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Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

Another me, another way

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The self-portrait above was painted by an inmate of Vinney Green Secure Unit, a young offenders’ facility in Bristol. It’s part of “Another Me”, an exhibition of artworks by people incarcerated within the criminal justice system, currently on show in the Spirit Level rooms at the South Bank centre, below the Festival Hall. It caught my attention when I noticed that it had been curated for the Koestler Arts foundation by Soweto Kinch, the brilliant composer, saxophonist and bandleader. Anything Kinch is involved in tends to be worth your time, and “Another Me” is no exception.

At Koestler Arts’ building in Wormwood Scrubs, he went through 7,610 entries submitted in 52 categories from UK prisons and British prisoners abroad. His selection spans a range of media, from conventional painting and photography to wall-poetry, music of various genres (which you can hear through headphones), all ranging from the sombre to the defiantly whimsical. There’s a particularly extraordinary piece made from used nitrous oxide canisters found in various London locations — outside a school, an off-licence, a night club, a hospital — and labelled and framed in the style of Victorian museum objects under the title “Nitrouonites: Future Fossils”. As you walk around, you’ll hear the sound of drifting saxophones and electronics: a non-invasive but gently atmospheric sound installation specially devised by the curator.

Many of the works display great technical skill, but I was struck by the one at the top of this piece, a particularly eloquent and moving articulation of the exhibition’s theme. As another of the artists writes in a commentary on his own self-portrait, the title of show “suggest(s) so many possibilities, reflecting on past actions or future selves. It speaks of the masks we all use in our day-to-day lives. Our best selves, our worst. Perhaps most powerfully it suggests change is possible — there can always be another me, another way.”

* Another Me is at the Spirit Level exhibition space of the Royal Festival Hall until November 3. Soweto Kinch performs his new work The Black Peril at Hackney EartH on November 22 with an ensemble including the drummer Makaya McCraven, the bassist Junius Paul and members of the LSO, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (What?)

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik Vortex

When I first encountered Punkt.Vrt.Plastik two years ago in Berlin, I thought they were making the most intellectually challenging piano-trio music I’d ever heard. Their late-night concert, in a darkened auditorium, was an intense experience, highly rewarding but perhaps more impressive than enjoyable. At the Vortex last night, without changing any of the components of their music, they managed to reverse that response.

They are the Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, the Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and the German drummer Christian Lillinger, three of the most compelling young musicians in Europe. It was Eldh who explained their name to me: “Punkt means ‘dot’ in Swedish. Vrt means ‘garden’ in Slovenian. Christian represents the Plastik.” All clear?

There are no standard tunes, no Radiohead covers. Their original compositions, contributed by all three members, can sometimes proceed from the deliberate simplicity of a repeated single note, but they tend to emphasise the dense and knotty, which made the pronounced variations of density heard in last night’s performance all the more effective. It’s often hard to tell what is is written and what is being improvised; the occasional loose end left by these three virtuosi is a sign that spontaneous creativity is being exercised within the essential framework.

Draksler plays without affectation or stylistic gesture. The purity of what she does is one point of the triangle: the others are Eldh’s power and flexibility and Lillinger’s sense of space and timbre. At the end of their second set they returned for an encore: a version of Eldh’s “Life Is Transient” which glowed like a vision of rapture. It’s the closing track of their fine album, but last night’s reading showed how far they’ve since come in infusing a sometimes daunting complexity with human warmth. The prolonged ovation suggested that no one present will forget it quickly.

* The album Punkt.Vrt.Plastik is on the Intakt label.

Steve Howe’s ‘New Frontier’

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I hadn’t heard any of the Steve Howe Trio’s previous albums, so New Frontier, their third release, came as a pleasant surprise. I knew of Steve as the guitarist who took over from Peter Banks in Yes — a band in which my interest diminished as their songs got longer — in 1970, and I knew the trio’s drummer, Dylan Howe, who is Steve’s son and whose album of instrumental versions of David Bowie’s Berlin compositions, Subterranean, I liked a lot on its release five years ago.

The trio is completed by Ross Stanley, a fine keyboards player who is heard here on organ. Guitar-organ-drums trios were a thing in the ’60s: Jimmy Smith, Baby Face Willette, John Patton, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Larry Young were among the organists who made that line-up a favourite format. The guitarist on such albums was often Grant Green, and it’s interesting to discover that a prog-rock guitarist can absorb Green’s spare, bluesy style into his own approach, as he does here on several tracks. There are hints of Wes Montgomery, too, in the occasional burst of octave picking (and Montgomery led a fine organ trio of his own on a couple of Riverside albums).

