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The return of P.P. Arnold

PP Arnold 2

At a lunch in Barnes a few weeks ago P.P. Arnold got up from her seat — next to Linda Thompson, as it happened — and walked to the other end of the room to sing Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and three backing singers. The gathering of music people rose to acclaim her. Whatever it is, I thought to myself, she’s still got it.

But I knew that already. A couple of years ago I’d gone to Cadogan Hall to see the Manfreds, appearing with two guest singers. One was the irrepressible Zoot Money. The other was Ms Arnold, who had half the audience surreptitiously wiping an eye as she delivered another of the songs with which she is associated in the minds of British audiences, Chip Taylor’s “Angel of the Morning”.

When she first arrived in Britain, in the autumn of 1966, the LA-born Pat Arnold was on the road with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, as a member of the Ikettes. During that tour they turned up at the Beachcomber Club in Nottingham, a basement space that probably held 300 people. “River Deep — Mountain High” had been one of the hits of the summer, and plenty of the mods in the audience had “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “A Fool in Love” in their collections. So it was packed. But not as packed as the small stage, which contained an eight-piece band, the three Ikettes, a warm-up singer named Albert Akens, and Ike and Tina. As part of the preliminaries to Tina’s appearance, the gorgeous Pat Arnold had stepped forward to deliver a rousing version of “Dancing in the Street”.

It was a great show, and afterwards, in my capacity as a diligent 19-year-old reporter for the local evening paper, I went to the dressing room to try and get the names of the musicians. When I knocked on the door, there was a response that sounded like “Come in.” So I did, to be confronted by a flash of black skin and white underwear: the Ikettes were getting changed. I mumbled something apologetic and stumbled backwards, closing the door behind me. Somehow I managed to get the names I wanted, and the report in the paper mentioned the veteran tenorist Clifford Solomon, the trumpeter Jabe Fleming, and the very fine drummer Soko Richardson, as well as Arnold. I didn’t include the glimpse through the dressing room door.

Now there’s a new release called The New Adventures of P.P. Arnold, which I’ve been playing with great enjoyment. She and her producer, Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene, present her familiar voice in new lights, making reference to the way her records sounded in the past without descending to pastiche. There’s no better example than the opening track, “Baby Blue”, written by Cradock with Steve Grizzell: a great pop-soul song which would have been snapped up by Dusty Springfield or Amy Winehouse; it suits Arnold’s delivery perfectly, her heavy vibrato surrounded by lush strings and female backing vocals as she delivers the hook.

The 15-song running order is full of imaginative choices, including outstanding covers of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” (quite different from the versions by Linda Ronstadt with the Stone Poneys or Susanna Hoffs with Matthew Sweet) and Sandy Denny’s “I’m a Dreamer”. A new version of Arnold’s own “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, a beautifully formed ballad first recorded in 1968 on her debut album,  and “I Believe”, co-written with Fuzzy Samuels, the ex-CSN&Y bassist and her former partner, are beauties (you can listen to the latter on the home page of http://www.pparnold.com). So is the intense, gospelly “I Finally Found My Way Back Home”, co-written with Cradock, on which the singer engages in a dialogue with herself. Paul Weller contributes “Shoot the Dove” and “When I Was Part of Your Picture”, on which oboe and strings lightly evoke the decorous neo-baroque mood of late-’60s English psych-pop, as do the string quartet intro and brass fills on Cradock’s “The Magic Hour”. A real highlight is the warm strum-along reading of the lovely “Daltry Street” by Jake Fletcher, formerly of Manchester’s Gramotones: one of those songs in which verse and chorus are so beautifully interlinked that it seems it’s never going to stop, and neither do you want it to.

As if all that were not enough, Arnold and Cradock finish up with two strokes of brilliance. The first is “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”, the long poem Bob Dylan recited at New York’s Town in April 1963, and which, after circulating among collectors, appeared on the first volume of the Bootleg Series in 1991. Arnold handles the extended recitative well, her voice riding on a one-chord jam powered by chattering congas and punctuated by a shifting array of brass and reed interjections, like a meeting of Fela Kuti and Sun Ra in Norman Whitfield’s studio, gathering power as it goes. The finale is Arnold’s “I’ll Always Remember You”, a ballad dedicated to her late daughter, Debbie, recorded in Exeter Cathedral with the cathedral organ and choir, plus cello and harp: a bravura performance, deeply felt, never overwrought, and the perfect finale.

