Saturday, February 8, 2020


Hang on, I hear you mutter, that's a song by Bruce Cockburn, pride of Canada, and it's already had a shout here, why, a mere 12 years ago. Indeed it has, saving me the time to mention that original version, good that it is, but I'm here talking about a whole different barrel of monkeys. OK, same song, different band, different time, well, six years, and a whole different ethos and vibe.

Let me take you back to the mid 80s. Contrary to cliche, it was not all poodle hair and shiny suit jackets, sleeves pulled up, at least not for me. Indeed, I had espoused rock music as being for losers, and embraced folk as my field and furrow. None of your finger in the ear and fluffy jumpers, mind, I was in much deeper than that. I had ditched my inky music press for Folk Roots, a glossy monthly devoted to all things folk and what would become world music, gathering up aspects of blues, country and bluegrass along the way. (Sadly, recently defunct.)I had taken up morris dancing, as mentioned here before, and started going to folk clubs, folk concerts and folk festivals. I guess I still do. One of my favourite haunts was the Red Lion Folk Club, still going, in King's Heath, Birmingham. (U.K.) They seemed to have a visionary approach and interpretation to folk, booking all, it seemed, the acts I was so avidly reading up about. If Dylan plugging in had led to the cry of traitor, this club was populated by all the people who had said goodo, as, for every staid stalwart of the trad. arr. brigade, and they booked the best of them too, they also had all the young turks, blazing away full pelt, plugged in and drums pounding. For a while it seemed a rotating feast, week on week, of Edward II, then with the Red Hot Polkas, Gregson & Collister and Alias Ron Kavana. EII, as they came to be abbreviated, were melodeon led reggae-morris fusion, a version running to this day. Clive Gregson and Christine Collister may have been just two voices and one guitar, but had more vim in their acousticity than the national grid, both then also members of the Richard Thompson band. And Alias Ron Kavana were just something else.

A night out with Alias Ron Kavana was one where you knew you would get good 'n' sweaty, requiring copious fluid intake and a firm floor below. The folk club was held in the upstairs room of a large roadhouse styled pub, so the fluids were guaranteed. How the floor held the bounce of the ferociously jigging audience from careering down through into the bar below, lord only knows, but it did, as the four piece band thrashed through a heady mix of rockabilly, irish folk and celtic soul, all fronted by the glorious paradox of, no alias, his real name, Ron Kavana, a balding and bellied pocket behemoth, with a light and adept touch on his guitar and a foot to the floor full throttle vocal roar. Channeling all his heroes, Elvis, Van the Man, Johnny Cash, he could effortlessly hold  the room, with no small nod to more modern players, Joe Strummer and Costello, say, with a hefty side order appreciative of the genius unfolding, unravelling even, of Shane McGowan. Backing was provided by second guitar, Mick Molloy, bass, Richie Robertson and drummer, Les Robertson, the whole a collective banshee of jubilant noise. Yet, at the same time they were winning the Best Live Act, year in and year out, at Folk Roots, they were essentially off radar to all else, initially having no record label to sign them. Eventually the band signed to Chiswick records, a small London based independent with a tiny roster of likeminded scallywags and reprobates. Of course I bought the record, Think Like a Hero, appalling cover picture and all. It seemed an age, five years, before the follow-up, Coming Days, dropped. Rocket Launcher was on this second album, a very much angrier version than the original. If Cockburn was despairing, musing on how far he could be pushed, Kavana and crew were ready, willing and able to press the button. By now I had left the Red Lion behind, catching the Alias band at a festival in Portsmouth, second on the big to Fairport Convention. I seem to recall the Alias band won.

And then it all seemed to stop. The Alias band fell apart. I vaguely recall some form of RK big band, now with his wife on fiddle, it all seeming too messy and muddled. To be fair, it may have been me that was messy and muddled that night, it being a troubled time in my life, as well, it seemed, as I later read, in his. Trying to keep up, I learnt of links with ex-Pogue Terry Woods, as the Bucks, that never seemed to last, and of other dalliances, as he gradually fell off the map. My last sighting was an erudite collection, Irish Songs of Resistance, Rebellion and Reconciliation, gathering he had largely packed in the music biz for a life in academia. It all seemed a bit dry and dull after the ceilidh of his earlier stuff, sad even, as it seemed to be then recycled into a 40 Favourite Irish Songs for misty eyed irish ex-pats, of whom there is a wealth in Birmingham, and who would probably faint if the Alias Band were to crank up in their earshot. (As balance, I also sought out, for this piece, other explanations for this sudden apparent change of direction and fortune, discovering a somewhat different slant. I may have been chasing the craic, he was altogether on a more serious journey. His most recent release was supposed to be a collection of songs from the Irish Travelling diaspora, due in 2017, but I cannot determine whether that ever materialised. A facebook presence seems also to denote some, um, issues, changing from 'Ron Kavana-musician', and hosted by his seemingly long-suffering agent, if his comments belie anything worthwhile, to 'Ron Kavanagh', a whole more closed book, attributing only his university linkage.)

