Monday, November 09, 2009

Jimmy Webb & Webb Family Birmingham Town Hall 8th November

There's a great Graham Nash (as in the Hollies and Crosby, Stills and the other one) quote about song writing. "We're all fishing in the same river, but Bob Dylan is further upstream and he's catching all the big ones." Well Jimmy Webb's knows a good spot too and has landed some whoppers.

Songs like the Glen Campbell versions of Wichita Lineman and By The Time I Get To Phoenix are like Elvis and Johnny Cash...we sneered at them as adolescents but eventually we realised our parents were probably right. Webb’s songs are grown up songs about grown up subjects. I mean, The Wichita Linesman even has a job. Mind you so does the Highwayman which is tonight's set opener

The tour was billed as The Webb Family and was a neat way round a few potential pitfalls facing an aging performer known as a songwriter rather than a singer and whose drinking buddies had been a thirsty Harry Neilson and a parched Richard Harris. His sons have put out albums as the Webb Brothers, including the excellent Maroon lp.

He'd also brought along Cal Campbell (Glen's son) on drums and Romeo from the Magic Numbers. Which means you get a great sounding band, the complementary style of the Webb Brothers own songs intermingled with Jimmy's own, and other vocalists to take the pressure off Jimmy for any parts he didn't fancy singing. And plenty of time for the stories and between song chat and what stories they were.

Around a third of the gig's running time was chat....and not a word too many. What there wasn't too much of though was an audience. It was a painfully empty Town Hall (or Parthenon as Jimmy referred to it as). but the gig itself was a bit of a treat. Webb Snr looking great in pinstripes, stayed at the piano. Son Jamie though had the last word in a cream jacket with a painted floral design. It looked good enough for Gram Parsons.

The band sounded really good, but restrained and unfussy considering how much was going on, bass, drums, 3 guitars, pedal steel, keyboards and Jimmy Webb’s piano. My favourite instrument of the night though was the Melodica type instrument with a flexible tube to blow through, that the Webb brothers passed around like prison porn. When James played it in his Nashville attire, he looked less like Augustus Pablo and more like an Ood in a Nudie suit. (That’s one for the Dr Who fans)

Jimmy introduced If These Walls Could Speak as a song he'd written specifically with Waylon Jennings in mind, and described at length and with great humour how it was perfect for Jennings’s voice, although the song ended up being sung by Amy Grant, Nanci Griffith and countless other female singers. He also, tellingly, described how he thought he'd written it about a house in New Jersey he'd lived, but had ended up realising that the song "Was actually about me"

Jimmy Webb introduced Galveston as a song written during the Vietnam War. Jamie sang it in a much higher key than Glen Campbell’s version, if anything a reminder of the easy confidence of Campbell’s vocal style. When the song finished everyone left the stage to be replaced by the voice of Jimmy’s own father singing Red Sails In The Sunset. After a bit of Webb reminiscence about his dad coming back from military service smelling of Old Spice (the 2 anecdotes may not necessarily be linked) Jimmy started talking about his own experiences as a father and the mistakes he had made. The song No Christian No was in recognition of the way he'd spoken to his own son as a child. Apparently it was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite songs.

Aah yes the name dropping was extravagant. But there again why shouldn't it be? He's Jimmy Webb and he wrote those songs. One particular anecdote which must have spanned 10 minutes, veered from Richard Harris (the telegram read "Jimmy Webb come to London. Make record!") to The Girl he was trying (and failing) to impress (Miss Wales, later Miss World) to the song he wrote for her (she thought it was "silly") so he gave it to Art Garfunkel. He played that unaccompanied on the piano.

When the band bounced back on stage they inexplicably (apart from the fact that he wrote it) played Up Up And Away. It may be perfect slice of 60's silliness and the soundtrack of choice for all local news programmes about ballooning, but I wouldn't have played it and left out Do What You Gotta Do.

Wichita Linesman and By The Time I get To Phoenix were introduced by the line that "If it wasn't for Glen Campbell then we wouldn't all be on stage here tonight". Almost on cue Cal Campbell responded with "If it wasn't for Glen Campbell I wouldn't be here tonight". Rehearsed spontaneity. And still funny.

