Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Alabama: Mobile

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If you had no other American reference to go by, you could be forgiven for confusing the pronunciation of the Alabama city of Mobile. There are at least 3 forms, but one is correct. 'Course, it's not the only US city name to throw the unsuspecting, is it?

Located on I-10 (which is inherently kind of a cross-roads -as are all of US Interstate hiway cities), Mobile, like the state itself is classic Deep South, and that includes the good as well as the better known bad. Hey, the city that lays claim to the first Mardi Gras must have (had) something going for it beyond the fact that it is the state's port city (AL doesn't have much coast anyway.)

While the city is hardly bereft of music recording studios, its better known role in music is more as a source of lyric inspiration. As in Chuck Berry's Let It Rock.
It doesn't appear that Berry experienced the train gang referred to in his lyrics, but, growing up in the South, he certainly had all the background necessary to put together a valid narrative incorporating the right themes in a song. And Alabama has gone back and forth on the use of chain gangs even after a mid-90s general halt to their use.

But rather than a song about gangs, trains or the deep south for that matter, it's a rock and roll song about how life is just plain tough, a song about the blues. And it sounds a lot like Berry's most famous song, don't it?

Friday, July 12, 2019


Being neither resident in the state, or even the country, my observations from afar lead me to feel Alabama doesn't get much good press, even in the medium of popular song. Especially in the medium of popular song. And when the only two positives come from Al Jolson and Lynyrd Skynyrd, you know you're in trouble. (Nah, I take that back about Skynyrd, I bloody love that song, but it only exists as an attempt to justify the place from the ire of others. But we all know that. Right?)

Moving swiftly on, there is one Alabama icon that really does make me gleam, that being this astonishingly lasting vocal group from the state. Granted it can not have been an easy start in life, born both blind and black below the Mason-Dixon line in the pre-war years of the great depression. But maybe, just maybe, being at the now anaethemically named Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind gave these boys a start they mightn't have otherwise achieved. For they were boys, just 9 years old as they gave their first concerts, in the school chorus as the Happyland Jubilee Singers. The idea of blind gospel singers seems somewhat of a lame trope these days, a cliche to fill gaps in our knowledge, yet it was actually quite a big deal back then, the Happyland Jubilee Singers getting their big break from a 'Battle of the Blind Boys' music competition. (Beat that, Simon Cowell, although X Factor does increasingly feel it is muscling in on disabilities.) Up against the Jackson Harmoneers, the publicity gave both bands a boost, as they became the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi respectively, touring both together and, sometimes, as each other. The Alabama version got a record contract and a hit, in 1948, and that was the end, all but, of the rival version.

Gospel was big in the 1950, and it was to this genre the boys stayed true. Original founding member Clarence Fountain had this to say about this decision. Of course, as the decades have rolled by, there have been many instances where they have seemed to sing of more secular themes, but never have they sung a lyric where an ambivalence about to whom the song is addressed cannot be drawn. Thus, as the 60s became the 70s, with R'n'B and Soul taking great strides through the white dominance of the day, so the Blind Boys were there, reminding all as to where these musical forms had a common home. (Indeed, how many of the giants in those styles hadn't started off in the church? Aretha and Al were certainly no exceptions.)

It wasn't because any of this I was drawn to the group, almost more despite the religion. I have little truck with it myself, probably since, as a teenager and when asked, ahead of having my appendix out, my father proclaimed me as heathen. (The nurse duly wrote that down.) But I do love a harmony vocal, but, rather the honey smooth, the more raggedy the better, think Lindisfarne and the Jayhawks, so when the Blind Boys starting cropping up on albums I was listening too, my attention was picqued. These were often tribute albums, whereby the great and the good would queue up to pass cover on their peers, such as Richard Thompson. And then came Solomon Burke's majestic comeback in 2002. So, when in 2004 they collaborated with Ben Harper, more so because of their involvement, this was a record I had to have: 'There Will be a Light'. And again, in 2005, with 'Atom Bomb', they having been now tucked under the wing of Peter Gabriel's Real World record label. Astonishingly, a full 50 albums into their career, suddenly they were hot property, filling concert halls both alone and in cahoots with musicians from all walks and at all stages of their careers. True, there have had to be changes along the way; there are none of the original 5 left, let alone performing, newer members snucking in seamlessly over the decades, different voices, different timbres, the overall sound, the overall performance remaining little changed. The current line-up does however still include Jimmy Carter, also a pupil at that Alabama Institute, but too young for their debut in 1939. Whilst a touring member ahead of that time, it was only officially in 1982 that he made his recording presence as a member. Nonetheless, his legacy with the originals is sufficient to consider him as one. Here's his take on it all. (Clarence, mentioned above and in the interview, died last year.)

