Dylanish, New! Now!

Appetite For Destruction

A few months ago I found myself driving Alan McGee – yer actual, Creation Records, King Of Indie Alan McGee – back to his hotel. With the car radio pre-set to Radio Scotland, it was the Billy Sloan show that sound-tracked our short 5 minute drive. As I drove and Alan held court I realised Billy was playing a new track by King Of Birds. My initial reaction was to interrupt my esteemed passenger’s non-stop flow of conversation to say, “Hey! I know these guys!” but a voice in my head suggested that King Of Birds might not be Alan’s kinda thing, so I stopped short of butting in and listened instead, my driver’s-side ear struggling to make out the rich music on the radio as the other battled with McGee’s non-stop enthusiastic monologue about the two seismic Oasis shows that had taken place on Irvine Beach 24 years previously, “just over that hill there, Alan.” As we reached the hotel, the song on the radio was ending and in the half gap that followed while McGee scrambled around the footwell in my car for his bag, I managed to squeeze in a quick but proud, “King Of Birds! I know these guys!” McGee nodded and cocked an ear to the radio, just, would you believe it, as the Pavlovian rush of Oasis’ Rock ‘n Roll Star barged in. “And I know these guys,” nodded McGee in the general direction of my car’s dashboard. And with that, he was out and off.

Had I been brave enough to stop the flow of rich one-way conversation, Alan would’ve heard I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love, the then current single by one of our country’s brightest talents. King Of Birds have been on the go for a wee while now. I first saw them maybe 4 years ago and was instantly taken with their knack for a good melody, a strong harmony and a seemingly never-ending run of songs that flowed as freely as water from a tap. “The McEverly Brothers,” I dubbed them at the time, a tag that sits well with the band’s principal writers. Sometimes a duo, sometimes a full piece band, King Of Birds is essentially Charlie and Stirling Gorman, two brothers with a long-standing relationship with the Scottish music scene. In recent years there have been right turns and wrong, a none-more Gallagher fall-out that threatened to derail all their good work included, but it’s from this frictious tête-à-tête that the seeds of a very fine album were sown.

Eve Of Destruction is the result, a dozen tracks of what you might call Americana. With nods to the twin towers of Michael – R.E.M.’s Stipe and The Waterboys’ Scott, main vocalist Charlie carries the songs with a gravel-throated world weariness. Brother Stirling is the perfect foil. A Peter Buck-obsessed R.E.M. fanatic (the band’s name should be clue enough), he’s never far from a waistcoat and a ringing Rickenbacker, his six and twelve string symphonies colouring the music with the requisite amount of jangle.

Like origami in reverse, the songs take time to unravel, exposing classic melodies from the simplest of chord structures. Built on a bed of dextrously-plucked nylon acoustics, the tunes tumble as jaw-droppingly effortless as the acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil. It’s all in the carefully considered arrangements; tinkling piano, weeping pedal steel, an occasional Springsteen-esque yearning harmonica, dust-blown sweeping strings in every other coda…….it’s ‘proper’ music, played expertly.

The band’s undeniable influences are all over it, from One Horse Town‘s opening Simon & Garfunkel flourish on the nylons and lightning-fast ascending riff last heard flying off the grooves on Bob Dylan’s I Want You, to the keening, Don and Phil-influenced “tell me if you see-eeee her,” from the track of the same name. Rod Stewart could do worse than involve himself in a cover of the crashing When We Were Kings. 12 string Rickenbackers tease out a widescreen Caledonian epic that manages to be both anthemic and reflective. There’s even a drop-out in the middle where ol’ Rod can do that leaning back with the microphone pose he’s been perfecting since The Faces. It’d be the perfect song for getting him back to what he was once good at.

In an era where bands don’t really release singles in the traditional sense, tracks such as Hard Times For A Good Man and I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love were the obvious promotional tracks to release to influential radio folks, but dig deeper and you’ll find the likes of Here And Gone or Peace Of Mind, with its banjo-led hillbilly hoedown by Travis vibe the track most likely to break out the social dancing round these parts.