The set closer was the still baffling Macarthur Park. The Beatle savvy Webb Brothers turned the mid section into a slice of Abbey Road style languid loveliness, before the frantic Bond theme style final section. If that song is bonkers, then the Richard Harris album it came from (yes, Jimmy Webb did go to London) A Tramp Shining is very odd indeed. But then you would expect that given another of Webb’s anecdotes. During a Rolls Royce road trip round the Irish west coast Harris boomed "We'll stay at my sister’s house. You can sleep in the bed where I was conceived"

They encored with a stunning version of Without You which was sung really well by Jamie. Webb talked about how much he missed Nilsson (the boys used to call him as Uncle Harry) and that singing it was way of invoking Nilsson’s name so he can remain immortal, as the ancient Greeks would have done.(yes the Town Hall/Parthenon analogy had really got to Webb). Without You is one of those songs that I usually think I’d rather appreciate from a distance rather than listen to. It’s just too rich and there’s just too much of it. (And despite what my old neighbour thinks the human heart has never been broken badly enough to merit playing Without You followed by Lorraine Ellison’s Stay With Me Baby. Continuously. And on repeat!)

Overall then, a good gig. Jimmy Webb’s songs speak for themselves and if they couldn’t then he certainly can.

Highway man
Bad Things Happen To Good People
I Could Turn The Stars Around For Us
If These Walls Could Speak
Hollow Victory
Kick it like an old tin can
Red Sails In The Sunset
Christian No
All I Know
Up Up And Away
PF Sloane,
Witchita Lineman
By The Time I get To Pheonix
The Worst That Could Happen
Macarthur Park

Without You

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Generation Kill

Generation Kill is the Iraq war mini series written by David Simon and Ed Burns based on the book by journalist Evan Wright

It’s only got 6 hours or so of telly to play with so it’s never going to be able to replicate The Wire’s range of characters and themes (there was more to the Baltimore drama than “Buy drugs, sell drugs”) but it does bring something new to the War Movie genre. And like The Wire, the dialogue is fantastic and the whole thing feels utterly authentic.

In a peaceable life I’ve worked my way through enough war films to get flashbacks. Each of those landmark films will have a scene or idea that brings something new or captures something different about war and the people caught up in it. And of course, other filmmakers, journalists and soldiers will pick up on it too. There’s an interesting podcast at with Patrick Hennessey a former Guards Officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who describes the moment when they were inadvertently and then deliberately recreating the swimming sequence in Hamburger Hill with Otis Redding as the soundtrack.

Generation Kill feels like it’s certainly seen it’s fair share of films

The first episode is hard work as the viewer can get disorientated by the amount of kit, characters and military slang. But stick with it. After all you had to with The Wire.

The dialogue shows up the social, and racial tensions amongst the United States Marine Corps and the (terrifying and inept) chain of command. As you’d expect from the writers of The Wire, the Military dialogue is baffling, funny, foul and poetically obscene. Whisky Tango (white trash) Marines (grunts) curse POG’ s (Person Other than Grunt). The owner of an untidy and non-regulation moustache (grown during the morale boosting, pre invasion moustache growing competition) is told to “Police that moustache”

There are a lot of characters to get used to but once it settles down, the series works because you get the claustrophobic view of the troops in the Humvee. This claustrophobia is one of the things that Generation Kill does differently. It’s a war film in a desert that feels like a submarine movie…and everyone likes a submarine film don’t they!

The commanding officers are as big a threat to their troops as the enemy and the unhinged Captain America is a war crimes investigation in waiting. Godfather is the Corleone voiced Lieutenant Colonel who lost his voice to throat cancer. A non-smoker. “I guess I just got lucky”, he’s actively trying to manoeuvre his men into risky and ill advised missions, like a zealous middle manager trying to commandeer the photocopier for the glory of his team

Inside the Humvee though it’s not much better. James Ransone (he played the excellent Ziggy Sobotka character in the second series of The Wire) is the Humvee driver speeding through Iraq on an over the counter stimulant called Ripped Fuel. He’s literally fighting a war on drugs. There’s the camel shooting farm boy who just wants to kill something, while Evan Wright is the Rolling Stone journalist who was only accepted by the troops when he told them he used to write for Hustler (“You wrote Beaver Hunt?”) The Iceman is the Sergeant, one of the elite Recon Marines and the only one of the bunch who actually knows what he’s doing…he just can’t believe he’s doing it with such a useless crew)

The night vision fire fights are tense, terrifying and wouldn’t have happened in earlier wars and the films made about them. It almost doesn’t happen in this one either as the troops don’t have enough batteries for their night vision goggles.

Vietnam was fought and lost on television and military chiefs have been trying not to let that happen again. However cheap technology means that troops themselves are filming it. Patrick Hennessey on the Word podcast describes how important these video diaries and home made films have become to troops. This runs right through Generation Kill too. Again this makes Generation Kill seem more relevant

The closing credits for each episode are genius. If you think of those classic TV sequences where the credits tell you about the programme itself, you’ could go from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, to The Sopranos to The Wire. In an inspired less is more leap, the credits for Generation Kill are just radio transmissions, voices amidst busts of static.

