Wednesday, 27 August 2014

'Kick 'em when they're up':* Backlash Lashback: Response to Eagles' Detractors

Long Road out of Eden era
* 'Dirty Laundry', Don Henley

This is really a rejonder to the general press’s reactionary response to the Eagles. Obviously the band don’t need me or anyone else to defend them but that won't stop me.

‘And still all the critics keep saying/Are they still around?/When are they gonna stop?’
(‘The Road’, The Kinks, the rest of the song is also pertinent)
I’m struck when I read the press reviews of the Eagles UK gigs that no one is saying very much. They’re very short and somewhat grudgingly appreciative but the common tenor is that the band have just been going too long. I was originally going to write a review but this rant got too long so I'm going to publish it as a separate blog.

'I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/But heaven knows I'm miserable now' ('Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now', The Smiths) Miserable and not afraid to sing about it! Plus you can't knock a song with the lyric 'What she asked of me at the end of the day/Caligula would have blushed'
Prior to this tour, I read a really negative piece (worth reading for the cutting ripostes in the comments) in The Guardian (one of my least favourite papers) championing the new over the old and advocating that the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, if they couldn’t do the decent thing and chuck it all in to let the new bands have a chance, should at least pay a tax to finance the development of such bands. It is possible to like old and new bands. So-called 'old' music does not prevent so-called 'new' music from existing. Much of the new music sounds like either generic rock posturing or is unimaginatively derivative. Friends go crazy for the Scissor Sisters, Arcade Fire and their ilk who ‘are all about fun’ and the current stand seems to be that you can't be any fun unless your songs are a melee of different styles, all rehashed with a sardonic ‘aren't we clever, look what we’ve done?’ knowingness, with a general emphasis in the lyrics on ‘having fun’ as if, if you don't say it every second, you're suddenly miserable and being miserable is a crime. They sound anything but original but are more like a fusion of several styles I never particularly cared for in the first place. The word that always comes to mind is ‘ersatz’.

I think hell's just about to freeze over
‘We set out to become a band for our time. But sometimes if you do a good-enough job, you become a band for all time.’
(Glenn Frey, HOTE documentary)
But why should liking current bands prevent anyone from appreciating older ones? After all, although of its time, truly great music is timeless. It isn't finite. There’s always room for more. If someone is successful, it doesn’t stop someone else being successful. Instead of criticising the Eagles who have created (and we hope will continue to make) so many beautiful songs, how about noticing the fact that much of popular music these days is lyrically drivel and musically limited? Most songs that get to Number One have the same words rearranged plus some often quite objectionable and/or childish rap inserted for the sake of it. I’m not saying it’s all like that but shouldn’t we fight against this endemic deterioration in standards, where there’s a sample of a previous song (sometimes a good one – not so bad – at least it’s bringing it to another generation) and if we’re lucky one original but ever so slight melodic refrain? See my previous blog for more on this, and, in particular, the Black-Eyed Peas.

Anyway, who’s to say what’s new or old? If it’s new to you, does it matter if it was made in the 60s? What’s that got to do with whether it’s worthwhile or not? I’ve just discovered Poco and Gene Clark as well as more recently, Citizen Cope, Christian Kane, Shakey Graves. None of these acts have had the acclaim or success they deserve but I’m sure they don’t blame the Eagles for this.

‘I decree today that life/Is simply taking and not giving/England is mine - it owes me a living’
(‘Still Ill’, The Smiths, a band that seemed totally different to anything that had gone before, replete with passion and pathos, memorable tunes and witty, evocative, thought-provoking lyrics)
I fear this bleating, which is typical of the wishy-washy, bleeding-heart liberals at The Guardian, always ready to jump on the next musical bandwagon but always a couple of years behind the times; they just about grab onto it as it disappears into the sunset and the credits roll, as with Jackie Leven or the Fleet Foxes, or just after an act has become a parody of itself and ever so quick to denigrate something they think is passé, is all part of this ‘the world owes me a living’ attitude. It doesn’t.

It’s not only journalists who indulge in this kind of carping. Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin) says he knows why the Eagles still tour: ‘It’s not about the money. It’s because they’re bored.’ Always amazes me when somebody  has the gall to claim they understand someone else's motivation. Henley (never a shrinking violet) has hit back at this in Rolling Stone but also at the London shows when he said they don’t do it because they’re bored but because it’s the best job on the planet or words to that effect. Sort of reminds me of when Oasis and Blur gloved up in the 90s.

‘You don't want to work, you want to live like a king/But the big, bad world doesn't owe you a thing’ ('Get Over It', Eagles) 
It’s always been difficult for new artists to break through and the talented don’t always thrive while the screechers and flavours of the day (according to the papers) such as Paloma Faith and Ed Sheeran (although I do like ‘I See Fire’) make it. Whether they do or not has nothing to do with whether Fleetwood Mac are touring or not. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The Mac
I hate this labelling. The Eagles songs and harmonies and ideas would still sound fresh and exciting if you were to hear them for the first time today. Same with the Stones. And there’s a reason that ‘The Chain’ is still used as background build-up for all the Formula 1 events on UK TV. It’s as exciting now as it ever was. A couple of years ago I finally discovered the Kinks who became a fairly long-lived musical obsession of mine. Not new but new to me.