* The Further Adventures of P.P. Arnold is out now on the e.a.r music label as a double vinyl album or a single CD.

Ornithology, Murakami-style

Bird Bossa

Supernatural visitations are a regular feature of the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, many of which also benefit from a well chosen musical soundtrack. He combines the two in an unusually intimate way in a new short story titled “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, published in the latest edition of Granta, the literary quarterly.

It begins with a student exercise in which the tale’s protagonist writes a review of an imaginary album, recorded in 1963, in which Charlie Parker — who has not, after all, died in 1955 — is accompanied by the piano of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the bass of Jimmy Garrison and the drums of Roy Haynes. The repertoire consists of well known Jobim tunes, including “Insensatez” and “Chega de Saudade”, and bossafied versions of a couple of Bird’s own classics, for which Hank Jones replaces the Brazilian at the keyboard.

The essay has been long forgotten when, after many years, its writer wanders into a small New York record store and, while browsing the racks, comes across what appears to be a bootleg version of the very album created by his own imagination. Later, while pondering on this mystery, he receives a visit from Parker himself.

Not wanting to spoil the reader’s pleasure, I’ll add only that it’s a delightful invention which reaffirms Murakami’s deep love of music — as lightly worn as ever, even when it provides the essence of the story. And the accompanying illustration, by Jon Gray, is perfect.

* Granta 148, a summer fiction special, is out now.

Down Here Praying

Pure Heart Travelers

Apart from anything else, the release of Amazing Grace, the long-buried film of Aretha Franklin singing gospel songs in 1972, reminded us of the debt we all owe to the black church. African American gospel music explored and mapped the fastest route to the deepest emotions, whether in raw vocal inflections, heart-lifting harmonic changes or ecstatic choral vamping.

There are many fine gospel compilations, but few that I’ve found as fascinating and rewarding as Sacred Sounds, a new anthology of material recorded with various artists by the Detroit-based producer Dave Hamilton for his own labels between 1969 and 1974. Its two dozen tracks, selected by Ady Croasdell and Adam Stanfel, offer a cross-section of approaches to the idiom at a time when its performers were borrowing from R&B and pre-disco soul music.

Hamilton arrived in the Motor City from Savannah, Georgia in the 1940s and quickly established himself as a guitarist and vibraharpist on the local scene. A friend of Marvin Gaye, he played on “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”; his recordings for various labels under his own name included an album called Blue Vibrations for Berry Gordy’s Workshop Jazz label, an early Motown subsidiary (here’s the single, “Late Freight”, co-written with Clarence Paul). As a producer, his vast output yielded many tracks, such as Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows” and James Carpenter’s “(Marriage Is Only) A State of Mind”, which emerged from obscurity only decades later.

There’s a fair chance you won’t have heard any of these gospel tracks, or be familiar with such groups as the Sensational Sunset Paraders, the Detroit Silvertones, the Soul Inspirers and the National Independent Singers. All you need to know is that in other circumstances many of these singers could have turned into Motown superstars. The opening “Jesus Is With Me Pt 1” by Little Stevie and the Reynolds Singers sets the tone: had the Jackson 5 cut a gospel track in 1969 rather than “I Want You Back”, this is how it might have turned out. It’s followed by the Scott Singers’ “I’m Not Ready to Die”, with a house-wrecking female voice leading the group over lightly strummed rhythm guitar, walking bass and a woodblock on the backbeat.

The Reverend Samuel Barbee’s “(This Is) My Plea” opens with a heartfelt sermon on repentance over sepulchral organ, joined by a soulful guitar when the song kicks in and Barbee shows off his Sam Cooke chops. The Sensational Angelettes’ “I Heard a Voice Pt 1”, cheerfully borrows the melody of “Ain’t No Sunshine” for something that sounds like it belongs on one of Dave Godin’s old Deep Soul compilations. Mr Bo’s “Saviour on the Throne” is a genial altered blues in the B. B. King manner, while “Wrapped, Tied, Tangled Up in Jesus” shows the singer and guitarist Mary Ellen George to have been a spiritual cousin of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Soul Inspirers’ “Grown Old and Feeble” sound like a natural for a Ry Cooder cover, the Detroit Silvertones’ “Down Here Praying” is a wild shout-up, and the rocking vamp of “I Need Your Power” suggests how compelling the Pure Heart Travelers — that’s them in the photograph at the top — must have been in their prime.