Generation Kill is a contemporary war film about a contemporary war, with plenty of scenes that not only add to the war film genre but also made me glad I wasn’t there…and wished they weren’t there either.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

David Simon at the Hay Festival 30th May 2009

If he’d have turned up at my front door I’d have given him money. As it was I had to go to the Hay Festival to see David Simon. To pay and pay homage. I would have travelled further as I don’t really think about much else now apart from The Wire.

Basically it was an hour or so of David Simon in conversation with Mark Lawson from the Late show and answering a few questions from the audience.

He was there to plug his book Homicide and the HBO mini-series The Corner.

Two sides of the same city and both sides would feed in to The Wire itself.

Homicide is the result of his years of crime reporting for the Baltimore Sun and captures the aggressive humour of Baltimore Police speak, while The Corner is filmed as a fly on the wall documentary and focuses on the daily grind of drug addiction in the Baltimore row houses where people are too busy being addicts to put the work into being funny.

So once you get to The Wire, you can get 60 hours of ambitious, gripping telly that expects the viewer to put the work in, pay attention and not to expect a neat plot resolution at the end of each episode.

It moves between the lives and work cultures of the Baltimore Police Department police and the drug gangs that they’re chasing. For both sides, it’s just business as usual and they’ve all got their own bureaucracies and work pressures. It then pans out to take in the roles of the schools, local politics and the press. You get a real feel of a city and society, disastrously going about it’s work.

The dialogue is fantastic. Foul mouthed and funny with properly inventive swearing. The potty mouthed work of people who spend too long doing observation in unmarked cars and standing on corners selling drugs. Both sides, dealing out the banter, just to pass the time. Both sides spending a lot of time just waiting. Both sides just doing their jobs.

The Wire has some fantastic characters, and even the minor characters seem to have had some care and effort put into them. My favourite character at the moment is Proposition Joe, who runs a drugs empire from his TV repair shop. He takes time out from fixing a toaster (he looks like he’s had a
few pieces himself) to remind one lucky individual that he was nearly a “cadaverous muthafucker"

The main thing that came out of the evening was David Simon’s ongoing love affair with journalism. He talked about starting out and just being in awe of the other reporters who were “Older than me, knew more than me, could drink more than me and were funnier than me…It was like a lost weekend that went on for years. Good job I took notes”

There was the pride in the fact that after his years in the job he knew exactly how to get the different sides of a crime story, through the fact that he had all the Police contacts, he knew where they drank and who would talk to him and about what. And who had an axe to grind or maybe just a different view.

One of the themes running through Series 5 of The Wire is the decline of the local paper. The problems of the Newspaper industry in Baltimore are echoed in local papers in the UK.

Although Simon acknowledged that a media based on dead trees may not be the most efficient way of delivering News he wondered what could replace it. Would an army of Citizen Bloggers have the skills, the time and the resources to find, follow and break a story? Because of course he was proud of his own skills and experience, but as he pointed out…he got them because he was paid and there was a newspaper industry that was willing and able to pay him.

His explanation of how The Wire came to be funded was really interesting. He talked about an executive at HBO who explained that it didn’t really matter how many people watched it (and by extension any of the other HBO shows). They just needed to have enough programmes that people would be interested in and would sign up for.

The company weren’t interested in whether you’d subscribed to the channel for The Sopranos, The Wire, boxing or indeed anything else…just so long as there was at least one programme in the schedule that would make you pay your subscription. Which of course turns the whole British TV ratings game on it’s head.

He claims to be surprised at how well The Wire was received in the UK (1200 people in a tent at Hay for starters) but put it down to “American dystopia plays better the further away you get from it”.

I was pleased to hear him talking about another Baltimore phrase that I loved from the series. Cops would describe themselves as being “A Police.” He said Martin Amis had been criticised for using it but Simon stood by it as a Baltimore phrase.

He talked about the importance of getting it right, the stories and the dialogue and about how the worlds of his characters were often only a few blocks away. But you are never going to go to Lafayette (where The Corner is set) as a tourist. He described The War On Drugs as a war against the underclass.

My next Box set is his Iraq drama Generation Kill and his next project is based Hurricane Katrina. Again you can see the parallels in his other work. Stories of failure by Government and Corporations and the effect on communities. Using drama to ask questions and show what is going on.

As he put it, after 40 years of talking about it, why are Baltimore schools still failing?

When he was asked about other writers he admired, he talked about Chekhov….because his characters don’t always do what they are supposed to do. By which I think he meant that the character isn’t just there as part of the plot. Which brings us back to The Wire and it’s huge and hugely entertaining cast.

Start working your way through the box sets. It may change the way you live. There’s a lot more swearing over breakfast after a night watching The Wire. Family punishments are harsher too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

That Petrol Emotion Birmingham Acadamy 1st July

That Petrol Emotion split up in 1994 long after the world had lost interest.
Judging by the amount of elbow room at the Academy on the opening night of
their first tour since they split, the world may still not be interested.
Shame on the world. They were always an excellent band live and they've
still got all their powers.

