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.
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.
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.
Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.
Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.
Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson. David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.
Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.
Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)
Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.
August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology… (more…)
I know, I know, I said I was going to write about lots of things, not just music, and certainly wasn’t going to post any more music things until I’d finally whipped a piece of fiction/prose/comment of some sort into shape, conceivably even the sort of narrative writing of which blogs are *supposed* to consist. (The fact that I may have only said these things to my self in no way lessens their validity, honest…)
But then this happened.
In honour of Stuart Cable and in defence of his former band, I dug this out, written a couple of years ago. It is n attempt at a semi-articulate defence of a band I loved when I was 13, so much so that I dragged my parents to the wrong end of the country to see them. Thanks for the memories, Stuart; I hope the Great Gig in the Sky is everything it’s cracked up to be.
There is, or was during the height of their fame, an established way to write about Stereophonics, and it tends to utilise cliches like “stodgy”, “pub-rock”, “unsophisticated”, “well-loved by the public but derided by critics”. For those too young/old/prone to living under rocks to recall, it is worth remembering that for a few years either side of 2000, three lads from a small village near Abedare could sell out arena tours at the drop of a hat and filled the Millennium Stadium several times. Undoubtedly, the band responsible for “Mr Writer”, exhorting the journalists to “tell it like it really is”, didn’t do themselves any favours with the NME. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a band that polarised the public/press divide so obviously around that time. Almost to a man, the music press wheeled out tired one-liners and derisory reviews while down the road a queue of paying punters lined up to buy the next album or fill venue after venue. It is, then, easy to say that Stereophonics made popular but ultimately ungainly music that pleased many without ever really achieving anything of artistic merit. However, I’d like to put the case that once upon a time, back in the bright, optimistic late nineties, Stereophonics made a Good Record. This is commonly considered heresy in the music press, but bear with me. (more…)
One of the things that distinguishes Shrewsbury from its fellow English folk festivals (apart from the excellent site, organisation etc) is the consistently high quality American/Canadian acts they get in. In previous years we’ve been treated to The Wailin’ Jennys, Crooked Still, Richard Shindell and others, and the quality was maintained this time.
Ollabelle were a revelation; I wandered into the back of their gig and discovered a group doing one of the best impressions of what The Band might sound like if they’d appeared last week; hardly surprising when you learn that Amy Helm (their regular singer, absent from Shrewsbury whilst giving birth) is Levon’s daughter, but impressive and highly enjoyable all the same. They took turns to sing lead vocals, each band member in turn proving that they could take the spotlight (even a singing drummer, so the comparison stands up!) and some impressive instrumental versatility as well. That much honest, straight-up groove couldn’t be carried off by a British act, it seems. (more…)