My favourite track is buried deep on side two. Hang Me Out To Dry, the penultimate track, has a pretty, cascading guitar riff the equal of anything Paul McCartney recorded in his first post-Beatles years. Little shattered jewels of crystalline melody float on a sea of harpsichord and woozy, wonked-out synth. The whole thing reminds me very much of Elliott Smith, and that’s no bad thing at all. It’s so unlike the rest of the album I fear it’ll be forever overlooked by those seeking potential radio-friendly hits – of which, as you now know, there are at least half a dozen. Hang Me Out To Dry though is the diamond in a field of gold.

The whole record has a terrific ambience. It’s airy and spacious and in places brings to mind Neil Young’s last great masterpiece, Harvest Moon. Much of the credit for this must go to mastering engineer Frank Arkwright. Based at Abbey Road, he’s the man Johnny Marr trusted with the task of remastering The Smiths back catalogue a few years ago. Arkwright’s magic touch is all over Coldplay’s The Scientist, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and a whole host of respected records. He’s an inspired choice, no doubt costly, but the results are outstanding.

Packaged lovingly in gatefold vinyl, the finished record is a thing of beauty. The brothers, you feel, have put everything into this release. From the detail on the labels themselves, to the sepia-tinted artwork, to the carefully placed picture (of their parents?) that sits atop the piano on the front cover, everything has been carefully considered. Make no mistake, this is proper heart and soul music. It may be King Of Birds’ one shot at releasing a record (I sincerely hope not), but man!, they’ve gone all out to ensure that, should this be the case, they’ve made their mark with a masterful piece of work.

Don’t take my word for it though. Get yourself along to Stereo in Glasgow this coming Thursday (26th September) where King Of Birds will launch the album in full band mode. I’ll be there. So too, no doubt, will Billy Sloan. McGee hasn’t got back to me yet, the silly man. There are far worse places he could choose to be instead.

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Electra Glide In Blue

Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something  – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.

At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.

Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.

KraftwerkAutobahn (single eversion)

Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown PleasuresShe’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.

That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.

Get This!, Live!

Sun Electric, Outta Sight

It’s common consensus that R.E.M. post Bill Berry were poor, three quarters of the important band they had once been but far less than the sum of those parts on record. After his on-stage collapse from a brain aneurysm, you can’t blame the drummer for wanting to slow things down and call it quits (he’s now a hay farmer in Athens, Georgia), and nor can you blame the other 3 for deciding to continue.

Left-field enough to maintain credibility yet popular enough to sell out stadiums the world over, it would have taken a brave Buck (or Mills or Stipe) to suggest winding things up, but their recorded output from albums 11-15 demonstrates a band limping along like a dog on three legs, one of them cocked and ready to piss their entire legacy up the wall. If you’ve the time and inclination, you could definitely put together a decent compilation of hidden gems from a run of albums that have garnered less plays collectively in this house than Maxinquaye (has anyone listened to Tricky since 1995?) Airport Man from Up, for example, would feature. As would Daysleeper from the same album and perhaps (off the top of my head) Imitation Of Life, Leaving New York, The Lifting, The Great Beyond, Summer Turns To High, Suspicion…. There’s been a few then, but none of those tracks, none of them, would’ve made the cut for 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album featuring Bill Berry’s essential contributions, the album that has quietly wormed its way into the Top 3 of the band’s back catalogue.

Yer man in the street may well point to the twin globe-straddlers Out Of Time and Automatic For the People, but the more switched on have other ideas. In a three-way tie with Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant, New Adventures In Hi-Fi jostles with these ears for pole position. Michael “It’s R.E.M. at its peak” Stipe and Mike Mills are of a similar opinion.

It usually takes a good few years for me to decide where an album stands in the pantheon of recorded work we’ve done. This one may be third behind Murmur and Automatic for the People,” said Mills to Mojo at the time of release. He knew. As Oasis et al went about their boorish business of climbing up the charts and dumbing down the nation, R.E.M. were quietly writing and recording the best album of the era, on the hoof and totally as they went.

Wrapped in a fold-out sleeve that features blurry, arty black and white shots of landscapes, lakes and long-lost diners taken by Stipe from the tour bus as they whizz past on the way to the next show on the Monster tour, it’s a terrific collection, a proper ‘road’ album.

