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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nashville Day One: Departure And Arrivals

A long but perfectly straightforward journey from Gatwick to Atlanta. The last time I came through this airport in 2003 it took over three hours to be processed. At the desk I was fingerprinted, had my photograph taken and my passport scanned.

“Now wait a minute...” the official said.

Immediately I felt uneasy, wracked with guilt and sensing an impending cavity search and waterboarding might be headed my way. “Is there a problem?” I timidly asked.

“Well now, there’s lot of folks by the name of Smith on this list.”

“Yes it’s a problem having such I common name” I remarked attempting to keep a chipper disposition as his face got gloomier and glummer with every swish of his mouse.

“Yes Sir, I do get to see more than a few every day.”

Then I was off to baggage reclaim and from there over to my gate for Nashville. The airport was temporarily closed because of lightning. Yet we still managed to get on board and up in the air without too much delay.

The only set back in all of this was that my mobile phone wasn’t working which meant I wasn’t able to hook up with Adrian Holmes who is looking after all kinds of logistics for the tour and thus meet up with the team at the rehearsal space.

A shuttle bus dropped me at the hotel - my home for the next few days.

After changing, Biff swung by and took me out to the rehearsal studios. For reasons that I don't fully grasp it's impossible to keep a straight face in Biff's company...

At the rehearsal studios we bumped into this guy wearing a rather stylish titfer.

After a beautiful meal (marred only by a rising sense of utter disorientation that made it feel like the floor was periodically giving away) it was back to the hotel and not long after 11.00pm, blissful oblivion.

Strawbs Dragonfly Nomadness

Once Upon A Time...
Strawbs /Dragonfly/Nomadness

These three reissues mark the long-awaited conclusion of the remastered Strawbs' back catalogue on the A&M label. Their arrival ties up a niggardly loose end for completist fans of the innovative 60s hybrid folk-prog outfit.

Their self-titled debut of 1969 captures founders Dave Cousins and Tony Hooper (along with new recruit bassist Ron Chesterman) in a popish mode with only very distant echoes of their earlier bluegrass incarnation of the Strawberry Hill Boys.

It's a florid pot-pouri of belated psychedelia ("Pieces of 79 and 15"), whimsical pen portraits ("All The Little Ladies" and "Poor Jimmy Wilson"), and Middle Eastern-laced exoticism ("Tell Me What You See In Me", and the Beeb-banned "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus"). Such a kaleidoscopic debut surely deserves to be hailed a psych-folk classic by revivalists such as Bob Stanley, et al.

Having blown the budget with the first record, its 1970 follow-up was an all expenses spared effort. Yet it's this that lends Dragonfly its cache of warmth and intimacy. Produced by Tony Visconti, this is a vivid and lovingly etched pastoral sequence. Joined by Claire Deniz, whose soaring cello is marshalled by sparse but effective arrangements, the rapidly maturing coherence and authority of Cousins' writing distinguishes itself from the somewhat scattergun debut.

Dragonfly represents an artistic turning point for Strawbs. The stoic melancholia of "I Turned My Face Into The Wind", or its redemptive counterpoint, "Josephine For Better Or For Worse" and the shrill orchestrated romanticism of the non-album single, "Forever", (included here as a bonus track) suggest an admirable career in the mainstream could've been theirs. Yet the epic and episodic narrative of "The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake", stylistically different to anything else on Dragonfly (and ironically the weakest sounding piece now), heralds Strawbs' first melding of folk and progressive rock forms proper. It also marks the debut of Rick Wakeman, who would go on to join the band following this session.

Strawbs' hard work on the road had earned decent followings on both sides of the Atlantic but by Nomadness (1975) it had also taken its toll. Opting for a rockier approach, tracks such as Little Sleepy, and the throwaway frolics of "Tokyo Rose" make for jarring listening next to the ethereal beauty of "The Golden Salamander" or the sublime acoustic rushing of "So Shall Our Love Die." Sadly, their last hurrah with A&M proved to be their most uneven and blemished. Criminally overlooked, if you thought Strawbs were just the band who had a dodgy hit with "Part Of The Union," then think again.

Three In A Row IV Strawbs

Grave New World

Bursting At The Seams


Hero And Heroine

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Heavenly Music

This morning I've been listening to the remastered versions of No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. I had goosebumps listening to "The Heavenly Music Corporation" here presented is the, the reversed, and my own personal favourite, the r e a l l y, r e a l l y
s l o w version of this awesome beauty.

