Thursday, December 16, 2010

'With innocence within ourselves, we sing the same old song..'

Stuart Adamson, an amazing songwriter, died nine years ago this week. this has always been one of my favorite songs, and I just heard it by chance - no pun intended - today in a bar on West 54th.

There are plenty of versions of it on YouTube but not many show him having as much as fun as this one. So, thanks a lot, big man.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

'It's just a Grand Illusion..'

The wife and I went to see Styx tonight at the Beacon Theater. They were one of her favorite bands growing up and she last saw them 27 years ago in Hamburg, Germany. I have to admit I never really got into them as a teenager. I was a big fan of Rush when I was 17 but that was primarily because I was a bass player and Geddy Lee was one of the most amazing musicians I'd ever seen - all three of those guys, actually.

I first lived in the US in 1982 and 1983, when Styx were probably at the height of their popularity, driven by radio-friendly power-ballads and songs that were largely inoffensive and lyrically forgettable. When they released their "Kilroy" album it turned me off for good. I grew to despise the "Mr Roboto" song because it was everywhere all the time, and I thought the "concept" was nothing more than a watered-down version of "2112".

So for me, seeing them after so many years of not really caring that much was always going to be interesting.

Did you know Styx have their very own coffee blend now? No, neither did I. And I guess I could have gone here tonight for a third of the price and with marginally less irony; but in the end, I'm really glad we went to this show.

Firstly, because the wife clearly loved every minute. And that's always a good thing.

Of course, for non-diehards there was always going to be a Spinal Tap-ish element, but the band to their credit have embraced it and put on a hell of an entertaining evening. It was a tight, well-rehearsed production, as they played two of their classic albums from the late 70's back-to-back: "The Grand Illusion" and "Pieces of Eight". They sounded just as good as they maybe ever did, with no sense that they were at all burnt out or not having a good time.

Tommy Shaw - who according to the wife "looks a hell of a lot better than he did 25 years ago - and James Young are very decent guitar players and I was particularly impressed by drummer Todd Sucherman. Great technique and he made it seem effortless.

It was also good to see original bass player Chuck Panozzo ("the band started in this guy's basement") come on for a few songs, since health issues prevent him from appearing more.

It's hardest on real fans when the band they love breaks up acrimoniously and it's tough to watch people argue in court over the use of a name; especially when the opposing sides used to be the band's creative force. And I guess Styx will always be seen in the context of Shaw and Young on one side and former frontman Dennis DeYoung on the other. There's an interview with James Young here that fills in some of the blanks and explains why the current line-up is re-recording some of its classic material.

Starting with a nice tongue-in-cheek homage to vinyl, tonight's video backdrop was pretty good: complementary but not too distracting, apart from a jarring and particularly creepy clown montage that accompanied a circus-themed song called "Lords of the Ring".

Overall, I genuinely had a much better time than I was expecting, but I'll leave the last - and my favorite - word to the wife. Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who replaced DeYoung in 1999, has a passable prog-rock voice but "dances a bit like Bill Nighy", she said.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

'Ninety miles an hour girl, is the speed I drive..'

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of James Marshall Hendrix, who lived, died & found fame an ocean away from home. Almost as a reminder that he had to come to England to kickstart his career, there's a pretty cool painting of the man as icon in the Virgin Atlantic departure lounge at Heathrow.

I recently saw a great documentary called Rock Prophecies on PBS about rock photographer Robert M. Knight, whose ongoing legacy contains a portfolio of some great Hendrix photographs.

Monday, September 6, 2010

'With your invisible radio cracklin'..

I first saw Canadian guitarist Chris Velan play a couple of times earlier in the summer at the River to River festival downtown and I enjoyed his sets a lot. He's a clever songwriter and good musician.

He's been working on a new album the last few weeks - he's had another favorite of mine James Maddock come in to play with him. The recording sessions have been in Brooklyn (the wife and I even bumped into him at our local thai place one night) and he's using a few Monday gigs at the Rockwood Music Hall in the city to try out some of the new material, which sounds great.

Here's one of his new songs: very much in his style, infectious and melodic. Looking forward to hearing the album in its entirety.

There's also nice page for his music here at CBC Radio3, where you can read about his travels to Guinea and work with Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

I got to the Rockwood about 45 minutes before Chris was due on, and I'm glad I did. The act on stage when I arrived was really a wonderful surprise. Singer-songwriter Christie Lenée from Philly was captivating.

She's been described as sounding a bit like Ani DiFranco and that's a good comparison; there's also echoes of Tracy Chapman or Joni Mitchell and - if it doesn't sound too incongruous - instrumentally she reminds me of Pat Metheny, Gordon Giltrap or Jon Gomm (check out the video below). I picked up her album "Set It Free" as well as an EP and really enjoyed what I heard. I'm looking forward to seeing her play again, either solo or with one of her bands. You can sample her tracks here at ReverbNation - try "Daylight Comes".

'It don't amount to nothing if together we don't stand..'

Happy Labor Day.

Friday, September 3, 2010

'My eyes are half-asleep and so's my head...'