Continuing a theme started by previous support act Radiohead, who recorded many of the backing tracks for The Bends in soundchecks and downtime, R.E.M. set about recording everything as they toured. It was a pre-determined move, the band keen to capture spontaneity with the thrill of capturing a one-take beauty fuelling their focus. From dressing room writing sessions in Philly to soundcheck workouts in Phoenix, the whole lot was committed to tape and analysed while the band’s tour bus zig-zagged its way across America. A lot of the lyrics and a few of the song titles – Departure, Leave, Low Desert – reflect the notion of travel and the end result was the longest-running R.E.M. album to date, a road-worn pick ‘n’ mix of Monster-era rock, pastoral pop and cameos from Patti Smith.

The understated opener, the slowly creeping and crawling How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us is a cracker and unlike anything the band had released to date. The 5 note piano refrain and the spy theme guitars carry it, but peer underneath and you’ll spot the shoots of electronica that came into full bloom on the next album, Up.

R.E.M.How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

Departure carries on spectacularly where Monster left off, grooving on a turned-up-to-11 Les Paul riff reminiscent of Green‘s Pop Song ’89. Mike Mills’ harmonies soar like they haven’t since Out Of Time‘s Belong while Stipe fires off a rapid, alliterative opening line about just arriving in Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain and Salt Lake City’s salt flats after a 26-hour trip. Travel again.

R.E.M.Departure

Elsewhere, Stipe crowbars in obscure references to fuck-ups, fighters, and motorcycle riders and, man!, I could listen to him sing the words ‘motorcycle rider’ all day long. Departure is almost R.E.M. by numbers, but more importantly, it’s one of the last truly fantastic rock tracks the band would release.

The last words should go to the closing track. Electrolite may well be the jewel in the album’s crown. The product of a Phoenix soundcheck, wonky start ‘n all, it’s classic R.E.M., the track to turn to when you need to remind yourself what a great band they once were. Michael Stipe’s lyric, a reflection of his life in L.A. and the people watching he did on Mulholland Drive, sat untouched for two years until the right tune came along. It duly did in Phoenix, with Mike Mills offering up the piano-led track that provided the scaffolding for the finished article.

R.E.M.Electrolite

Stipe’s Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Dean refrain is the clincher, a lyric harking back to the glory days of Hollywood, an unintentional metaphor as it would turn out, for his own band’s golden era.

Gone but not forgotten

Music, eh? Bloody Hell.

There you are on the commute home, not really aware that you’ve somehow arrived at Kilwinning town centre…..red light, clutch in, brake, drop the gears, stop….when True Faith pops up on the radio and you find yourself in tears, a trickle at first then quickly a torrent, willing the pedestrians to not look in your direction as they busy themselves across the zebra crossing. It’s the bang and crash of the intro, where the mind’s eye replays those two clowns who slap one another silly in the video that triggers it. I feel so extraordinary, sings Barney. I feel overwhelmed. I drive home in a daze. Music is a powerful thing.

I had Power, Corruption and Lies playing earlier, New Order‘s essential second album, and such is the way it’s wrapped up in epoch and emotion, I listened to the entirety of it whilst thinking about two pals who are no longer here. From different social circles, Mark and Derek‘s paths crossed on the odd occasion, and while they’d have a pint and a catch up if we somehow found ourselves part of the same group in the pub, they weren’t friends in the real sense of the word. I’d grown up with Mark from the age of 3 or 4 and in later years we’d sit together watching the football at Kilmarnock. He moved with his work to London around the time I started mastering the plank of wood I had the cheek to call an electric guitar, and by the time I’d started playing in bands, I’d met Derek. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, my football world has never really collided with my music world.

New OrderAge Of Consent

I remember Mark buying the album on cassette from John Menzies on the strength of the fact it was the parent album to Blue Monday, a record that was on perma-spin on every record player in our world. He was a bit put out because the band, not for the last time, had left the big hit off of the album.

As it played for the first time, the two of us listened and reacted with differing views. Despite the opening rush of Age Of Consent, all signature Hook bassline, keyboard swells and asthmatic lead guitar, Mark found it an underwhelming listen.

