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Blues America

Muddy Waters at NewportBy the time I’d watched advance copies of both episodes of Blues America, the two-part series to be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm this Friday, November 29, and in the same slot a week later, I’d started to think that the title was just a little bit misleading. The pair of programmes — subtitled “Woke Up This Morning” and “Bright Lights, Big City” — do indeed tell the story of the blues from the beginning to now, and in many ways they tell it very well, with lots of wonderful archive footage and many enlightening interviews. The viewer could be forgiven, however, for concluding that the real focus of the series’ producer, Mick Gold, is on how young white people in Europe came to love this music and to adopt its language as their own.

That’s a great story in its own right, a substantial appendix to the one that begins in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and makes its way north to the great industrial centres of Chicago and Detroit. The things I particularly liked about the first programme (directed by Gold) included the images of Will Dockery’s plantation, the film of the King Biscuit Hour bus, the stuff about Blind Lemon Jefferson and the songsters, and the interviews with Amiri Baraka, Marybeth Hamilton, Blind Boy Paxton, Gayle Dean Wardlow, John F. Szwed, Robert Gordon and Tony Russell (a consultant to the series). Of course the music is magnificent, particularly the recordings made by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm prison in 1947, the ones that made up the album called Murderers Home, which so deeply affected many members of my generation (and, I hope, continues to affect our successors). The exploits of Lomax and his father, John, are prominently featured in this episode.

The second programme, directed by Sam Bridger, starts with the transmigration that produced the urban blues of the northern cities: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry in Chicago, John Lee Hooker in Detroit (the footage of the Wolf, in particular, is wonderful). We hear from such survivors as Bobby Rush, Billy Boy Arnold and Buddy Guy, and from Marshall Chess, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite. Before long, however, we are starting to see the blues as “the portal for a whole white world to enter into the black experience”. That way leads to the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, who speaks very touchingly about the experience of performing with Hooker.

Is it unreasonable of me to resent the amount of time the programme-makers devote to the white involvement in this music? Probably. The arrival of a European audience certainly reshaped the careers of Muddy, John Lee and many others. But given that perspective, I can’t understand the absence of any mention of two figures, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley, whose work provided the basic lessons in blues-playing for my generation, which is to say the generation of the Stones, the Yardbirds, and so on.

There’s much that’s good in the series, however, and the last word should go to Buddy Guy, born in a small town in Louisiana in 1936, reminiscing about the day in February 2012  when he performed at a blues gala convened by President Obama in Washington DC. “That’s a long way,” Guy says, “from picking cotton in the field to picking guitar in the White House.” And if the last hundred years contained a bigger story than that, outside of war and killing, then it has escaped my attention.

* The photograph is one from the Chess archives included in the 2001 reissue of Muddy Waters At Newport 1960, a key album in the story of how white people came to love the blues. “Muddy had that voice and that very sparse way of playing,” Keith Richards says in the second part of Blues America. “Even talking about it, I still get the chills up the back.” Me too.

Dylan at the Albert Hall

Bob Dylan Albert HallOn the way in to the Albert Hall tonight, I told a friend that, what with the inconsistent quality of his recent tours and the cost of tickets on the grey market, this might be the last time I would be seeing Bob Dylan live. The first half didn’t do a great deal to change my mind. It had its moments, most of them when Dylan was not at the piano, where his erratic contribution seemed to muddy and confuse the ensemble sound. A brusque “Things Have Changed” gave the evening a challenging statement to start with, and “Pay in Blood” and “Love Sick” seethed with a sullen power, but “Duquesne Whistle” was a bit of a mess and a metrically refracted version of “Tangled Up in Blue” wasn’t exactly a treat. After the interval, however, the lights seemed to come on — the lights inside the music, that is, since the highly effective low-level stage illumination seldom varied.