It's an odd feeling to have been involved in the production of something (no matter how passing and slight that involvement has been) that I loved so much when I was a kid.

For reasons which are beyond me now, I failed to buy the Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel sessions when they were first released.

So my quest in the USA will be to nab a copy of this set. I'm assuming that Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York will have more than their fair share of competitively priced record shops? Anyone with insider local knowledge please feel free to send me a pointer via the usual channels.

Bags packed for the first leg of the journey. Trivia fans will note that the large holdall accompanied me on P4's West Coast tour.

It seemed like a neat symmetry that the same bag should now make it to the East Coast. The shoulder bag is new as my old one(purchased in Boulder whilst on the P4 tour) gave up the ghost after ten years of consistent abuse. I remain to be convinced that this new whipper-snapper will give as good a service as the Colorado bag (as I stupidly called it) but we'll see how it gets on.

And now - the airport!

My sister Lesley very kindly dropped me at Newcastle airport and following a straight forward flight down to London, the substitute Yellow Room for the next 12 hours is the Gatwick Sofitel.

As I sat in the cavernous lounge of the hotel an email from the editor as Classic Rock asks if I can pick one track from King Crimson's entire recorded output. Hedging my bets I offer two for the price of one.

"The Facts of Life" from The Power To Believe (2003)

A gritty vocal about polar opposites, colliding opinions and the way things are by Adrian Belew cuts between the triple axe surgical slashing of power chords so brutal they'll stomp you flat like a tent-peg. Fripp's solo is like a bull charging headlong toward you. A spine-tingling moment that's equal to anything they've done in their entire career.

"Starless" from Red (1974)

Arguably the best song from the early Crims; haunting mellotron, yearning vocals and a two-note tension-building guitar solo that eventually explodes into a thrilling solo section by founder Crim now guest player, Ian McDonald. The resolution when it comes is guaranteed to have Crimheads of a certain vintage drooling and slightly slack. The last track on the Red album proved to be their epitaph as they broke up a few months after recording this. Stunning from start to finish.

I'm guessing it'll be the latter rather than the former they'll go for. How strange to be asked to provide a desert island choice for Crimson when I'm on the eve of spending about three weeks in the company of this group.

The Animals Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted

Reunion ends with a whimper not with a bang
Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted
Greatest Hits Live!
The Animals
It was 1975 when Chas Chandler persuaded the original line-up to set aside the bad blood that had caused their split back in 1966. Laying down a decent and dependable set of blues and rock covers, the band are in good shape though their trademark edginess has calmed somewhat. Legal wrangling delayed its release until 1977 and by the time Before We Were So Rudely... saw the light of day, any resonance this reunion had was lost in the noise of punk.

Another studio attempt was made with Ark (1983), here with patchy original material from Burdon and co-writers from his solo career - though significantly not from Alan Price. Tame and undistinguished, Ark pales next to its predecessor. Out on tour, the roars of approval from punters were mostly reserved for their glory days, captured at Wembley on Greatest Hits Live.

Sadly Burdon’s voice is often little more than a wayward howl, a punch-drunk heavyweight stumbling around rather than delivering anything with bite or the power that was still evident in 1975. Even the now augmented line-up sound like an anonymous pick-up group going through the motions. A sad end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sunshiney Day

Today the sea fret that has clogged the air like a wet blanket for the last three days finally lifted and sunshine broke through!

Ginger Bob says "it's too hot!"

In the afternoon it was time to say goodbye to Tom and Joe. They are heading off to a holiday destination with their mother and are quite excited about it. I tried to get the boys to give a "mean and moody" pose but this was the best they could do.

Lots of lose ends to tie up now before I start packing for the USA.

Random Penguin 31

Cover illustration by Ken Sequin

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Day Today

We are hemmed in by a sea fret so strong that there are times when I cannot see the end of the street. I hear rumours on the radio that the region is enjoying brilliant sunshine. Not here though. Mist billowed across the road deadening the sound of things both human and mechanical. Even the gulls and other birds looked lost - as though they too were searching for blue skies...

Bernard called round today, bringing with him his monkey wrench. A water pipe in the back yard is leaking. Nothing to worry about in terms of flooding but the trickle needed stemming before it got any worse. Remedial treatments applied, Bernard took a seat whilst I played him some edited musical highlights that included Jim Moray, Ron Sexsmith's latest, DFA and some P2. Ginger Bob made the most of Bernard's visit as only Ginger Bob can.