Listening earlier on today I was thinking about this, remembering him perched on the edge of his bed, his autograph of Killie’s John Bourke stuck to the headboard but curled at the corners where the Sellotape had stopped, me on an ancient Star Wars bean bag, both of us with eyes to the floor in studied concentration as Age Of Consent rattled out of the speakers that were attached to his midi hi-fi. By the second verse I was converted. Mark less so.

You’re hard to please,” I told him. “This is magic!” I distinctly remember the screwed-up ‘but it’s not Blue Monday‘ face he offered by way of reply. He liked second track We All Stand even less. “Barney can’t sing,” he pointed out, stating the obvious. “If this was a record I’d have lifted the needle by now.”

As the tape made its way to the end of the first side, Mark began flicking through his records with a face only someone who thinks they’ve wasted their last £3.99 can make. Alighting on his chosen mood lightener, You’ve Got The Power by Win signalled the end of our New Order listening session. Had he flipped the tape over there and then I like to think he’d have been stopped in his tracks by the beauty of Your Silent Face but it wasn’t to be.

New OrderYour Silent Face

 

I’m not sure he ever got to the second side, to be honest. He loved New Order though, did Mark, but he was always more of a True Faith kinda guy.

Derek, on the other hand, loved Age Of Consent. It was, as he was quick to offer, should you bring it up, the first track from the first New Order album where they broke free of the straightjacket they’d cul-de-sac’d themselves into for Movement, the first truly great New Order record, the album where New Order discovered who they really were and unwittingly invented what would come to be termed (ugh) indie dance.

When Age Of Consent was playing earlier, my first thought wasn’t of Mark’s bedroom in 1986 but of Kilmarnock’s Shabby Road rehearsal rooms in 1991. Our band rehearsed there and on the odd occasion when we were waiting for everyone to arrive, Derek would jump on the drums and offer up the only thing he could just about play, a stiff-limbed and stilted grinned thrashing beat, coloured by 100 mile an hour hi-hat action, denim jackets and wild, untamed shoulder-length hair.

As it dawned quite spectacularly on me for the first time today, he was (almost) playing the frantic hi-hat ‘n snare combination from Age Of Consent. He’d get 25 seconds or so in before he’d start losing time or drop a stick (or both), but how I’ve never noticed it until now, I’ll never know. It’s playing as I write, and I’m suddenly right back there in that room, peeking out from under my collapsed quiff/beginnings of a bowl cut (this was, after all, post-Smiths and peak-Roses) grappling with my shitty guitar tuner, getting ready for the only night of the week that truly mattered. Honestly, Del, we might’ve taken the piss, but you weren’t that bad at it after all.

As for Your Silent Face, that was played recently at Derek’s funeral. Melancholic, uplifting, stately and imperial, it’ll never be bettered. It’s such a powerful record and I’m not ashamed to say my chest caves in and I collapse a little whenever I hear it. I love that music as powerful and meaningful as this can catch you unexpectedly as you shift through the gears on the bike or wrestle with a burst bin bag or search in vain for Lazy Garlic in Morrison’s, but when it gets you, it’s got you. To paraphrase Alex Ferguson, music, eh? Bloody hell.

Cover Versions

Prophet vs Profit

Paul Weller gives nary a thought to what others think of him and his music. Splitting The Jam at the height of their success for the political, pastel posturing of the Style Council ruffled more than a few feathercuts. Time and hindsight has been far kinder on his second band than you’d have believed back in 1985 though, and you can’t argue with the stellar run of singles they released during their 5 albums in 5 years lifespan. Indeed, if all he’d been known for was the music he recorded with the Style Council, Weller would these days be something of a cult hero. For every bizarre collaboration with Lenny Henry there’s a Gil Evans Blue Note arrangement to sate yourself with, and despite the Parisian pretentions, Marriott moustaches and C&A catalogue poses, there’s a strong body of work to be (re)discovered.

