leave things unplayed for as long as possible, so that when the moments of inspiration are finally put on display, they seem less manufactured and more revelatory for that. Four minutes into If I Don’t See You Again, he is still building the song, and it’s now that you realise he’s building something of real substance. The words don’t change that much, the story is as you would expect, but somehow you don’t get bored, and you just want to hear more of that ringing acoustic guitar riff, the increasingly majestic piano, and the frills provided by the organ and bass. And the singer feels your need, in fact he embraces it, and in the closest he gets to anger and conceit in the whole song, he finally lets go about his lost audience, his lost love.

And will you be the one to save me
Doesn’t look like the future is clearing
Need you to hear me playing a tune
When nobody hears me
I end up playing to the moon

So as singer and song demand your full attention while he plays out the end of the affair, Diamond repeats the verse about perfect times to depart and descending curtains, over the most urgent, rapidly-changing melody that the song employs, before settling back, for what seems to be for ever, into a happier, contented place, there to sing the song’s beginning again, complete with those longer gaps between lines, as if we had never been on the emotional ride he’s just taken us through. But instead, he gives us one last passionate flourish, he makes a subtle and sudden change to the by-now familiar melody, and begins to cry at us, just like he did all those years ago when he nearly broke down at the thought of his best friend, his imaginary friend:

You went and turned me around
Could be was something you said
I couldn’t make out the sound

And finally, having accepted that it was his love, not his own self, that made things better, made the difference, he uses that restrained but forceful shout one last time, to tell us how little it would all have meant, in the absence of that last sighting of the object of his song:

I didn’t care what it meant
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again

With no lingering instrumental coda, no chance for the band to round it all up in what would probably be a watering down of Diamond’s flames, the last word and the last chord are allowed to ring out and off in unison, leaving us with a last couple of lines which contain, musically and emotionally, all of the essence of the previous seven minutes. Concise and yet prolonged, restrained and yet passionate, this song is one of a kind – written and performed by a musical giant.


Bruce Springsteen - Stolen Car

The most startling thing about the song Stolen Car is the sheer bleakness of the place Bruce Springsteen is coming from. Springsteen is a story-teller, capable of drawing on his own experiences and emotional depths to create compelling fictional characters and events. But the power of Stolen Car is so great that you’re forced to ask, if Springsteen never lived through the desperation and loss described in this song, how did he make it seem so real? Where in his mind did it all come from?

The way Springsteen described his songwriting developing in the second half of the seventies is half legend and half history. It’s history because, as he often tells us, he did move away from the romantic triumphalism of his earlier work. Perhaps realising that the convoluted street stories and their idealised characters were fun for a while but not sustainable, and seeing that when the young dreamer hops in his car with his girl and gets out of that one-horse town, what follows isn’t always that much better, Springsteen started to write about real people, leading normal lives, engaging in everyday struggles. The song often given as early and important evidence of this shift is Factory, from the depressing Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), in which he combined concise, powerful lyrics with a stately, respectful accompaniment that was ideally suited to the metronomic nature of his character’s life’s routine:

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
The work, the working, just the working life

But this is far from being the whole story. For all its blue collar regularity and poor person’s economics, the Darkness album contains plenty of the hopeful, daring self-improver exemplified by Born to Run, Thunder Road and the rest. Following a wonderfully clear (if simplified) exposition of a normal person’s priorities, when faced with the double-whammy of poverty and oppression, the narrator of Darkness’s opening fanfare, Badlands, makes clear the hope that remains in his heart, and his desire to make it real:

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And the king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight
I wanna find out what I got

So Springsteen shouldn’t kid us that the struggles of his characters from the late seventies onwards were the struggles of that idealised everyman. The point about the man in Factory, the central certainty which lends him both his tragedy and his dignity, is that he doesn’t want to go out tonight to find out what he’s got – or at any rate, he doesn’t want to do it enough actually to make him do it. To do so would be to sacrifice whatever it is that he has built up, gradually, day by day – some measure of security, maybe a family, some sense of local stability, where any fragility comes from events beyond his control. In short, this man can’t afford to take risks.

That sounds pretty depressing, and so it is little surprise that Springsteen’s songs from that point on didn’t simply follow that pattern. From Darkness up to the present time, most of his songs contain a rich blend of reality, hope, action and both pent-up and released emotion. But not all of them. A world away from the ambition of Badlands, and a hundred times more depressing than any thought Factory can evoke, lies the grim world of Stolen Car.