The band found its range straight away on “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, Dylan delivered a rather beautiful “Simple Twist of Fate”, he growled effectively through “Early Roman Kings”, and then came the moment I’ll treasure. Everything came into focus on “Forgetful Heart”, the lovely ballad he wrote with Robert Hunter for Together Through Life: his voice, the band (with the brilliant Donny Herron on violin) at their gentlest and most discreetly responsive, the melody, the lyric, the restrained harmonica-playing. I’ve been going to see him in concert since 1965, and for me this ranked with “It’s Alright, Ma” from that year at Sheffield City Hall, “Like a Rolling Stone” at Earl’s Court in 1978 and “Barbara Allen” at the NEC in 1989.

“Scarlet Town” was almost as good, another example of the marvellously warm and alert support given to him by Charlie Sexton (lead guitar), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums) and Herron on pedal steel and rhythm guitars, mandolin and banjo as well as fiddle. At these moments you could hear the sound Dylan is after nowadays: a wonderfully flexible blend of bluegrass, Western swing and Chicago R&B. And it was a treat to watch the musicians catching each others’ eyes as they tried to predict the dynamic shifts and unpredictable endings, mostly with success. And by this time, too, his piano-playing had sorted itself out.

There were seven songs from Tempest included in the set list, and Dylan delivered them with such a persuasive sense of an engagement in his own creative present that if I didn’t have it already, I’d be out buying it this morning. “Roll On, John”, not a song I’d previously cared for much, turned out to make a perfect finale. So probably not the end of the affair, then.

‘Bayou Maharajah’

James BookerAs I came out of Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s documentary on the life of the brilliant but ill-fated New Orleans pianist James Booker, I looked at the faces in the line of people waiting for the second of two sold-out London screenings and wanted to tell every one of them what a wonderful thing they were about to experience. Instead I sought out the director and told her that I couldn’t think of a single way in which her film could have been improved.

Booker, if you don’t know, was maybe the greatest of all the New Orleans piano wizards. Allen Toussaint, one of most distinguished of that line, puts it very simply in the film. “I consider Booker a genius,” he says. And Toussaint is not a man to get carried away. Booker had everything in his playing: the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, the rumba of Professor Longhair, the rolling R&B of Fats Domino, the gospel of Ray Charles, the gumbo of Dr John. And he could play it all at once, blended with his own ingredients. The saxophonist Charles Neville, trying to describe his playing, says: “He was flowing… not like a river… like an ocean.”

In career terms he was a disaster, and Keber doesn’t flinch from exploring the reasons. You can get a a hint of his picaresque life in the film’s trailer. But you can hear how exceptional he was in these versions of “Besame Mucho” and “Black Night”. The second of those is from an album recorded in Europe in 1977, called New Orleans Piano Wizard. That must have been the trip during which he appeared at the 100 Club, the perfect London venue for him: at least two people watching the film on Sunday — my friend Martin Colyer, once of the band Hot House, and I — were present that night. (There’s a fine description of the gig just here, on Mike Butler’s blog.)

The film certainly gives me a new respect for Harry Connick Jr. First, sitting at the piano, Connick shows us how Booker did it, examining his keyboard virtuosity. He takes apart the way his mentor’s hands worked on a treatment of “Sunny Side of the Street”, demonstrating the way in which, all fingers occupied with bass line, melody and inner harmonies, he would “roll” one of them to produce the grace notes that ornamented his phrases.

And then Connick talks about meeting Booker in childhood, with his father, Harry Connick Sr, who was the district attorney for the Parish of Orleans, which includes the city of New Orleans. Booker and the boy bonded over music, with the blessing of Harry Sr, a lifelong fan of New Orleans music. But Harry Jr remembers being at home in bed when the phone rang in the middle of the night: it was Booker, wanting him to come out for some reason or other. “I can’t, dude,” Harry Jr recalls whispering into the phone while his dad, the DA, slept upstairs. “I’m 12.”

