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Otis Blue

Otis Blue 1Otis Redding died 50 years ago today, on December 10, 1967, when his light plane crashed into a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Six others — the pilot, Otis’s valet, and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays — also lost their lives. A fifth musician, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, was the only survivor.

Two years earlier, one Saturday in the late autumn of 1965, I’d bought his album Otis Blue. It’s the same copy that you see in the picture above, and it came from Rediffusion Records in Nottingham, where I’d had a Saturday job the previous year. What I remember about that day is taking it out of its bag, throwing the bag away, and walking around town with the record under my arm, so that people could see what I’d bought. I was 18, and that sort of thing mattered. (Distressingly, perhaps it still does.)

You could argue, and I might agree, that his peak came the following year with the studio version of “Try a Little Tenderness”, an epic beyond compare, and that “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, completed only three days before his death and released posthumously, is a wholly original piece suggesting fresh directions his music might have followed had he not been taken at the age of 26.

But Otis Blue is the goods, the work that defines him at his most immaculate. Naturally its 11 tracks contain examples of the transcendental fervour that inspired a thousand imitators, the songs that soaked his sharkskin suits with sweat on stage in clubs and concert halls. That’s what you get in “Respect”, “Shake” and his famously frantic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

But an unusual tone has already been set by the first track, a self-penned blues-ballad called “Ole Man Trouble”. It’s a strange way to start a soul album, although it fools you for a moment when it opens with two hits from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire and Al Jackson Jr’s snare drum that sound like the fanfare for a fast song. Instead there’s a half-beat pause before the guitar, Jackson’s bass drum and Duck Dunn’s bass guitar release the tension with the start of the backing to a slow song in which Redding mourns his problems and pleads for a change of luck. The arrival of the B3 organ (Isaac Hayes, I think) and the four-piece horn section emphasise the lifts built into the song as it works to its climax, but they do nothing to get in the way of a mood that is almost austere.

This carefully judged economy of means and approach is maintained in the album’s other outstanding slow songs: a version of “My Girl” that rivals the Temptations’ original; a deep-soul treatment of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”; the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; a conversation with Cropper on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” that shows what a bluesman he would have been, had soul music never been invented; and, maybe best of all, a reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that gives us a second great version of one of the key songs of the civil rights era.

All the way through, he delivers his lines with a fine control of tone and phrasing as well as the expected commitment. There is no hint here of the stereotyped soul man — a caricature from which “The Dock of the Bay” promised, in vain, to deliver him. He is simply magnificent. And if you had to choose half a dozen great albums from the 1960s, Otis Blue would be one of them.

Bye bye, Johnny

Johnny Hallyday RIPOn this side of the English Channel, we spent decades laughing at Johnny Hallyday. He was the eternal proof that the French couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. At all. But if there was one quality that defined Johnny, apart from his obsession with American popular culture, it was persistence. And eventually I saw past the dreadful cover versions of US hits (“Viens danser le Twist”) and found myself starting to enjoy and even admire what he did.

The turning point was a composition by Michel Berger called “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, featured in Johnny’s 1985 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Attitudes. It’s a beautiful song with really wonderful words, and it enabled Hallyday to find the perfect balance between his oft-thwarted desire to sing with the emotional abandon of an American rocker and his heritage in the more dignified cadences of French chanson. The ambiguity of the title — Berger was writing about Tennessee Williams, but since this is Johnny we’re listening to, there’s also an implicit hint of Memphis — helps to set up a genuinely great performance.

Five years ago, that song gave me an unforgettable moment. It was October 2012, and Johnny was playing the first proper UK concert of his entire career. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters, and I seemed to be one of only a very small number of English people present (remember that London — for the moment, at least — has a French population of somewhere around 300,000). It was a gig I really didn’t want to miss, for cultural as much as musical reasons.

Johnny did his thing in front of an excellent band, singing with a power and an energy astonishing in a man of his age and with his medical history. And when he delivered “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, the audience rose to join him, singing Berger’s tune and lyric with great feeling. So did I, and if I tell you it was like joining in with Springsteen when he does “Hungry Heart”, you’ll probably know what I mean. Both songs address a yearning for something beyond our ordinary little lives, and Johnny evoked that feeling as effectively as Bruce.

His death was announced today, at the age of 74. His country will be in mourning for a man who had his first hit in the month that Elvis was demobbed and half a year before John, Paul, George and Pete made their first trip to Hamburg. No more Paris-Match cover stories. No more buying the paper on holiday in France to check out the itinerary of his latest annual summer tour, with its sports stadiums and Roman amphitheatres. Adieu, Jean-Philippe Smet. Bye bye, Johnny.

A little afternoon music

Necks matinee 1This is the line of ticket-holders waiting to enter Cafe Oto for the Necks’ sold-out lunchtime concert today. It might have seemed an unusual time of day to experience the intensity of free collective improvisation, but the Australian trio’s music tends to work its unique magic at any time of day or night, in any location.

In between a festival in Madeira and a concert in Helsinki, they were stopping in Dalston for this single show. As usual, they played two sets of approximately 45 minutes each, separated by a short break. And, again as usual, the two sets were contrasting in nature and effect. I wasn’t at all surprised when one confirmed admirer went into raptures about the first set, while another said the second set was the best he’d ever seen them play.

The three musicians themselves don’t talk about individual performances in terms of differing type or quality levels. Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were there, doing what they do, exposing the process of creating music from scratch on the basis of three decades of shared experience. To them, in a sense, the existence of the Necks is one unbroken performance, divided for convenience into chunks that happen to be the length of an old-fashioned LP.

Necks matinee 3Abrahams began the first set with tentative piano figures, joined by Buck’s bass drum and, eventually, Swanton’s arco bass. The pianist tended to hold the initiative throughout, creating arpeggiated variations that slowly surged and receded, gradually building, with the aid of Buck’s thump and rattle and the keening of Swanton’s bow, to a roaring climax — including, from unspecified source among the three, a set of overtones that gave the illusion of the presence of a fourth musician — before tapering down to a perfectly poised landing.

After the interval it was Swanton’s turn to open up, his plucked octave leaps offered as an invitation to the others. This time Buck began with a stick on his open hi-hat and a mallet on his floor tom-tom, while Abrahams seemed to devote more time than usual to open single-note lines. At one point, about 10 minutes in, the pianist spent a few seconds picking out what sounded like a Moorish melody, but he declined to pursue its possibilities and after a brief pause moved on to something more like his familiar strumming and roiling techniques. About 20 minutes later, however, he returned to that melody, or something very like it, using it as the material from which to fashion his contribution to another supremely graceful conclusion.

What began in 1987 as a private experiment between three young Sydney-based musicians has evolved into an institution with a large and devoted worldwide audience. Somehow they manage to make it new every night, even when that night happens to be a Sunday lunchtime. They’ll be back at Cafe Oto next March.