I wouldn't trust them to set the video though. The first song Blue to
Black should have started with a sample...And indeed it did...Once singer
Steve Mack had found the play button.

Steve asked who remembered the name of the pub where they'd played their
first gig in Birmingham. That would be the Vine in Aston. I didn't go to
that but I do remember buying the first single Keen, downstairs in the old
Virgin Shop on Bull St where the assistant was enthusiastically promoting
the gig. Actually he probably was the promoter.

They were definitely amongst friends. Old friends. Over 30's friends,
many well acquainted with their 40's. Drummer Ciaran used to be an hairy man and used to look as if the red carpet had been rolled out along the back
of his neck. Well it's not quite gone to stripped floorboards yet but he’s
certainly put down a silver fox rug. Steve Mack still looks exactly the
same, all sinew and flailing limbs occasionally breaking into a kind of
hopping dance with a finger in the air. Guitarist and Undertone Damian's
sole concession to the ageing process seems to be a pair of glasses. He's
probably just wearing them as a show of solidarity with the rest of us

It looked like the gig was going well, for both band and audience. Steve said, "They say you should never go back to your old lover, but I'm beginning to change my mind".

It's A Good Thing would have me heading straight to Friends Reunited. It's a great example of how TPE built a joyous celebratory Pop out of awkwardness. One of the constant things about the band is they way they use discordant words. (Scum Surfin’, Chemicrazy...even T shirts that proclaim TPE to be renegades in Pop redux. I'm sure you are…but you probably told your mums you were astronauts, as it was easier to explain.) So in It's A Good Thing you get a line like "Our flesh feels fresh, That's the beauty" It's geekily awkward, and like unscientifically but enthusiastically
dissecting a frog. Just poking it to see what works. But you do get this
great high/ low sing song chorus from Steve and then just as the song
should be building, it breaks down as the guitars stumble into each other
before building up again. Calculated chaos. Obviously it doesn't finish
with a chorus (after all if you've got a great chorus...why would you want
to play it 3 times. That would be Pop insanity?) Instead what you get is a
blissful Ahhh ah vocal and Ciaran doing 4 bars of rolling drum thunder.
And that'll do instead of a chorus. And it does. Magnificently.

Looking out at the low numbers, Steve cheerfully announced, “next time we
do this, shall we just do it in somebody’s yard? We’ll have a barbecue,
bring a barrel of beer. It’ll be cheaper for all of us.” He gestured to
the rest of the band “…and if these fuckers won’t come, I’ll bring an

The band barrelled through the hits that got away, the likes of Big
Decision, Abandon, Hey Venus, Sensitize. It’s a toe in the water come back
tour, nothing to promote except their legacy. Great Pop tunes with
scratchy, scouring guitar lines to take the edge off the sweetness.
Another mishap with an intro sample to Catch A Fire brought anguished cries from the band. “This is what you’ve got look forward to…the doddering Petrols playing the same song 10 times”

Scum Surfin’ was an exhilarating hair pin drive, as the track built momentum
with the guitar powering out of the corners. Get it onto a video game,
boys. It can be your pension plan. Lifeblood comes from the first album
when their sound was closer to the Pere Ubu/Captain Beefheart template.
Closing tracks Last Of The True Believers and Detonate My Dreams sounded
fantastic as Damian's white Les Paul seemed to have turned into a white cat
which he was enthusiastically strangling. And the choker is that these
were the tracks that they had released after the world had lost interest.
And that, to my shame, included me.

These are the tracks I can remember...not necessarily in order

Blue To Black
Gnaw Mark
It's A Good Thing
Big Decision
Hey Venus
Head Staggered
Sooner Or Later
Life Blood
Catch A Fire
Scum Surfin'
Last Of The True Believers
Detonate My Dreams

There's TPE treasure trove at and

Friday, May 29, 2009

That Petrol Emotion

All bands reform. It’s inevitable, unavoidable and there are laws of physics that have less supporting evidence.

I’ve learned to live with gravity but my will to live has been tested by Spandau Ballet reforming. Actually that particular and unwelcome reformation has opened up the possibility of time travel for me. I really do feel exactly the same about them as I did when I was 16. Seething resentment and unlikely to be stopping off at the kilt shop.

Some bands rumble on for years after anyone has stopped caring and yet they can still catch you out when they reform. Like a fetish you didn’t know you had.

The Undertones split up after the world had stopped caring (one of the band described the final John Peel session as a “cover, a b side and the sound of 5 pairs of hands enthusiastically scraping the bottom of the barrel”). That Petrol Emotion were Sean O’Neil’s attempt to make more aggressive, politicised music. (Early singles had sleevenotes about strip searches and plastic bullets).