There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the careers of Neil Young and Paul Weller. Both left successful bands twice before going it alone. Both have defied the critics to release solo albums that are the equal of and better than the material in their supposed golden years. Both stubbornly plough their own musical furrow and fans follow on or fall by the wayside as a result. And both have fallen foul of their record company when they’ve taken an unexpected turn in the road and delivered an album like none before it. Neil Young has done this more than once. On the Kratftwerk-inspired Trans he adopted analogue synths over guitars, a concept album of sorts that highlighted the day to day issues experienced by his disabled son. When Young presented David Geffen with the limp rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin’ just 12 months later (how’s that for a change in direction?!), his label boss famously sued him for offering up an album that was “deliberately uncommercial and unrepresentative of Neil Young.”

Weller’s seeming faux pas was to offer up in 1989 a 6th Style Council album that was unlike anything he’d recorded previously. Synths replaced Hammonds. Machines replaced drummers. Blissed-out love replaced anger and fury. You could forget the guitars too – there was nary a jazz chord or fuzzed-up Isley Brothers cop off within earshot. This was Deep House music; clean and linear yet soulful and emotive. With the Stone Roses on the verge of indie guitar ubiquity, Weller had seemingly pulled a dud. “We don’t have to take this crap,” thought Polydor. The album – the presciently-titled Modernism: A New Decade – was shelved.

Had the record company been more switched on they’d have been aware of the house scene that had been bubbling nicely underground for a couple of years. Weller was drawn to house music for the same reasons he liked the mod scene. Here were groups of people getting off on soulful American records and, much in the way he’d paid homage to the first wave of US soul by recording versions of Heatwave and Big Bird, he set about recording his own faithful version of one of the era’s anthems, Joe Smooth‘s Promised Land.

Style CouncilPromised Land (Full Length Version)

Promised Land grooves on a bed of rattling drum machines and rolling, tumbling piano, bluesy and upbeat. Setting yer actual house ablaze, electro bleeps and keyboard stabs herald in a whole new chapter in Weller’s career. Flutes flutter in and out of the mix, a keyboard motif joins it all together and Weller duets with DC Lee in a series of gospel-tinged “oh yeahs” before the pair of them hit the verse. It’s great.

Brothers, Sisters
One day we’ll all be free
From fighting, violence, people crying in the streets
When the angels from above
Fall down and spread their wings like doves
We’ll walk hand and hand,
Sisters, Brothers
We’ll make it to the promised land

A spiritual anthem for unity and hope (and the consumption of MDMA), it resonated with those for whom the house scene was everything. Me? I wasn’t at all into house music but I did really like the new Style Council single. I had no idea it was cover. I came to it via the radio and, with no long-standing relationship with Weller (I had Funeral Pyre on 7″ but I was barely out of short trousers when The Jam were number one) I could listen to it without the appreciation of what came before. That’s the reason I still rate Bowie’s Tonight album far higher than I’ve any right to (I bought it aged 14 on the strength of Blue Jean and played the album to death), but unless you’ve grown up with the artist, you’ll find a fondness for your point of entry that perhaps doesn’t match the accepted version of what’s hot and what is not. As I think about it, the Style Council’s version of Promised Land (alongside the Stone Roses pre-gig playlists) was the reason I looked at house music from a different perspective. Maybe it wasn’t all generic rubbish after all.

Joe SmoothPromised Land

Despite the relatively decent placing of Promised Land (number 27), Polydor got cold feet and decided against releasing Modernism. Ever obtuse, Weller had kept it off the album at any rate. Modernism eventually found its way onto the Style Council’s all-encompassing ‘Adventures Of....’ box set and in more recent times has benefited from a vinyl reissue – haven’t they all – and it remains an interesting product of its times.

A couple of years later, Weller would re-use the album’s That Spiritual Feeling for the b-side of his Into Tomorrow single, the track that truly kickstarted the next phase of his career. “Guitar music is on the way out,” a Decca executive famously told The Beatles at the start of the 60s. I wonder if Polydor regret being so dismissive of Paul Weller as he told them the same in 1989? If only they’d stuck by him. Re-strapping his guitar certainly paid dividends for the ever-restless Weller. What record company wouldn’t want a slice of those profits?

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!, New! Now!

Sunshine From Leith

Ross Wilson has had a colourful life, growing up in difficult surroundings on a Leith housing estate, opting out of school from a very early age – “abandoning my education, I’m embarrassed to say,” – and finding himself in situations that none of us would wish to be in. Despite (or because of) this, he’s quiet, unassuming and completely humble.