The song Stolen Car is to be found buried in the second half of the album The River (1980). This album is Springsteen’s White Album in one (and only one) sense: it is sometimes asked, why didn’t he make it a really good single album, rather than a pretty good double? Conventional wisdom has it that either he couldn’t decide which songs to leave off (despite having left off several songs of substantially better quality than some that made the cut), or that the concept of the album required a particular length and order. The truth of either of these justifications suggests to me that he needed better advice at the time, but I like to think that there was another reason. The songs recorded for that album generally seem either to set the scene, or to describe the better life or world that the narrator or characters strove for. Very few of the songs do both.

Right from the outset, you know that Stolen Car is really moving around in the deepest wells of despair and hopelessness. Set significantly quieter than the songs around it, the song starts with a persistent (though lacking the urgency to be described as “insistent”) guitar which oscillates between two chords for the entirety of the song. On first listen, the tension created by this tightly coiled rhythm part threatens that at any moment it could unwind into that third chord of rock and roll convention – but it never does. To do so would bow not just to normality, a sense of the average, but to accede to the lightening of the mood which the fifth chord brings, after a few bars of the first and fourth. That isn’t Springsteen’s intention, and the two chords provide a sullen backing all the way.

Colour, such as it is, comes from Roy Bittan’s tinkling piano – used to great effect across the album, in a way that he never quite managed subsequently. The hesitating, descending nuances of Bittan’s playing on Stolen Car bring together the love inherent in the tale to come with the lack of any real hope of salvation: in short, they provide Springsteen with instrumental poignancy.

Next up comes the E Street Band’s ultimate instrument: Springsteen’s voice, this time drenched in echo and not letting the band slow him down as he tells his story. He starts by touching on hope – but hope as described as a thing of a past, making it clear that the hope has gone. In fact by the terminal angst in his voice, you get the sense that in his view, hope had existed where none had the right to:

I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house on the edge of town
We got married and swore we’d never part
And little by little we drifted from each other’s hearts

This seems to be a verse, but there’s no chorus or refrain, just yet. Springsteen’s voice picks up the tempo fractionally, as if he is afraid to pause in the telling and not have the strength to continue. He gets a bit louder too. But the genius of this song’s structure is that the narrator skips a bit of his own history. He doesn’t tell us what happened, at least for the moment. He skips straight to his own bleak assessment of why it went wrong. More accurately, he tells us what his initial assessment was, then dismisses it in favour of something bigger, more portentous, and left undefined:

At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by as our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep

What happened, and why it happened, are so far left unexplained. One thing, and one thing only, is for sure: whatever happened was terrible.

What this doom-laden story lacks is a context, a sense of physical surroundings, and that is exactly what the chorus now provides. Springsteen switches to the present tense, and sings:

I’m driving a stolen car
Down on Eldrich Avenue

The literal intention seems to be that this is a description of what his narrator is doing now, as he looks back at the past. But the overwhelming feeling is that this is no mere drive down memory lane - driving stolen cars is also his past, and possibly what brought him and his lover/wife to their sad end. This suggestion is enhanced by the accompaniment to the chorus, as the lone voice of the verses is joined by church-like background vocals, singing simple “aahs”, moving gradually downwards, giving the motoring lyrics a funereal quality. Against the wave of finality they create, the narrator’s subsequent attempt at defiance comes across more as admission of the futility of his vague rebelliousness:

Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do

Whether he waits out of a desire to get caught, or simply the expectation that that is what must happen, is not clear. What is certainly clear is the message of muted thunder of the drums which enter around this point, sending a character to their musical death of ever an instrument could do so.

Accepting those drums as the inevitable partner to the rest of his story, and even adding a plucked bass to add weight to it, Springsteen gets on with telling the tale. He doesn’t bother to go back and fill in the gaps – instead, he remains in the present, in retrospective mode, but switches perspective – or shares it:

I asked if she remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

Whatever happened to the love between the two of them, it doesn’t seem like either of them died. Actually, Springsteen makes seem natural what is in reality an unusual narrative device: rather than using a sole voice to describe what happened between two people in the past, he uses both people’s voices to describe what happened to something – a feeling, an emotion – which seems too huge to personalise. In particular, the last two lines of that verse seem to say everything and nothing. Everything, because the despair with which he sings them, and the respect commanded by the use of the ancient age suggested at, suggest something so immense as to be transcend adequate description (what did she mean?). Nothing, because what she actually says is to commonplace as to be verging on funny – we all look back at the evidence (or just memories) of our young, bold love, and say they make us feel old. But then, the genius of Springsteen is to convince us that what has happened to these two tragic characters is more, much more, than that commonplace process of ageing, and gathering wisdom as we go, that the rest of us are forced to endure. Helped by Bittan’s piano, which reflects the growing elegance of the tale by spreading his chords out, adding depth to the music, he sews that seed of doubt in our minds – is he singing about me, or is he creating a back-story between the lines that surpasses anything I have ever experienced, in terms of its tragedy and implications?

There’s more, of course. Defying expectation (especially set against the standard structure of the album’s more prosaic songs), Springsteen introduces not one, but two new choruses – retaining the musical shape of the first one, keeping the ethereal choral backing, but using every line of music to add flesh to the story (although not at the expense of the song’s mystery):

I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch-black night
And I’m telling myself
Gonna be alright

Again, there’s that uncertainty regarding whether this is a memory, or a description of what the narrator is doing as he plunges the darkest depths of memory. He seems temporarily optimistic, although he presents no reason for this momentary hope, but he immediately dismisses it with his very next word, and reinforces his hopelessness with the last lyrics of the song:

But I ride by night
And I travel in fear
That into this darkness
I will disappear

Finally, you feel able to make a judgement about the tense of the choruses: as the vocals vanish suddenly from whence they have come, echoing the sentiment they last expressed, you feel sure that the stolen cars, night riding and fear of the choruses are a part of the narrator’s sense of now, not part of the story he is telling in the verses. This knowledge takes away that growing sense of context and physical space that the choruses had gradually given the verses, leaving them ever more elusive and unexplained. More importantly, it tells you that whatever happened in the past, in those verses, never went away, never eased, and has led Springsteen to consider, even predict, his own demise, even as he remembers.

So it is inevitable that after these final words, the persistent hollow drums (different from the persistent guitars only in that one wanted to make sure a story was told, while the other wants to ensure the story ends, in our heads, with the one irrevocable conclusion we all know) are joined by an organ solo, as beautiful in its conception as it is devastating in its delivery. Emerging at first through what sounds like a dense thicket of guitar, bass, piano and drums, Danny Federici’s solo, as church-like as those earlier vocals, meanders thoughtfully around Springsteen’s earlier melody, before emerging to take centre-stage by rejecting the rhythm set by the other instruments, and commanding them to follow in its wake, as the music fades to a quiet sense of nothing.

If you have never heard Stolen Car before, or if you have heard it without ever really listening to it, put it on, and after it has finished, press stop. Whatever follows this exquisite song of yearning hopelessness and unspoken tragedy is bound to be mundane, and it is bound to ruin what came before. Sit in silence for a few minutes, and let all that has been sung, and all that has been left to your own imagination, sink in. Like I said before, this is no ordinary story of every day life. This song is one of a kind.


07 June 2008

One bad gig, several good ones, and the passing of a musical magician

A couple of months back I went to a really rubbish gig. I’m not blaming the band entirely – it was a Monday night, I’d had one of those days at work, and I was standing at the Borderline on my own on an unseasonably hot day. I don’t suppose I was up for it. But nonetheless, the music wasn’t that good either.

Sirens of the Ditch, the first solo album by Jason Isbell since he left the Drive By Truckers, is a very good piece of work. He has that southern rock feel off-pat, but he combines it with some top quality singing and a songwriting style which demonstrates how leaving a multi-talented band to branch out on your own, to find a more individual sense of your art, can be a worthwhile risk. And at the Borderline, some of those elements were there – he sang well and his songs were for the most part good (although his tribute to the Band’s deceased legends, Danko/Manuel, seemed hideously inappropriate; delivering personal tributes is all very well, but there has to be some link to the object, otherwise the gesture is an empty one – like opening a copy of the Dandy and reading that it’s a tribute to Franz Kafka). But he really needs to get a new band – or at least a new guitar player. While Isbell himself played some very good solos, including some brave slide work, the other guitarist played the most hackneyed, un-nuanced, screamy guitar parts…it was as if he had just left home and was making the most of finally being allowed to turn his amp up and rock out, man. He was out of place.