I haven't been able to get this out of my head since I heard it. Paul Shevlin is another greatly promising talent from home. Please check him out, and buy his new single "Lift Up Your Head" on iTunes. (You can hear it, and other tracks - particularly listen to "You Won't Last The Night" - on his MySpace page)

Thursday, September 2, 2010


We're all very happy to have the opera-rocking, roundabout-shocking, party-frocking, eye-popping stepdaughter back home from Europe, where she was taking part in the Vianden International Music Festival and summer school. This is a clip of her performing "Ave Verum" by Gounoud at the Trinitarier Church in Vianden last week. (She's up there, in the balcony... honestly).

Glad she's back for a while. We're driving her southwards for another year of school next weekend. At her age, parents aren't supposed to know much. But there's three things we know for sure:

We're proud of everything she does,
time flies,
nothing ever changes.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time..?'

Happy 65th Birthday today to the Belfast Cowboy, the one and only George Ivan Morrison.

From Hyndford Street, to Cyprus Avenue; from Orangefield to Coney Island, the geographical and linguistic references to our shared hometown that permeate his poetry are always superbly evocative, while his melodies are soulful perfection.

Here's a great song from a great album: "Days Like This" from 1995, with just a terrific band, including Brian Kennedy on vocals and Nicky Scott on bass. (I played in a band with Nicky's younger brother Tony a long time ago.)

There's a wonderful book by Clinton Heylin called "Can You Feel The Silence" which is a nice portrait of Van's work, while there's just a great video here of the excellent Greil Marcus talking about "When That Rough God Goes Riding", his book on listening to Van's music.

I've seen Van live several times, at home and in London; the first time in 1979 at the Whitla Hall on the campus of Queens University in Belfast, the first time he'd played in the city for some years. The next occasion was the following year at an open-air show at the Balmoral Showgrounds, where I got first-hand experience of how temperamental a performer he could be.

His songs have been covered extensively, by the likes of John Mellencamp, Glen Hansard and of course, Patti Smith and a million garage bands the world over.

From his 40-odd album catalog, these are my favorites:

Live At The Grand Opera House
Into The Music
Astral Weeks
(Bootleg) Live At The Waterfront Hall
Beautiful Vision
Avalon Sunset

Here's a video interview "Ten Questions from Time Magazine":

and here's part of a CBS Sunday Morning interview - with some great archive footage - where he describes himself, understatedly, as "an introvert in an extrovert world".

Whatever's happening in his personal life, Van's a musical genius and a Belfast treasure. And for his fans and his kinfolk, there's never any doubting how he makes us feel.

Monday, August 30, 2010

'Runaway American dream..'

I can take it or leave it (some nice musical numbers, though I find it all a little too repetitive) but my wife and teenage stepdaughters are huge fans of "Glee", so it's probably no surprise they loved this opening segment from last night's Emmy Awards show.

I have to say I went back and forth from thinking "sacrilege!" to "er, nice job" and to be honest I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The Chicago Sun-Times described it as "muppetlike" and I guess that's pretty accurate.

But hey, you can't deny joy. I confess it made me smile. And although he occasionally gets a bad rap, I do have a lot of time for Jimmy Fallon.

UPDATE: There's a nice LA Times piece here on how it all came together, and who it was that approached Springsteen about permission.


In 'serious' Bruce news, the classic 1978 album "Darkness On The Edge Of Town", one of my favorites - and one of those we saw played in their entirety at the Giants Stadium shows last year - is set for a deluxe re-release on November 16.

The movie of the making of the album will debut at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14, and will air on HBO on October 7. Here's a trailer:

According to the press release, the package "..comprises over six hours of film and more than two hours of audio across 3 CDs and 3 DVDs. The media contents are packaged within an 80-page notebook containing facsimiles from Springsteen's original notebooks from the recording sessions, which include alternate lyrics, song ideas, recording details, and personal notes in addition to a new essay by Springsteen and never-before-seen photographs.

Containing a wealth of previously unreleased material, 'The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story' offers an unprecedented look into Springsteen's creative process during a defining moment in his career. 'The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story' will additionally be released as a 3CD/3 Blu Ray disc set.

The set will be available as 'The Promise,' an edition which consists of only the unheard complete songs on two CDs or four LPs, along with lyrics and the new essay by Springsteen."

In the meantime, here's something from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, on Sept 19, 1978.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

'If they can keep us fighting..'

A very sad weekend here. Hard to believe it is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Please take a moment to listen to this simple, powerful song written by Catie Curtis and Mark Erelli.

And then ask yourself, what have we really learned about compassion?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

'When the stars align..'

A decade or so ago, one of my favorite albums was "Songs From Stamford Hill" by a band called Wood, led by singer-songwriter James Maddock from Leicester.

I thought the album's opening track, "Stay You" was one of the most perfect pop songs I'd ever heard. I still do.

But then, after such an outstanding debut and with the world seemingly at his feet, Maddock fell off rock and roll's radar screen.

Until last year, when he released what is simply a sublime collection of music, called "Sunrise on Avenue C". Full of beautiful, mature songwriting with pristine melodies, there is not one makeweight track on this record, while some of the songs, like "When You Go Quiet", "Fragile" and "Ruins" are just timeless. If redemption has a sound, this is it.