Only in New Orleans, huh? Through strategic use of atmospheric archive footage and well chosen interviews, Keber captures the soul of the city before the tourists and Katrina did their worst. And the soul of James Booker, who died in 1983, aged 43, of the effects of kidney failure while waiting in vain for attention in the emergency room of the city’s Charity Hospital, a place where he was far from unknown. A bluesman’s life, a bluesman’s death, and a truly great film to remember him by. Let’s hope it finds a distributor; it deserves to win every prize going.


Remembering Nino Rota

Amarcord Nino RotaWhen it appeared in 1981, Hal Willner’s Amacord Nino Rota kick-started the phenomenon of tribute albums. The New York producer gathered a bunch of musicians — among them Carla Bley, Jaki Byard, Bill Frisell, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Steve Lacy, and the then-unknown Wynton Marsalis — to take a variety of approaches, in various combinations, to Rota’s music for the films of Federico Fellini.

Last night, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Willner presented a greatly expanded version of the project, featuring only two of the original participants — Bley and her partner, the bass guitarist Steve Swallow — but adding a bunch of new pieces arranged by and featuring the likes of Mike Gibbs, John Etheridge, Kate St John, Steve Beresford, Rita Marcotulli, Nitin Sawhney, Giancarlo Vulcano, Karen Mantler and Steven Bernstein. Now opened up to include Rota’s music from non-Fellini films, the evening contained almost too many wonderful moments to remember.

Those I carried away with me included Beresford’s use of B.J. Cole’s outrageously eloquent steel guitar on music from Il Bidone; the expansion of Bley’s brilliant arrangement of themes from 8 1/2; Mantler’s deployment of her own chromatic harmonica during her marvellous settings of the various themes from The Godfather; the emotions that surged to the surface during Gibbs’s arrangement of music from The Glass Mountain (a 1949 film directed by Henry Cass and Edoardo Anton, and starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray); and the very moving conclusion, which found Sawhney at the piano, meditating on melodies from La Strada, accompanied by string quartet and bass flute.

I felt a little less warm towards the brief appearances of Marc Almond and Richard Strange, delivering songs from Fellini’s Casanova films. But the arrangers were fortunate to be able to call on the services of a terrific orchestra, whose soloists included the wonderful brazen trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, the feather-tongued tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel, the deft guitarist John Etheridge, Bernstein on slide trumpet (surely the most Felliniesque of instruments), and Marcotulli, who contributed a fine piano improvisation to The Glass Mountain. Topped and tailed — with typically Willnerian hipster ingenuity — by recordings of Ken Nordine reading Shel Silverstein’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, the result was a two-and-a-half-hour triumph.

Ten Freedom Summers / 2

Leo Smith 1His Ten Freedom Summers may have been shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean Wadada Leo Smith has stopped work on the epic composition which he began writing more than three decades ago (and about which I wrote here back in August). During last night’s performance at Cafe Oto in London, the first of three across which he will deliver the entire sequence, he inserted an entirely new movement, and it turned out to be the most memorable of the lot.

Smith arrived in East London with a slightly reduced version of the double ensemble that appeared on the 4CD version released by Cuneiform Records last year. Alongside his trumpet, the piano of Anthony Davis, the bass of John Lindberg and the drums of Anthony Brown were the Ligeti Quartet — Mandhira de Saram (first violin), Patrick Dawkins (second violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Ben Davis (cello) — with the video artist Jesse Gilbert operating from a desk next to the sound mixer.

A clue to the inspiration behind the new movement, called “That Sunday Morning”, arrived when an image of a church appeared on the screens behind the players, followed by the faces of four young African American girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, the four members of the congergation who died on September 15, 1963 when a group of Ku Klux Klan members set a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the most terrible incidents of the long struggle commemorated by Smith through the titles of the other movements, which mention Dred Scott, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, and others.