The other problem was that it was far too much like being in a poor pastiche of a Southern-style hoe-down. I don’t mean to stereotype the Deep South in any way. But Isbell and his entourage seemed intent on doing just that, as he swigged from a bottle of Jack Daniels before passing it round to band members, some of whom visibly didn’t want it but felt obliged to take a manly swig. Guys, it costs a tenner in Asda, it’s not that cool. Worse, every time Isbell took a swig, various members of the audience indulged in really fake woops and hollers – I don’t know if these were genuine Southerners, impressed by Isbell showing the foreigners what life in Alabama is really like, or if they were Londoners engaging in a bit of escapism and make-belief after a day stuck in an office. Either way, it pissed me off.

Maybe I had just become a grumpy old man, and the fact that I didn’t enjoy myself was absolutely nothing to do with this gig? Not to be put off, I embarked upon a series of shows which I had higher hopes for – and they didn’t let me down. This spring I have witnessed some of the best live performances I have ever seen.

A couple of weeks after the Borderline pantomime, a friend and I entered a very strange venue, the Soho Revue Bar, to witness what was a lot like a coming out party for Lizz Wright. With poles running from floor to ceiling giving a hint as to the venue’s less savoury former use, and a dark red and blue burlesque feeling running around the cushioned seats and eerily lit bar, there was an odd anticipatory atmosphere before Wright hit the stage, earlier than scheduled. I have referred in passing to her latest album, The Orchard, elsewhere on this website, and for the most part the gig was a run-through of that album – though with the shuffle option selected.

Wright is a humble and unassuming performer – what first seemed to be her clasping herself in a classic pose of self-pity and internal angst was actually her indicating to her back-stage guy that she was cold and wanted more clothes. Perhaps inevitably, what he gave her was a loose, flowing wrap which your mum wouldn’t deem adequate to warm up a mouse, but it was in keeping with her musical style. Standing still in the middle of the stage, Wright used her deep, soulful vocals from her toes upwards, swaying only a bit as her music brought song after song to a culmination, a sense of life few performers can match based only on sheer tone.

She did dip back into her previous records, most notably with her cover of Neil Young’s Old Man. Singing it as if she had written it, indeed as if the old man in question was someone she had known her whole life (and in the subjective world of interpreting a song to suit your own needs and predilections, who is to say she hadn’t?), she brought the talented band and the eager audience up a level, closer to where she had been since the start, and after that things really got going. Elegant, stately, passionate – I would have gone to see her night after night if I could have done.

Another singer-songwriter I have been obsessively listening to this year, and another who adds jazzy inflections to a style of music that is otherwise quite different, is Jill Barber. In an underground cellar of a place, I witnessed a simple but striking performance: just Barber and her guitar, combining new songs and a few from For All Time, interspersed with endearing stories which put the songs in a nice context. My thoughts on Jill Barber have been recorded elsewhere, but the main point from a persona perspective is that I had just got off a long, delayed train journey, I was very hot and bothered, but Jill Barber did what Jason Isbell couldn’t – her songs blew my troubles away. That evening I was also reminded how well your friends tend to know you. When Barber asked for requests and I immediately shouted out a song name (I thought other people would too, but they didn’t…), she not only played the song, but asked my name and thanked me after playing it. When afterwards I commented on how embarrassing it had been, the friend I was with just said “You loved it”.

Well, love it I may have done, but not half as much as I loved Alison Krauss, Robert Plant and what they created between them at Wembley Arena a few weeks later. Taking their under-stated masterpiece, Raising Sand, on tour, their live set offers so much more – menacing but acoustic-based Led Zeppelin covers, soft country/bluegrass laments, spicy Cajun blues-rock, and simply gorgeous harmonies.

Robert Plant really showed his subtle side at Wembley, blending well with Alison Krauss and not dominating proceedings. In fact, for all of Plants world-weary and experienced touches, it was Krauss who really shone. She is a revelation - such a beautiful voice. The best moment for me was her version of Down to the River and Pray, famous now for its appearance on the Oh Brother, Where Art thou? Soundtrack. The song was performed a cappella, with Krauss in the spotlight singing the first section on her own, with Plant, Buddy Miller and the Stuart Duncan giving it three part harmony backing vocals, around a second mic. Incredible stuff. And who could fail to be entranced by Alison Krauss? There was an odd incongruousness, seeing this ‘country chick’ with green dress (billowing in the air conditioning like a warped version of Mary in Thunder Road) and cowboy boots in the middle of a massive dingy London garage, otherwise known as Wembley Arena. But when she sang, it all made sense.

