Cover Versions, Get This!, Live!

Beach Bummer

I’ve kinda lost my way a wee bit with Neil Young. I bought Le Noise, 7? 8? years ago, played it once then filed it on the shelf alongside all the other inessential Neil albums of the time. Chrome Dreams II, for example. Or the live one that came out around 2001 and included a couple of tracks as yet unavailable elsewhere (I think). Without reaching for either of them, I doubt I could tell you a single track on them. Jeez – I can’t even tell you the name of one of them. You buy things out of blind loyalty to an artist and that’s what happens.


I’m also out of touch with where his Archive series is up to. Are we still just on Volume 1 of the sprawling, all-encompassing Blu-Ray only release? Like many here, I suspect, I’m quite happy to admit I liberated the best of that release via one of the many Torrent sites that clutter up the darker corners of the internet. Some of the stuff probably ended up featured in posts on Plain Or Pan too. And those first couple of live shows he released on his more budget-friendly Neil Young Archives Series – the Massey Hall and Filmore shows – are essential for any and all fans of raggedly-plucked acoustic rock and ragged and raucous sprawling rock music. A quick trip to Wiki tells me there are around a further half dozen such releases, no doubt all good, but I just don’t seem to have the time to invest in them. Sorry Neil, although I’ll probably get around to Hitchiker at some point soon. It does float my boat in all the best ways; vintage mid 70s material scrubbed up for these days? Sounds great.

                                  V Festival

Why though would you want to seek out a ropey live recording featuring Neil and his International Harvesters when you could be diving headfirst instead into his self-proclaimed ‘Doom Trilogy’? Neil, never one to conform to expectations was at an all-time career high with 1972’s Harvest album. Building on the themes and musical styles of its predecessor After The Goldrush, Harvest spawned an actual hit single, with the lilting cowboy balladry of Heart Of Gold seemingly assuring Young his place at the top table of FM-friendly pop alongside other chart-bothering acoustic balladeers such as Paul Simon and Don McLean. Instead, Young yanked hard on the steering wheel and, in his own words veered into the ditch.

“ ‘Heart Of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Interesting right enough. Friends ravaged by drugs. Failed relationships. Death. Despair. The end of the 60s ideal. Recommending Reprise Records sign this hippyish new singer by the name of Charles Manson…..


Young took the path less travelled, wrote the songs he wasn’t expected to write and ended up with a trilogy of fantastic albums. Much of this music achieved mythical, cult status as the years grew, due in no small part to  Young willfully deleting the key albums and, in the advent of the CD era, refusing to have them released on the shiny new format. Citing the poor sonic quality of the format (according to Neil, compared with vinyl only about 5% of the recorded music makes it from the CD and out of your speakers. The other 95% is a flattened, compressed version of the real thing), Neil Young hates CD with a passion. He’s analogue all the way, which is why if you can track down original vinyl copies of On The Beach, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night you should buy them forthwith and revel in the tunes in the grooves.


On The Beach is easily one of my favourite albums of all time. Hardly a ringing endorsment from a barometer of hip opinion such as myself, but it truly is a terrific LP. Years ago my sister went a trip to New York and when she asked if I’d like her to bring me anything back, I replied that I’d hate to think she’d find a copy of On The Beach and not buy it. She only went and did. A first issue, Reprise Records release, with the famous psychedelic printing on the reverse of the cover too. An astonishing present.

Hardly a rollicking good time, On the Beach is the sound of depression, paranoia and nervous breakdown. But if it’s self-indulgent, self-obsessed music you’re after, look no further. Charles Manson, the young hopeful he’d suggested to Reprise had by now commited his heinous murders. Young sings about it in the scratchy, jittering Revolution Blues, assisted by The Band’s Rick Danko and Levom Helm on bass and drums and David Crosby on rattly and erratic rhythm guitar.

Neil YoungRevolution Blues

It’s the sound of anti-commercialism in every way. Downbeat, downplayed and downtrodden, Vampire Blues is an eco anthem before such things were considered, Young bemoaning the way the oil industry bore into US soil with scant regard for people or place. “I’m a vampire, baby, sucking blood from the earth,” he sings, a million miles away from Heart Of Gold and the Hot 100.

