Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star

Third/Sister Lovers is a dissolute masterpiece which seemingly documents the fragile psychological state into which Alex Chilton descended in the wake of Chris Bell’s departure and the commercial failure of Big Star’s magnificent first two albums. It’s a wild cocktail of drugs, drink, love, indulgence, despair, madness, spontaneity, introspection and cathartic release all orchestrated by producer Jim Dickinson who had the vision and foresight to indulge Chilton and embrace that gamut of emotions rather than rein it in.

Together, Chilton, original drummer Jody Stephens, Chilton’s then lover/muse/drug buddy Lesa Aldridge, Dickinson, a clutch of top session musicians (including Steve Cropper on one track) and a string orchestra led by violinist Noel Gilbert make a glorious, impertinent sound – with engineer John Fry seemingly trying (in vain?) to prevent it all falling apart. For that is the genius of this album – it goes exhilaratingly close to the edge, constantly threatening to collapse into an over-indulgent mess but somehow manages to stay true. What stops it from teetering over that precipice is the strength of the songs; Chilton’s glorious melodies which form the soft heart of the album; the playing of all involved and Dickinson’s unerring production.

The sheer range and consistency of the brilliance at play is breathtaking: the (im)perfect pop of ‘Kizza Me’, ‘Thank You Friends’ and ‘You Can’t Have Me’ (centred by Stephen’s brilliant drumming); the desperation of ‘Big Black Car’; the woozy romance of ‘Stroke It Noel’, ‘For You’ (with it’s rousing, but still slightly skewed, string embellishments), ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Dream Lover’; the waltz ‘Take Care’ and the positively jaunty ‘O’Dana’.

Even the covers are inspired: Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (the only track to retain Aldridge’s backing vocals); The Kinks’ ’Til the End of the Day’ and the standard ‘Nature Boy’. Only the Jerry Lee-Lewis cover ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ feels like a mis-step – though that track did not appear on the first three versions of the album.

Then there’s the twin peaks (or should that be valleys?) of the morbid ‘Holocaust’ and the audacious ‘Kanga Roo’ featuring Dickinson’s inspiredly deranged drumming, Mellotron and guitar feedback squalls. The power of those two songs is enhanced by their placement together on both the original PVC release (tracks 12 and 13) and my 1992 Rykodisk version (tracks 7 and 8).

Much has been written about this album but its allure is perhaps best summed up by musician Chris Stamey (dBs):

“Art holds up a mirror in which we see ourselves. Sometimes the more wrinkled the surface, the more interesting the angles: you can see around the corners, find aspects of your soul that would otherwise remain hidden.”

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‘Go-to’ Albums – Part One

Over recent days, I’ve been suckered into one of those Facebook ‘tag a friend’ chains which I usually avoid like the plague. This time I enjoyed reading about my Facebook friends’ ‘go to’ albums. These didn’t necessarily have to be the albums that you regarded, in a cerebral way, just those you found yourself wanting to put on the stereo.

So I thought, as I hit Day 3 of this Facebook scam, that I’d share my first few entries on my blog.

DAY ONE:

Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night

TW

The musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, a booze soaked, down at heel, jazz bar singer’s take on the underside of urban American (night) life presented by Waits with a ‘melancholy tear’ in his eye, packed with sharp observations and rapid-fire witticisms.

All of this is adorned by a band of crack jazz musicians backing Waits’ piano and vocals which veer from swoon to growl and even scatting. The quality of the songs remains consistent across a broad stylistic range which adds up to a near perfect album.

Amongst the many gems ‘San Diego Serenade’ stands out as perhaps the most bittersweet break up song in rock history. This is my late night ‘go to’ album (though I’d happily put on any other time too).

DAY TWO:

Teatro – Willie Nelson

willie

When I think about my favourite albums, one name keeps re-occurring. Not an artist, but a producer – Daniel Lanois. Of course, it’s not strictly right to draw a distinction between producer and artist because what albums like these show is that the right producer is very much an artist integral to the process of making truly great albums in collaboration with the names which adorn the cover. In addition, Lanois is a fine artist and musician in his own right. If you doubt the proposition, that a producer can contribute ‘as much as any musician’, read Chapter 4 of Bob Dylan’s memoir ‘Chronicles – Volume 1’ in which Dylan said of the recording of his ‘Oh Mercy’ album with Lanois:

‘He slept music. He ate it. He lived it. A lot of what he did was pure genius. He steered this record with deft turns and jerks, but he did it.He stood in the bell tower, scanning the alleys and rooftops. My limited vision didn’t permit me to see all around the thing’.