We went along to the Rockwood Music Hall last night to see him play a short solo set which included a handful of new songs just as clever, just as infectious, as any in his existing catalog. There's a live album - recorded at the Rockwood - upcoming, and the positive industry buzz around Maddock is again growing.

It's great to see him getting the sort of respect he deserves as a songwriter. If you get a chance to see him play, drop everything and get along.

Check out this show he did - with band - for the World Cafe, broadcast by NPR towards the end of last year.

And here's a nice acoustic version of 'Stay You'.


On a sadder note, twenty years ago tonight, Stevie Ray Vaughan played his last show, an open-air festival in Wisconsin with Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy in front of 30,000 people.

I remember being on the desk at the paper in London the following day and reading the news of his helicopter crash on the wires. I was compiling the front page digest column that day and had to pull together a couple of paragraphs saying what had happened. Even as I was writing it, I couldn't believe it.

Here's a great promotional video later produced by Fender, using Stevie's amazing version of Hendrix's "Little Wing".

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'High fidelity..'

The relationship between artists - especially those who made their name in the 'old media' world - and emerging digital distribution techniques has probably never been more contentious and in a state of flux. Just as figuring out the relationship between young listeners and their music is a constant challenge.

So it's always interesting, at a time when there's so much uncertainty about business models, to hear the opinions of established sources in the music industry about how their products will be consumed in the future. Here's a good interview Mashable did recently with Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, in which he talks about the role of YouTube, music blogs and how the playing field is changing.

And a happy 56th birthday to Declan Patrick McManus...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

'It's late, but please just sing it again..'

Finally got a chance last night to catch a performer that I'd been wanting to see live for more than a year. Peter Bradley Adams plays in town quite a bit, but I've never seemed to be around when he does. Fixed that with a trip to the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side.

First, a quick shout-out for the act who was playing as we arrived, Annekei: she was accompanied by some very good musicians and has a beautiful, pure voice reminiscent of Shawn Colvin. Definitely worth a listen.

The Rockwood's a very cool little venue indeed, with a nice balcony area - not unlike the 12-Bar Club in Denmark Street in London, except with a better view. It's an intimate room and perfect for someone like Adams, whose haunting melodies wash over you and fill any space - in much the same was as songs by say, Damien Rice or Nick Drake would do.

He had a great band playing with him as well, including singer Molly Parden, as well as a guest vocal spot by Garrison Starr. (In the weird realm of 'hey, there's a coincidence', my band at the FT played a gig a few years back and as usual we hooked my iPod up to the desk while the crowd was coming in. The last track that shuffled through as we came on stage was her song 'Hey Girl').

Last night they sang a great new song called "I May Not Let Go" which Adams said they'd both be including on their respective new albums.

Overall, it was a compelling, often moving show, in front of an attentive and appreciative audience; definitely worth waiting for. Adams' record company Sarathan has done a pretty good job of promoting his music recently and for the rest of this month, you can download his excellent latest album 'Traces' from Amazon for just $5.

You can also listen to a live show he did a couple of months ago on NPR's Mountain Stage here.


I came across a great new - or at least, new to me - blog the other day, called Cover Lay Down which looks at folk music and performers. The site has some excellent writing and I love the philosophy behind it - "music belongs to the community" - as well as the fact that the links to tracks are there with the aim of encouraging readers to buy the music and support the artists.


The other night we stayed home and watched a movie on HBO that I'd kinda wanted to see when it came out but never got around to. 'The Rocker' turned out to be a delightful little film: part 'School of Rock', part 'The Commitments'. It's a lot of fun.

The role of the band's young frontman is played by Teddy Geiger and there's a sweet cameo by former Beatle Pete Best.


With the kids getting ready for a new academic year, school supplies company Five Star is running a contest to give some exposure to new artists. Always a good thing, and the Music Insider lets you redeem product codes to download music and offers prizes if you vote for your favorite new act.

Friday, August 20, 2010

'Right now I need a Telecaster, through a Vibrolux turned up to ten..'

Happy 58th birthday, John Hiatt.

Great, great songwriter and live performer; a genuine American voice who always surrounds himself with outstanding musicians, from Sonny Landreth to the North Mississippi All-Stars. I've seen him play many times in both New York and London over the last couple of decades - perhaps most notably at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on a double-bill with Robert Cray, but there was also a wonderfully intimate gig at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on the Little Head tour.

There was recently an excellent contest on No Depression - one of those ultimately futile quests to decide Hiatt's "best" song (actually, the contest was to come up with the song that was most meaningful to you). Here's what I wrote:

"It's impossible to choose one. And all of the songs already mentioned would stand as fine representations of the best of a brilliant catalog. But I'm going to choose a song I don't think John ever recorded and I only heard him play once. In November, 2001, John gave a great show at the Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, as part of the Tiki Bar tour.

The city was still putting itself back together after 9/11 and he sang an amazing song called "New York Had Her Heart Broke". It was a really moving moment. I've seen him many times, but that's the song that sticks with me."