So I say ‘live and let live’. Stop bitching and moaning. Good music is good music and it will endure. That’s not a fault, that’s a virtue. I like this comment on The Guardian article from MickGJ: ‘If it wasn't for these old acts there wouldn't be any 30-year old records for them to sound a bit like.’ I’m discovering new and old music all the time.That's how it should be.

The thrill ain't gone

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Opinion8: Must-see TV

Judging this by the programmes that changed our expectation of TV, said something new or had the ability to touch me, sometimes every episode. As usual, I've chosen 8 (as in Opinion8). Some of these shows I didn’t see first time around but I’ve listed them in date of broadcast order.

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
First, a disclaimer: By all rights Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be in this list but I want to include it in my Opinion8 Top Teen TV Shows and as I’ve already put Buffy herself in another blog, I didn’t want there to be Buffy overkill. I don’t want to detract from its importance. I think it was a watershed in television and will always remember seeing the first episode on BBC2. My Dad and my brother also saw it, each of us separately and I definitely spoke to one or both of them on the phone afterwards. I seriously think we can talk about TV as pre- and post-Buffy. It’s just a shame that there have been so many derivative rather than innovative programmes resulting from the super-popularity and sheer brilliance of the original. I don't include Angel in this category. If anything, Angel surpassed Buffy, in humour, action, characterisation. I mean instead the Twilight franchise, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries. I could go on.

Lesley Uggams as Kizzy in Roots
1 Roots (1977)
The theme music here sounds far jollier than I remember. I’m sure the version on the BBC series was more stately, more sombre but I might be wrong. I wrote this to begin with: true-life drama on an epic scale, bringing to the forefront the evils of the slave trade and its consequences but I’ve just read that what I thought was the result of an investigation by Alex Haley into his heritage, was actually a novel. I’m a little disillusioned but still can't fault the TV series and the programme makers’ courage in tackling such an emotive subject and doing it so brilliantly. A classic in the era of the TV miniseries. It worked because the characters were so easy to like and empathise with (who can forget Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George?) and because the narrative was hauntingly compelling.
(Wiki facts: The series won nine Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award and its finale still holds a record as the third highest-rated US television programme.)

Sebastian (Anthony Andrews), Charles (Jeremy Irons) and Aloysius
2 Brideshead Revisited 1981
Was held so completely spellbound by this superbly crafted and impossibly romantic series with its evocative theme music that I wrote my dissertation on Catholicism in the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Just like Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), we all fell at least a little in love with the beguiling Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), fascinated by his vicissitudes, excesses, denials. As someone who was already suffering from nostalgia when I left primary school (at 11), I was a total sucker for what Waugh calls ‘a kind of gluttony … for the splendours of the recent past’, even though it wasn’t my recent past. I identified completely.  Spawning the heritage drama of  Merchant-Ivory and forerunner to the Downtons and Austen adaptations of today or what we heard a Sidcup resident describe more prosaically as ‘those olde worlde ones’, it was sumptuous to look at and I was happy to immerse myself in a place and time that was so far removed from my own.
(Wiki facts: In 2000, the serial was tenth in the BFI’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, in 2010, second in The Guardian’s Top 50 TV dramas of all time.)

Original cast of ER
3 ER 1994-2009
Must-see TV before the term existed, a water-cooler subject before we even had water-coolers (in the UK at least, yes, seriously). I could talk to people I had nothing in common with but this. ‘What about Doug and Carol then?’ Believable and likeable characters, entertaining or affecting situations – I think I cried nearly every week. Totally escaped my life for an hour. Stuck with it till the end despite not really being enamoured of the new characters in the final season. I was crazy about so many of these people: Carol, Doug, Mark Green, Luka (the episode when he escaped execution in Darfur was heartbreaking), Lucy (how did Kellie Martin end up in the Mystery Woman series – she was excellent), Ray and Neela and their failed-to-ever-get-there romance (we were rooting for him but disaster struck). Week after week the writers put us through the wringer. And we loved it. ER – I’ll never forget you.

Aside: As touched on in a Kinks blog (about who should play Ray and Dave Davies in the upcoming movie), Parminder Nagra (Neela) is another actor who had an early acting role with Keira Knightley and showed way more promise (like Hans Matheson in Dr Zhivago) but who was left eating dust as Keira raced on to become a major film star. And what has Parminder done since? Ok, Noah Wyle’s (Carter) in Falling Skies, which isn't my cup of tea. Julianna Margulies (Carol) has a lead role in The Good Wife (although Archie Panjabi usually steals the show and Julianna has a hard ask to pretend to be aroused by Will Gardner when Chris Noth is more appealing). And we all know what happened to George Clooney (Doug). I liked him when he was Booker in Roseanne so didn’t need any convincing.

Dish by name; Dish by nature (D. B. Sweeney)
4 Lonesome Dove 1989-90
Never thought I would succumb to a Wild West miniseries but this is simply magnificent TV. The scenery, the acting, the script, the characterisation, the production values are all top-notch. While Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are beautifully flawed heroes, I fell hook, line and sinker for Dish (D. B. Sweeney), his unrequited devotion to Laurie (Diane Lane) so moving. How could she resist the hat and the moustache, not to mention his soulful gaze? Just hearing the soaring sweep of the fantastic theme music (by Basil Poledouris) effortlessly evoke the vast vistas of Montana can bring tears to my eyes.
(Wiki facts: National Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year and Outstanding Dramatic Achievement; won the D. W. Griffith Award for Best Television Miniseries, with CBS garnering the Peabody Award for Outstanding Achievement in Drama.)

Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper
5 Twin Peaks 1990-1
Weird and wonderful, we’d never seen anything like this. Filmic values, interesting characterisation (Killer Bob, the Log Lady, Special Agent Dale Cooper, Audrey the Lolita, played to perfection by Sherilyn Fenn), cups of Joe, cherry pie and diners, surrealist dreams with people talking backwards. All this plus a murder mystery plot. Some of the time, we didn’t know what was going on but it didn’t really matter. Alien and enchanting, it probably generated my abiding interest in Americana. Even the credits are leisurely and otherworldly in that Lynchian everything-is-ordinary-but-nothing-is-quite-what-it-seems way.
(Wiki facts: The pilot ranked 25 on TV Guide's 1997 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time; series ranked 45 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time in 2002; in 2007, it was in Time's Best TV Shows of All-Time.)

Vic (Michael Chiklis), Shane (Walton Goggins)
6 The Shield 2002-8
W..a..a..y before The Wire, Vic and his crew didn’t exactly blur but totally obliterate the (thin blue) line between cops and criminals. As corrupt as the gangs they fought, loyal (at least to begin with) only to each other, not so much flawed as riddled with evil intent, I think each viewer experienced a turning point, when they suddenly started to root for this bad-ass band of brothers. Moments to remember are Vic chasing a bad guy down an alley: the runner climbs over a wooden fence, Vic thinks twice then barges straight through it. In an interview room, Vic says: ‘Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop’. Visceral action, sometimes hard-to-catch dialogue, The Shield put us on the streets with the villains (there were no good guys),Walton Goggins even managed to make me feel sorry for his character Shane after he’d killed another member of the team out of misguided fealty. His confusion and pain were evident in everything he did. The first season of Justified positively fizzed with the chemistry of the dynamic between Goggins’s Boyd and Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan.
(Wiki facts: It won awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Drama in 2002; 2008 AFI Award for Best Television Series; and some individual prizes for Michael Chiklis.)

Cast of Lost
7 Lost 2004-10
Mysterious, sexy (the Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle, not sure which of these I fancied the most, not to mention Sayid), thrilling, it never really mattered that the denouement didn’t quite resolve all the narrative threads. We lived for the intrigue and rooted for the characters as unlikely heroes developed (Sayid, Lock) in their bid for survival against whatever the island (the writers) would chuck at them next – smoke monsters, the Hatch, the Others, supporting them even when they went back in time to the 70s. They played their roles with such conviction that we accepted various implausible events and the notion that these could all have been orchestrated by the enigmatic Dharma Initiative. But the real mystery was how did so many unfeasibly good-looking people end up on the same plane.
(Wiki facts: Lost won several awards: the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series; the Writers Guild of America Awards  for Outstanding Achievement in Writing for a Dramatic Television Series; and the Screen Actors Guild Awards 2005 for Best Ensemble Cast.)

Michael Peterson
8 Death on the Staircase 2004
This was an incredible documentary by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, that follows the ins and outs, ups and downs of a murder trial (the suspect, a novelist Michael Peterson, is accused of killing his wife). Riveting from start to finish, with all the components of a crime/courtroom drama, it was hard to believe that all this was actually happening.  Truth really is stranger than fiction. It has since been made into a movie but it’s nowhere near as involving as the original film. The ‘blow-poke’ (poker to you and me), the disappearance of the ‘blow-poke’, the internet correspondence with an alleged rent boy, the death of another friend of Peterson’s in similar circumstances, the exhumation of a body in Germany. I could go on. Getting the inside track on all this was simply compelling: you felt that you were involved in the process; each episode provoked endless discussion in our house, not least on how ramshackle the process sometimes seemed.
(No Wiki facts but it did win a couple of awards, such as one from the International Documentary Association in 2005 and a Peabody Award in 2006.)

I have to admit that I love anything that is dramatic, thrilling, funny, involving and usually those sort of programmes cross genres, are hybrids. After all, I couldn’t categorise my life as a TV or film genre. It’s comic and tragic by turns. It’s not a romcom or a mystery. Actually, scratch that. It is a mystery.

Other TV I Love
Band of Brothers
Queer as Folk (original UK version only)
Generation War
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Killing
(original Danish version only)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Christian Kane – Covered in Glory

I’m a huge fan of Christian Kane and his original songs but I also really love his interpretations of other people’s. He puts his heart and soul into anything he chooses to sing. Country music isn’t a big deal in the UK so I often hear Christian’s versions of a song before I encounter the original and discover that I don’t like it as much. Weird, because I’m usually someone who’s a stickler for the original, for instance, Judy Garland – Over the Rainbow; Frank Sinatra – Well, anything Frank did really. I don’t like the watered-down, limp versions common in the charts today – usually by fey songstresses with affected, insipid vocals, popularised by their ubiquity in adverts: Ellie Goulding’s bafflingly turgid Your Song; Lily Allen’s total crucifixion of Somewhere Only We Know; that awful, soulless Wherever You Will Go by Charlene Soraia.* Whereas these seem to drain the life and spirit out of the song, Christian Kane does the opposite. He invests them with more emotion and verve, making the originals sound just a little colourless in comparison. His voice is a gift – unique but with echoes of Elvis, reverberations of Springsteen. It has a depth and resonance that can reinvigorate an old song, making it seem contemporary and new and real. And it appears totally effortless. His original material showcases his talents even better but that's another blog.
* Of course there are exceptions – Adele’s Make You Feel My Love; the Byrds’ Tambourine Man; Timothy B. Schmit’s Caroline No; the Eagles’ Ol’ 55, Poco's Magnolia.