Teatro is my favourite Lanois produced album and one of the greatest country albums ever – though to even label it a country album does it a disservice. Puts it in a box too constricting for the beauty within it. Inside the Teatro studio, built by Lanois in an old cinema in Oxnard, California, Lanois assembled a band of master musicians to create a dancehall feel inspired by Nelson’s earliest days playing in dance bands in Texas: Nelson’s lead vocals and spare acoustic guitar, Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals, Robbie Nelson’s keys and Steinway piano, the dual percussion of drummers of Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzo (a left and right handed combination playing a single extended kit in perfect combination) and Daniel Lanois’ guitar, mandolin and (overdubbed) bass.

Together they produced an alchemical rendering of a string of wonderful songs including Nelson’s ‘I Never Cared for You’, ‘Everywhere I Go’, My Own Peculiar Way’ and ‘Home Motel’ and Lanois’ ‘The Maker’. To my mind these are the definitive forms of these songs. This album is important to me because it completely exploded the last vestiges of my preconceptions of country music which, up until that time – despite my love of country rock – still remained somewhat constricted by a misplaced and prejudiced belief that ’straight country’ was a bridge too far. It was life-changing for me and continues to be one of my go-to albums.

If you get a copy of the album, make sure its the recent 2017 ‘The Complete Sessions’ re-issue with bonus tracks and DVD film of the band live in the studio shot by Wim Wenders.

DAY THREE:

L.A. Getaway

LA Getaway

For a period from the mid-60’s and into the 70’s the L.A. music scene became one of the greatest scenes in the history of rock music, particularly if – like me – you love the country rock sound which lay at its core. The mythology of that scene and its central players is well documented in Barney Hoskins ‘Hotel California’. That scene gave us artists such as Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gram Parsons, Delaney & Bonnie, Ry Cooder and John Fahey (to mention but a few). Albums by those artists provide one of the backbones of my music collection (not to mention the roots of today’s ‘Americana’ sound).

Amongst that scene were three outstanding musicians – each merely footnotes to Hoskyns’ book:

  • Joel Scott Hill a guitarist and vocalist in Joel Scott Hill & the Invaders (whose greatest claim to fame was opening for The Rolling Stones in 1964 ina fairly obscure, and reportedly poorly attended, club gig), who later replaced Al Wilson as lead singer of Canned Heat;
  • Bass player Chris Etheridge, a founding member, with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, of The Flying Burrito Brothers (and co-writer of Parson’s classic ’She’). Etheridge also had a stellar career as a studio musician and had played on albums by the likes of Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and Ry Cooder (subsequently also featuring on classic albums such as Graham Bash’s ’Songs for Beginners’, Gene Clarke’s ‘White Light’, Gram Parson’s ‘GP’, Ry Cooder’s ‘ Chicken Skin Music’ and Willie Nelson’s ’ Stardust’); and
  • Drummer Johnny Barbata who had been a member of The Turtles, played sessions for Lina Ronstadt and was a touring-band member of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young at the time. Like Etheridge, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career as a session player including on classic albums by Judee Sills, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and J.D. Souther and become a member Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship.

In 1970, these three musicians got together in the studio over a series of sessions as ‘L.A. Getaway’, a supergroup (of sorts). The sessions also featured a raft of stellar guest musicians including Booker T Jones, Spooner Oldham, Mac (Dr John) Rebennack, Leon Russell and John Sebastian. Backing vocals were provided by Clydie King (Little Richard, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Rolling Stones and Neil Diamond).

The result was this self-titled L.A. Getaway album which, with a running time of only 40:17 and just 9 tracks, is an absolute gem, featuring a mix of outstanding songs from the likes of Mac Rebennack, Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Jerome Green, Booker T Jones and Chuck Berry together with original contributions by Etheridge and Hill (the majority of which were written specifically for the project). The album’s strength is the integrated sound created by the band and their (better known) guests, which manages to be both laid back and gently propulsive, through which the pristine guitar and fulsome piano/organ parts weave mercurially, providing the perfect bedrock for Hill’s dextrous, yet invitingly relaxed, vocals.

Several of the tracks here coulda been, shoulda been, classics – the rollicking blues workout of ‘Bring It To Jerome’; the blue-eyed soul of ‘Long Ago’ on which Hill & Etheridge share vocal duties, and the plaintive gospel/blues of Booker T Jones’ ‘Ole Man Trouble’ featuring Clydie King’s gorgeous backing vocals; foremost among them.

The original liner notes from the album, released in 1971, suggested that the band would soon re-convene for a second album. Alas, that never came to pass. So we’re left with just this single testament to what may have been the best undiscovered band of the 70’s. It ranks up there with some of the best work to come out of that L.A. scene. So far as my ‘go-to’ albums it is on my stereo as often, or more, than (most of) the others.

