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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3:34 pm  

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