Apologies if any of these aren’t the originals you know. I’ve tried to put down the writer when I thought it relevant. Links are in the words ‘Original’ and ‘Kane’ if you want to hear what I’m talking about. Obviously Christian Kane has covered ‘ songs live that I haven’t included e.g. Sweet Home Alabama, either because I haven’t heard them, couldn’t find a good version of them or he hasn’t played them that often. 

Fast Car
Original: Tracy Chapman 
Unstoppable rhythm and melody, compelling narrative. I love her deep voice. It has a certain intensity and immediacy.
Kane studio; Kane live: A little hard to listen to owing to the enthusiastic fans singing along and occasionally drowning him out (he loves it). He still sounds tender and true. Plaintive and melancholy but that natural growl lets you know he’s no pushover.
You got a fast car/I want a ticket to anywhere/Maybe we can make a deal/Maybe together we can get somewhere/Any place is better/Starting from zero got nothing to lose/Maybe we'll make something/Me myself I got nothing to prove

The One I Love 
Original: David Gray
I’ve got to admit that I’m not a fan of his voice, thought he bleated like a lamb on his big hit This Year’s Love but this is better.
Kane: ‘Somebody else wrote this but it’s one of my favourite songs’. More rough tenderness, he always sounds as if he’s lived what he’s singing. Passion and restraint.
Next wave coming in/Like an ocean roar/Won't you take my hand darling/On that old dance floor/We can twist and shout/Do the turtle dove/And you're the one I love/You're the one I love

Wary and suspicious
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man
Original: Prince 
The single is bouncy, infectious, unputdownable although I couldn't find it on YouTube.
Kane: This doesn’t completely work countrified (not sure about the fiddle) but it’s very lively and upbeat and it's plain CK identifies with the sentiment.
I asked her if she wanted to dance/And she said that/All she wanted was a good man/And wanted to know/If I thought I was qualified/And I said baby don't waste your time/I know what's on your mind/I may be qualified for a one night stand/But I could never take the place of your man

Original: Ray LaMontagne
Low-key, breathy, mournful but, combined with his very deliberate phrasing, it sounds a little affected.
Kane: ‘It had so much to do with my life – I just fell in love with it’. In Christian’s earnest, heartfelt rendition, there’s a memory of anguish, hard times and misguided youth that makes it affecting.
I found myself face down in the ditch/Booze on my hair/Blood on my lips/A picture of you, holding a picture of me/In the pocket of my blue jeans/Still don't know what love means

Drift Away
Original: Dobie Gray (written by Mentor Williams) Easy-going, laidback, likeable.
Kane: There’s palpable joy in the energy and exuberance in his version.
Thanks for the joy that you've given me/I want you to know I believe in your song/And rhythm and rhyme and harmony/You've helped me along/Makin' me strong/Oh, give me the beat, boys and free my soul/I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Part cowboy
Should’ve Been a Cowboy
Original: Toby Keith
I can't really fault this. Jaunty and upbeat, a country no.1 in 1993.
Kane:‘I lost country for a while. This is the one of the songs that brought me back.’  Part-cowboy, part-Cherokee, CK rocks out, breathing new life into this song.
I should've been a cowboy/I should've learned to rope and ride/Wearing my six-shooter riding my pony on a cattle drive

Luckenbach, Texas
Original: Waylon Jennings (written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons), a country no. 1 in 1977.Easy-listening, old-school country.
Kane: Christian reinvents this; it barrels along with enthusiasm and gruff charm and something about his tone really reminds me of Elvis.
The only two things in life/That make it worth livin'/Is guitars to tune good/And firm feelin' women

Part Cherokee
The Dance
Original: Garth Brooks (written by Tony Arata)
Sort of middle of the road, pleasant and inoffensive, Garth has a nice, even tone that’s easy to listen to.
Kane: Only a tiny clip of this. I’d kill to hear more as this is a great appetiser. There’s a depth of experience in the few lines we have here and that twang of a Texan accent on the last word kills me. Also rate Scotty McCreery’s version, which, despite his youth, still has gravitas, although not the rueful quality of the Christian snippet.
And now I'm glad I didn't know/The way it all would end the way it all would go/Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain/But I'd have had to miss the dance

Redneck Side of Me
Original: Jamey Johnson (written by Jerrod Niemann)
The instrumentation is wonderful (is that an organ at the beginning?) but the vocal sounds sort of creepy, like a bad uncle, someone you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night and is too much on one level, there’s not enough drama. Great accent though.
Kane: Again, only a tantalising snippet,. In a couple of minutes, he conveys a promise, a threat, gentleness. Listen to the line: ‘I never hunted 'gators in the Everglades’. The softness and timbre of his voice make my throat quiver. 
I never was a roughneck pumpin' crude down the line/An' I ain't logged no timber, sawin’ on them Georgia pines/I can't mix the best batch of etouffee/I never hunted 'gators in the Everglades
(Aside from Wikipedia: Étouffée or etouffee is a dish found in both Cajun and Creole cuisine typically served with shellfish over rice.)