His song ‘Grateful’ that opens Blue Rose Code’s 2016 album ‘And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ distils perfectly his life so far.

When I wake in the morning now, I try to be thankful,” he sings, in an effortless East Coast croon. “Did you know that I almost died? I’ll never be cool….I’ll never be good looking….I’ll never be rich, but Lord I am grateful.” It’s a simple song; short, direct and enhanced at the very end by a terrific gospel-tinged choir that competes with the Staple Singers for uplifting joyfulness.

Ross’s audience is grateful too. I watched him perform live over two extraordinary evenings in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre last weekend. A super-intimate venue that holds just 100 folk, the HAC is possibly our country’s greatest hidden secret. Audiences and performers alike have really taken to its ‘gig-in-your-living-room’ feel. The front row is a decent arm’s stretch from the headliners’ fretboards, the back row closer to the action than the front of all other ‘intimate’ venues and the performers there really respond to the cosiness of it all.

Blue Rose Code is Ross Wilson. Depending on the gig, he can have 3, 4, 5 or indeed, as when he’s fronting his amazing Caledonian Soul project, dozens of musicians on stage with him. He’s been in the HAC before as a 3 piece. On Friday and Saturday his band appeared as a duo, the sum of the parts a fraction of the greatness on display. Playing two different sets, Ross took us by the collective hand and led us through the whole gamut of human emotions. Accompanied by the fabulous Andy Lucas on keys, the duo whipped up a quiet storm of intensity.

Wilson doesn’t so much play his guitar as attack it; pinged harmonics zing across the room while back of the hand percussive beats provide rudimentary four to the floor rhythm. Listening to him play, it’s as if a tap has been turned on, a slow drip at first before gushing and overflowing, unable to be held back. Melodies cascade and tumble from his fingers, complicated arpeggios formed from open-tuned guitars and a handspan as wide as the Clyde. Jazz chords give way to ancient folk melodies that in turn part their way for minor key melancholy. It’s rhythmic, tuneful and breathtaking.

When he sings, it goes up a whole other level. Anyone can sing, but no-one can sing like Ross Wilson. It’s all in the phrasing, y’see. He stretches words beyond all recognition, he st-st-st-stops suddenly, breaking into spontaneous scatting, he barks, yelps and laughs off-mike and he takes these brilliant long run ups from the back stage to the microphone, using the dynamics of an amped-up voice like no-one I’ve ever seen. Any singers in the room over the weekend must’ve gone home with a few pointers on how to get the best from their voice in the live setting.

Behind him, strapped in for the ride of his life, Andy Lucas riffs behind the guitar on his keys; piano one minute, Fender Rhodes the next, forever on a mission to incorporate a lost blue note or a major 7th flourish. It’s a beautiful sound, incredibly nuanced yet totally spontaneous. On Friday the duo sound-checked with recent new track Red Kites. By the time it appeared in the show, it was twice as long, Andy had added a second vocal and Ross was off on some freeform guitar odyssey. For the entire weekend, Lucas never takes his eyes from Wilson’s fretboard. He knows when to cut in, when to take over and when to play softer, allowing the spotlight to shine on Wilson’s unique talent. It’s incredible stuff.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The music on offer is superb. Recorded, it’s quite the thing, the perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night in or a Sunday morning sudoku. In the live setting though, the songs soar, a scorching cross-pollination of Chet Baker’s stoned jazz, the voodoo folk-blues of John Martyn and the meandering twilight ambience of the Blue Nile. You really should investigate if these reference points are your kinda thing. It’s led to Ross being offered tours of Canada, the west coast of America and Australia. With 4 studio albums to his name alongside a handful of live albums and non-album EP releases, Ross Wilson has quietly built a mightily impressive back catalogue. A cottage industry with no financial help from anyone other than his supporters, it deserves a wider audience and greater recognition. He’s easily one of Scotland’s greatest talents, a real hidden gem of a songwriter and a peerless performer.