Bernard suggests that whilst I'm out in the USA I should make a radio show about King Crimson's tour and the history of the band. Now that's what I call a good idea! Podcasts From The Yellow Room anyone?

On the blower today, a conversation with an old pal who, like me, recalls having Eno's Discreet Music before Fripp and Eno's Evening Star was released. The written record and received wisdom says it was the other way around. Common sense dictates that our memories must be wrong. And yet...we remain convinced it must have been that way round.

The news from Wales: all is well with Deb and the gang.

Two emails suggest I may be getting more blue skies than I might be able to cope with. Nashville, I am told by one recently arrived correspondent, "is very, very hot. Too hot for a Geordie." Another email confirms this assertion but adds "having just returned from Phoenix where the temp was 109F every day, Nashville is nice and spring-like!"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jim Moray Low Culture

The Culture Show...
Low Culture
Jim Moray
Some artists take a while to get into their stride whilst others arrive on the scene fully-formed. Having been hailed as the saviour of folk music by just about every broadsheet up and monthly magazine up and down the land, you could be forgiven for taking all the hyperbole about Jim Moray with a very big pinch of salt. The thing is though, he really is every bit as good as they claim, and his fourth album continues a roll of good tunes and canny choices that many artists much longer in the tooth would give their right arm for.

The yearning clarity of Moray's voice on the sublime, uplifting chorus of "Across The Western Ocean" is utterly addictive. That same song is also an eloquent testimony to the infectious off-centre arrangements that infuse this material. His belief that the often bucolic settings of traditional music should rub shoulders with more urban and contemporary airs, are brilliantly realised in "Lucy Wan". Here, a rapping guest spot supplied by British/Ghanian performer, Bubbz, drills down deep into the psycho-drama of the tale much like the sub-woofer sonics underpinning the clattering synthetic beats that dart in and out of the tawdry tale.

If the music is a triumph of different cultures and references then so too is the album artwork. Witty pastiches of pulp fiction pot-boiler paperbacks, with their seedy mix of debauchery and violence, echo the content of many of Moray's songs. His rousing cover of XTC's "All You Pretty Girls" has a blonde bombshell posing beneath the promise "Her Wanton Ways", or how about the cover for the racy reading of "Henry's Downfall", emblazoned with the lurid strapline: ''She belonged to every boy in the gang.'' What else are the verses of those 'I spied a young maiden'-style tunes if not the trash fiction of their days?

Low Culture is so itty-bitty perfect in just about every respect that it's hard not to join in with the tidal wave of praise that's been flowing his way. In the end attempting to apply any credible kind of objectivity proves to be a futile exercise as one beautiful melody after another hauls you in, hook, line and sinker.

The final choice for best album of 2008 just got a lot harder!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Debra, Sam and Alys headed off to Wales today to spend a week with Bill and Kath. The annual trip is something they've always done and though you might think as the kids got older they'd not be so up for sitting in a caravan for a week, they really love it. Debra and I did diaries and realised that August was going to be a grim month for us.

The day after I get back from the USA Debra is going down to Shaldon to spend time with Neil and Halina. As much as I'd like to do the same, time, family commitments and moolah means it's simply not possible.

All told, This we'll have spent about a two days in the month together and represents the longest that we've been apart since we became a couple.

We did that thing where you keep waving until the last possible moment as the car began its journey. Needless to say after they turned the corner I sat down in the kitchen and wept like the big softie I am.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Holy Island Magic

Today we went off to Bernardstrasse...

...where we fired up the Dad Nav (or Bernard as we know him).

In no time at all we were driving over the causeway to Holy Island

After making a pitstop for some supplies it was through the village and into the priory...

...with its lovely view of our eventual destination, Lindisfarne Castle

Along the way, Debbie and Lesley are beguiled by a gorgeous blue flower populating this part of the island...

At the top our long walk in the sun was was rewarded with some beautiful views... much so I got in on the act.

Out across the bay...
...the imposing shape of Bamburgh Castle loomed like some ancient myth...

After a few hours wandering around the village we drove off across the causeway once more. This time it resembled a Hipgnosis cover...

On the way back we bagged ourselves Bamburgh Castle which we had seen in the haze earlier in the day...
...and my own personal favourite, Warkworth Castle.


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