'Country music has always been first and foremost in my heart'
I think my main point is that Christian Kane always sounds more than credible because he chooses songs that mean something to him. And he can sing anything. I’m mystified as to why he hasn’t had a huge hit although I know that talent doesn’t always translate into success and am probably not the best placed person to try to fathom the machinations of the country music business. But he’s personable and appealing and let’s face it, fine-looking. By rights, he should have ‘made it’ with any of his original songs, such as A Different Kind of Knight, America High, Rattlesnake Smile or with Let Me Go (written by Casey Beathard and Tom Shapiro), which he begged to be allowed to sing. Part of me thinks it’s because he has more than one string to his bow being an actor too (maybe Nashville doesn’t like the fact that he isn’t solely a musician, that he wants to have his cake and eat it too); part of me thinks it’s owing to the extreme dedication of his fanbase (to some extent drawn from fans of his acting that have got into the music) – it’s possible that this contributes to the mainstream country/rock industry’s failure to take him seriously; or perhaps he’s just refusing to play by the rules. I’ve been watching Nashville and wondering why he hasn’t got one of the major roles. Perhaps they wanted musical newcomers but he would be a shoo-in for a recurring cameo of a roughneck country rocker, perhaps on the wrong side of the law.

Could it be?
I’ll end with this exchange, which sort of sums Christian Kane’s music up.
My Dad asked me what Christian Kane's music was like. I said 'It's country rock' and he said 'Like the Eagles?' I said 'More country' and my sister added 'And more rock'.

Perhaps he’s just too much of each to be fully accepted by either (having played to rock audiences at the Viper Room). But they say this is The Year of Kane. 

He also features in another blog of mine:


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Grant Hart Live: Milton, Sputnik, Burroughs, Amtrak and Apollinaire

William S. Burroughs
Links in song titles as usual.

Last time we saw Grant, he played a blistering show with the Burn Burning at the Monto, Water Rats. It was amazing to hear him with a full band again but tonight he’s solo once more, again promoting The Argument, his musical take on William Burroughs’s truncated version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Grant is not afraid of a concept or a broad canvas or a mythical theme. The songs on this album I think of as those ‘details taken from a painting’ postcards you get and I was hoping to hear a good few tonight. I wasn’t disappointed. Haven’t got the album yet and heard that Grant had some to sell but never saw any.

The Miller at London Bridge
The Miller is a pub a stone’s throw from the Shard side of London Bridge, easy for us to get to from South London. Big, rambling and full of nooks and crannies, with the pleasant and efficient bar staff all in Hallowe’en-themed costumes. The gig takes place in an upstairs room with a stage, a couple of tables and a few bar stools. See some familiar faces from previous Grant gigs. Learn that there are two support acts and Grant should be on at 10pm. I usually like to cut to the chase but my sister is less jaded so we go up to listen. Had a brief chat with Grant while they were playing but forgot I had cotton wool in my ears and couldn't hear him properly. Grant, ever the joker, claimed he had come as the infamous, elusive graffiti artist Banksy – no one knows what he looks like. He looks well, still has tons of thick black hair, some pulled back in a ponytail. If he dyes it, he’s doing a great job.

Early days
Bold Things from Ireland start the warm-up. They collect the firewood. Their songs are pleasant enough. They have a lot of tall twenty-something fans who stand right in front of us. Next up are Le Deux Furieuses. (I think it should be Les Deux Furieuses, girls.) They light the taper. They look distinctly art collegey but after a deal of preparation, involving back projection and a carved and lit-up pumpkin, we’re smacked by a sonic onslaught, which would probably have terrified the fans of Bold Things but which is welcomed by die-hard Hüsker fans. I end up quite admiring them and I think they’re surprised by the crowd’s positive reaction.

Grant today
When Grant eventually takes the stage to stoke the flames, he’s a little frustrated by some problems with a borrowed amp and is unimpressed generally as they are unable to turn off a strobe effect that’s giving him vertigo, saying something like it’s great if you enjoy taking it up the ass every night (don’t quote me on that) but, after jokingly offering people their money back (the audience demurs, won't be pulled down by the undertow, buoys Grant up with its enthusiasm), the show goes on. It must be so difficult travelling, using the equipment to hand, organising everything yourself, dependent on the goodwill, courtesy and commonsense of venues and other bands.

I’m not going through the whole setlist; I’ll post it at the end, just mention certain songs. Suffice to say that Grant could play and sing some of these songs perfectly in his sleep and it’s always good to hear them. You know the ones I mean.
'Hey, are you sure you're not taking my picture?'

There’s something about the next three songs that reminds me of the rhythm of the sea – constant but ever-changing, the same but always different, waves crashing against a beach; the way a lyric or refrain is repeated/altered. 