Neil YoungVampire Blues

Side 2 is even bleaker. Opening with the album’s title track, it starts in slow motion and, as the side progresses, gets slower still. To call it moody and introspective would be too kind. Dylan is moody and introspective. The Smiths are moody and introspective. Even Eurythmics can be moody and introspective. ‘Here comes the rain again’ and all that jazz. But side 2 of ‘On The Beach‘? Listen to it late at night with the lights dimmed low and a fine malt in your hand and you may just never make it upstairs to bed.

Neil YoungOn The Beach

The title track is a gorgeous, chiming ode to despair. “I went to the radio interview….I ended up alone at the microphone.” sighs Neil. “I think I’ll get out of town.” This is the same optimist who, only a few months earlier, had been singing  “I want to live, I want to love, I’ll be  a miner for a heart of gold.” Not now daddy-o. By the time you reach ‘Ambulance Blues‘, the album closer, Neil’ll be informing you that we’re all just wasting our time, “pissing in the wind“. Apparently, side 2 was originally to be side 1 and only at the last minute was Neil convinced to switch it around, something he immedialtely regretted. It means though that the album opens with the jaunty Walk On, a curveball as it turns out, before the mood of the album takes hold. If the album had been released as Young had intended, how many folk would’ve made it all the way to side 2?

*Bonus tracks!

Here’s Mercury Rev’s faithful reworking of Vampire Blues. I remember reading at the time that the band had planned to record the entire On The Beach album and add a track at a time to the b-side of future singles. Did they ever complete this? Seemingly I’ve lost my way with Mercury Rev too.

Mercury RevVampire Blues

Here’s Nina Persson of The Cardigans in her A Camp guise doing a terrific version of On The Beach at the Hutsfred Festival a few years ago. I’m sure this has appeared on Plain Or Pan before, but if you missed it first time ’round…

A CampOn The Beach

Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Magnum Opus

The grand old Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine is being pulled down as I type. Local politics and whatnot has seen the building fall gradually into disrepair, an eyesore too far gone for a quick cash injection and 60 minute makeover. They’ve opened a spanking new place in the town centre. It’s impressive ‘n all that, but like for like, it doesn’t come close to what the Magnum offered.

A fixture on Irvine beach since 1976, the Magnum played a formative part in most Irvinites’ growing up. Beyond Irvine, it was known as the place where you were bussed on a school trip; to swim, to skate, to watch the latest blockbuster in its plush 300-seater theatre. If you were that awkward age between being too old to stay in on a weekend night but too young for the pub, the Magnum was your saviour. There’s no-one I know who didn’t go there. Even oor ain Nicola Sturgeon mentioned it on her Desert Island Discs, recalling Frosty’s Ice Disco skating sessions with a misty-eyed fondness.

The Magnum had something for everyone. The Scottish Indoor Bowls championships were held there. Every pedigree dog in the country was shown there at some point. Girls and boys danced at regional shows. Gymnasts tumbled and twirled and twisted their way around the main hall. 80s fitness freaks squashed while the half-hearted badmintoned. All manner of variety shows were held there and crucially, all manner of big, proper, touring bands poured through the doors as quickly as they could be accomodated.

Irvine in the 1980s was a popular place for all your favourite bands to play; The Clash, The Jam, Big Country, Thin Lizzy, Chuck Berry, The Smiths, The Wonderstuff, Madness….. the list is endless, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Willie Freckleton, the local Entertainments Officer who offered up what was at the time the largest indoor concert hall in Europe to the promoters and band managers who deigned which towns were important enough to play. Willie offered the hall rent free, which proved to be the clinching factor most of the time. Amazingly, most of the bands would include Glasgow and Irvine as part of the same tour, something that, since the building of the Hydro on Glasgow’s Clydeside is now unthinkable.

The SmithsBigmouth Strikes Again (live at the Magnum, Sept 22nd 1985)

I believe this was the first time Bigmouth was played live.