Hamilton built his own studio and subjected his gospel artists to the minimum of interference and no sweetening, aiming to do nothing more or less than capture the singers and musicians au naturel. The result is a vibrant authenticity that leaps out of the grooves.

* Sacred Sounds: Dave Hamilton’s Raw Detroit Gospel 1969-74 is released on the Kent label. His secular productions are available in three volumes of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Dancers and one each of Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Soul, Dave Hamilton’s Detroit City Grooves and Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Funk.

More music for a new society

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik - Jazzfest Berlin 2017 - 4 Nov -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-2

The first time I saw Christian Lillinger, with a trio called Hyperactive Kid at Berlin’s X Jazz festival a few years ago, I found it impossible to take him seriously. It was as if some New Romantic poseur had decided to become a free-jazz drummer for the night. The hair, the gestures: they got in the way of listening. Then I saw him a few more times, and it became impossible not to take him very seriously indeed. Not to think of him, in fact, as one of the most interesting musicians working in Europe today.

He has a septet called Grund: two saxophones (Toby Delius and Wanja Slavin or Pierre Borel), vibes (Christopher Dell), piano (Achim Kaufmann) and two basses (Jonas Westergaard and Robert Landfermann). If you don’t know the names of his sidemen, you should; they’re all exceptional improvisers. What makes the music so distinctive, however, is Lillinger’s composing. Imagine something Andrew Hill might be doing today and you might get an idea: knotty but satisfying themes, surprising structures, brilliant interplay.  When I saw them at the Jazz Kollektiv festival in Berlin a year after the Hyperactive Kid gig, it was one of those sets I never wanted to stop. (Another comparison might be with those intense but brilliantly organised quintet and septet sides Cecil Taylor recorded for Impulse in 1961: “Pots”, “Bulbs” and “Mixed”.)

Then, another year later, I saw Lillinger in two more groups: the quartet Amok Amor (with Slavin, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the bassist Petter Eldh) at the Vortex in London and a trio called Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, with Eldh and the pianist Kaja Draksler, at Jazzfest Berlin. In both cases the music was of phenomenally high quality and gave me the chance to appreciate the breathtaking detail of Lillinger’s playing. He is indeed hyperactive, flying around a kit that includes many auxiliary percussive devices with extraordinary deftness and precision, seldom settling on a pattern for more than a few seconds. But once your ears are attuned, they can discern the incredible responsiveness and egoless interaction he brings to the music.

His new album, Open Forms for Society, is something different: a series of 13 densely woven compositions and five improvisations for a group featuring Dell, Draksler, Landfermann and Eldh, plus Lucy Railton on cello, Antonis Anissegos on piano, Elias Stemeseder on piano and synthesiser, and Roland Neffe on tuned percussion. Again, these are all remarkable musicians, perfect for Lillinger’s seamless blend of composition and improvisation, so beautifully integrated — in a form of musical quilting — that you can’t tell where one bleeds into the other.

There are beautiful textures and unexpected juxtapositions of timbre, fragments of melody left hanging in space, sudden bursts of shuffling momentum, abrupt silences, a sense of alertness and inquiry in every ting, squiggle, sigh and shuffle. It’s not easy music, but neither it is at all forbidding: pieces like “Titan” and “Lakat” are disciplined essays in dramatic tension, creating grooves for a world that hasn’t yet quite come into existence.

* Grund’s albums are on the Pirouet, Clean Feed and Plaist labels. Albums by Amok Amor and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik are on the Intakt label. Open Form for Society is on Plaist. The photograph of Christian Lillinger was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake; more of her work can be found at http://www.camille-blake.com.

California dreams

 

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There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.

Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.

Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rebirth and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.

Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.

I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.

I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.

Laura Jurd and friends

Laura Jurd__7852-Credit - Monika S. Jakubowska

Laura Jurd is a prolific musician, so it was an unselfish gesture on her part to invite friends and collaborators to provide compositions to go alongside her own pieces on Stepping Back, Jumping In, her new release on the Edition label. Taking advantage of the palette offered by an unusual combination of instruments, the composers offer a variety of approaches that makes for a kaleidoscopic and satisfying experience.