You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water
Always a rousing opener: inspired by this comment from a monk about a possible candidate for the next Panchen Lhama, ‘He is the reflection of the moon on the water but he is not the moon’, i.e. something lesser than the real thing, the truth but not the whole truth. The verses are variations on this theme: the insistence and repetition reinforce the point, like the sea rushing headlong to shore, the fourth line of each stanza a diminishing of the first three, like the backwash of the tide.
You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/You’re the reflection of the moon on the water/But you’re not the moon
You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/You are the scent of the sea on the night wind/But you’re not the sea
You are the shadows from the light of a fire/You are the shadows from the light of a fire/You are the shadows from the light of a fire/But you’re not the light
You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/You are the sound of the rain on the dry earth/But you’re not the rain

Grant dedicates this to Lou Reed (RIP) as ‘another satellite’ song – the song was built around the beeps from Sputnik, Lou Reed’s is of course Satellite of Love. I’ve got to love a song that uses the word ‘apogee’. Another charming, infectious melody; insistent, repetitive – an ocean tide.
Is the sky the limit?/What is the apogee?/
Is the sky the limit/For me?/
I only wish to love you/For you to notice me/
Now I dread how limited I can be

This is the gentler ebb and flow of a calmer sea. Becalmed.
The earth it hangs on a golden chain/
The earth it hangs on a golden chain

Paradise Lost
The songs he plays from The Argument are liberally interspersed with older material throughout the set and work as standalone tracks as well as to illustrate aspects of the story, as if you simply focused in on a character and his thoughts/intentions. Grant is able to slip between viewpoints and in and out of musical styles.

This quote from Pitchfork sums it up:
But the great thing about The Argument is that, not only does it make a Hüsker Dü reformation seem like an evermore remote possibility, it makes the whole prospect that much more undesirable and unnecessary. 

California Zephyr
Upbeat song about riding the rails. It’s such a romantic thing to do, not ride the rails but name your trains, and so evocatively too. Unfortunately using Amtrak is anything but a romantic experience. Only did it once and there was a twelve-hour delay!
Then a cab to the Bay Bridge Inn/
They check you out while they check you in

Milton by way of Burroughs by way of Hart
Shine, Shine, Shine
That fairground organ on the album track – let’s get on the merry go round. A sparkling Christmas bauble of a song.
We enjoy the life ideal/Running naked through the fields/
There’s no shame/No secrets unrevealed

Another song rife with connotations and literary allusions and a lilting refrain. It’s ostensibly about the remains of Apollinaire but with Grant, there’s always another level (and I’m not talking defunct British boyband). Here’s a little extract from a chat I had with Grant when this song was new:
I had been reading the life story of Apollinaire, … in the context of like viewing somebody at a funeral or ‘all that’s left’, only an outline … when they circle the body and things like that and I didn’t change anything … on … the studio recording of it because it’s nice that it bear those other meanings as well.
Supposing, too much to assume/Saying nothing but speaking volumes
Silence broken with shattering sounds/Books for no one, where are they bound?

Grant asks the audience to ‘pucker up’ to whistle along and it’s fantastic how many of them can a) whistle b) know the tune c) actually whistle in tune. Grant has been playing this live for ages so I was surprised that it was part of the Paradise Lost project.
What is it you’re seeking?/What would be your prize?
Is it no fair peeking?/If I look past your disguise

Someone requests Letting Me Out but Grant reacts as if he’s called ‘Let Me Out’ and says ‘The door’s over there’.

During this, an over-enthusiastic fan sings along off-key and very loudly (I find the two usually go together at gigs) and Grant notices and has to choose something that the guy doesn’t know next.
Oh well I put down the money/When I picked up the keys/
We had to keep the stove on all night long/So the mice wouldn't freeze

A shy woman asks my sister to pass Grant a note for her. It says ‘Please play All of My Senses’. His response: ‘Boring’. There are some songs Grant must be sick of performing (the die-hard Husker fans inevitably ask for the same ones and occasionally he obliges) but this isn’t one I’ve ever heard him try live.

Another song he never plays, out of respect, because it’s hard to separate the song from its provenance, is Diane but for those who called for it at the Miller, here’s a fantastic version from Sao Paulo. Sends chills through me.

Less suspicious
A crowd pleaser. This sounds like and works well as a sea shanty (on the 'high' main) while the lyrics also tell a story about drug dependency (mainlining), with a litany of red-light districts – Reeperbahn, Christiane, Pigalle (coincidentally always the location of our hotel whenever we travel) – and references to De Quincey and Christ. As the makers of Every Everything no doubt discovered, Grant is knowledgeable on many subjects but what astonishes me is the way he’s able to crystallise ideas and images into lyric and melody.
There was life on the corner/And death all around/…
Reeperbahn, Christiane, Pigalle, all the same/On the main, the main, remember your name

The song I wanted him to play (I Knew All about You since Then) is a great example of this talent and his Mary Poppins-style approach – a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Trenchant put-downs in wordplay encased in a sunny little tune so you’re suck(er)ed in without realising.

This was my belated alternative request because Grant couldn’t play the original one, for very good reasons. This video is from the actual night.
With her family far and in a family way/Well she told me that she missed him
It's hard to keep in touch/With just the US postal system
Grant changes the lyrics each time, this time he sings ‘useless social system’. It’s one of the things I love about him – a gig can go in any direction at any time – he keeps it fresh and the night is entirely dependent on his mood and how he interacts with the audience.

Still shimmeringly pretty even when slowed down and infused with bitterness as in this ‘mid-life crisis version’ from Zurich.
It's a great big world/There's a million other guys
I feel so lucky when I look/In those green eyes

Grant’s voice still has that pure tone, clarion-clear (as in this version of Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely; a burst of breathless energy); he still has that facility to fashion a memorable tune, his lyrics still blend the everyday with the erudite and I’m left pondering that eternal question. Bjorn and Benny put it better:
I've often wondered, how did it all start?
Who found out that nothing can capture a heart
Like a melody can?