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There are a multitude of stories connected to the Magnum, from local folk who were so familiar with the warren of corridors and passageways in the changing areas that they could sneak from the ice disco into the UB40 gig without paying, or the young fans who found themselves receiving mohawks from Clash roadie Kosmo Vinyl after they’d played a terrific London Calling-era ‘Greatest Hits’ gig, not that The Clash ‘did’ greatest hits, but you know what I mean.

I remember the day The Jam came to town. Too young for the show (I didn’t even know it was on) I happened to be at the front of my house as scooter after scooter after scooter buzzed past on their way from Glasgow to the Magnum. A multitude of mirrors, parkas and girls riding pillion, it was just about the most impressive thing I’d seen at that point in my life, something only equalled when I saw The Clash in Irvine Mall on the day of their Magnum show. Four alien-looking guys in denim and leather and black shades, surrounded by a scrum of older folk I recognised from the years above at school. “It’s The Fucking Clash!!!” is what I remember hearing, even if I was unaware exactly who The Fucking Clash were at that point in my life.

Spandau Ballet, photo by Ross Mackenzie

Thrillingly, Ross has snapped loads of bands at the Magnum.

Sadly, this is all he could find!

Willie Feckleton once told me a great story about booking Chuck Berry, his idol and the musician he was most thrilled at having landed to play in Irvine. Chuck, a musical giant who was right there alongside Ike Turner at the birth of rock ‘n roll, a man who is responsible for fashioning the DNA of the rock guitar riff was, by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant human being. In Irvine he wouldn’t play until he’d first been handed his fee (paid in American dollars, of course) in a brown paper bag in the dressing room before going on stage.

The anonymous support band was also Chuck’s backing group and when Chuck eventually came on he played on about only six songs. He let the other guitarist take most of the solos, looked super-bored throughout and disappeared offstage fairly quickly.”

 

Coming off after the set Willie approached Chuck enthusiastically. “That was great Chuck! They love you out there! How about an encore?

 

Sure,” drawled Chuck with his hands out. “Fo’ anutha’ five hun’red dollas…

 

There was no encore.

It’s stories like those above that live long after the artist has left town and the gig is nothing more than a pre-smartphone blur of exaggerations and half-truths. Did Morrissey really dance with Brian McCourt’s umbrella when The Smiths played? Did Phil Lynott really nip up to George the Barber at the Cross for a quick trim of the ‘fro, mid tour with Thin Lizzy? Who can be certain if they did or didn’t? For cultural and economical terms, it’s a real shame that Irvine no longer has a venue that can be used to entice the big acts of the day to come and play and create memories for our young (and not so young) folk.

These bricks rang!

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find, Live!, New! Now!

Waltz #2

Hailing from Caithness, near John O’ Groats at the very top of Scotland, the furthest outreach on the British Isles, Neon Waltz are as far-removed from any ‘scene’ as possible. The six-piece are an insular unit; self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-absorbed.


The music they make is, if you’re of a certain age, nothing you haven’t heard before, but no less thrilling. In songs such as Dreamers and Heavy Heartless they have that unique way of creating an uplifting melancholy; world-weary vocals carried along by chiming, fizzing guitars and a heavy swell of Hammond organ. You might find comparisons with The Coral, The Charlatans or Teardrop Explodes, bands who know how to brew a heady swirl of guitar and organ that’ll lift you to giddy new heights. Lazy folk might label them ‘indie’. I prefer to call them slightlydelic.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless


As befits a band that is so far off the taste radar of hip opinion as to be almost non-existent, they have the freedom to come and go as they please. Regular zig-zagging across the highways and biways of the UK combined with a hermit-like lifestyle in their rehearsal space in an abandoned croft – Music From Big McPink, if y’like, has helped the band forge a sound that led them to Atlantic Records and a deal with Ignition. And a month from now, two years since first being signed, their debut album will be released. It won’t come with much of a fanfare or blustery media hype, but it will come with the guarantee of a melody-rich debut, a record that may well prove to be the year zero for future bands. You can quote me on that when the time comes.