The result isn’t as heavy and bluesy as some of that music. Stanley doesn’t go for the full Leslie-speaker throb and stays away from the bass pedals, so there’s an airness about the sound, while Dylan Howe has a light, deft touch. Steve Howe varies his tone and effects pleasantly without overdoing it, and uses an acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. All three contribute compositions, as does Bill Bruford, another former Yes man and Dylan Howe’s one-time drum tutor. Sometimes it’s a little bit like early-’70s Santana without the percussion, or Danny Gatton without the absolute authority. But it’s an extremely nice album, and occasionally — as on the lyrical “Western Sun”, co-written by both Howes — rather more than that.

* The Steve Howe Trio’s New Frontier is out now on the Esoteric Antenna label.

‘Upstream’

 

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When people say that we’ve got to take better care of the planet, my reaction is that the planet can take care of itself. For the next 7.5 billion years, or whatever the latest scientific estimate says, it will continue to absorb extinctions and other catastrophes, regenerating itself as it did after the Ice Age and whatever event accounted for the dinosaurs. There seems no reason why the Age of Man should not be just another passing phase, to be accepted by its host with a similar indifference.

Upstream, a new half-hour television film written by Robert Macfarlane and directed by Rob Petit, puts the viewer in the realm of that very different perception of time. It’s the result of half a dozen trips over three years to the Cairngorms, where Petit guided a camera-bearing drone over the River Dee from its floodplain to its source high in the mountains. Macfarlane, our greatest contemporary observer of landscape,  contributes an accompanying prose-poem, its spare, evocative lines murmured by the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.

Filmed in black and white, the images exert a mesmerising and eventually hallucinatory effect as the camera tracks slowly and inexorably upward, the direction of travel never varying as the sense of rising takes hold. Edited together with great but entirely unobtrusive skill, the individual shots are taken from many heights and distances, the puzzle-shapes of harsh whites, blurred greys and soft blacks playing quiet games with the viewer’s perception of scale.

My excuse for writing about Upstream is that it has a soundtrack by the German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka. Violin, cello and piano are blended with electronics in a way that shifts in and out of focus, rooted in the abstract but drifting towards the concrete, underscoring the images with a musical commentary that bears an equal emotional weight. Snatches of Gaelic, spoken by the poet Niall Górdan, are added to the weave.

I was going to describe the film’s beauty as unearthly; that, however, would be the very opposite of what I mean. Yes, Upstream brings us closer to a sense of the eternal, but its gaze is fixed on the ground beneath our feet.

* Upstream is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, September 29, at 8:30pm, and will be available for a month on BBC iPlayer.

The Hitsville movie

Hitsville

It was good to see Marvin Gaye smiling down on Leicester Square on Monday night. Even better to settle down inside the Odeon and catch a brief clip of him performing “What’s Going On” live with a band including the greatest bass guitarist in history. To watch the index finger of James Jamerson’s right hand roaming the strings of his Fender Precision was like being read a wonderful poem. All his legendary fluid invention of melody and rhythm was present in those few seconds as he stood beside Gaye’s piano, adding his genius to the other man’s.

The clip was included in Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which received its European premiere only a few hours after Berry Gordy Jr, the company’s founder and president, announced his retirement a couple of months before his 90th birthday. The full-length documentary — here’s the trailer — will be shown in selected cinemas on Monday, September 30.

Gordy and his pal Smokey Robinson recreate their foundational double-act as the spine of the narrative, cruising the Detroit avenues in a classic T-Bird, guiding us through Studio A at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, giggling at the tales of the old days, arguing about who was the first to record “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Other interviewees include the Holland brothers, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Lamont Dozier, the A&R man Mickey Stevenson, Claudette Robinson, Mary Wilson, the only survivors of the Temptations (Otis Williams) and the Four Tops (Duke Fakir), and Barney Ales, the white sales manager who occasionally had to “get a little Sicilian” on distributors reluctant to pay up. There are a lot of clips from live performances, TV appearances and promo shoots, including a hilarious black and white sequence of the Supremes dodging the Citroën 2CVs and Renault Dauphines on the Champs-Elysées in 1964.