There were solid versions of most of the songs from the album, with Killing the Blues being a personal highlight for me (actually it wasn’t one of the better songs on the night, and my main feeling when they started it was less elation and more a strange sense of relief that I wasn’t going to miss out). As for the Zeppelin covers – such as When the Levee Breaks, and the Battle of Evermore, the blend between reinvention and respect for rock classics was just right. Evermore featured faithful mandolin playing and lively, edge-of-seat harmonies. The long intro to When the Levee Breaks was an aggressive duet between the violins of Krauss and Duncan, followed by long, drawn-out vocals from Plant and Krauss.

It is also worth mentioning the strange cult of T-Bone Burnett. The man is clearly a great producer – the sound he created on Raising Sand is captivatingly unique (actually, until this album, my favourite example of his work was the Wallflowers’ second album, Bringing Down the Horse, rather than the Rolling Thunder guitar and the Oh Brother soundtrack for which he is more famous). The man obviously has a lot of style, and knows his music history. But the camera operators, for the big screens, kept focusing on him as he strummed his rhythm guitar, while ignoring Buddy Miller's endless stream of licks, solos and fills. Also Burnett’s’ two-song set was in your face, kind of cool, but a bit out of place. Buddy Miller and Stuart Duncan were definitely the unsung heroes of this show.

Musically speaking, Plant/Krauss show hasn’t been topped this year, for me anyway. But when you bring together the music, the performance, the atmosphere and the sheer exhilaration that only live music can provide, Bruce Springsteen is the best live performer by, oh I would say about a hundred thousand miles.

My ninth Springsteen show was definitely more of a party than a concert. People I know who sat in the stands (for this took place at a football ground, the strange huge squat stadium that Arsenal’s Emirates) tell me that it was a very good show. Certainly the setlist was pretty interesting, for a Springsteen show, with rarities like Point Blank getting an airing. For my old friend, my new friend and me, it was more an excuse to sing, shout, dance, drink some beer, and relish the general wonder of a Bruce Springsteen show. Right from the outset, he was off the stage and into the crowd, and we lapped it up – one of Springsteen’s talents is that however indifferent you are to one of his songs, in a concert he will make you love it and appreciate it in new ways; for those few minutes at least. So it was with 10th Avenue Freeze-out for me, which normally I dismiss as being a nice slice of horn and pop, but forgettable amidst the rockers, lefty ballads and epic tales of life turned every which way.

Amidst the reveling, it wasn’t until the very end of the show that the tragic and poignant background to this tour hit home. As organist Charles Giordano took his applause, we were reminded that he was only present because of the illness and recent death of Danny Federici, an original member of the E Street Band. Since the early 1970s, Danny had been adding his shimmering and swirling organ to Springsteen’s songs – lending them the notes between the notes, the solos which reminded us exactly which boardwalk Springsteen and his band had come from, and the fills which made sure that the music sounded organic and fresh, never hackneyed and plonky (especially as rhythm piano and straight-beat drums became ever more prominent on Springsteen’s records).

Back in 2003, I had a great time attending Springsteen shows in London, Dublin and New Jersey, but for the most part the enjoyment was in the occasion – getting to the second row in Dublin, seeing him in his home state in the US. Musically, the better shows I have seen have been the indoor ones – Wembley Arena with the E Street Band, solo at the Albert Hall, and the Seeger Sessions Band hootenannies in 2006. But Danny Federici’s solos always shone through the most musically mundane of shows – while Springsteen, van Zandt and co focused on entertainment. Federici sat back and let his fingers do the talking. I remember his solo lifting You’re Missing to another level, highlighting the actual subject of the song. I remember his playing on My City of Ruins making me think of everything I have ever known to have gone bad, and instilling me with a sense of hope at the same time.

Danny, maybe others will see your like again; I don’t know. For me, you were a true magician, one of those one-off musicians whose inventiveness and soul made me think and made me dream. Perhaps most of all, I know that as long as I remember that music like yours is possible, I will never abandon going to gigs, however hot and dingy and unpleasant it might sometimes seem, because I know that unexpected pleasures and emotional highs may always be in store. Given this spring’s experiences, for this I can only offer you thanks. Rest in peace.

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