A recent photo session on the Isle of Stroma, halfway between the very north of Scotland and the southerly tip of the Orkneys proved fruitful. Shooting the photos that will presumably appear on all promotional material for the imminent album release, the band chanced upon the long-since abandoned school house. Amazed to find it was accessible, they entered and found an old harmonium, lying dusty, untouched and exactly as it had been left when last used. More amazingly, keyboard player Liam Whittles was able to extract noise from it; eerie, ghost-like and gossamer thin, the old harmonium wheezed into life. A spontaneous version of  Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ was followed by this beautiful reworking of their own Heavy Heartless. It’s magic; understated, creaky and exactly how a harmonium-enhanced band should sound.

Neon WaltzHeavy Heartless (Stroma Schoolhouse Session)

Neon Waltz go on tour shortly. Their debut album, ‘Strange Hymns‘ is out at the end of July on Ignition Records. It  can be ordered direct from the band here and in all the usual places.

Kraut-y, Live!

“Radio(head)! Live TRNSMTN”

Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the Radio(head).

I saw Radiohead for only the 4th time in 24 years on Friday night. Hardly the most regular of touring bands, it was either stand in a field at day 1 of Scotland’s newest festival, TRNSMT, and wait patiently for the only band worth shelling out £60 for, or watch edited highlights on the telly later that night and mutter silently to myself that I should’ve been there. After failing to secure a coveted press pass – lack of credentials, they said – I shelled out the £60 and went. Which was the correct decision, of course.

Their Glastonbury set a couple of weeks previously fairly split my Facebook feed in half. For every friend purring over their set, there were others spitting venom.”They’re tuneless!” “They don’t play the old stuff!” “They’re just like (spit) this generation’s Pink Floyd!“, shouted as if Pink Floyd were/are the anti-christ or something. The reason John Lydon wore an ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt in 1976 was clear – the progressive, noodling dinosaurs were required to be extinct in order for the new musical youth to crash the party and shake things up somewhat. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Pink Floyd were barely 10 years into a 40+ year career when Johnny first sported his shirt. And it’s worth noting that until today’s musical youth get their arse in gear and produce a musical movement worthy of shaking up the current regime, your super soaraway Radiohead is as good as it gets.

There are a number of unspoken rules when it comes to headlining a festival. A headliner should play to the crowd. Feature a generous helping of all the big hits. Engage with the audience. Maybe pull a nice-looking girl out of the crowd and dance with her. Radiohead find themselves in the enviable position of being able to do whatever they like and still remain numero uno. They are a walking, talking example of that well worn band cliche of we play what we like and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus. Lucky for Radiohead, hundreds and thousands and millions of folk love ’em. So they take the festival rule book and bin it. They don’t have big hits to begin with. Crowd-favourites, aye, but no real hits. And don’t for one minute think you’ll be pulled from the crowd and serenaded with Creep. Second-on-the-bill Belle & Sebastian did the honours for them when they pulled half the front row out to dance on-stage during their finale, waved off by a cheery Stuart Murdoch saying, “Thanks for coming up and dancing. You do realise you’ve lost your spot for Radiohead though?!?

And as for audience engagement, Thom is certainly not going to say much to a crowd who, for all their love of the band, are shoving Palestinian flags in his face wherever he looks. Glasgow and Scotland, currently the oppressed by the UK Government’s policies on Europe, know a political cause when they see one and they aren’t too taken by Yorke’s stance with the Israeli oppressors. Politics aside though, this was a fantastic show.

Bursts of discordant, eerie music punctuated the air for the half hour or so before Radiohead took the stage. Had one of the band left their Polyfauna app running on random through the PA? It sounded like it. When the band arrive, there’s no fanfare. They stroll on, plug in and begin with the sublime double whammy of Let Down and Lucky. Where Let Down soars, Lucky actually sounds like the slow-motion plane crash that’s sung about in the lyrics. It’s a brilliant opener and when, for the first time tonight a posse of black-clad roadies wheel on a console of the sort the BBC Radiophonic Workshop might’ve worked up some futuristic soundcscapes on, expectations are high for something special. Ful Stop careers into action, all wobbling, juddering, claustrophobic paranoia. “This is a foul-tasting medicine,” mutters Yorke and not for the last time tonight, whole sections of the crowd are looking  a wee bit lost. These’ll be the same people who were moaning about the ‘hit-free’ Glastonbury set. It’s fantastic of course.