It would be trut to say the film doesn’t go deep. There’s a very moving montage of memories of life in the road with the Motortown Revue in the mid-’60s, travelling through the segregated South, dodging bullets, sleeping on the tour bus because hotels wouldn’t take them and being denied the use of toilet facilities in gas stations. But the reasons behind Mary Wells’s departure at a key moment in the company’s early history are not explored; ditto the bitter, extensively litigated exit of Holland-Dozier-Holland. There’s no mention of the tragedies of Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, David Ruffin or Benny Benjamin (who is not even name-checked, although he’s momentarily visible, with the other Funk Brothers, in early studio footage). The tense contractual stand-offs with Wonder and Gaye are lightly dismissed, as is the human cost of the company’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. The old rumours of Mob involvement are simply laughed off, which is perhaps more understandable.

Lots of key witnesses to the story are now dead, of course. But in the credits there’s a list of additional interviewees who didn’t make the final cut. They include Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John and Louvain Demps of the Andantes, the in-house backing singers. I’d like to have heard from them. Diana Ross is not in that list. Gordy acknowledges the nature of his relationship with his greatest star, and she’s a considerable presence in the film, but she clearly wasn’t interested in telling her side of the story, at least as part of this project. Relatively minor acts cherished by hard-core fans — the Contours, the Velvelettes, the Originals — don’t get a look-in.

Co-produced by Polygram, an arm of Universal Music, which now owns Motown, this is in effect a two-hour de-luxe corporate promo film. Which is not a reason to avoid it, since it contains many worthwhile things, even in musical terms: there’s a beautiful sequence taking apart and building up Gaye’s layered vocals, and big cinema speakers are a very good way to hear snatches of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Heat Wave”.

But I came away thinking that if Netflix could give Alex Gibney four hours for his Sinatra doc, All or Nothing at All, in 2015, then surely someone could invite Ken Burns or Stanley Nelson to direct a 10-hour series dedicated to a full account of the Motown story, in all its dimensions, from an objective point of view. It would say so much about America, and the world, in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the meantime nothing says more than this, the full version of the piece I began by talking about: Marvin Gaye’s voice and piano with Eli Fontaine’s alto saxophone, Earl Van Dyke on B3, James Jamerson’s bass guitar, Uriel Jones on drums and the sublime congas of Eddie “Bongo” Brown in Chicago in 1972. “What’s Going On” indeed.

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

Cassie Kinoshi at the Roundhouse

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Since the SEED Ensemble’s Mercury Prize-nominated Driftglass is likely to be one of my albums of the year, I was keen to see Cassie Kinoshi, the group’s leader and composer, at the Roundhouse last night. This was a different kind of gig, arranged by Skin Deep, the race and culture magazine, in their Sonic Transmissions series. On these evenings, an individual musician is put under the spotlight in the venue’s small theatre: they perform live, they play selected recordings, and they are interviewed by Anu Henriques, the magazine’s founder. Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd have been previous subjects of a series clearly angled towards the new London-based jazz movement in which contemporary forms of racial and cultural diversity are brought to bear on the traditions.

Thoughtful, engaging and not afraid to express an opinion, Kinoshi was keen to acknowledge the vital role played by Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors in her career and those of her predecessors on the Sonic Transmissions stage. The TW workshops had not just been an education in jazz, she said, but an introduction to the idea of the music as the product of a community. The bands in which she currently plays — SEED Ensemble, the co-operative Nérija and Sheila Maurice-Grey’s Kokoroko — all provide evidence of that philosophy, which she summed up as “a sharing of minds”.

Born in 1993 to parents of Nigerian, Sierra Leonean and Caribbean origin, brought up in the less than funky surroundings of Welwyn Garden City and subsequently a graduate of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, she is already strongly aware of the value of “representation”: the need to present herself as an example to young black females of achievement in a field that might once have seemed beyond their reach. She herself, she said, had had no such benefit early on.

She also spoke of how, when confronted by a predominantly white audience, she found herself compelled to emphasise the blackness of her music: an example of how she doesn’t want to make her listeners feel too comfortable. Her compositions might be inspired by literature and places, but also by the Grenfell Tower tragedy (Driftglass‘s “Wake”), the uncovering of the Windrush scandal, the divisions revealed by Brexit, and the need for young black women to resist the imposition of white standards of beauty.

For the live pieces she brought along a new sextet featuring two alto saxophones (herself and Tyrone Isaac-Stuart), vibes (David Mrakpor), guitar (Richie Aikman), bass guitar and synth bass (Isobella Burnham) and drums (Ayo Salawu). The music was loud and aggressive, inspired in part by Kinoshi’s fondness during her schooldays for metal and indie rock (she mentioned Pantera and Nirvana), but it also provided a platform for thoughtful solos by the expressive Aikman and Mrakpor, whose poise reminded me of Bobby Hutcherson. The two-alto front line is rare — I thought of Eric Dolphy with Ken McIntyre or Oliver Nelson — and the sweet-and-sour blend reflected Kinoshi’s admiration of Jackie McLean, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthapa.