The 14-piece line-up consists of a brass trio (Jurd’s trumpet, the trombones of Raphael Clarkson or Alex Paxton and the euphonium of Martin Lee Thompson), the Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram and Patrick Dawkins on violins, Richard Jones on viola and Cecilia Bignall on cello), Soosan Lolavar on santoor and Rob Luft on banjo and guitar, and a rhythm section containing the other members of Dinosaur, Jurd’s regular quartet: Elliot Galvin on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, plus Anja Laudval on synthesiser and electronics and Liz Exell on a second drum kit.

There’s a lot of scope, and Jurd is the first to take advantage with a bracing piece called “Jumping In”, its crisp syncopations occasionally disrupted by a sudden rallentando, her bright-toned trumpet to the fore. Galvin’s “Ishtar” locates a darker mood, with ululating violin and eerie glissandi over an intermittent slow groove carried by minimalist drums. Soosan Lolavar’s “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth” begins serenely, the sound of her santoor (an Indian version of the hammered dulcimer) percolating gently through the drifting veils of strings, guitar and electronics. “Jump Cut Blues” is an interestingly deceptive title for a string quartet in which Jurd explores skittering pizzicato lines and unorthodox bowing techniques before plunging into a fast ostinato passage reminscent of Terry Riley’s work in the same field, and thence to a pensive conclusion. The austere opening textures of “Companion Species”, by Anja Laudval and Heida K. Johannesdottir, seem to grow out of the preceding piece, but soon mutate into something very like the surging, growling free-jazz shout-ups associated with the Jazz Composers Orchestra under Michael Mantler or Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra; when the sky clears, it’s to reveal a brisk, purposeful 4/4 groove over which Jurd solos — with a lucid lyricism reminiscent of Henry Lowther — against the low brass. Jurd’s closing “Stepping Back” begins like a brass band gatecrashing one of Terry Riley’s solo organ concerts before some lovely writing for the string players and a calliope effect add extra dimensions.

That’s a rapid tour through an album which shows what can be done with open minds, fresh ideas, an appropriate degree of ambition and a willingness to transcend idioms. Everyone involved deserves enormous credit — most of all Jurd, a musician who knows exactly what she is doing, and for whom Stepping Back, Jumping In represents something of a triumph.

* The photograph of Laura Jurd is by Monika S. Jakubowska.

Mac Rebennack: Roots and herbs

When Dr John came into the Old Grey Whistle Test studio at the BBC Television Centre one night in 1972, he was in his Mac Rebennack mode. That was his birth name, the one he used as a young man on the New Orleans music scene until he moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and eventually devised the hoodoo-voodoo identity that brought him fame.

There was an upright piano in the studio. The programme was going out live. Mac came in and sat down, and after I’d given him a brief introduction, he started to play. For the next few minutes — maybe 10, but I wasn’t counting — he worked his way through the history of post-war New Orleans piano styles. He went from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and James Booker to Huey Smith and Allen Toussaint, stirring a filé powder of his own into the gumbo of their artfully syncopated, wonderfully blues-drenched phrases.

Mac — who died yesterday at his home in Louisiana, aged 77 — was an authority on the subject, a repository of the lore and legend of New Orleans music, and it permeated his own playing. Sadly that Whistle Test performance seems not to have been recorded; unlike many less worthy items, it has never resurfaced, although I continue to live in hope because I’d give a lot to see it again.

It wasn’t until many years later, while reading the notes to a reissue of the magnificent solo-piano set he recorded for the Clean Cuts label in 1981, that I discovered why he had an aversion to performing alone. In his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, he said it aroused the memory of the fear “that I’d end up alone as a solo-piano lounge act starring at Holiday Inns or bowling alleys for the rest of my natural life.”

It was during the same visit in 1972 that I interviewed him at some length for the Melody Maker. Again he talked about his hometown piano heroes, starting with Longhair — “Fess” — whom he’d heard in clubs when his father, the owner of an appliance store, was fixing broken lighting and sound systems. Later, as a young guitarist (the instrument he played before someone shot off the finger he used to bend notes), Mac was called on to play a gig in Longhair’s band.