As you might have expected, the new piece adopted the mood of a threnody, a quiet and reflective lament that contained moments of striking beauty, particularly in Smith’s brief outbursts and in the rolling gospel phrases that Anthony Davis used sparingly but to very powerful effect. It was heartbreaking and spellbinding, and I hope the composer finds a way to record it in this form one day soon.

Two hours of music, with hardly a break, passed quickly, as I imagine they will tonight and tomorrow. I found myself thinking that the rearrangement of the pieces for the string quartet, rather than the nine-piece ensemble used on the album, worked extremely well, and perhaps even better, thanks not least to the talent and commitment of the young British quartet, rising to the challenge of a masterpiece.

Back into the arms of Venus de Milo

TV 1The muffled tolling of church bells prefaced last night’s performance by Television at the Roundhouse in north-west London, a lovely noise that filled the purple-lit dome of the old engine shed. When the band appeared, they began their set with an episode of seemingly random tuning-up that slowly transmuted itself into a series of guitar phrases that sounded like calls to prayer, punctuated by sustained ensemble power-chords. And then, with the distinctive riff of “(The Arms of) Venus de Milo”, came the first cheers of the night.

Tom Verlaine seemed to be in a benign mood and good voice as the quartet worked their way through all eight tracks of their 1977 debut album, the classic  Marquee Moon, scrambling the running order and interspersing the songs with a handful of others, including “Little Johnny Jewel”, their first single, and “1880 Or So” from their fantastic 1992 reunion album. There were two songs I didn’t recognise. One was a long excursion into the realm of raga-rock, its meandering tune sung by Verlaine in unison with his guitar line, the instrument’s notes shorn of their attack through his manipulation of the volume control. The other, the second of the two encores, took the surprising form of a country-soul ballad that could have been plucked from the repertoire of Percy Sledge, and might have been called “I’m Coming For You Someday”. Perhaps those two songs were among the 16 they are said to have recorded in a New York studio six years ago, and which have never seen the light of day**.

Generally they’re sounding much as they did at Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, when they were at the height of their hipster vogue and were supported by the emerging Blondie. A little chunkier, perhaps, in the contribution of Fred Smith’s bass and Billy Ficca’s drums, but still sounding like a band searching for the infinite spaces between the 13th Floor Elevators and the John Coltrane Quartet. Purists will claim to miss the blend of Verlaine’s guitar with that of Richard Lloyd, but Jimmy Rip — who replaced Lloyd in 2007 — illuminated “Prove It” with a magnificently dramatic solo and acted as the perfect foil for Verlaine’s flights of invention.

For me the best moment came when “Torn Curtain” was wrenched by Verlaine’s long solo out of its somewhat leaden beginning and into the realms of the sublime. The song was rounded off with a gorgeously delicate coda, the kind of soaring crystalline structure created from the contrasting timbres of two Fender guitars — the glassy sound of Verlaine’s Strat and the metallic twang of Rip’s Tele — reminiscent of Television at their finest, while also suggesting that their work might not yet be done.

* Sorry about the quality of the photograph (although I kind of like it). If you want to know what Tom Verlaine actually looks like in 2013, go to Dave Simpson’s Guardian review of the Gateshead show here.

** Thanks to http://www.setlist-fm, via my friend Tony Paley, for the information that the raga-rock tune is called “Persia” and the country-soul ballad is called “I’m Gonna Find You”.

Paolo Conte in London

Paolo Conte 1When I get home from a concert by Paolo Conte, the first thing I do is put on some of his records. Great as so many of them are, however, they’re not the same as watching this wonderful figure — half professor, half boulevardier, like someone you might spot in the corner of a cafe in Trieste, quietly writing in a small notebook — deliver his delicious songs while manipulating his excellent musicians through an evening that never seems long enough.

Conte is 76 now, and having given his audience a single encore at the end of an hour and a half of music at the Royal Festival Hall last night, he smiled and drew his finger across his throat, to indicate that there would be no more. But what he had given was more than enough to ensure that he would be bathed in waves of affection, respect and gratitude.