She also played us a recording of a startling orchestral piece titled “If She Could Dance Naked under Palm Trees”, indicating the breadth of her resources and ambition. In the live set, however, the music — like so much of the new jazz emerging from south and east London — was rhythm-heavy, meant to make you move. Whatever others might think, this reunion of jazz and the body is a very good thing.

* Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble will be at the Jazz Café on November 24 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Driftglass is on the jazzre:freshed label. Nérija’s new album, Blume, is just out on the Domino label.

Punkt 2019

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Kristiansand’s Punkt festival was the brainchild of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, who had the idea of setting up an annual event featuring instant remixes of every performance. The first edition was held in 2005, and last weekend they celebrated their 15th anniversary with three days of music in the festival’s home, a port on the southern coast of Norway, where the faculty of the university includes Bang as professor of electronic music, with Honoré in a less formal role.

This year Punkt’s group of designated remixers also included the trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, the producer Helge Sten and the duo of the drummer Pål Hausken and the keyboardist Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim, who called themselves Elektroshop. At each concert one or two of them could be seen onstage seated at their laptops behind or alongside the performers, who included Trondheim Voices in the Domkirken, the city’s cathedral; Thurston Moore’s four-piece band in a club called Kick Scene; and Kim Myhr’s septet and Rymden, the new trio featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, in the Kilden concert hall on the waterfront.

Immediately after each set the designated remixers would play a set of their own, based on the material they had just recorded. Sometimes they added live instruments: Henriksen’s trumpet and voice, Molvær’s trumpet, Aarset’s guitar, Hausken’s tom-toms and, on one occasion, the voice of Sidsel Endresen. If it wasn’t often easy to detect the salient characteristics of the original material in the remixes, that didn’t seem to matter much.

My favourite example came when Henriksen, Sten and Storløkken — who comprise the long established trio Supersilent — took the thunderous, heavily strummed, highly structured, ecstatic instrumental music created by Moore’s group — with the leader and James Sedwards on electric 12-strings, Deb Googe on six-string bass guitar and Jeb Doulton on drums — and reshaped it into blocks of even more thunderous but harshly fractured noise. During both sets, it was fun to stand behind the conventional mixing desk and watch the decibel meters climbing: peaking above 120dB and inching past an average of 100+. Those who chose to wear earplugs, I felt, lost out on something worthwhile.

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Twenty four hours later, Kim Myhr’s band (above) offered a very different kind of strummed ecstasy while reinterpreting the two long compositions from his 2018 album YOU | ME. Whereas Moore built his chordal symphony on a highly disciplined rock-based, backbeat-driven vision, its transitions strictly defined, Myhr summoned the looser weave of folk music. Just as propulsive but lighter in tone and more subtly textured, the music had a life generated less by the structure of the composition than by the sensation of the individual instruments — the electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars of Myhr, David Stackenäs, Daniel Meyer Grønvold and Adrian Myhr, and the drums and percussion of Tony Buck, Ingar Zach and Michaela Antalová — rubbing up against each other. As far as I was concerned the stretchy 9/4 chordal riff of the second half could have gone on all night, its jangling strings and tinkling bells creating a narcotic momentum and going far beyond the recorded version.

For me, the other big highlights of the weekend were provided by Dark Star Safari, a Nordic-noir prog-rock quartet,  in the Sorlandet art museum and by Trondheim Voices in the cathedral. The concert debut of the former, consisting of Bang (transformed into a lead singer), Aarset, Honoré and the brilliant Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer, was striking enough to send me back to re-investigate their album, released earlier this year.

New ideas on the capacity of the human voice were provided by the nine women of Trondheim Voices, singing “Folklore”, an hour-long composition by Sten and Storløkken (who had prefaced the performance with an extended solo on the pipe organ). Microtonal clusters slid and swerved to thrilling effect and Natali Abrahamson Garner, the latest recruit to this extraordinary group, emerged from the ensemble with a solo passage making staggering use of glottal manipulation. For 40 minutes or so they achieved a transcendent beauty until one of the nine, feeling ill, had to remove herself, requiring the others to react quickly. There were no audible glitches, and they were back at full strength for the closing sequence, but the on-the-fly adustments inevitably disrupted the narrative tension. The release of “Folklore” on the Hubro label later this year will offer a better chance to assess what is obviously a remarkable piece.