Modern Radiohead swap instruments and whole genres as effortlessly as a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ed’s additional vocals and subtle percussive touches keep the music sounding as real as the recorded versions. Johnny – we’re right in front of him and witness up close his skills on a whole array of instruments – is the one who adds splashes of exotic colour to the sound. He goes for the full Spinal Tapisms of bowing the strings on his guitar during Pyramid Song before switching to a string-based contraption played on the keyboard for the song’s coda. Elsewhere, he wrings seven shades of hell from his trusty Telecaster; white noise, chiming, echoing triplets, thunderous power chords, piercing guitar solos, often all in the same song. He’s all jaggy elbows and fringe, but go Johnny go! He’s terrific.

It’s the rhythm section though that is most impressive. Colin wrestles with his bass guitar for a full two and a half hours, noodling the sort of meandering riffs Holger Czukay might’ve employed during his time with Can. For most of the set an addditional drummer skitters along, perfectly complementing Phil’s polyrhythms. At one point, Johnny joins in for some additional percussion that drives the whole thing along towards jazz. Half the audience are thinking ‘pure Mingus’. The other half, the ones that are moving to the sides (“We’ll come back when they play ‘Creep'” I hear one man say to his partner. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but…) are thinking ‘pure mingin”. Lotus Flower sounds immense. Thom’s got out his 3 maracas and is shaking them like the anti-Bez – if Bez was all boggle-eyed and limbs akimbo, Thom is a gammy-eyed, hunched up Albert Steptoe in a man-bun – and despite its weird time signature and stop/start clatter, the heads in the audience are bobbing up and down in time to the beat. Everything In It’s Right Place is all cut ‘n paste techno, Johnny sampling Thom’s voice and chopping it up before looping it to eternity via some fancy pants handheld gizmo, the sound skiffling across and out into the ether like some particuarly skilled flat stone skimmer on a west of Scotland beach.


When the guitars come out, the Radiohead juggernaut flies. There There, a brutal 2+2=5, a groovy Bodysnatchers, all examples of why Radiohead are like no other act on the planet. The second half of the set starts with Daydreaming, the set lit up in silvery-white lights. It’s plain and simply breathtaking. Paranoid Android is ridiculously self-indulgent and insular, yet hard rockin’. Not in a Biffy, tops off ‘n tattooes way. Radiohead rock way harder than that particular version of turned up to 11 pop music. They also do subtle. Fake Plastic Trees is understated and fragile before bursting into white noise with the ‘she looks like a ray of sun‘ bit. No Surprises receives a massive cheer right after the ‘Bring down the Government, they don’t speak for us‘ line. And, while we don’t get Creep, we do get a slightly slowed-down Bends, massive power chords ebbing out across the crowd and into the Glasgow night sky. We’re left with Karma Police, Thom and Ed staying back after the rest of the band has gone to conduct the crowd in an acapella rendition of the song’s climax. For a minute there, or two and a half hours to be precise, we lost oursleves.


Debating the setlist in the car on the way home, you could write another 20+ song set of the tracks Radiohead didn’t play. But that’s nit picking. Here’s what they did play:

 

1) Let Down

2) Lucky

3) Ful Stop

4) 15 Step

5) Myxomatosis

6) There, There

7) All I Need

8) Pyramid Song

9) Everything In Its Right Place

10) Reckoner

11) Bloom

12) Identikit

13) Weird Fishes

14) Idioteque

15) The Numbers

16) Bodysnatchers

17) 2 + 2 = 5

[ENCORE 1]
18) Daydreaming

19) No Surprises

20) Lotus Flower

21) Paranoid Android

22) Fake Plastic Trees

[ENCORE 2]

23) Nude

24) The Bends

25) Karma Police

 

*A phone catastrophe on Friday night meant I lost not only all my contacts, but also the dozen or so Radiohead pictures I’d taken for inclusion here. The images I’ve used are all borrowed from Twitter, Instagram and various news sources. If you’d prefer me not to use your image please get in touch and I’ll remove it. Also, if you would like a photo credit please get in touch and I’ll amend. Cheers.

 

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Live!