I've never been able to find a recorded version of that song, but the lyrics are here and to my knowledge it only appears on one Hiatt bootleg.

On the off-chance that anyone has a copy of the song or of that New York show, please get in touch?



Today's also Robert Plant's 62nd birthday. Hopefully we'll get a chance to see his Band of Joy project with Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott on a more extensive tour in the next few months.

and in case you forget what real rock and roll sounds like...


Shocking and sad scenes last night in Saratoga, CA at a Swell Season show. Sympathy and support to anyone involved or affected.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

'There's no-one above you..'

Today is my third wedding anniversary. Every day I'm humbled that my amazing wife has chosen to be with me.

For everything you put up with, thank you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'To hit the ball and touch 'em all, a moment in the sun..'

Sorry to hear today of the death of Bobby Thomson, the Scot who hit what might be the most famous - or at least the most romanticized - home run in baseball history.

I've been a baseball fan since I first came to the US in 1982 and I love the game's history; the sense that every season and every player is connected to those who went before, and that history is especially rich here in New York.

The fact that Thomson and Ralph Branca subsequently made a career of telling their respective stories - together - on the after-dinner circuit shows the power of that moment, and its place in the collective national psyche, as something much bigger, even, than them as individuals.

(I also have a ball autographed by former Dodger and Cub Andy Pafko, over whose head Thomson's drive soared that day before leaving the field; as well as an autographed photo of the player waiting on deck to bat behind Thomson, a young man by the name of Willie Mays)

The event was so dramatic and resonant and so perfectly of its time - after all it is the call on radio, not TV, that is remembered - as to define these two mens' lives for the rest of their days. It was clearly the stuff of epic tales, and it deserved a master storyteller to truly bring a version of it to life for those of us who obviously weren't there.

Nearly a half-century later, Don DeLillo's expansive and brilliant "Underworld" perfectly captured a fictional, but very real, drama of that day in its jaw-dropping introduction.

It might be as close to the "great American novel" as it's possible to get, and it's still, by some measure, the best book I've ever read.


And talking of slowing things down, here's a very cool way to make Justin Bieber just a little more palatable...

When I first listened to this, I have to admit I was completely spellbound. It reminded me immediately of Sigur Ros, or Terry Riley, or Hans Zimmer's remarkable score for 'Inception' or of something Rhys Chatham might do. But, whale sounds or not, I couldn't turn it off.

Monday, August 16, 2010

'Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue..'

"Before Elvis there was nothing..." - John Lennon

Thirty-three years ago today, Elvis Presley died.

One of my earliest memories of album covers is seeing the distinctive "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong" at my aunt's house. She was in the Elvis Fan Club and used to have books and pictures, especially of him in Army uniform, all over the place.

She'd also play his records constantly, even though my then great-grandmother who lived with them would clearly disapprove. Luckily the old woman, who - hard life or not - I never remember having a good word for anyone, was deaf. She must have been able to feel the vibrations of the sound across the floor from her chair by the fire. Then she'd throw up her arms and shout "Bah!"

In the opposite corner of the room, my aunt - who was twelve years older than me and thus, by default, terminally cool - had a red Dansette record player just like this, and there were always sleeves for 45s strewn around it. One song I always remember her playing a lot was "It's Now Or Never" and its brilliant B-side, "A Mess Of Blues".

I sometimes think it's sad that my kids may never know the simple anticipation of the 'clunk' as the changer drops a single onto the turntable and, as if by magic, the arm moves across and falls into the lead groove with a reassuring "scratch".

Even though I lived in Tennessee for a year in the early 80s and visited Memphis a couple of times, I never went to Graceland, in part because I thought it might turn out to be something of a tacky circus. I guess I'd still prefer to think about Elvis's influence on the generations of artists who've followed him and how that timeline continues.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

'Somewhere trouble don't go..'

Nice piece here in The Tennessean, about one of my favorite songwriters and performers, Buddy Miller, who officially becomes the 'Artist in Residence' tonight at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

As well as tonight's Nashville show, he's also playing the following two Tuesdays at the Hall. It's great to know that he's fully recovered from the heart trouble that kept him off the road - and meant I missed seeing him on the 'Three Girls' tour - last year.

And he's keeping busy: as well as the tour with Robert Plant's Band of Joy, Miller will be back in Nashville next month, at the Ryman Auditorium, to play in the house band for John Mellencamp's lifetime achievement award by the Americana Music Association.

(Incidentally, Mellencamp will have a new album, 'No Better Than This', out next Tuesday.)

On behalf of the many fans who can't make it to Tennessee, I hope the Hall will be able to record Miller's residency shows and release a DVD of what are sure to be some very special performances.

Monday, August 9, 2010

'Close one there..'

We're down in Florida on vacation this week, at Marco Island, somewhere we've been coming for the past few years. It's a great getaway, but my problem is I hate to fly - my family won't let me sit with them on the plane anymore - and I particularly hate turbulence. The only way I can deal with it is to hold on to the seat in front for dear life and crank up my iPod. And it's no good listening to soothing stuff, I have to have something loud that rocks as the plane rolls.