He had brought 10 of the 11 musicians who accompanied him on his last studio album, Nelson, released in 2010, and they were so outstanding, individually as well as collectively, that I’m going to name them all, in the knowledge that the list will give you some idea of the versatility at Conte’s command, and the range of textures available: Claudio Chiara (tenor saxophone, flute, accordion), Luca Velotti (alto saxophone, clarinet), Massimo Pizianti (piano, keyboards, accordion, bandoneon, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet), Lucio Caliendo (keyboard, oboe, bassoon, percussion), Piergiorgio Rosso (violin), Nunzio Barbieri, Daniele Dall’Omo and Luca Enipeo (guitars), Jino Touche (double bass, bass guitar), and Daniele Di Gregorio (drums, percussion, marimba).

Conte’s performance was part of the opening weekend of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and although what he does is basically a form of pop music, jazz provides its underpinning and its guiding spirit. For him, sounds that were once at the cutting edge — the horns of Ellington’s Cotton Club band, for instance, or the guitars of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France — have lost none of their modernity. His particular gift is to write songs with chord structures so beguiling that you don’t miss the apparent absence of a melody (if there is one, his mode of laconic recitation barely hints at it).

He has so many songs that it doesn’t really matter which ones he chooses on any given night. He might not sing your favourite, but those he does perform — including the ones you don’t recognise — will be more than sufficient. Last night he included a swooning “Gli impermeabili”, the spaghetti western swing of “Diavolo rosso”, a yearning “Max”, a driving “La Negra” (one of a number of up-tempo songs in which the advantage of having three acoustic rhythm guitars strumming away became apparent) and, best of all for me, a long, slow sweep through the elegantly descending cadences of “Alle prese con una verde milogna”, the sultriest tango you could ever hope to hear, supported by Touche’s swaying bass and drenched in grown-up romance.

There were all sorts of sounds to be heard: Di Gregorio leaving the drums to play a racing marimba improvisation behind the leader’s vocal on “Dancing”, for instance, or an unorthodox horn section of alto, tenor and baritone saxes plus bassoon, or the combination of accordion and bandoneon, or a magnificently flamboyant violin solo from Rosso, or Conte’s occasional insistence on singing through a kazoo, each element within the complex overall design perfectly calibrated while retaining a precious air of informality and spontaneity. There really is nothing like it.

Last tango in Kilburn

ManzaneraA corroncho, Phil Manzanera tells me, is a particularly ugly fish found in Colombia. When fisherman pull one out of the water, they take a look and throw it straight back. It’s what the people of Bogota call the inhabitants of Barranquilla.

The Two Corronchos is the name of a project on which Manzanera is currently working with his friend Lucho Brieva, a Colombian sculptor who occupies part of the mews in north-west London where the former Roxy Music guitarist has his recording studio. Manzanera was born to a Colombian mother, spending much of his early life in Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba, and the album will tell the possibly somewhat picaresque story in music of two men travelling round the Americas, providing social and political commentary while reflecting local sounds and styles.

A profusion of Brieva’s iron gates and railings are a feature of the buildings, which were once a stables and a railway depot. The main line from Euston runs a stone’s throw away, necessitating considerable efforts to sound-proof the rooms when the studio was built. On Manzanera’s walls are the posters and gold records and other bits and pieces of memorabilia that you’d expect, but also lots of South American art and several large paintings by Nick de Ville, the professor of visual art at Goldsmiths College and the art director of the early Roxy Music album covers.

I first met Phil in November 1970, when he and Bill MacCormick, one of his fellow members of a band called Quiet Sun, came to see me at the Melody Maker. They’d sent me a tape, I’d liked the sound of it, and after we talked in the Red Lion, the pub round the back of Fleet Street where artists used to come to be interviewed, I wrote a piece about them. The next time I saw him, several months later, was at an old cinema in Battersea, where he was doing a spot of roadying for the embryonic Roxy Music. They were auditioning for EG Management and he was about to step into the shoes of the departing David O’List.