Late period Undertones had been shaped by the bands love of Soul and Psychedelia (and quite right too!) but That Petrol Emotion were more of the sound of the songs they loved to cover. Beefheart's Zig Zag Wanderer, Pere Ubu’s Non Alignment Pact, Television’s Friction, Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl and In A Rut by The Ruts. Discordant and churning.

Initially the vocals were shared between bassist Damian (who’d joined after his post Undertones outfit Eleven had petered out) and guitarist Reamann O'Gormain. I saw this line up at the Mean Fiddler in 1985 but when I saw them a few months later at Thames Poly with The Nightingales they’d recruited gangly American singer Steve Mack. I saw them a lot over the following couple of years. Although at that point Mack wasn’t convincing as a singer (but he got a lot better over the years) they were a phenomenal band live. I saw them with The Long Ryders, The Woodentops in Deptford, Stump in Wolverhampton. The records weren’t as good as the gigs but songs like It’s A Good Thing proved that there was always joyous celebratory pop lurking under their swampy sound. They just couldn’t help it!

Now where it gets difficult is also where it got interesting…and actually where I lost interest. All the band wrote (great for quickly gathering up material…. and even better for arguments in the studio) and they were trying to bring in the Hip Hop and Dance records that they were listening to.

Actually, as band they were probably quicker off the mark than most in terms of the unloved and little lamented Indie dance crossover. So you’d get the “Agitate, educate organise” lyric from Brother D and The Collective Effort shoehorned into their own song Big Decision and a fair bit of sampling and remixing.

Sean O’Neil left after the 3rd album, End Of The Millennium Psychosis Blues and Damian moved back to guitar. Subsequent albums Chemicrazy and Fireproof were more focused than this sprawling sonic ragbag of styles but the law of diminishing returns is almost as fixed as the law about bands reforming. The band split in 94, still on ferocious live form.

The band played a couple of gigs in London and Ireland last summer and have just announced a full tour. If they’ve still got their live form then it should be a treat and I think it’s going to be the scene of much misty eyed reverie for those of us of a certain age. The baby sitters will be much in demand…but actually the baby sitters need to be watching live bands of this calibre for themselves.

Dag For Dag

Dag for Dag are an American brother and sister duo now living in Stockholm. Sarah Parthemore Snavely and Jacob Donald Snavely have rediscovered the Joy Division sound of the spindly guitar, teetering on the edge of musical collapse and given it a bit of Gothic dressing up with the Woo hooOOOH (It’s all a bit scary isn’t it) vocals.

Shooting FromThe Shadows is a “full chunky ep” (that’s bass player Jacobs description) which is released on Conor Oberst’s label Saddle Creek. Main track Ring Me Elise has the kind of single line, distorted guitar snakery of Joy Divisions Transmission or Novelty. They also feel like an amped up Violent Femmes or the Cramps.

Barney’s guitar playing always sounded like he was playing beyond his actual ability and so part of the paranoia and gruff terror of Joy Division was that they were actually all going to be found out at any moment Of course Violent Femmes could all play like demons, they just liked sounding rough. And The Cramps? They need no justification.

With Dag For Dag there is a sense of glee to Sarah's playing and a pleasure in making it snort. You get the same feeling from the way the J Mascis sets about his guitar in Dinosaur Jr despite his apparent problem staying awake.

Silence Is The Verb sounds like a Country ballad version of Atmosphere. It’s a creepy boy girl duet with some heroic (and occasionally in tune) guitar twanging over a probing chiming bass line…The guitar sounds a bit like Frenz by The Fall and yes the bass line does sound like Atmosphere.

There is a version at

I have to approach Joy Division quite cautiously now. Whilst I can go back to New Order quite happily, I just can’t play a whole Joy Division album. I think about them quite a lot still but I just can’t face the hard work.

I did once hear an excellent story about the Joy Division tribute band who realised that the audience wasn’t quite sharing the intensity of the experience. The band ground relentlessly and terrifyingly through Day Of The Lords, with the singer giving it the full blown Ian Curtis gravitas.