So this week's Turbulence Playlist was: 'Master of Disaster' by John Hiatt; 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Tunnel of Love' by Dire Straits, 'American Girl' by The Goo Goo Dolls, 'My Old School' by Steely Dan and 'Rock and Roll' by Led Zeppelin. Just about 25 minutes back-to-back, and usually enough to get me through a bit of rough air.

We were on JetBlue out of JFK, usually a nice ride and efficient service. That's why this story is such a blast. Don't know about anyone else, but this just makes me want to fly JetBlue every single time.

And credit where it's due, whatever I might think of the Journal, they got the one awesome detail in the story that neither the New York Times (although the Times did win the prize for photos) nor NPR managed to snag.


Everyone's got a good story and sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. The kids were going parasailing yesterday, so I was down on the beach and I got to talking with another couple of folks waiting for the boat.

Turned out they were from Michigan and when I mentioned that I'd lived in Ann Arbor for a year, she told me one of her late relatives had been a professor at the music school. She also said that he had helped develop the double-reed system for bassoon and later worked with the musical phenomenon that is Mannheim Steamroller (Chip Davis, the band's founder, graduated from Michigan in 1969).

When we were back at Michigan for stepdaughter's audition at the music school two years ago, there were probably more bassoons in one place than I'd ever seen. It was like a bassoon preserve. We still joke about it.

And speaking of bassoons, if you haven't seen this, it's really very cool:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

'Slide on over here..'

There's a very cool discussion on the best slide guitar players going on at the moment over at No Depression. Quite a few of the names folks have mentioned so far are new to me, so I'm enjoying finding out about them.

The three best slide players I've seen play live are undoubtedly Ry Cooder, Sonny Landreth and Rory Gallagher (David Lindley is also brilliant). And by far the best dobro player I've ever seen is Jerry Douglas.

Here's a great clip of Sonny Landreth playing with Mark Knopfler:

And here's Rory at the Montreux Jazz Festival, amazingly, 35 years ago. Truly timeless.


Happy Birthday. Lets hear this again.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

'Sometimes I need a revelation...'

It was a beautiful evening in Brooklyn last night, just the perfect weather for an outdoor show at the Bandshell as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn series of summer performances.

And the music was just as beautiful; in fact, it turned out to be absolutely one of the best gigs I've been to for years.

Opening was The Low Anthem, the fascinating group of musicians out of Rhode Island whose latest album, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin" is intoxicating and compelling. Even though their music has been described as "apocalyptic", there's so much about their accessible melodies that's fundamentally uplifting.

And they also have a saw player, more of which later.

During the intermission, as if the groove couldn't get more mellow, John Martyn's "Small Hours" played over the PA.

He's come a long way from Outspan Foster, but right now Oscar-winner Glen Hansard may well be Ireland's finest singer-songwriter. He certainly brings something of the best of everything to the table: a little of the passion and righteous anger of Christy Moore, a little of the songcraft of Paul Brady or Freddie White, and a lot of the melodic perfection of Van Morrison.

And in collaboration with the beautiful voice and piano of Marketa Irglova - whatever tensions may surround their personal relationship - his own music frequently makes the leap to the heavenly, while his musical references onstage show the breadth of his musical path. Their version of Morrison's "Into The Mystic" was stunning. Exactly the sort of life-affirming five minutes Van always wanted it to be.

In the end, the latest Swell Season album, "Strict Joy" could hardly be better named. But if there's a more perfectly melancholy song than this, I can't think of one right now:

The Brooklyn audience was with them all the way, through the silence and the storm that makes up their brilliant live show. The rest of the band are a perfect complement and it was also a highlight to have Clarence Clemons' son Jake on sax and Curt Ramm on trumpet in a great horn section.

I'd also forgotten what a simply outstanding rock and roll song The Frames' "Revelate" is. Thank God Glen reminded me last night.


Two of the world's great annual folk festivals were taking place over the weekend - in Newport, RI and Cambridge, England.

NPR did just a wonderful job streaming the performances from Newport, including, brilliantly, The Swell Season and The Low Anthem.

Cambridge always has a great and varied roster of artists and is always an excellent weekend. You can catch up with podcasts from Cherry Hinton here.

There's a couple of other 'mini-festivals' coming up in New York City this week: for Jazz guitarists in Greenwich Village from Monday, while next Saturday in Astoria, you can attend the the eighth annual Musical Saw Festival.


Like, it seems, everyone else in the country I went to see Inception earlier this week. Enjoyed it a lot. But here's something I have to admit I never expected...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'Tilting on my axis, leaning towards the sun..'

It's never easy to play a lunchtime gig outdoors.

Especially somewhere like the World Financial Center plaza. There's the sound of helicopters buzzing overhead, there's bankers having a loud lunch, there's the elegantly-attired nannies of well-heeled local residents killing time with their crying charges; and of course there's the guys with trash carts who seem to need to empty the bins every five minutes.

It must be like playing in a high school cafeteria sometimes.

But rising - no, soaring - above all that today was Chris Velan, a singer-songwriter from Montreal who was playing as part of the River To River Festival.