“Fess remembered me from the way I used to pester him to death when I was a kid. He played these real complex rhythm things — even today I can’t do some of them fantastic things I’ve seen him do over the years. He was such a strong focal point, an inspiration, for everything I was involved in.” There was a mystery, he said, to Longhair’s music, particularly in his introduction of a rhumba feeling into the rhythms. “There’s a missing link there somewhere, because none of the piano players I knew from before Fess’s time were in the direction he was on — the Rhumbalero groove. At some point he was a real innovator. He made up his own music terms. He called his music ‘overboogie’, and when he did this thing by crossing his hands he called it a ‘double-note crossover’. He had something called a ‘left-hand overdrive’, and when the horns made a punch, he’d call that a ‘spew’: his terms were very descriptive.”

You could throw a New Orleans name at Mac — Mel Lastie, John Boudreaux, Harold Battiste, Ed Blackwell, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, Cosimo Matassa, Snooks Eaglin — and he’d have a story about them. When I asked him about being a white man in a black man’s world, at a time when the American Federation of Musicians still had segregated branches, he told me about a tour he made with Toussaint, Eaglin and Phil “Sea of Love” Phillips in the early ’60s: “It was one of the first integrated tours of the South, pre-integration. It was very treacherous. Some of those towns, like Polarville, Mississippi, they’d have had lynchings there — and I was the guy who had to collect the money after the gig.”

The interview was memorable in another way: Mac was on the methadone programme, and he kept nodding out. He’d be in the middle of an answer, shut his eyes and stop talking. If I kept silent too, a minute or so later he’d open his eyes and resume the answer exactly where he’d left off. It was a little unnerving, but it was a sign of recovery from his addiction.

A year earlier I’d seen him in much worse shape. I spent a night at Trident Studios in Soho, where he was recording tracks for what turned out to be The Sun, Moon and Herbs — his fourth album as Dr John — with a motley gang including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond and a few jazz musicians, including the tuba player Ray Draper, once a member of Max Roach’s quintet, and the Jamaican saxophonist and flautist Ken Terroade. The vibe was pretty down and depressing as the assembled company went through endless stoned jams. It was hard to believe they’d get anything out of it.

It was great, then, to see what became of him not just a year later but through the rest of his career, as he became an emblem of the city that had given the music its backbone. You can say that his half-dozen Grammy awards and his membership of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were the least cool thing about him, but when you’d come through what he came through, I’ll bet they meant a lot.

If you haven’t done so already, click on the YouTube link above. This live version of his irresistible “Such a Night” from the Mountain Stage radio show on NPR in 1989 tells you how special he was — how much sheer warmth his music generated, whatever the circumstances — and how greatly he’ll be missed.

Bluegrass Odyssey

Emma John

On a warm late-May night in North London, it was one of the more unusual book-launch parties I can remember. After responding to the customary speech from her publisher, the author picked up a fiddle and joined a guitarist, a double bassist and a banjo-player to play a short set of thoroughly invigorating bluegrass, transforming the upstairs room of an Islington pub into a bar in some deep hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Kentucky.

Emma John, the author of Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South, earned her authenticity with a stay of several months in the bluegrass heartlands, seeking to turn the long-neglected classical violin technique acquired during her schooldays into a mastery of the music of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. The book is account of the trials she endured, of the friends she made, and of a dramatic outcome which I have no intention of spoiling.

A former colleague of mine at the Guardian and the Observer, John writes beautifully. There are interesting sketches of rural American attitudes in the time of Trump, a fascinating chapter on encounters with southern religion — which is, of course, a crucial part of the music’s genetic make-up — and passages in which she describes the Appalachians with a lyricism that reminded me of William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. More important, she is a wry and candid observer of her own anxieties and insecurities, the very qualities that might have disqualified her from participating in a music as dependent on self-confidence as bluegrass. She also has interesting things to say about the challenge of learning to improvise within this highly formalised idiom.

She made me laugh quite a lot, as when she notices at a bluegrass festival that “when the bands weren’t singing old songs, or new songs crafted to sound like old songs, they were singing songs about how no one sang the old songs any more.” And there’s a lovely insight in her discovery that bluegrass “wasn’t the sound of home at all, but the sound of longing-for-home.”

All I can add is that I started the book at half past eight on the night of the launch party and finished it at seven o’clock the next evening, having been impelled to neglect several ostensibly more important tasks in the meantime. It might well do that to you, too.