Pepper (Slight Return)

The previous post (on Elliott Smith, below) was written on the back of the Sgt Pepper anniversary/reissue jamboree. By coincidence, so is this one.

Sgt Pepper turned the world on its axis. The day it was released, the 60s went from the monochromed mundanity of a smog-filled Britain with wee men in bowler hats running the country to a cosmic technicolour planet where anything was possible. And anything was possible. On the 4th June 1967, just two days after Pepper came out, Paul and George found themselves at The Saville Theatre for a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. Hendrix, perfectly aware that half of The Beatles were in attendance had the mother of all aces up his silken batwinged sleeve.

Hendrix had appeared from nowhere, brought to Britain by The Animals’ Chas Chandler, immediately establishing himself as a top fixture in all the right clubs in swinging London. He was a top-heavy hippy in military garb, supported by sparrow-narrow legs with hair as wild and electric as the upside-down Strat he toted. Jaw-dropping in both sound and ability, Jimi could play lead and rhythm concurrently, his big right thumb working the bass notes the way a conventional guitarist might use his first finger. With black-as-coal hamster eyes permanently sparkling he sent multicoloured notes of amplified electric greatness out into the ether. He was untouchable.

To open The Saville Theatre show, Jimi and his Experience worked up a version of Sgt Peppers‘ lead track, slow and sludgy, loose and on the edge of falling apart, unmistakeably Hendrix and super-thrilling. Jimi replicated the whole thing, even playing the brass section as guitar riffs. A guitar-heavy track to begin with, Hendrix made it his own. A thrilled Paul and George watched from the balcony as Jimi caught their eye and smiled his knowing, lopsided, stoned grin.

Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment. It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished. To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honour, I’m sure he thought it was the other way round, but to me that was like a great boost. (Paul McCartney)
Jimi Hendrix ExperienceSgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Saville Theatre, London, 4.6.67)

One of the best Beatles’ covers? Quite possibly. You’ll have your own ideas, no doubt. Beatles’ covers are ten-a-penny. We all know that. The Sgt Pepper album was treated to the full monty in 1987 when the NME, back in the days when it was still a barometer of hip opinion, released the whole album in cover form. It’s a fairly stinking album, all truth be told. It did raise money for charity, getting Wet Wet Wet’s version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ to number one in the process, and it did give Billy Bragg a back-door entry to the top of the charts (the barking bard from Barking’s version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was on the b-side) but, 30 years on, it’s best forgotten about.

In contrast to Jimi’s spectacular take on the title track, Three Wize Men (Google won’t help) bravely attempted a none-more-80s hip hop version of the same track. Perhaps at the time it was a radical thrill (I doubt it) but nowadays it sounds about as edgy as something Age Of Chance might’ve left lying unloved on the studio floor.

Three Wize MenSgt Pepper

 

The album closer, by that most NME of bands The Fall, is a bit better, this album’s saving grace, even, even if Mark E Smith sounds totally bored by the whole concept. He probably was.

The FallA Day In The Life

She’s Leaving Home…..

Dylanish, Hard-to-find, Live!

Touched By The Hand Of Bob

For a while at the tail end of the 90s/beginning of the 00s, Bob Dylan went through a wee phase of revisiting his religious period. Not in the full-on way he had done with the ‘Christian Trilogy’ of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love 20 years previously, a trio of albums packed full of religious imagery, the odd gospel arrangement and a complete and utter declaration of faith. Bob likes  to wrongfoot his audience, so in a career that had thus far packed in blues and folk, electric guitars and drugs, motorcycle crashes and stream-of-conscience novels, Mick Ronson and panstick make-up, turning to the power of the Lord was as good a move as any.

 

dylan-camden

After several years in the wilderness (the leather gloves and top hat combo while wandering around Camden like some sort of Dickensian pied piper for all and sundry being the zenith of that particular phase), he kick-started his return to relevance with his Never-Ending Tour, a tour that still zig-zags across the planet to this very day. As a way of hitting the ground running, he’d often start these shows with a giddy run-through of an old Christian foot stomper. Short and sharp, they often wrong-footed the audience (again) who maybe expected a Maggie’s Farm or Dignity as the opener. They also served as a sort of second sound-check; as any sound engineer will tell you, the sound in a room changes dramatically once the audience are in. That wee two minute skip through at the start provided the engineer one last chance, as Depeche Mode might say, to get the balance right.