All photographs courtesy of Chris Colvin

Alternative Version, demo, Hard-to-find

In Search Of The La’s

In 2003, MW Macefield wrote a book called ‘In Search Of The La’s‘. Subtitled A Secret Liverpool, the author donned his best Inspector Clouseau raincoat, popped an oversized magnifying glass into the top pocket and hopped on the train to Lime Street in the hope of tracking down Lee Mavers, the wayward genius responsible for steering the good ship La’s aground. Despite reforming for a short, badly-received tour a couple of years after the book hit the shelves, and an even less successful venture a few years after that, I’ve now come to accept that The La’s are back residing in the ‘where are they now?’ category.

A good La’s detective will tell you that this promo pic of the band does not relate to the line-up that played on the tunes below.

Mavers’ legend continues to grow by the day and in the smallest corners of the internet he’s regarded as our generation’s version of Syd Barrett or Peter Green; the band leader with (way) out there ideas that were too far gone for even the most open and creative of minds in his band.

Lee tuned his guitars to the hum of his fridge.

In order to baptise his recordings with the relevant credentials, he demanded the Abbey Road desks he’d procured remain covered in their original 60s dust.

Despite at least a dozen goes of recording an album, he said nothing came close to the demo they’d recorded themselves of non-album b-side Over. Over, as you may well know, was recorded live. To 4 track. In a stable. There’s a Jesus pun to be had here, but Mavers is not the messiah, he’s just a very haughty boy.

The small but (im)perfect body of work he’s given us rattles and rolls and chimes and chirps with effervescent Scouse enthusiasm and a scrubbed, scuffed, skirl. Alongside the actual album, you’ll find all manner of demos and outtakes if you look hard enough. The La’s album was given the Deluxe treatment about a decade ago and the inclusion of the extra tracks shone a light on just how many producers they worked with in their vain search to nail the perfect version. The 4 CD box set that appeared afterwards only goes to confirm this. Dig deep and you’ll uncover new things in old tracks. My sister a few weeks ago gave me a copy of the BBC Sessions album. Playing the record is much more La’s than sticking on a CD as you go about your business, and I’ve been re-listening with open ears and open mouth. Some of these session tracks knock the released album versions for six.

One of the oldest La’s songs, the version of Doledrum from the band’s 1987 Janice Long session is the perfect example;

The La’sDoledrum (Janice Long session, 2.9.87)

Those percussive Magic Bus off-beats are magic! Maver’s vocal is strong, his rhythm playing an excellent counterpoint to the skifflish back-beat. Paul Hemmings sprightly solo in the middle is mightily whistleable. but it’s John Power’s high falsetto backing vocal that’s the song’s secret weapon, carrying the whole thing to the perfect multi-vocalled end. Like so much of The La’s material, there’s so much going on in such a simple song. Listen to it. Listen again. And again. I guarantee you’ll spot something new each time.

Possibly even more upbeat is the long-shelved version recorded with John Leckie;

The La’sDoledrum (John Leckie version)

Faster and with less emphasis on the percussive off-beats, the Leckie version features elongated Mavers’ harmonies and a lovely, subtle Power aah-aah-aah sigh where the solo should be. Mavers would probably tell you that this version is unfinished, or is lacking the requisite magic or doesn’t have enough 60s dust sprinkled atop. For what it’s worth, it would have been a worthy addition to that one and only album. The version that made the final cut is positively lethargic by comparison. Indeed, visit the forum on thelas.org and you’ll find plenty of discussion around the tracklist of the perfect La’s album; the Leckie mix here, the Bob Harris mix there, the Mike Hedges mix for this, the John Porter take for that. It’s a happy minefield when you get going.

I’m off to Liverpool this coming week with an itinerary packed full of Beatle-ish activities, Tate visits and a trip to Anfield. While I’ll forever be in search of The La’s, or at least Mavers, I’ll most definitely not find the proud Evertonian anywhere near the home of Liverpool FC, and I can’t imagine he’ll be propping up the bar in the darkest corner of The Cavern Club, but, y’know, y’never know. I like to think that I’ll pass him on Matthew Street, that he’ll recognise me (we were holiday pals for a week in 1993) and he’ll punch me playfully on the arm before we step into the nearest pub for a chinwag and a gin pomade, “kiddo.”