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Tom Petty

I started writing this the night Tom Petty died. I was sat in a quiet office when the news broke on social media, swirling for a few hours in a vacuum of facts. I didn’t want to believe it. We clung to the notion of a miraculous recovery. It didn’t come, and I sank a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Dog and Fox , appealing to colleagues for some sign that they felt like I did, before heading home. I left it unfinished, but this week’s announcement of the coroner’s report sent me back to it, and back to his music.

Tom Petty’s death hit me a great deal harder than I expected it to. After last year, you’d think we were all used to the idea of being suddenly grief-stricken by the death of someone we never met, but this one bothers me more than Prince or Bowie. Musing on death as one does at these moments, I’m hard pressed to think of many artists I’m going to miss more.

I’d spent much of last year grumbling about the ticket prices for his only European date, and the fact that it was in Hyde Park in London, renowned for mediocre sound brought on by overzealous local noise restrictions. I’d tried to get tickets to the Royal Albert Hall a few years before, but it sold out half an hour after going on sale and well before I got to the front of the queue. And now I never shall.

One grasps for ways to personalise the tragedy. He was too young. He was looking forward to spending time with his granddaughter. Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell will never play with their friend and co-conspirator of 40 years again. But really, it’s the gut punch of knowing I’ll never see them play, a combination of living too late and in the wrong place, too broke or too stubborn. I’m not ready to live in a world that doesn’t have Tom Petty in it.

His songs are so timeless, so imbued with a kind of rock and roll immortality descended straight from Elvis and the Beatles, that it seemed glorious that their creator still walked among us; I grew up expecting bands I discovered in my parents’ record collection to be dead, disbanded or distinctly past their best, but Petty was real, alive and consistently producing high quality work. That’s why it hurts, I think; it’s one thing to be born too late to see the Beatles, it’s another to know in your heart of hearts you probably should have forgone something in order to see someone play while you had the chance.

Full Moon Fever is part of the soundtrack to my childhood; there’s grainy 90s home video of me jumping up and down to “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. The Wilburys albums on tape were part of the soundtrack to long car journeys in the back of my Dad’s old blue Volvo.

Eventually, probably via the DVD of the George Harrison memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I rediscovered the Heartbreakers. That led me back to my dad’s copy of Full Moon Fever. I’m far from alone in holding “Free Fallin’” dear; that is, after all, what makes a classic. The moment it became the soundtrack to a moment in my life, I was on Navy Pier, a gaudy strip of lightbulbs and what America calls cotton candy jutting out into Lake Michigan from the north side of Chicago. I was drunk on Americana, realising that the line between fact and fiction is blurry, eating chilli dogs from Bubba Gump, an actual restaurant chain branded after the one Tom Hanks’ titular Forrest Gump founded. There, probably to this day, plays a band doing something they call live band karaoke, and a quick scan down their song list led me to “Free Fallin’”, without fully appreciating how high the chorus is. My vocal inadequacies aside, it functioned as the perfect three-minute user manual to Americana.

I returned, and worked my way voraciously through the Greatest Hits, Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises and Into The Great Wide Open. By then I was playing bass and guitar in bands, and I developed a keen appreciation of Petty’s songcraft and Mike Campbell’s guitar playing. (Later, I spent a long time studying first Ron Blair and then Howie Epstein, but that’s for another, more bass-centric day…).

Songs weave themselves into the fabric of your life. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a scratch band of friends, playing some of my favourite songs, and we opened with “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. I’m about to put most of that band back together for my wedding reception, and it’ll probably stay in the set. Highway Companion will now always be the soundtrack to clearing out my great uncle’s’ house; Wildflowers the soundtrack to a recording session where we kept accidentally re-writing “Crawling Back To You”.

In time, perhaps this is going to wear off, the urge to seek out the saddest parts of his catalogue, to wallow there, rage against the dying of the light, grasp at straws and insist that someone, some succession of someones, must have screwed up pretty spectacularly to prescribe that cocktail of opiates to a former addict with chronic pain and a renowned work ethic. I’ll get back to the pure, rock and roll joy of “Listen To Her Heart” or “The Waiting”, “Honey Bee” or “You Wreck Me”. And once the immediacy is gone, once the pain fades away a little, probably when my fiancee is out, I’ll sit down with the full 4 hours of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary and the accompanying coffee table hardback book. Right now, I’m not sure I could.