One such nugget he often kicked off with was his frantically scrubbed take on the Stanley Brothers ‘Somebody Touched Me‘.
Bob Dylan  – Somebody Touched Me (live, Portsmouth, England, Sept. 24th 2000)

Tight and taut, the song gives Bob maximum mic time. His band stretch their backing vocals for all they’re worth with ragged yet righteous harmonies. There’s a couple of wee breaks in between the verses for the band to break loose like Led Zeppelin III gone country, while the engineer, fingers hovering over faders and switches, fine-tuned the mix.  By the time of the second last verse in the version above, Bob is audibly breathless, high on the music and running at full pelt just to keep up with the backing band.

Having witnessed Bob in concert around this time, I can practically see his wee tip of the hat to the audience and the twinkle in his eye as he shouts ‘Thangyew!’ at the end, with an audible smile in his voice, ready to lead his band into the heavyweight double whammy of To Ramona and Visions Of Johanna, two guaranteed crowd pleasers.

dylan-oscarBob in 2001, his Oscar perched atop the amp on the right.

That wee Oscar went everywhere with him for a while.

Lazy writers will often go on about Bob’s songs being indecipherable until, like, the last verse, or they’ll snort that they didn’t even know he’d played Mr Tambourine Man until they got talking to a knowledgeable Bobcat on the train home afterwards. Rubbish!

He may play games with the arrangements and phrasing, but his voice is as clear as it ever was. He e-nun-ci-ates perfectly. Anyone who tells you his songs are unrecognisable in concert is a moron, plain and simple.

He’s due back on these shores in a few months time. Whether I go or not remains to be seen; the last couple of times I’ve been to see him I felt he was a wee bit mechanical in places and going through the motions. Much of the night, it could’ve been any pick-up barroom band that was being let loose on one of the greatest canons in popular music, Bob stuck stage left and standing behind his keyboard like a Thunderbirds puppet hanging from invisible strings, but there were still flashes of undeniable brilliance to suggest he still has it. It’s those wee flashes that keep us hoping he’ll pull another cracker out the bag, as he did at the Barrowlands in 2004, my favourite Bob show of all.

There’s also, morbidly, a faint chance that the next time may be the last time he plays. And you wouldn’t want to miss that. Just like the tour though, I hope ol’ Bob is never-ending.

Live!

I’ll Take This Chance To Tell My Friends What Im Thinking Of

It’s Saturday night in the Barrowlands! Where else would you rather be!?!” asks Norman Blake to the partisan home crowd. He’s greeted with a huge cheer. Aye, this gig had all the makings of a classic; a much-loved band, a new album currently hovering around the higher echelons of many ‘Best Of The Year’ lists, a back catalogue of killer songs and social media ablaze in the days running up to the show with desperate pleas for any spare tickets for the home-town gig in The Best Venue In The World (us Barrowlands stalwarts are fiercly protective of our venue – on the right night, there’s nowhere else like it on the planet). With the exception of the Trashcan Sinatras, I’ve seen Teenage Fanclub more times than any other band. From King Tuts and the Grand Old Opry to the SECC and back again. In Motherwell. In Edinburgh (more than once, too). Supporting Neil Young and Pixies. I’ve been to numerous TFC shows in all manner of places. I think last night was my 43rd show, and as such, I’m fairly well qualified to judge a Teenage Fanclub show. So why did I leave the gig slightly (just slightly, mind) underwhelmed and a touch (just a touch, mind) disappointed?

It certainly wasn’t due to my brief conversation with minor pop celebrity Duglas T Stewart of the BMX Bandits. “Will you be doing a wee turn later, Duglas?” I ask, nodding in the direction of the stage. “I might be having a wee turn later, but I won’t be doing one, no…

img_8858Faceless Fanclub

Maybe it’s where we chose to stand. Years ago I’d have made my way to as close to the front as possible, fingers crossed that I would still have 2 shoes on by the end of the gig. More recently, at the back, on the wee lip that borders the sprung dancefloor has become a favourite spot for middle-aged short arses like myself, but when the only spot that remains happens to be slap bang in the middle of the main thoroughfare for the bar, by the 3rd song in I was wishing I was that gung-ho Barrowlander of old. I would’ve gone for it too, but I was wearing reasonably new desert boots and I didn’t want to risk it.