Velan looks a little like a young John Gorka and rhythmically sounds a bit like Johnny Clegg - understandable since Velan spent some time in Sierra Leone and a couple of his songs might be perfectly at home on Paul Simon's 'Graceland' - or Jon Gomm, because of his use of taps.

His latest album - his third - is called "Solidago", but he's working on a new record at the moment. Some of his songs, like "Same Clothes", "Hunting Season", "Out Of Range" or, particularly, "A Year Can Change A Lot" will just blow you away.

He closed out the set with his song "Oldest Trick" - which has echoes of Mark Knopfler - just as the heavens opened. But by the end of the 90-minute show, the folks who were left didn't care about getting caught in the rain.

The last time I saw a live act - whose music I'd never heard before - that caught my attention the way this guy did today, was in the mid-90's when I saw Ezio open for Shawn Colvin at the Hanover Grand in London. But Velan pressed all my buttons: compelling, smart songs with catchy hooks, nice guitar work, great use of loops - the whole package.

A little bit Jack Johnson, a little bit Ben Harper or Amos Lee - even a little bit Marc Cohn, Velan is a clever songwriter and a very fine musician.

He's playing downtown again tomorrow lunchtime, at One New York Plaza, Baltimore on Sunday, and Cambridge MA on Tuesday, then is back in New York in September for a series of shows at Rockwood Music Hall.

If you get a chance to check him out, you won't regret it.

* UPDATE: Friday's show at One New York Plaza was even better - nicer weather and a good, appreciative audience with some enthusiastic dancers of all ages. Only different song from yesterday was a very cool version of "Billie Jean" - if Carlos Santana had recorded it - which made me think of the great cover of "I Want You Back" by KT Tunstall.

The song that got people moving today was "Inez" - a melody Velan says he got from working with the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. It's simply a great groove.

Here's a clip of a new song called "You Don't Know What You're Asking Me":

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'Here's hopin' we all pull through..'

Today's slice of brilliance from the legend that is Pete Seeger.
(Via Folk Radio UK)

'Raise your voice, make a joyful noise..'

Went to the Lower East Side last night for a "secret" show by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Marc Cohn, thanks to some imaginative advance work on Twitter by his management.

Turned out it was a beautifully intimate performance at The Living Room, maybe forty people in total, and it was a nice ambience for him to run through some of the songs from his newly-released album "Listening Booth - 1970", a collection of covers of songs from that year.

Flanked by his longtime collaborator and producer of the new record, John Leventhal, and by the brilliant former Springsteen sideman Shane Fontayne, Cohn tenderly re-invented classics like McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed", Cat Stevens' "Wild World", and Badfinger's "No Matter What" - strangely, one of the first songs I ever remember hearing on the radio.

I'm a couple of years younger than Cohn, and although I obviously came to the same music at a tangent geographically - I guess Belfast and Cleveland aren't that far apart in the grand scheme - I can totally relate now to the importance of that particular point in time, and exactly why that year is so noteworthy.

There were just some truly game-changing albums released that year: "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Tea For The Tillerman", "Layla", "Deja Vu", "After The Gold Rush" and "Let It Be" among them.

1970 is the year of the Beatles' break-up and Hendrix and Joplin's deaths, of My-Lai, Apollo 13, Joni Mitchell's environmental shout-out in "Big Yellow Taxi"; the Kent State shootings and social unrest (although "Ohio" didn't appear on a CSNY album until the following year. Likewise, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" was recorded in June of 1970, but not released until the following January).

And it's the year Belfast's own Van Morrison released his classic "Moondance", which Cohn acknowledges was hugely influential in his own musical development. (Of all the tracks on Cohn's album, "Into The Mystic" is probably the most faithful to its original.)

What Cohn's getting at is that songs from that very specific period, while they may have been tremendously important and socially relevant when they were first heard, are simply timeless as music and deserve to be re-imagined, and continuously celebrated.

His versions last night of "The Only Living Boy in New York" (which maybe owed a little more to Everything But The Girl's arrangement than Paul Simon's original) and, especially, Burt Bacharach's "Close To You" were so perfect for his voice they could even have been his own songs.

In a couple of weeks, rather amazingly, it'll be five years since the incident in Denver which - thankfully - led to Cohn's resurgence as a songwriter with "Join The Parade" and his rediscovery of the sheer joy of making music.

In a way, with this retrospective album - just his fifth - he's also celebrating songs that are still as vibrant, still as alive as when they were first heard. It's like making a full circle connection, a pause on the path to look back at how far we've come before stepping out again on a new trail.

On NPR, you can listen to a one-hour show Cohn did recently for Mountain Stage here; and a previous WXPN live show to promote "Join The Parade" here.

And he's playing two shows later tonight, Weds 28th at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street before heading out on tour. If he's coming to your town, please don't miss him.

Monday, July 26, 2010

'I'm young again, even though I'm very old..'

So... I recently started writing songs again, maybe ten years after doing it seriously last time. I'm still re-learning the process - and obviously it's different for everyone - but I'm finding that more than anything it reflects how focused my mind is on any given day.