When I paid him a visit this week, Manzanera was welcoming a string quartet led by Ros Stephen, the violinist and arranger whose work made such an impact on For the Ghosts Within, the album she made three years ago with Robert Wyatt and Gilad Atzmon. Like Wyatt’s previous two albums, it was made at Phil’s studio. This time she and her colleagues were here to add their contribution to a piece from the Corronchos project and to a track from Manzanera’s next album of his own guitar music.

The latter came first, and presented Stephen with the challenge of writing an arrangement for a piece called “Rosemullion Head”, a gentle, lyrical acoustic guitar improvisation (inspired by a coastal path in South Cornwall) to which minimal piano, bass and percussion had been added later. The sobriety of the lines for two violins, viola and cello placed a gently restraining hand on any hint of romantic indulgence, and after a handful of takes — in which adjustments were made to compensate for metrical irregularities in the original improvisation — an interesting phenomenon emerged: what had started out sounding like an accompaniment began to create the illusion of a dialogue. As one playback followed another it seemed as though the guitar, recorded long before, was now responding to the strings.

Next came “El Tango Infinito”, in which the two Corronchos visit Buenos Aires and whip up a fantastic groove, something of which the Gotan Project mob would be proud, with a laconic rap from Brieva and a fine guitar solo. Here, too, Stephen found a way of making the string quartet sound integral. Later in the day her husband, Julian Rowlands, would be arriving to add his bandoneon to the mix. He’s also her partner in their bands Tango Siempre and Orquesta Tangazo; you’ll find an example of their work here.

Outside in the courtyard, the early winter sun was setting on Lucho Brieva’s exotic ironwork. I left with the echoes of two pieces of music that won’t make their public appearance for some time, but which I’m looking forward to hearing again.

One used record store: £300K, no offers

On the BeatA seemingly nondescript little doglegged cut-through just north of Soho, linking Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, Hanway Street is the sort of alley that has always given central London its character. It’s a mess of scaffolding and construction at the moment, with a big hole where something’s been torn down and something grander will no doubt be erected.

For me Hanway Street was aways notable for its musical associations. In the early 1970s there was the office of John Abbey’s Blues & Soul magazine, which I read principally for the magnificently obsessive columns published under the name of Dave Godin. The same building was also the headquarters of the magazine’s associated record labels, Contempo and Mojo, whose catalogues included such names as Oscar Toney Jr, Doris Duke and Timmy Thomas. I’m pretty sure I did my first interview with the great Mable John on those premises. More recently there have been JB’s Records, a collectors’ vinyl-only shop which closed a couple of months back and is now a place where you can get your eyebrows plaited or your nether regions waxed, and On the Beat, a shop selling vinyl of all types along with old music magazines and books.

You might have read in the last few days about On the Beat, whose proprietor has put it up for sale on eBay, at a buy-now price of £300,000 with a guaranteed 10-year lease on the premises. I stopped by there today, and he told me that if a buyer isn’t found by the end of January, the shop will close.

For old times’ sake, I dropped a tenner on a copy of Joe Tex’s “A Mother’s Prayer”, a 1973 B-side on the Dial label that US radio disc jockeys preferred to the designated A-side, “I Gotcha”. It’s one of my favourites of Tex’s sermons, and I think I might have heard it for the first time when it was part of the repertoire of Kokomo, the great English pub-soul band. Anyway, the copy I found in On the Beat looks unplayed, which is more than you can say about the UK Mercury version already in my collection (or the rather battered one that some kind soul has uploaded on to YouTube).

It would certainly be welcome if a buyer stepped forward. But these places are disappearing, one by one. Maybe we were just lucky to have them for so long.

Still melting in the dark

Jimmy WebbJimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.

Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.

The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.

The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.

There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”

* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.