Nope, it wasn’t that. Despite the flow of people (who goes to a gig to spend their night walking parallel to the stage while staring at their phone for most of the night? A debate for another time…), I had a perfect view. Slightly stage right, facing Gerry and looking across the top of the audience’s heads.

Maybe it was the choice of songs. The setlist was strong – a decent mix of new material (5 songs from the new LP) and a choice selection from the Fanclub’s stellar back catalogue, including band perennials Star Sign, Ain’t That Enough, Sparky’s Dream, I Don’t Want Control Of You, and The Concept, songs that between them have a combined age of half that of the Rolling Stones, but still sound as fresh as they day they were first commited to vinyl.

img_8856‘Borrowed’ from the Teenage Fanclub Fanclub Facebook page. Credit where it’s due.

Nope. Nothing wrong with the songs they played and how they sounded. Is there any finer sight in music than when the three principal members of Teenage Fanclub step up to their mics and sing as one? No, there’s not. The vocals sounded really terrific. The Concept, with it’s big 70s soft rock outro sounded fantastic. Fanclub-tastic, even. And the opening one-two of Start Again followed by Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything was perfect, the latter’s Harper’s Ba-ba-ba-ba-zarres and woah-wo-ohs and sudden stop particularly thrilling to these ears. Elsewhere, Raymond’s rediscovery in the joys of the whammy bar were put to good use, with liberal sprinklings of divebombing twang on the newer material. At one point, he and 5th Fanny Dave indulged in a spot of beautiful twin axe attack harmonising guitar, which had me shouting “Thin Lizzy!” to no-one in particular. The reserved crowd even risked a spot of dad dancing during Don’t Look Back, at that moment the Barrowlands momentarily transformed into The Best Venue In The World.

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My complaint is two-fold. Firstly, much of the set was badly structured. Norman changed his guitar after every song which meant that while long-term guitar tech Guitar George wandered on and off with the Gibson or the Casino or the Mustang, the others shuffled around with silent tuners and little in the way of audience interaction. The Ramones could’ve played a whole set in the gaps between the songs.

The order of the songs was wrong too. A Norman song followed by a Gerry song followed by a Raymond song, and so on. Nowt wrong with that of course. With 3 top-class songwriters in the band, this is probably the most democratic way to do things. But it’s the Raymond songs I have a problem with. For me, always the weak point on the albums, they fail to cut it live too. They spoil the flow. Upbeat. Upbeat. Downbeat. Upbeat. Upbeat. Downbeat. Just as you’re getting into it, here comes another introspective Raymond jangler. Or a guitar change. Not even the honey-coated harmonies from Norman and Gerry could rescue things. It was great to hear the long-lost Verisimilitude again, with Norman’s guitar elevating it to greatness. It was even fine to stick My Uptight Life in the middle of the set, sandwiched between the chugging rush of It’s All In My Mind and The First Sight, one of the new album’s highlights. But these songs were played instead of others, not as well as.

Given this was the 2nd-last night of the tour…in the Barrowlands…in front of family, friends and the long-time faithful, I expected a Did I Say, or a Broken, or a Radio, or a God Knows It’s True with Brendan back on drums, or….. y’get the idea. So many great songs at their fingertips and the band chose to sludge the set up with a wee handful of mid-paced clunkers. And ditto for the encore. Here was the band’s chance to turn the years back and remind us why on their night they’re untouchable. Instead, the 4 song finale was like the rest of the set; two classics bookending a couple of set fillers. As great as the wee Grant McLennan cover is (it’s a cracker) and as soaring as the magnificent Everything Flows undeniably is, that’s why I’m feeling slightly let down this morning. Just slightly, mind. Maybe you’ll get a different set at the ABC tonight. Unusually for me, it’s a Fanclub show I can’t make. I hope it’s a cracker.