Have guitar, will travel ...
Mercurial, maverick, articulate, undaunted, Grant Hart may be coming to a town near you – catch him if you can. 

The Argument is available on Domino Records and from Amazon of course.

Setlist from the Miller, London 31 October 2013
You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water
Admiral of the Sea came in here somewhere
California Zephyr
Is the Sky the Limit?
(From The Argument)
Shine, Shine, Shine
(From The Argument)
Awake, Arise!
(From The Argument)
Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill
Remains to Be Seen
Never Talking to You Again
The Main
You Are the Victim
So Far from Heaven
(From The Argument)
Letter from Anne-Marie
Golden Chain
(From The Argument)
Pink Turns to Blue
Underneath the Apple Tree
(From The Argument)
Green Eyes
She Floated Away

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Poco versus Eagles: 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven'*

*Title quote taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1, also familiar from the Byrds song ‘Turn, Turn,Turn’, written by Pete Seeger. Richie Furay got together with Chris Hillman from the Byrds and J. D. Souther to form the imaginatively named Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Well, it worked for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Early days
So, this blog is really about why the Eagles made it and Poco didn’t.It's pure speculation of course.

‘What’s in a name?’
Well, Shakespeare thought nothing but I’m so glad that they changed the name from Pogo. Who could have taken them seriously? Poco was really a complete accident name-wise but you know, to the uninitiated, it could mean anything, peace in Arapahoe, for instance, river in Sioux. It has connotations of depth. I don't think there’s much to choose between the names Eagles and Poco though.

Could they look any more louche?
Don Henley:
Even now the Eagles are thought of as a country-rock band. The music industry and the media saddled us with that label at the very beginning, and, no matter how diverse our musical palate, it has been impossible to shake that stereotype. At the end of the day, we’re an American band. We’re a musical mutt with influences from every genre of American popular music. It’s all in there.
[‘Saddled with’ seems like an apt term when we consider the cowboy-themed Desperado but the implication is that this is something you would want to avoid but I don't believe Poco ever felt the need to disassociate themselves from this category and I’m with them – in the 70s, surely it was the best thing to be? Or perhaps it shows foresight on Don’s part that he realised they had to transcend this label to achieve world domination.]
Despite this quote, it isn’t really true. The Eagles have crossed over. And everyone knows it. They straddle a number of genres, like musical giants. In doing this successfully, they also attract criticism from purists along with accusations of selling out. As if to sell records and to sell out were synonymous. Poco never sold out but neither did they ever sell as well as the Eagles.

So how did this band of talented musicians and songwriters, with a great pedigree, proven track record, manage to escape fame and fortune in the 70s? How did they do that usually quintessentially English thing – snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

They could!
Naked ambition
We know that the Eagles had this in spades along with tons of confidence.
David Geffen:
The Eagles weren’t going to fail. It was a group that was put together with clear intentions.
Glenn Frey:
This was our best shot. Everyone had to look good, sing good, play good and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM and FM success. Number one singles and albums, great music and a lot of money.
Bernie Leadon:
We had lofty goals …Here we are, you want us or not?
They sound so single-minded. Then again, it might have been mere bravado. Glenn Frey:
There was a certain intensity … perhaps a lot of it was bluff.

But I’m sure Poco were also driven, just more carefully. Timothy B. Schmit:
But I had a vision – I just wanted to write songs and travel and be on stage.  I wanted that adoration from being a musician.

Maybe Poco were too much of their time, too laidback and easy-going. No doubt they had ambition but it wasn’t the vaunting hubris that launches careers (for instance, a band who call themselves America – that’s a bold statement). They probably thought they could leave all that behind with Stills and Young. But they fit perfectly into the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter culture. Folk/country rock was up and coming, the latest rage. It was surely the right time and place for them.

Bitter Blue
Perhaps they didn’t rate themselves highly or take themselves seriously enough. Perhaps they looked like they were having too good a time, that nothing more was needed. The template in a way for the early Eagles, a vocal harmony group (the essence that the Eagles wanted to recapture when they reformed in 1994), as mentioned in my first Poco blog, they watched that band soar (forgive the pun) into the stratosphere while they languished on the ground, performing, releasing records, garnering admirers but never really ‘making it’.

They’re like a diamond in the rough. If you polish it, you gain something but you also lose something: the spontaneity, the freshness. I still love Eagles harmonies and loved it when they sang No More Walks in the Wood on the Long Road out of Eden tour but it was almost too perfect, too pristine.

Why did the people who walked away – Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Randy Meisner, Timothy B. Schmit – go on to greater things? It surely wasn't just talent.

Irving Azoff
The Eagles of course had a ruthless, devoted and feisty manager in Irving Azoff. They were his cause and he never lost sight of the big picture. Loyal to them above all. My favourite quote from the Hotel California book is from J. D. Souther:
Irving’s 15% of everybody turned out to be worth more than everyone’s 85% of themselves.