I could wax lyrical about the universality of popular song, about the sheer rock‘n’roll bravado you need to call your band the Heartbreakers, about how that seems to have been coupled to a generous spirit and a true anti-establishment sensibility. Instead, here’s three songs you might have missed.

As Jack Harris and anyone who’s heard him set a pub quiz knows, my all time favourite Tom Petty song is “Listen To Her Heart”.  A gem on the otherwise-underwhelming second album, it features the opening couplet “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine / Keep thinking that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is OK.”

Zombie Zoo is the best Halloween song ever written, and captures something about watching teenagers queue up outside nightclubs that is near-universal. Best/worst lyric: “Sometimes you’re so impulsive, you shaved off all your hair / You look like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care.”

Room at the Top is Petty mid-divorce, bitter, unbending. Mike Campbell wields a Gibson SG with a rare vigour, slicing through the slow, determined groove. Campbell and Benmont Tench trade off uncharacteristically busy solos.

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Georgia Lewis – The Bird Who Sings Freedom. Or, How inexpert axe-wielding makes for a better record…

Like most writing-about-music, this is probably best enjoyed whilst listening to said music, so here it is on Spotify. 

 

I’ve always wanted to make a record in a house on a hill. Some of my favourite albums were made in big old houses; Liege and Lief, August and Everything After (and Recovering the Satellites for that matter) and a whole lot of other peoples’ favourites as well, from Kitty Jay to the Basement Tapes. Luckily for me, about this time last year, that chance came along.

Georgia Lewis is my new boss/friend/client/bandmate, depending roughly on the time of day and professional/social setting. She’s also one of the most determined, dedicated students of folk music I’ve met. She lives, along with her parents and, when they’re not at university, two siblings, in a house on a hill. A mansion, really, albeit one that’s been divided up into many smaller dwellings to suit an age where people neither need nor can afford the whole thing.

Sometimes you meet a new singer and have to slam on the brakes, telling them that they’re really not ready to make the record they want to make. Other times, you have to shove them out of the proverbial plane, assuring them that their parachute will open and everything will be fine. Georgia is a perfectionist, so a gentle but decisive push was required to stop her simply waiting forever.

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Josh Clark’s able assistant Harvey

I think it was my idea. At least, I’m going to take credit for it. Sat in the kitchen one day, guitar on knee, I suggested that rather than spend money we didn’t have going to a studio we didn’t know, why not stay here? We’d always rehearsed in the kitchen, it’s a high-ceilinged room. It sounds great.  With the help of another friend I consider myself very lucky to have, producer Josh Clark, we draped Georgia’s parents’ house in microphones, acoustic panels and miles of cable. I’d done a quick trial recording and I sent it off to Josh a few weeks earlier, and he agreed that it would take very little to get it sounding great. He was right. He usually is. Over the next three weeks or so, Georgia pretty much single-handedly produced her own first album; Josh was on the phone, but we didn’t have the budget to have him in for three weeks, and he had other sessions in. So Georgia did all the engineering, coaxing performances out of each of us, tracking her own parts, learning how best to build this thing she had in her head.The sound of the house is in the music. In a couple of places (certainly the start of track 5, Georgia’s setting of A.E. Housman’s True Lover) you can hear the crackle of logs in the wood stove that kept us warm during February sessions. If you were too cold or needed a leg stretch, it was your turn to go out and chop more wood, never mind if you’d never swung an axe in your life. Suffice to say some of us were better than others. We’d load the split logs into a wheelbarrow, haul them back to the house and peer through the window to see if someone was mid-take or not before opening the door. We fed the stove, helping it along with something called a Looftlighter, an electric contraption something like a hairdryer if hairdryers were designed by aspiring arsonists. I might be more scared of it than I am of the axe. If you’re already wondering how we made it through this process with all our fingers, you should probably look away before I tell you about the compulsory archery breaks…

Afterwards, we’d cook dinner, or retire to the nearest pub to unwind.