For example, I sat down the other morning determined to finish one song by the end of the day, but because I couldn't really concentrate I couldn't close it out. My head was all over the place and I ended up with melodic structures for four others. And no lyrics for any of them.

Lyrics used to be what came easy to me. When I played in bands in the past, I ended up one of the main songwriters by default because I wrote lyrics, but anytime I brought a melody idea to rehearsal it always turned out to be a collaboration, with everyone else throwing in ideas on tempo, key, rhythm of the lyrics, whatever. Very often by the end of a couple hours rehearsal, the only thing that would be the same might end up being the title. And the song was better in the end because of it.

There are two big things that are different now from the last time I sat down to seriously write a song. The first is GarageBand. My God, where were you when I really needed you thirty years ago?

At the moment, my relationship with Apple's app is very much more love than hate. The great thing is it lets me collaborate with myself; it's like having another guitar player there who knows exactly what I want on a particular track. The slightly less great thing is it's been stalling out on me and I've lost a couple of tracks I was trying to save. But overall it's just amazing for laying down live demos and then revisiting them days later.

If the melodies still "work" a couple of days on, they're worth persevering with.

Over the past week I've recorded seven or eight raw demos on GarageBand, out of which I might end up with two or three decent songs. But just being able to pick up a guitar and click a button when inspiration strikes is simply priceless.

There are other technologies, of course, that make writing and collaborating easier - SoundCloud, for example, which I've signed up for but haven't uploaded anything to yet.

But the second, and infinitely cooler, thing for me that's different is that my stepson plays guitar and - assuming I can distract him from his XBox - I can always jam riffs with him whenever I feel like I need to work something out and see if it plays ok.

He's actually a much better guitarist than I was at 16; he has an excellent one-on-one teacher, and it's only a matter of time before he finds a band that he can have some fun with. But the fact that I get to jam with him and watch him develop is just great fun for me.

So for now, songwriting's a puzzle and I'm just enjoying trying to put the pieces together. It's time to start thinking about lyrics again. That will be interesting. I realized today that the last time I wrote lyrics that got performed in public, I was 20 years old.

I might be the same person, but my idea of what makes a "good song" has probably moved on.

We'll soon find out.


Talking of songwriting, one of my absolute favorite songwriters is the late John Martyn. And now it turns out there's going to be a tribute album later this month. Although the list of artists sounds great, I have to admit I'm nervous about hearing some of my favorite songs "re-interpreted".

But maybe I'm just being too precious. For example, there were some tracks on this I could have done without, but then again, some others were magical. If the songs are strong enough, they'll hold up no matter what anyone else does to them.

And deep down, to keep a songwriter's music relevant and meaningful beyond the moment it was written, it should be constantly covered by new artists.


Happy Birthday to one of Rock's most charismatic figures, Sir Michael Philip Jagger, who turns 67 today. And if you believe the papers, he may be close to calling it quits on the touring front. Not sure I buy it. As the piece says, the Stones' first "farewell tour" was exactly 39 years ago.

And the public's demand for Mick and the band seems as strong as ever.

This is one of the first rock autographs I ever collected, about 25 years ago. I'm sad to say I didn't get it in person, but rather through a dealer. I just knew I wanted a Mick Jagger autograph, and this is a great photo of him (it wasn't signed contemporaneously).

I've only seen the Stones play live once, at Wembley Stadium on the Voodoo Lounge tour in July 1995. Great, great show. I also saw Mick sing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden, where he just blew the house down.

But since we're on a songwriting theme today, and thinking about the merits or otherwise of cover versions, here's what might well be my favorite Stones song to play live, covered the other night at the Stone Pony by two of my favorite artists.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

'When you see a chance, take it..'

Back up to Caramoor last night for a performance of 'Maria di Rohan' by Donizetti. Really nice work again by conductor Will Crutchfield and the excellent Orchestra of St Luke's.

And there was an unexpected bonus - the chance to witness an emotional performance by a last-minute stand-in lead. Jennifer Rowley took over the role and despite having just one full rehearsal handled the occasion with confidence and grace.

It wasn't the easiest of circumstances to be thrown such an opportunity. It was just unbelievably hot and humid, while the cicadas - or whatever knee-rubbing insects they are - were at their noisiest.

But Rowley's fellow performers, the orchestra and, especially, the crowd responded to her; and at the end of an extended ovation after the opening aria, I'm sure I noticed her wink at the conductor before continuing. She was more than entitled to do so. She was tremendous.

The AP thought so too.

The other principal singers were also excellent - particularly Scott Bearden and Luciano Bothelho as the love rivals. Needless to say, the story doesn't end well, but you kind of already knew that. Nice touch to finish when Crutchfield held up the score during the applause.

Stepdaughter was again in the chorus, and also had a chance earlier in the evening to take part in one of the young artists' pre-performance contextual concerts, held in the lovely little courtyard.

She's had a terrific time at Caramoor this year, and her poise and confidence as a singer has clearly improved as a result of being around other talented and committed performers. What a great way to spend a summer.