I can't even begin to give full due acclaim to this wonderful institution, coming so late to their game, having to be born and whatnot, but, scattered both within the piece and below, enjoy some musical heaven.

Finally, and with enormous excitement, I can report I am finally getting to see them live, next month, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, here in the U.K., alongside Amadou and Maryam, blind husband and wife world music titans from Mali, who themselves met similarly, at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind. I cannot wait.

Any of these....

Thursday, July 4, 2019

(In)dependence: Nobody Slides My Friend

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I cannot claim to be a die -hard Willie Nelson fan - but you would have to be from another planet to not know about him. Like me, however, you may not know much about his music, except that he is generally categorized as <country> or perhaps <outlaw country>, but he has also been and done many more styles.

I would place him on a pedestal for his commitment to his music, but also for his vociferous backing of a different life-style.

And that would seem to fit the bill here: it's (in)dependence. Willie Nelson would appear to have that in spades. Beyond his more than 60 years singing songs, he has used his voice to speak his mind, and lived a life that both stands apart and stands for what he believes.

Nobody Slides, My Friend is not among his best known songs. The message is in the title and the lyrics tell how:

you can run and hide
you can scream and shout
if you're living a lie, it will eat you alive

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


Shhh, can you hear that? No, me neither. Not even the sound of a dropped 'H' is assailing my ears. Which is nice, if sort of lonely. While the membership of this merry band of bloggers gets ever smaller, sorry, more select, I'm sort of wondering where my buddies are. I suspect it is summer holiday time in Tarrytown and I know Turkey is short of one of us right now, possibly explaining why I am here instead, but I could do with a hand. Or two. Mind you, this is probably the only way I can gain any sway in the year end stats.......

I love this song, as good as any a reason to give it a hammering. It came first to my ears as a wee boy, it, 'Forever Changes' by Love, being one of the few records owned by my big sister's boyfriend, later husband. (The others were 'Honky Chateau' by Elton John, 'Please to See the King' by Steeleye Span and something, possibly a 'Greatest Hits', by Cream, a good if limited selection.) I didn't take to some of the noisier tracks of 'Forever Changes' but really liked the two written by Bryan Maclean, this one and 'andmoreagain', learning this fact as I devoured the sleeve notes. To be fair, I loved it until the strings and trumpet came in, trumpet being the devil's horn to my youthful ear, only later appreciating the additions as a masterstroke. Apparently the idea of Arthur Lee, guitarist and singer on most, maybe all of the rest of the tracks, and, arguably, leader of the band, later if not necessarily then, it is the hook that has stuck over the years. Lee had reason for the upper hand at that stage, being the only musician with any great competence, the original of the song cut with Maclean's vocal and the Cutting Crew, the famed session team, on backing, much as with the Byrds initial forays into the recording studio. This apparently left Maclean in tears, with Bruce Botnick, yes, that one, the engineer, then allowing the band a second crack at it themselves, the intervening frantic rehearsals cutting the much needed mustard at the second attempt, with added harmony vocals from Lee. (Much as I have tried, I cannot find that earlier version, but Maclean did record it again, later in his career.)

It has had a few covers over the years, most tending to replicate, understandably, the trumpet. Calexico, the mariachi influenced tex-mex collective fronted by Joey Burns and John Covertino, go a whole step further and give it even more of a centrepiece. They play Cambridge Folk Festival next month in the UK, I guess mainly to promote their 2nd album with Iron & Wine, but I will be sorely disappointed if they don't play it. (I'll let you know.)

The Damned were and are punks as seen by a cartoon illustrator, a vibrant and lively force on the scene for over 40 years. Never as infamous as the Sex Pistols or as name-checked as the Clash, they were actually the frontrunners, their debut single being the first of the class of '77 to get a release, of course on Stiff records. A number of personnel changes over the years, members leaving and, sometimes, returning, the one constant has been Dave Vanian, the draculike on vocals. Their style has gradually morphed into drawing on proggier aspects, with All Again Or ushering in this period.

Finally, ignoring rather more mundane runouts, such as the Boo Radleys and Sid 'n' Suzy, a more leftfield version comes from Sara Lov, erstwhile collaborator with neo-classical/electronica artist, Dustin O'Halloran. For the soundtrack of a movie and later appearing also on a tribute to that particular film maker, Wes Anderson, it remembers just enough of the original, ahead of launching into a new and delightful space. And no trumpet. Which, oddly enough, I find myself missing. Like I am now dependent on it.