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Evan Carson and a forest of microphones

This is a band full of musicians who deserve,and will probably receive, more acclaim than they’ve had to date. Evan Carson is a ridiculously hard-working man, and very tasty drummer you may have seen with Sam Kelly or The Willows. He reminds me a little of my brother, in that he’s rather talented, somewhat too generous with his time for his own good, and I worry about him driving long distances in the middle of the night. He’s making a solo album that is guaranteed to be full of polyrhythmic weirdness I don’t begin to understand. One Sunday, my contribution not needed, I went out; it was my brother’s birthday and I drove north into Gloucestershire to meet him, his girlfriend and my parents for a celebratory pub lunch. By the time I got back, Evan had done all sorts of magical things. Part of me regrets going, because I will never know precisely how he made all those noises. Some of them are made with a thing called a pandero (not a pandorica, apparently), which is a bit like a tambourine and might originate from the Basque region. Others with a set of tiny (Indian?) bells that Georgia’s mother had. Most with one of three bodhrans, variously aluminium/synthetic and wood/goatskin.

It’s really useful when your fiddle player is also a pianist. I’d never heard of Rowan Piggott when I first carried a double bass through Georgia’s door, but by the end of this year I think a lot of people will know his name. There’s his EFDSS-supported project about bees, Songhive, and his solo debut Mountscribe, both of which will be lauded if there’s any justice in the world. It’s on Must I Be Bound where you realise he’s actually a pianist by training. It’s so simple, but so effective. A real piano, again accompanied by the sound of the room it’s in; you can hear pedal noise as well as the wood burner if you listen hard enough.

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I won’t put words in her mouth, but I think Georgia is grasping at some kind of dichotomy or dilemma. It’s a tug-of-war going on between the part of her that wants to dance and the part gripped by the emotional resonance, the real anger that these songs of women’s struggle, of abuse. We’re all in the game of finding something new in the old. Georgia is folding in all sorts of influences most of us didn’t consider. It can’t be overstated how great, how refreshing it is to meet someone whose goals are musical. I routinely meet aspiring professionals whose goals are mostly to do with their social media numbers. Georgia aspires to know more songs, to be a better singer. Rowan collects, publishes. Felix is sonic glue. Me? I’m mostly trying to keep up.

I’m immensely proud of this album for all sorts of reasons. Personally, because I learned a new instrument, a hard instrument, and played a few notes I’m happy with and a lot more that are perfectly adequate. Because I have a new group of talented friends who are growing and bonding and becoming a really great band. Because I’ve met a genuinely brilliant, terrifying, wild and untameable talent who loves folk music more than anyone I’ve ever met and is driven by an unquenchable thirst for more music, better music, for playing with her band.

It’s a privilege to be surrounded by people whose playing you enjoy. This is basically me gushing about how nice it is to be appreciated, and to be surrounded by people whose skill and instinct lines up in just the right way with yours that something ineffable happens. It’s a bit magic, and I’ve missed it.

You can buy Georgia’s album from all the usual places, but if you’d like to support independent music as best you can, here’s a link to my record label.

It’s been a while…

I was going to start this by saying, “Well, I didn’t write much last year.” As it turns out, I haven’t written much here for nearly four years. Time to sweep some cobwebs away.

It’s good for me to write, but it only counts if you finish things and show them to people. I’m going to start by rooting through the drafts folder and finishing things I started last year.

So, by way of a statement of intent, I will publish my musings on a record I played on last year, something on the death of Tom Petty and the first in what I hope will be a series of pieces about the kind of bass players I like. Watch this space. Begin it now…

Music of 2013

I never did finish this, supposedly my customary end of year round-up, but I’ve dug it out of my drafts folder and polished it up a little. Better late than never?

A year of disappointments, perhaps. Hem reappeared after many years away and phoned it in, Richard Thompson continues in the vein that has seen my interest in his new material wane for a decade now, and my favourite band Counting Crows put out comfortably the worst live album of their career to date (but they’re back in the studio and hope springs eternal, right?).

