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.