Thursday, March 4, 2010

'I can spin you a yarn, it's as long as my arm..'

Although I grew up in Belfast and visit a couple of times a year, I haven't lived there for twenty-six years. But I try to keep current with local music as best I'm able. As well as the Alternative Ulster site, I follow a blog by local BBC DJ Stuart Bailie and occasionally catch online broadcasts by another BBC presenter, Ralph McLean, both of whom do a good job promoting local performers.

The Belfast-Nashville Songwriters Festival has become a highlight of the city's musical life over the last five years, and encourages the transatlantic exchange of talents between the two sister cities. This year's has just finished and again sounded like it was another great success. Some of my current favorite young songwriters from home took part:

Aaron Shanley won the Katherine Brick Award for young songwriter of the year and will be in Nashville for some gigs next week.

Ben Glover has just released his second album. "Through the Noise, Through the Night." This is a track from his debut album with his band The Earls, "The Week The Clocks Changed"

Iain Archer won an Ivor Novello songwriting award for his contribution to Snow Patrol's album "Final Straw", including co-writing their classic song "Run". There's an interview with him here. He's also gigging in Nashville this month.

I've just discovered John D'Arcy but I like what I hear.

Even in difficult times, Belfast has always had a vibrant live music tradition. So apparently now to go along with the bus tour of notable musical spots in the city there's a new mobile phone app that connects you with venues and gigs, as well as having a "hall of fame" feature, hosted by the aforementioned Stuart Bailie.

if you find yourself in Belfast and are looking for a good night's musical entertainment with a decent bit of craic, you can do worse than head over to The John Hewitt in the half-bap area near the Cathedral.

Another of my favorite writers, Foy Vance is playing two shows in London on March 14th - one at lunchtime in Trafalgar Square for the St Patrick's Day celebration. If you're in town, go along and hear him. You won't regret it. Meanwhile, one of my all-time musical heroes, Strabane's own Paul Brady, has a new album coming out soon, called "Hooba Dooba" and a UK tour follows in April (he's playing the 02 in Shepherds Bush on the 25th).


On the subject of wonderful songwriters, Mark Erelli has just completed his new album, "Little Vigils" and is streaming it at his site. The tracks all sound amazing; I especially liked "Everything In Ruin" and learned it after a couple of listens.

Here's a nice video of Mark and his band during recording:

The album will be available on March 16th and Mark's touring to promote it, kicking off in Portland Maine tomorrow (Friday March 5th). Unfortunately I'll be away when he plays New York, at the Rockwood Music Hall on March 27th. But if you're in town, please go see him.

Luckily I will be at the Rockwood this coming Thursday though, March 11th, to see Peter Bradley Adams a great singer-songwriter I've liked for a while now. If you're in the city, check out the show.


It seems today was World Book Day (although apparently, somehow only in the UK? In the rest of the world it's on April 23rd - what's up with that?)

So here are some great music books - in no particular order, just some that I've enjoyed reading and thought you might too. I read pretty much anything and everything on Springsteen, so I've made a point of not including any books about him here, just to have a bit of a change.

Reviving the Belfast theme, "Can You Feel The Silence" is a great biography of Van Morrison (responsible for today's post title, incidentally) by Clinton Heylin, who also wrote a really compelling book called "Bootleg" about the culture of pre-digital illegal recordings, as well as lots of other good stuff.

"Heart And Hands" is a beautifully-illustrated coffee-table type book looking at traditional instrument makers across the United States. Great to dip into.

Another great visual volume is the series of portraits "American Music" by Annie Leibovitz, probably the pre-eminent rock and roll photographer. I went to the touring exhibit for this collection in London and seeing these images close-up shows how she's able to capture the character of her subjects.

Here's a double-dip from Peter Guralnick - I love his writing, and these two, "Lost Highway" and "Last Train To Memphis" are just brilliantly researched and narrated. Entertaining and educating with every page.

Like any other "list" of someone else's choosing, Nick Hornby's "31 Songs" has some songs you'd pick yourself, some you wouldn't and some you needed to hear for the first time. But as always with Hornby, the writing itself is smart and rewarding.

The late Timothy White's biography of James Taylor is a comprehensive and revealing look at one of AOR's most fascinating individuals. Also, check out "Hotel California" by British writer Barney Hoskyns, about that whole west-coast world.

"The Last Party" by John Harris is a great account of 'Cool Britannia', and how we all started to confuse Blur and Blair.

Will Bunch is one of the wittiest newspaper writers around. His 1994 book "Jukebox America" is a brilliantly evocative travelogue of the sort that most guys my age wish they'd written.

"I Hate Myself And I Want To Die - The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard" by Tom Reynolds is (sigh) hilarious....

Finally, about ten years ago a Scottish friend of mine, Stephen Walsh, wrote a terrific, bitter-sweet tale called "Heartache Spoken Here" about Britain's love affair with country music. I'm biased, but It's brilliant. Here's the Amazon description:

"After his wife left him, Stephen Walsh took to the road in his camper-van in search of Britain's "Country and Westerners". What he found was a world of quirky characters, sharing the tales of lost love, country music and big hats, and how to find the place where broken hearts are mended."

If you get a chance, read it, and you'll get an idea of what's really important.


On the subject of books, the New York Public Library is promoting its rock and roll collections - brilliantly titled "Twist-n-Shhhout".

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