* Wayfaring Stranger is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The musicians with Emma John in the photograph, taken at the launch party, are Joe Auckland (banjo), Si Cliff (guitar) and Ben Somers (bass).

RIP Genevieve Waite

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When it appeared in 1974, Genevieve Waite’s Romance is on the Rise was part of a reaction to the hippie hegemony, taking its place in a movement that included Roxy Music’s first album and Bette Midler, Studio 54 and Big Biba, Andy Warhol’s Interview and its UK counterpart, Ritz. Out went denim and bucksin fringes, in came satin and tat. The irony was that Romance is on the Rise, with its nostalgic evocations of a gilded age, was produced and mostly written by John Phillips, the composer of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and “California Dreamin'”.

This antidote to the prevailing counter-culture was bracing and fun, even though nobody bought it. “They say that love is coming back / They say romance is on the rise,” Waite announced in the album’s opening lines, before offering advice on how to cope with a volte-face in sexual manners: “Open that door, light her cigarette / Say she looks nice and see what you get.” In “White Cadillac” she deployed her little-girl voice to serenade a wealthy admirer with an amusing cynicism: “You were born rich but not so smart / I was born poor but with a great big wonderful heart…” In “Girls”, a song that might have become a standard, she crooned: “Girls’ll run around in your head / Till you wish you liked boys instead / Girls’ll make you feel so bad / That you’ll wish you’d never been had.” It was not a record you’d want to listen to every day, but the strength of Phillips’s songwriting and the very sparing use of period pastiche in the arrangements add durability to its air of throwaway sophistication.

Two years later Waite and Phillips were living in London, where Phillips was working on the soundtrack for Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. They came to see me at Island Records, looking for a contract. Genevieve had recorded the title song, but her version wasn’t included in the film, although John’s demo turned up a few years ago in an expanded reissue of the soundtrack. (There’s an excellent piece on the background to the story by Chris Campion, Phillips’ authorised biographer, here.)

They were married, not uneventfully, from 1972 to 1988. John died in 2001, aged 65, of a heart attack. Genevieve died this week, aged 71, of undisclosed causes; here’s an LA Times obituary, describing her life in the celebrity zoo. Apart from a couple of film appearances (Joanna in 1968 and Move in 1970), Romance is on the Rise is what she leaves behind.

* Originally released on the Paramour label, Romance is on the Rise was reissued on CD in an expanded version by Chrome Records in 2004. The cover of Interview featuring Phillips and Waite is from the issue of September 1974.

The Necks at EartH

Necks EartH

At Cafe Oto, the Necks’ usual London home, we listeners are close enough to see the details: exactly which rattling device Tony Buck is wielding his right hand, or what use Chris Abrahams is making of the piano’s sustain pedal. The Oto programmers’ decision to invite them to play instead last night at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney), the converted Savoy cinema barely a quarter of a mile up the road in Dalston, gave a different perspective on the Australian trio’s collective improvisations.

In front of an audience several times larger than Cafe Oto admits, they stuck to the familiar format of two sets of about 45 minutes each, with nothing premeditated. The first was opened with fluid rippling figures from Abrahams, soon joined by Buck’s percussion and Lloyd Swanton’s bass, gradually building a layered intensity, the surface textures and internal dynamics changing like the sky on a day of changeable weather as they worked their way towards a graceful conclusion, the fruit of 32 years of working together.

The second set, opened by Buck, was different in two significant respects. First, their lighting operator took a more prominent role, switching constantly between a limited array of floodlights. I found it distracting — the musicians weren’t playing to the lights — and spent much of the set with my eyes closed. And the music had also moments of much greater violence, clearly exerting a cathartic effect on the audience, who greeted its more abrupt conclusion with a sustained collective shout.

If the acoustics of EartH meant that the sounds of the individual instruments weren’t as clearly defined as they are in a more intimate setting, the size of the place nevertheless added its own dimension to the overall effect. The piano, bass and percussion often blended into each other, sometimes creating a thrilling roar of overtones. The amphitheatre layout and the semi-refurbished interior  — original ceiling mouldings, a tiered wooden floor to sit on — made for a sympathetic environment, although you feel that even were the Necks to play Wembley Stadium, they’d manage to transform its ambiance into that of a small club while finding ways to exploit the possibilities of the new environment. But, on balance, that might be a step you’d rather they didn’t take.