By way of conclusion, here he is a decade ago. I hope all is well with you, Ron, and may the road rise with you.

And you?

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Rockets/Space: Outa-Space

Billy Preston: Outa-Space

When I was 10, in the summer of 1971, my parents sent me to sleep away camp for the first time, and it was not a good experience. It was not a good camp (although based on some stuff I saw on Facebook, it might have been at one time), and I was homesick. But it wasn’t only me—it was common for campers to try to sneak out of camp, despite the fact that there was really nothing within walking distance (and I know, because we tried…but that’s another story that includes being locked in a hot van with nothing but Rice Krispies….). Also, the water tasted of sulfur. Other than that, it wasn’t too bad.

My complaints about that summer resonated with my parents, who then spent more time researching summer camps, before choosing to send me and my sister to Timber Lake Camp, which was an excellent camp that no one tried to escape, and had delicious drinking water. I absolutely loved my two summers there (and my couple of weeks as a counselor, years later, right before I went to college). Our experience at TLC led to a big influx of campers from my extended family and hometown over the years, and my sister and brother are still in touch with friends that they made there. (A few years after I stopped going, the camp was purchased by Jay Jacobs, now the NY State Democratic Chairman, and made even fancier and better than when I was there, and it was pretty good back then).

As I have previously mentioned, my first experience with radio, which in many ways was an onramp to my love of radio and music and without which I probably would not be a music blogger, was at WTLC, the camp radio station. But this isn’t about that. I think that most camps wake up their campers with some sort of “Reveille,” because there is something vaguely military about people sleeping in bunks. But at Timber Lake, in the summer of 1972, the counselors were, for the most part, young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, and during that era, in that place, I have to assume that the military wasn’t particularly popular. Instead, we were usually awakened by some loud rock music playing on the loudspeaker.

And if you asked me what songs they played, the only one that I remember was Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space,” a funky, spacy instrumental. It made waking up relatively fun, and I’m pretty sure that I played the song on the radio, learning that it was by Billy Preston, about whom I basically knew nothing.

What I know now, is that “Outa-Space” was a big success for Preston, despite the fact that his record company refused his request to release it as a single—instead, it was a b-side that DJ’s flipped. It sold more than a million copies and hit number one on the Billboard R&B chart and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 during that summer, and won a Grammy. And I also learned that its distinctive sound came from Preston experimenting with a clavinet run through a wah wah pedal.

Preston, a self-taught child prodigy, backed Mahalia Jackson when he was 10, joined Little Richard’s band in his teens, and while with Richard in Hamburg, met The Beatles, with whom he played a few years later, and who signed him to their Apple label. He is one of the candidates for the mythical “Fifth Beatle” title, but it wasn’t until he left Apple, and joined A&M Records, that he had solo success. His first release for that label, I Wrote A Simple Song, included “Outa-Space.” Over the next two years, Preston followed up a bunch of hit singles, "Will It Go Round in Circles,” "Nothing from Nothing", and the also theme appropriate "Space Race."

In addition to playing with The Beatles, Preston opened for and played with The Rolling Stones, wrote “You Are So Beautiful” for Joe Cocker, was the first musical guest on what was then called NBC's Saturday Night, did session work with Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Patti Labelle, and toured with Eric Clapton and The Band. However, cocaine addiction and a sexual assault charge derailed his career in the early ‘90s, before he made a handful of live and recorded guest appearances in the 2000s. Preston died in 2006.

One of the great things about writing for this blog is that it often forces you to revisit music that you haven’t really paid attention to for years, and I have to say that “Outa-Space” sounds just as good today as it did to my 11 year old self back in 1972.