I rode up to Westchester on the 'Caramoor Caravan,' the - thankfully - air-conditioned coach that runs there and back from Grand Central.

On the way back, the orchestra's bus broke down so they had to ride with us in the seats available on the three other buses. Some of them sat behind me and it was great fun listening to their banter about the show and other gigs they've played.

I miss hanging out with musicians. There's no substitute for passion. It's times like this that I really miss being in a band and feeling that beer and adrenaline-driven high that comes inevitably at the end of any performance.

Yeah, I really miss being in a band. Maybe I should do something about that...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

'Twice if you're lucky..'

Lovely performance by Crowded House on Jimmy Fallon's show last night (via SlicingUpEyeballs).

Not entirely convinced about Neil Finn's mustache, though. Especially with that pinstripe jacket, makes him look a bit like the cad in a GK Chesterton story.

The band are playing the third of three nights at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, then Montclair and Atlantic City at the weekend before heading south.


What looks to be another great show on the road at the moment is Robert Plant's edgy/Americana project Band of Joy (a revival of the name of Plant's original band before he joined Led Zeppelin).

This incarnation includes legendary players Darrell Scott and Buddy Miller, while the wonderful Patty Griffin takes the role of Alison Krauss from Plant's previous dalliance in the country arena, 2007's 'Raising Sand'. The Band of Joy album will be released in September, but in the meantime, they're playing a select few dates in the south until the end of this month.

From all accounts it sounds like the concerts are all you'd expect from exceptional talents like these. Here's Jim Fusilli's piece from the Journal yesterday.

And here's some nice footage of the band performing a Zep classic:


Hot Press magazine has a 'world exclusive' today, revealing what may or may not be the name of the next Snow Patrol album. Gary Lightbody talks about how the Tired Pony project has rejuvenated him and says: "..the songs at the moment are the best we’ve ever written by some considerable distance," so that can't be bad.

And talking of clever titles, Hot Press also tells us that Eleanor McEvoy's new album will be called "I'd Rather Go Blonde". Check their story for a nice clip of her playing "A Woman's Heart" on a radio gig.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

'The best things in life are free..?'

Following on from the discussion recently over the models for funding of new music in a culture of "free", at both Simon Jones and Nick Tann's blogs, there's been a couple of interesting stories the last few days:

The Root has an interesting stats breakdown on how much musicians make in a traditional distribution model, and looks at a Neilsen report that makes pretty grim reading - both in terms of sales and in the numbers of new albums being made.

Only 2.1 per cent of the 97,751 albums released in 2009 – or about 2,050 unique titles – reached the 5,000 sales mark. And that 97,751 is down from the 105,000 new releases that came out in 2008.

But all is far from lost. This week in New York is the New Music Seminar, where musicians and folks involved in the new music distribution industry get together to share success stories and come up with strategies for making it in the "next music business".

One of the best sites I've come across for keeping up with developments in the whole area of music distribution in a digital/social media environment, is Sandbox.

They have an interesting story today about the teen appeal band McFly whose record company is launching a monthly subscription service - I guess a step further than the common fan club set-ups, which usually have a one-off payment and give the member priority ticket ordering and various other benefits.

Obviously there are different approaches in dealing with that sort of younger fan base, where you might have a shorter window for connecting with and monetizing them, but it will be interesting to see what Island will include as benefits, as well as what sort of revenues and member numbers they can generate off this scheme.

I still think established artists and labels are missing a trick, but that's further down the road..

Sandbox also pointed me towards this nice piece from the New Yorker I'd missed earlier in the year about Suzanne Vega and how she has been reclaiming her back catalog by recording acoustic versions of her own songs, while at the same time her career has brought her back full circle to life as an independent artist.

And on the subject of artists taking control of their musical histories, there was a story in The Guardian about Fugazi planning to put an archive of "hundreds of live shows" online as a possible prelude to a reunion tour.

Bruce Hornsby, Paul Brady and other acts have shown that there is definitely a market to be embraced among existing fans for digital recordings of artists' archive shows, and it might also be that there's a chance of reaching a whole new audience as well.

Now, I have a huge number of bootlegs I made in the early 1980s. Where's the cassette-to-USB converter...?


After the good news for his hometown the other day, it looks like Derry's own Feargal Sharkey could be in line for elevation to the House of Lords, according to the Daily Mirror (subsequently rehashed by The Guardian).

Since he stopped performing, Sharkey has, perhaps ironically, been a figurehead for the corporate side of the British music industry as CEO of UK Music.

And of course the Mirror, in one of it's typical anonymous quotes, manages to work in the title of an Undertones song, "It's Going To Happen". (Incidentally, the first web version of the story had the headline "My Peerfect Cousin" - not bad, but maybe they thought it was a bit obscure, so ended up going literal.)


Finally , a singer-songwriter I've liked a lot since discovering him a year or so ago is Ben Glover. Here's a new video of him performing "Grounded" at McHugh's in Belfast.

He's playing a gig at one of my old haunts, The Bedford pub in Balham - of course, it's a bit more classy now than when I used to go there - on Wednesday July 28. If you're in London, please go along and check him out, you won't regret it.