The portentious lyrics “Where will it end, where will it end?” rang out and as the band seemed to be shaking before the fast approaching apocalypse, the audience was in fact doing a conga through the upstairs room of the Hare and Hounds.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Doves are just so much better than they should be. The 4th album Kingdom Of Rust
looks like it's going to be more of the same big faced earnestness, chiming guitars and generic Northern glumness (do Elbow have a funny bone?) tempered with a dancefloor euphoria.
Here it comes, the swelling chorus, arms in the air, dancefloor drugs
rather than dance floor dancing. They keep the vocals mixed down low and
in interviews the singing bassist Jimi Goodwin has talked about deliberately
keeping the lyrics open ended and fuzzy to allow the listener to add their
own interpretation. (Actually that's often the defence of the
lyrically useless or the songwriter who is still scribbling while the
studio clock ticks and the keyboard player is practising their drumming

The feeling you get from Doves songs is that they are singing about the big
stuff. They sound like songs about leaving: hometowns and lovers,
travelling and movement....but the thing is I think they're going for a
feeling rather than a definite. If there is a Northern quality, then it’s
as much about place names in song titles (Northenden, Salford Quays, Winter
Hill) as much as the way they sit geographically and sonically with
Manchester bands like Elbow and The Chameleons with their middle distance
peering or Liverpool bands like Shack or The La’s with their more
traditional song structures. There is a terrace feel to them too.
Pounding was regularly played at Man City games and they’ve recorded a
version of Blue Moon. So there is more to them than earnestness.

What lifts them up as a band is their attention to detail, with a clever mix of guitar
sounds, little tricks and treatments. The first 2 albums sound compressed
and claustrophobic. The textures are really good but while you can hear the instruments you can’t hear the air move. You don’t hear the sound of speakers or drum skins pushing the
air around them, you don’t have the sound of fingers on guitar strings or
the clicks and pings of musicians making music. In fact I should hate the
sound of it…but I don’t

Catch The Sun from the first album Lost Souls has a warm fuzziness and an
elliptical bass line under the chorus of “Everyday it comes to this, catch
the things you might have missed, You say, go back to yesterday”. It’s a
line and a sound that pretty much captures what the band are about.
Wistful, regretful but oddly uplifting. It’s the kind of glumness you can
live with.

Second Album The Last Broadcast contains my favourite song of theirs (and probably yours) There Goes The Fear. With the drug references of the title and the line “Think of me when you’re
coming down” and a hefty 6 minute running time, it packs it all in.
There’s a U2 chukka chukka guitar sound and a really surprising moment as
the delicate “There goes the fear again” vocal line descends towards the
chorus. As the guitar line drops down it sounds like he’s fluffed the
line, and skipped a note, but then they repeat it through the rest of the
song. Which makes me warm to them as a band? Keep the mistakes.

The third album Some Cities has a drier sound and includes Black And White Town which sounds
like Heatwave by Martha and the Vandellas.

These soulful leanings shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Before
reinventing themselves as Doves they were Sub Sub and released Ain’t No
Love Ain’t No Use in 1993. It’s a phenomenal record. It sounds like
hotpants and has earrings the size of mirror balls. It’s one of those
records that jumps out of the radio and whisks you straight out of the
kitchen/garage/hole in the road and drops you in the middle of the dance
floor of the best night of the best club. Still holding your washing up

The new album Kingdom Of Rust was recorded over a fraught three years on a Cheshire farm, within ear shot of the Manchester airport and the motorway. The title track has come out as the single and while it is still obviously Doves, there are some new twists. There’s a Mariachi feel and this time round they are actually using volume. Yes the guitar solo is louder than the part that
preceded it! Revolutionary and it sounds great. It also sounds like a
cross between Zager and Evans In The Year 2525 and Love. Psychedelic
Spaghetti Country and (North) Western. I’ll have some that!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Candi Staton Birmingham Town Hall 21st Feb

Young Hearts Run Free is the song that defines her in England. It was the soundtrack to Candi Staton's 70's domestic turmoil and over the years it's also been the dance floor mood uplifter, the Hen Party Staple and karaoke hell. The Source used her vocal on You've Got The Love which has been a hit 3 times over the last 18 years. It's as seasonal as Slade! She's spent the last 20 years banging out a Gospel album a year and then there's her peerless and genre defining Southern Soul recordings from the late 60's. So who is exactly her audience? Actually where are her audience? The Town Hall is 2 thirds empty and one of the 2 backing singers has just introduced her as Candi STAYton and told us that he's heard that Birmingham is one of the loudest audiences anywhere. Ouch! This could be painful.

She opened with Nights on Broadway (well that's one hit out of the way) and it's immediately apparent that her voice is absolutely still intact and the band is sympathetic. Bass, drums, guitar, keyboards , 2 backing vocalists, sax and trumpet. It all sounds right, authentic and uncluttered. Whenever I watch old singers I always think of Paul McGrath's knees and wonder if the vocal veteran is using an old pros tricks and anticipation to keep themselves out of trouble (or in the right place) like the knackered knee knock 'em backer did at the end of his career. Well, not in Staton's case. Her voice still has the quality of those early recordings. There's a bruised, hurt quality which is incongruous coming from the smiling 65 year old woman walking round the stage with her arm outstretched as if carrying an invisible tray. And even better, she's going to talk. I always enjoy between song chat and Staton is talking her way though each song, explaining bits of musical history, who recorded the song and lots of talking to the ladies about men.