Love Calexico Damned Lov

Saturday, June 29, 2019


Summer days, a holiday, time on your hands, so where does that take you? Yup, quite possibly here, happy juice, the water of life, the scourge of society that keeps us loose at the edges. Context clearly is all, so here's my disclaimer, but I'm off to Turkey today, where, so far, the grog is still legal. So some unashamed odes to the results of overdoing it. (Kids: just say no.............)

Why is it always country music that is the first thought for hooch ditties? Probably on account the inescapably deep well of inspiration the drink has offered the singers and writers, from Hank through, well, Hank Jr, Hank III, everyone really. This old staple, 'Drunkard's Dream' comes from the well worn hand of trad.arr. and was popularised in the 1920s, via an initial transit from the folk songs of old england. (Original title 'Husband's Dream', surely casting a slur on the effects of matrimony.) This version comes from an excellent 1972 recording by Gene, not Gram, Parsons, although he too was both a Byrd and a Burrito.  Covering all tropes in the country diaspora, 'Kindling' is a record that still gives me pleasure.

But before I forget, a message from our sponsor. No, don't do that neither, but I make this point, together with an instrumental version of this Stevie Wonder classic to avoid the wisecracks around don't drive blind, inevitably greeting the song as Steveland sung it. O my aching sides. Not. In the N'Awlins marching band tradition, the Dirty Dozen Brass band come over as no strangers to an ice cold pitcher.

A hit for Johnny 'Guitar' Watson before he was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, this 1953 toe-tapper was billed as being by Young John Watson, only shortly after he ditched playing piano for guitar. With a vast catalogue behind him, in blues and, later, in jazz, he was hitting his 40s as he reinvented himself as a sharp-suited and booted funkateer. Sadly, on the crest of yet a 3rd breakthrough, he died, on tour, in 1996.

It's back to country, this time to the dynasty of Cash/Carter. Actually daughter of June, she was step-daughter to Johnny and step-sister to Rosanne, learning her chops on the road from an early age, in the family band. Arguably a wilder child than her near sibling, she ended up in London after a couple of failed marriages, cutting an album with Graham Parker's Rumour on backing duties. a year or so later saw her hooking up with Rockpile, married to the bass player, Nick Lowe, once of Brinsley Schwarz, producer to Elvis Costello and later (and still) a name in his own right. This track comes from 'Musical Shapes', the album arising out of that relationship, never as much of a success as it deserved to be.

The title of this charming song possibly comes ahead of the last one, as, if you can remember what you failed to accomplish, that implies memory. In the real world, or so I am reliably told, being TDtF, is, however, more often relegated to the wastes of TDtR, few being upstanding enough to joyfully recall such peccadilloes with honesty or candour. Upstanding perhaps the wrong choice of word. I find the original of this song, by the Dead Kennedys, a little too full on for my taste, this gallic take offering a more sophisticated european stance on blotto.
Brewers Droop were a UK blues-rock band in the early 70s.

Well, that's what any self-respecting drunk, if that is not an oxymoron, would say, don'cha think? Actually written by the devoutly teetotal Richard Thompson, apparently his avoidance of alcohol came more through his personal experiences on the road with the famously convivial Fairport Convention*, rather than his later conversion to Islam. (*It's number 4.) Norma Waterson is from the fabled folkie family, the Watersons, mother of Eliza, husband to Martin Carthy. Mean nothing? Go check.......

We're back in N'Awlins again, via Sweden, where this bluesman was born. I suspect he knows here what he was singing about, struggling with his own demons of addiction until a decade ago, now channeling many of his efforts into 'Send Me a Friend', a charity/self-help group to help musicians struggling with similar.

Ha! You know you can't have the above, like the Dubliners who provided the portal for this piece, without some form of payback. Squeeze, themselves no strangers to the odd ditty round the manifestations of a life liquoric , or rather Difford/Tillbrook, the writing team, actually pitched this song to Frank Sinatra, laughably thinking the subject matter might be up his street. Sadly, he declined, but that doesn't matter now.

I hope your heads will be fine after this tribute to Bacchus and his many and varied gifts.
And plink plink fizz.
Imbibe away.......

Thursday, June 27, 2019


I don't know about you, but I love playing with words, adding and subtracting the prefixes that conjure up meaning, sometimes discovering more about the derivation of the meaning in a more nuanced way. This can creep up on you in a most insidious way, itself making me wonder why sidious isn't used more often, or ever, as its opposite. (Which led me again further to an interesting website which, in turn, has me wondering why no Darth Depende, but that is another story.)