Two shining exceptions to this wave of mediocrity; Ruth Moody‘s These Wilder Things and Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern (which I wrote about for Ryan’s Smashing Life, click it and read). These Wilder Things features the genius of Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan, and you should take any available opportunity to see Ruth and band live. It’s a second helping of the easy-on-the-ear Canadian folk-pop that made her debut so appealing, with added guest gloss from Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker amongst others. The title track is a song of staggering emotional potency and showcases a singer and writer of great poise.

Midlake also returned, sans Tim Smith, songwriter in chief. I saw them at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in August 2012, an improbable warmup to their semi-regular slot at End of the Road the following day. Still with Smith then, and with hindsight [perhaps raging against the restrictions of studio toil, they played an astonishing, vital, visceral set including some songs from the stillborn album we will now never hear. When Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson appeared back at the Brudenell the following spring, I ought to have wondered if something wasn’t amiss. They made no mention of it, but the band had fractured, and were beginning the process of rebuilding that accompanied the writing of Antiphon.

It floats between the mellotron-and-flute floaty psychedelia of The Trials of Van Occupanther and the guitar-driven stylings of The Comfort of Others without being either, retaining the vocal signature even without Smith; sometimes unison or double-tracked, other times picking out the clever, unusual harmonies that betray their status as graduates of the University of North Texas jazz program.

 

Natalie Merchant – Natalie Merchant

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing her pure, delicate vocals on Mermaid Avenue, the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration. The album was a mainstay of my student radio show back in the day, and I must have played this two or three times.

When I finally got round to listening to her solo albums, and then her band 10,000 Maniacs, I found a voice with a considerably greater dynamic and emotional range than that cameo betrays.

It’s been more than twelve years since her last album of original material, and time has weathered that voice a little more. Dropping the needle on Natalie Merchant is a less immediately dramatic experience than, say, Ophelia, her 1998 sophomore release, but the lyrical darkness remains, accompanied by a further drop in pitch and her customary gravity of delivery.

It’s no great sonic departure. Her band sound is still rooted in the 1980s, still laden with strings, but these aren’t necessarily bad things.  “The End” has some of the best strings on a pop record I’ve heard in ages. “It’s A-Coming”, however, slips a bit too close to jam band mediocrity, Hammond organ and “funky” electric guitar, and the pastiche of New Orleans jazz on “Lulu (Introduction)” seems needless, heavy-handed.

Reportedly drawn from 14 years of writing, some of the material has dated in the meantime. If “Texas” is about George W. Bush, “Go Down Moses” must be about Hurricane Katrina, and back-to-back it feels a bit too much like a time capsule from the last decade, its potency somewhat lost in the intervening decade.

At her best, and this approaches it, Merchant is one of the most affecting vocalists of her or any other generation. Her phrasing is astonishing, Joni Mitchell-like in its ability to smooth occasionally wordy, inelegant lyrics and make them sound purposeful, even beautiful. Highly recommended.

 

Band of Horses – Acoustic at the Ryman

And so hipster favourites-turned-How I Met Your Mother-soundtrack-providers Band of Horses roll up at the high temple of country music. I’ve always suspected that under the beards and flannel shirts lay a band who could really, really play, and so it turns out. They can sing, too; high, clear and gloriously in tune.

Stripped of their customary endless reverb and wall of distorted guitars, the songs are reinvented on piano, acoustic guitars and occasional double bass. It’s a brave move, for sure; their voices are exposed for all to hear, and in Nashville of all places. For the most part, both the songs and their voices stand up to this treatment. The set rests draws from all four of their albums to date, and the arrangements are simple but effective. The bowed double bass that now serves to open Detlef Schrempf is deft and satisfying, and by the time they arrive at Neighbor, they are in fine form.

If I have a complaint it is that the whole album runs to only 10 songs and 39 minutes; from two nights of recording, you’d imagine there was some gold left off this release.

Granary Wharf

One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.

Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.

You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.

As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.

I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.

I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.

Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.