I Feel The Same is a Bonnie Rait song from Staton's new album and has the swampy Blues feel and the rising horns and backing vocals of her classic Muscle Shoals period. Towards the end Staton ad-libs that “You try and pick up the pieces, but there ain't no pieces left”.

I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Loving) is just such a Muscle Shoals classic. Staton finishes the song with the line “Sometimes it's worth being being a prisoner, if he loves you all night. Am I right ladies?” Considering that her interviews always go back to the failed and abusive marriages and Young Heats Run Free, it's the first of many often contradictory but usually entertaining statements.

I'll Sing A Love Song To You is mercifully brief but Elton John in cheesiness. She's singing it for those who have stayed with her since 1969

Later she talks about how in the 60's and 70's women singers could only sing songs about being hurt by love and begging men to stay and suggests that the record company must have spent a lot of money to make Jean Knights Mr Big Stuff a hit. Sexism and payola? What? In the Music Industry?

She lets slip that covers of In The Ghetto (she actually did perch on a stool to sing that one) and Stand By Your Man were both nominated for Grammys but my favourite line was when she talked about her first single I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool) selling 750 000 copies “Before they realised it wasn't Aretha. But I got over it. Like a fat rat!”

The Town hall is a seated venue and she encouraged people to get their shoulders working but of course what the audience was really waiting for and what brought them to their feet was stretched out versions of Young Hearts Run Free and You've Got The Love. The band introductions brought the welcome revelation that the keyboard player was in fact former Style Councillor Mick Talbot, which of course shouldn't be that much of a surprise. His subtle keyboards had been a big part of why Staton's band sounded so good. On first listen Southern Soul seems to be just about the brass and a guitar that can either sting or twang. But the keyboard is crucial. Just think of the ghostly organ in Aretha Franklin's Do Right Woman Do Right Man and that piano. It's churchy and runs the rhythm, missing notes and paddling away like a syncopated seal. And of course Mick Talbot knows that stuff and indeed, his stuff.

She encored with the dancey and upbeat Hallelujah Anyway (so that covered the Gospel segment) and left with the announcement that Gods got a plan and that we should hang in there... and something about the President.

Shameful turnout aside, it was a really good gig and a treat to see a singer who's not only still got it but looked like she was still interested. You should have been there.

Nights On Broadway
I Feel The Same
I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Loving)
I'll Sing A Love Song To You
Breaking Down Slow
Suspicious Minds
Who's Hurting Now
I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool)
Stand By Your Man
In The Ghetto
Young Hearts Run Free
You've Got The Love

Hallelujah Anyway

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Candi Staton

Of course not quite of all the best music came out on Stax and Motown….that would be a ridiculous notion. The rest came out on FAME and was recorded at Muscle Shoals. Sweeping generalisations aside, Candi Staton’s 6 year association with the label produced some of the definitive Southern soul recordings. That gospel and country influence, the multi racial band and the clarity and sweetness of the vocals playing (away) against the songs about cheatin’, lyin and slippin’ around. After all Country songs weren’t just about death, divorce and drinking.

Candi Staton's life story reads like a manual of how to be a definitive female soul singer. Born in Alabama, picking cotton, alcoholic dad, Gospel back ground, first solo in church at 5, touring with the Jewel Gospel Trio from the age of 12 until she was 17 when she started a relationship with Lou Rawls. When that ended she then married the first of her no good husbands, but after leaving him she tried to resestablish her career. She met and married Clarence Carter who was on FAME. Clarence Carter was never shy of a gimmick. Not only was he a blind blues singer but he also had a back up gimmick. A fruity filthy chuckle and a habit of breaking away from a song to stress the importance of “Making luuurve.” He introduced her to FAME owner Rick Hall and a similar deal to his own, whereby the FAME recordings were licensed to a major. In Staton's case Capitol

FAME drew from were incredibly talented pool of musicians and song writers. Original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist Tommy Cogbill played on Dusty in Memphis and on the Elvis Memphis sessions and his replacement David Hood (his son Patterson plays in the Drive By Truckers) knew a couple of good notes as well. Her early material included songs written by FAME house writer George Jackson and Clarence Carter. Just like County, Southern Soul likes to take a title, add some brackets and a bit of a twist. You’ve got to play with the words and add some humour to the heartbreak, so you get titles like I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Mans Fool), Mr And Mrs Untrue, Another Man’s Woman Another Woman’s Man.

One of my favourite Candi Staton songs from that era is Evidence.