OK, the/a state of independence aside, let's drill down into what there is to celebrate. Over here, of course, we don't, July 4th being just the day the state of dependency on this nation was lost. (It would be a holiday here every day, were a party thrown every time the once pink parts of the map changed colour.) And, as the recent ghastly kowtowing to Trump demonstrated, perhaps is not now the parent state now dependent on the child? And, in terms of folk to rely on, leading the country and all that, child really is begetting on the man......... If the picture above says anything, surely it is that. Anyhow, that's yer ten pennorth of politics, let's talk Santana.

Just how many of the Woodstock class of '69 are still performing, and, possibly, still performing at the top of their game? Carlos Santana has just brought out another record that seems to be suggesting he is doing just that. At a time and an age when merely to issue a new release can herald automatic fanfares of a return to form, often more, its true, in hope than in anticipation and reception, he may well have cracked it. Of course, there are a number of Santana's, the frantic percussion heavy latino rock that burnt the stage alive at Max Yasgur's farm, the mellower and jazzier mid period, morphing into a mystical fusioneer and, latterly, the elder statesman pumping out largely lacklustre material, "enriched" by special guests. I am a fan mainly of the first period, up to and including 'III', 'Caravanserai' onward, through 'Borboletta' and the John McLaughlin diversions sometimes failing to hold full interest. (The 'Caravanserai' mob here announce my soon to be arranged period of pillory, but I have tried, really, I have tried.) I think that once he had that hit with the fella from, FFS, Matchbox 20, I knew the rot had set in, and 'Guitar Solos' seemed to cement that, even if the conceit of that project, in my opinion, was no worse than any other vocalist thrashing through an album of covers. Santana's voice is, after all, his guitar.

I had high hopes for Santana 'IV', the old band brought back after their own stab at recreating thatt same time period, but both it and 'Abraxas Pool' disappointed. The next outing, hand in hand with the residual Isley Brothers, 'Power of Peace', was better, if seeming a vehicle more for they than he. So why should this one, 'Africa Speaks,' be any different, as they too were acclaimed as the rediscovered grail? Could it be the presence of Rick Rubin, the catalyst behind many a revitalised career, from Johnny Cash to Neil Diamond? Or is the presence of one Concha Buika, a veritable powerhouse of afro-flamenco influences? I have been following her career for some time, marvelling at her vocal prowess in several genres. Santana has never much used a female voice to any great extent, if Flora Purim will forgive me, and, if it has taken Rubin to sow this seed, well done that man. Listening to this record has had me excited about Carlos Santana for the first time in many a long year. OK, it is arguably a Buika vehicle with added Carlos, but the namecheck will boost the sales no end, the hopeful ever hopeful. It is outside SMM's usual structure to put up any video from music so new, and I am not going to change that now*, but here is some Buika to whet any appetite.

So, when you ain't got no one to depend on, when your old heroes are all out to pasture and recycling processed self-parody, who are you going to call. I'm thinking Rick Rubin might be your man. Not bad for an old hip-hop producer, say I

*Go on, then, no one's looking.....

It's speaking, you listening?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Same Name/Different Artist: Eric Somebody

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Andrew Jackson and John Milton are both credited with some version of "the mind has a life of its own". In choosing "Eric" names for my post, I figure I must have been at least subliminally influenced by local advertising for this week's <Istanbul> concert from Eric Burdon - maybe not "a mind of my own"? There are banners and posters all over the city announcing the event.

I had decided to go down the path of looking into the prevalence of the name "Eric" over time (and comparing it to the prevalence of my own name) and realized that it may have been influenced by the posters:

I only once ever came face to face with an "Eric" (as opposed to variations such as Erik) - and that was the headmaster of my private boarding school back in the '70s - his name even shows up in a Google search.(hereby putting an end to the question I posed last post).

The popularity of names waxes and wanes over the years: my own did not even rank in the US Social Security list of popular names the year I was born, but more recently has ascended to somewhere in the top 200. Eric, appears in the top 20s for most of the latter half of the 20th century, dropping to the low 100s in the 21st. You can ponder for yourself why names come and go: is it fame-association or something else?

So ... Eric <somebody?> wherein Mr Clapton most probably figures at the top of the list, but is not the only major musical Eric to figure in that list of "Greats". Naturally, limiting ourselves to a first-name of Eric is going to come up with a variety of genres:

Eric Burdon - from said concert.

Eric Gale,

And then there's Eric Carmen of the Raspberries

and Eric Weisberg of  Duelling Banjos fame