But did he really alter the course of their history? And I don’t want to suggest that Poco’s management was less effective although someone on the Border has just reminded me that Poco's management turned down an offer to play Woodstock - possibly not the greatest decision. As with everything though, it’s probably a combination of all of the above.
Wow! Joe looks gorgeous
Then there’s Joe Walsh. He attracted a whole raft of rock fans (and still does) and although I think he’s a crazy and entertaining character with a great sense of humour, the well-brought-up, un-rock-and-roll side of me doesn’t approve of all those destructive rampages. I just don’t see the point and can't help but feel sorry for the people who had to clean up after him. He brings rock credibility, at no. 54 in Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. And his onstage guitar duels with Don Felder were something else.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
I tend to believe this is simply serendipity rather than strictly meritorious. Even given that taste is subjective, we all know bands/singers whose work has never received the recognition it deserves while lesser talents are lauded (not that I’m in any way implying the Eagles were lesser talents). People seem to like what they hear most often and these days that tends to be rap, hip-hop and fey, affected girl singers. See my first ever music blog for my thoughts on this.

Path less travelled
Poco followed the country route, unlike the Eagles, who made a transition, became a bonafide country-rock hybrid and didn’t lose anything, only seemed to gain. It was no accident that  Bernie Leadon fell by the wayside. He wanted to stay closer to their country roots. Poco have stayed more grounded in this way. They appear in the Country Music Hall of Fame (with their own exhibit) rather than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But, even if we accept that the Eagles’ huge success was down to their ability to cross the divide, it doesn’t explain the popularity of tracks from early in their career, such as Peaceful Easy Feeling, Witchy Woman and Take It Easy, a time when they were more country-orientated. These all made the Top 40.

Rose of Cimarron
'I write the songs' 
Rusty Young highlights the importance of being able to write songs in this entertaining interview. David Geffen, speaking to Rusty, after convincing Richie Furay to leave Poco: 
You don’t write and you don’t sing.  You’re in big trouble.
Rusty Young:
That’s the day I became a songwriter.  Whether he knew it or not, David Geffen gave me the best advice I have ever heard.

There’s been much discussion on the Poconut forum lately about which band has the best writers and I have to admit to 'Sitting on a Fence’. I can see that Henley’s lyrics chimed with the Zeitgeist in a way that Poco’s didn’t (while prefiguring its eventual disillusion/dissolution - Henley's always been prescient that way) and that, at the same time, they were incredibly evocative and alluring to people who were only aware of the 70s, the Californian scene, after the fact and from a great distance. The Eagles became a soundtrack to the era. I love both Frey and Henley’s songs (and the contributions of Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, Jack Tempchin and Jackson Browne) equally. But Poco had as many talented writers as the Eagles, with Richie Furay, Rusty Young, Paul Cotton, Timothy B. Schmit, Jim Messina all writing. They just couldn’t seem to translate critical acclaim into commercial success. This simple fact led to a series of line-up changes as members became disenchanted or were poached by record companies, but Poco still endured, with the core altering a little each time.

In my last blog, I mentioned a few Poco songs that I think are on a par with Eagles songs but there are more: Furay’s What If I Should Say I Love You (the passion and fervour bring tears to my eyes every time); Schmit’s Find Out in Time; Cotton’s Angel; Young’s magical Spellbound.

And I’m only a newcomer to Poco whereas I know Eagles albums like the back of my hand. I’m probably only scraping the surface of their material. All taste is subjective so I’m certain there are plenty of Poconuts who would choose completely different tracks to these or those in my last blog.
But perhaps they were mere featherweights in a heavyweight field. Their gossamer-fine songs lacked the punch of the best of the Eagles material.

I suspect though that radio play was a significant factor. I can't speak for the States but in the UK, it was hard not to hear the Eagles, whereas you would only ever hear Rose of Cimarron by Poco. It’s not that their songs did not resonate as strongly, more that they never reached the same market and never got a chance to become standards in the way of Desperado or New Kid in Town. It might be a question of how they were promoted or how they were perceived.

Go, Don!
It's all about sex, really (to quote my former English Lit teacher)
But I think what really did it, what made the difference, is something I can actually trace in my own experience. One of These Nights was simply the sexiest thing I’d ever heard on late-night radio and the first time I heard the Eagles. Its intro sent a thrill through me. Rose of Cimarron I believed pleasant but unmemorable although my first Schmitten blog confirms it had entered my consciousness and I did remember it years later.

Don Felder came up with the opening bass line of One of These Nights (and let's not forget his other vital contribution: Hotel California). Don Henley:
With Don Felder, we can really rock. He's made us nastier and he's done a great guitar solo on One of These Nights.

The very act of listening to One of These Nights (and Witchy Woman which has the same ‘satanic country-rock’ vibe) seemed illicit and exhilarating (well, I did live in Sidcup and we got real excited about a chicken the other day – it was a magnificent chicken though). You felt complicit in a crime.

Languid, mysterious
Glenn and Don, in particular, Glenn, let’s face it, the cascading hair, the droopy moustache, those molten brown, come-to-bed eyes, looked and sounded dangerous. Poco seemed like safe, down-home country boys nextdoor, the Eagles like bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks. But I can't even say this had anything to do with looks because I'd never seen young Timothy B. Schmit.  Then there were those straightforward lyrics ‘I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight’ (Peaceful Easy Feeling) or ‘It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me’ which leads to ‘Open up, I’m climbing in’, so compelling, direct and honest.

Of course, the Eagles played up the outlaw image with the Desperado album but we were already convinced. More West Coast than Wild West, it was all the same to those of us in the London suburbs. Something out in the Wild Blue Yonder.

Anyway, these are just a few of my thoughts. Be interested to hear what any readers think.

Now, if I'd seen this ...