“Lipstick on your collar the smell of perfume that I never use,
Hotel matches in your pocket boy and a strange door key too”

The backing track is a miracle of hi fidelity infidelity. It’s got all my favourite sounds in. The contrast between the stinging guitar, the pad of the electric piano and the accusatory horns. The call and response vocals take their lead from the vocal interplay of Aretha Franklin and The Sweet Inspirations. And you don’t get better than that

Candi Staton also tackled C and W standards such as Stand By our Man and did a fine version of In The Ghetto. However, by 1974 the southern sound had fallen from favour, The Stax label was collapsing. Records sounded lusher. It was both the time and the sound of Philadelphia and the beginnings of disco

She moved to Warners. She’d been racking up the domestic misery, after splitting up from Clarence Carter and marrying husband number 3. Songwriter David Crawford wrote Young hearts Run Free based on the horror stories she’d told him, “I was in a very abusive relationship at that time He was a promoter, but I didn’t know he had a dark side. Before he met me, he was a big con artist. He threatened my life many times and did a lot of dirty things to me. I began to tell David about these things, and he wrote Young Hearts Run Free based on that. It was like my life-story in a song…”

After the disco era records like Young Hearts, Victim and Nights on Broadway she settled down to some serious drinking and husband number 4. “Your real role model is not an artist or an entertainer, it's your parents. And what you see them do, usually it comes down through the generations. I saw how my father would drink and abuse my mother and they would fight all the time. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wasn't right, but you pick those same kind of men. I've married the same man over and over again. He just looked different and wore different clothes."

Eventually she quit both drinking and secular music, released a string of gospel records through the 80’s and 90’s and became a televangelist hosted the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) weekly series "Say Yes" from 1986 to 2004.

Her secular career received a bit of an unlikely kick in the 90’s after The Source sampled her Gospel track for “You’ve Got The Love”. She did put out a non gospel album in 1999 called Outside In

But if it was the church that took her out of secular music it also gave her a way back in. “ My pastor sat me down in the 90s. He said ‘I need to talk to you. Candi, those songs that you did in the 70s and in the 80s, they’re not bad songs. They’re good songs. Some of them you couldn’t sing because of the way you live now. Young Hearts Run Free wasn’t bad; Stand by Your Man – those songs are classics. Those songs were blessed. They raised your children, they bought you home. Rethink it. You could go out and bless people again with those songs’. It took me about five years to think about it. Eventually, when the compilation came out, that’s when I began to really think seriously about doing them again. Now I have a new gospel and new secular albums coming out.”

Honest Jon’s re issued her Fame recordings in 1994 and are also behind her secular albums His Hands from 1996 and the forthcoming album Who’s Hurting Now?

What has helped Staton this time round is that the people involved have tried to recapture the essence of what made those early records sound so good but also to allow Staton to feel comfortable with the material. She’s said that she wants to stay away from the cheatin’ songs but there’s still a wealth of heartbreak out there. "There will be some religious folk that will come against me, and even maybe some DJs. They'll be disappointed maybe that I'm singing love songs. But I call them life songs. Just because you go to church you're not alienated from life."

Mark Nevers from Lambchop produced and recorded her latest albums at his house in Nashville with a band including, Candi's son Marcus Williams on drums, daughter Cassandra Hightower on backing vocals and Barry Beckett from the original Muscle Shoals houseband on the Hammond organ.

There’s material from Dan Penn, Bonnie Rait and Mercy Now by Mary Gauthier (while we’re on the subject of Gauthier seek out I Drink. It’s not a tribute to Staton’s thirsty years but it is as harrowing a depiction of wet the bed/forget to collect the kids from school alcoholism as you are ever likely to need)

The title track His Hands is written by Will Oldham, known to his mother as Bonnie Prince Billy. A man who knows his Country and his Western and can do clever songwriting that can charm or scare. (Johnny Cash covered I See A Darkness. Strangely enough I’m not aware of anyone covering the song he did as Palace Music on the Arise Therefore album….You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out)

Young Hearts Run Free hid it’s tale of domestic abuse under a soaring escapist tune and the chorus of of “Say I wanna leave a thousand times a day”, but Oldham’s song His Hands does it in a 3 act play over 6 harrowing minutes, as the hands change from The Lover, to the Wife beater to God. Musically it’s got a bit of nod to King Heroin by James Brown. On her website Staton describes it as “As a kind of a gospel song and it's kind of not. It ends up pointing you to the Redeemer, but it starts out telling you about a normal, natural man and what he would do to you in an abusive situation. I enjoyed singing that because it's so much like my life. I've lived through every line of that song."

His Hands is on Youtube and it’ll scare you to death

There are songs from the new album (released next month) at

She plays Birmingham Town Hall on 21st February. And I can't wait.