Not everything in the weekend worked perfectly. Dai Fujikura’s Symphony for Shamisen and Orchestra, performed by Hidejiro Honjoh and the Kristiansand SO, suffered from an inherent dynamic imbalance between solo instrument and orchestra, I wasn’t moved by the duo of the guitarist Steve Tibbetts and the percussionist Mark Anderson, Rymden had little new to offer, and a set by the Ensemble Modern demonstrated that while classical musicians are better at improvising than they used to be, the demands of free improvisation are better left to specialists. But Punkt is an opportunity to examine various directions in which music is heading and to enjoy the results in sympathetic surroundings. Its ambitions — summed up in Bang’s motto: “If you have some information that is useful, spread it” — have led to projects in more than two dozen other cities around the world, including Shanghai and Montreal, and there will be a three-day Birmingham Punkt Festival, featuring Norwegian and British musicians, next March.

Bang and Honoré, who are both in their early fifties, have worked together since they were teenagers, nurtured by a music-education system that prioritises open-mindedness and in turn passing on the results of their own experiences to an emerging new generation. They can also be very funny. As Bang spoke of their collaboration, he mentioned that in all the years of programming Punkt they have never had an argument. “I’ve been arguing all the time,” Honoré responded. “You just didn’t notice.”

A Philadelphia masterpiece

 

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At its peak, which lasted for much of the 1970s, the music of the Philadelphia International label found the sweet spot between classic Motown and full-throttle disco. Gospel-schooled singers, vibrant grooves and brilliant arrangements of hook-filled songs combined to make a sound that had a smooth, high-gloss finish but was never merely slick. What stood out was a warmth that still goes right through you as soon as “Back Stabbers”, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” or “The Love I Lost” come on the radio. And if you were paying attention, there were some classics between the cracks and on the albums: the O’Jays “Stairway to Heaven”, Bunny Sigler’s “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, and Billy Paul’s epic version of “Your Song”, which I practically wore out when it appeared on the B-side of “Mr and Mrs Jones” in 1972.

My favourite of the lot is “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a track from their album To Be True and a Top 20 hit single in 1975, when its six and a half minutes were spread over two sides of a 45. It’s featured on Be for Real, a new three-CD box containing the group’s first four albums — I Miss You, Black & Blue, To Be True and Wake up Everybody, including all their big hits — on two discs, with a third devoted to a selection of disco mixes and live tracks.

“Bad Luck”, produced by label bosses Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and written by the in-house team of Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the gloomiest uptempo dancefloor-filler you’ll ever hear, an unrelieved tale of woe delivered by Teddy Pendergrass: “Played a number ’cause that number’s hot / But the bookies get you for every cent you got / Walkin’ round in a daze with your pockets bare / Got to see your woman and she ain’t even there…” And there’s more despair where that came from.

Of course it’s the music that really grabs you, as it was always meant to. A boiling rhythm track from the MFSB team features Earl Young’s flying hi-hat, Vince Montana’s vibes and, most of all, Ronnie Baker’s colossal bass guitar lines, featuring Jamerson-level passing notes and register leaps and a two-bar downward run at the end of every eight-bar unit that is the record’s real hook, the turnaround to end them all. (You can hear it even more clearly on the eight-minute Tom Moulton 12-inch mix, at the cost of a de-emphasising of Young’s drums.)

The breakdown is stunning, Bobby Martin’s great arrangement clearing space for Pendergrass to do his thing as the singer riffs on the world’s discontents and turns the tune into a protest song. He brings home the morning paper, sits down and opens it up, and doesn’t like what he reads: “Saw the President of the United States / The man said he was gonna give it up / He’s givin’ us high hopes / But he still turned around and left us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think he can satisfy the human race…” And then he glimpses redemption: “The only thing I got that I can hold on to / Is my God, huh, my God / Jesus be with me / Jesus give me good luck / Help me, Jesus…” As he cuts loose in the Sigma Sound vocal booth at the close of this epic, we’re reminded that at the age of 10 Teddy Pendergrass was already an ordained deacon — and also, in the brilliant timing of his half-choked whoops and hollers, that it was as a drummer that he joined the group in 1970, before Melvin spotted his potential as a lead singer.

These three discs are littered with fantastic tracks: “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”, “I Miss You”, “Yesterday I Had the Blues”, “Be for Real”, “It’s All Because of a Woman”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and so on, with a Vegas-lounge version of “Cabaret” virtually the only misstep. They defined a whole scope of feeling: a particular lush anguish that Pendergrass exploited so well. And “Bad Luck” is one of the masterpieces of its era.

* Be for Real: The P. I. R. Recordings 1972-75 is out now on the Soulmusic label.