Seymour’s sparkling tales of home and family

Mark Seymour & The Undertow, The Basement, Sydney – Saturday 19 August 2017

I first encountered Mark Seymour at the helm of Hunters & Collectors when, at a party at a local sailing club, the sounds of the newly released ‘Human Frailty’ sent the mostly 16 year old partygoers into a frenzy, singing along and dancing on tables – some even swinging from the steel rafters supporting the club’s roof. I headed straight to the source of the music, a turntable in the club’s kitchenette, on which spun some kid’s freshly minted copy of the album.

Thus began my affair with the music of Mark Seymour. Over the years I have seen him numerous times in venues ranging from the Sydney Cover Tavern to Selinas, in solo guise at Pier One and the Hunna’s recent reunion at the Enmore. I’ve collected each of his albums with the Hunters & Collectors, solo and, more recently, with the Undertow.

Tonight’s performance at Sydney’s iconic Basement was a fitting culmination of these years of fandom. Seymour remains at the top of his game – relaxed and with a focused intensity. Beside him, the Undertow (Cameron McKenzie (guitars), Peter Maslen (drums) and John Favaro (bass)) is a crack unit which serves as the perfect support providing highly accomplished playing and, most importantly, knowing precisely when to hold back to showcase the songs and when to step forward and lift them to the next rousing level.

The Basement’s low ceiling, crisp sound and cabaret tables provides the perfect setting in which to truly appreciate the songs – if only it wasn’t for the disrespect of the punters huddled around the bar, the transient self-obsessed blowhards whose constant talking made you feel sorry not only for those who’d come for the music but for the band and the real fans who’d missed out on tickets to the sold out show.

Each song is allowed to exert its own personality aided by Seymour’s informative introductions which provides an invitation to the listener to delve more deeply into the songwriter’s intent – for tonight it is very much about the songs and the songwriter. As the two sets unfold the themes of home, country and family emerge – coupled with a sensibility which mixes a robust Australian tone with Celtic songwriting tradition.

What could be more Australian than the opening lines of Home Free: ‘Shark attack on Tuesday/They shut the beaches down’; or Sylvia’s ‘Houses on the avenue/Where the eucalypts grow tall and strong’? The sense of place is strong with Seymour explicitly referencing “the great brown drain” which runs through Melbourne in “Westgate” – a very working class tale of Eddie Halsall, a rigger on Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge, who narrowly escaped death 1970 as ‘Hell broke free when the bridge came down’. And not one, but two, diversions to Adelaide. It’s there too in the historical ballad Castlemaine. But most of all it’s in Seymour’s fine tales which pay tribute to fallen Australian servicemen in ‘What’s A Few Men” and the delicate funeral tale of “Tobruk Pin”.

Then there’s the strong theme of family which is physically represented in the presence of Seymour’s daughter Hannah on supporting vocals adding both an extra dimension to the songs and familial intimacy to the performance. Seymour’s clear paternal pride is evident frequently throughout the night as he flashes glances and a wide smile across the stage. The sense of family is also present in the songs themselves. In ‘Classrooms & Kitchens’ Seymour reflects on his schoolteacher mother – from the early years in their ‘small country house’ in Benalla, Victoria listening to ‘Blue Hills on the radio’ to later times in a nursing home in Kew singing ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘counting angels’. Then Seymour turns to his father in ‘Kosiosko’, recalling the childhood moment, ‘driving high on a switchback road’, when he first discovers that his father was not the infallible person he thought he was: “I never get over the first time/When I saw that he was not that strong/Saw the white knuckles riding on the steering wheel/And I knew that he could steer me wrong”.

Yes, these are very honest Australian tales, told expertly by Seymour – a master songwriter – whose status as an Aussie rock icon often overshadows his rightful position, along with Paul Kelly and Don Walker, as one of the country’s finest songwriters. It’s a craft which Seymour  developed during the Hunters & Collectors days (witness Everything’s On Fire’s ‘kick the can around until all memory ceases’ and ‘fingers like ginger roots’) and continued through a string of sophisticated albums both solo and with the Undertow.

Underlying each of these Australian tales is a strong celtic songwriting tradition which is glimpsed intermittently thoughout the set on songs such a ‘Master of Spin’, ‘Football Train’, ‘Irish Breakfast’, a fine rocking cover of The Pogue’s siren tale ‘Lorelai’ and Seymour’s closing solo acoustic rendering of the traditional ‘Parting Glass’ (made famous by The Clancy Brothers).

Of all the times I’ve seen Mark Seymour, in various guises, perhaps tonight is the most focused, intense, pure and complete rendering of his songcraft. With the assured support of The Undertow, he presents these songs, over two hour long sets, for our appreciation with finely tuned arrangements which are equally capable of rousing rock and intimate solo moments – always in service of the songs.

Gordon Lightfoot at The Royal Albert Hall

 

Lightfoot

It is always a privilege to see music in the glorious surrounds of the Royal Albert Hall. The presence of the Hall, with the sumptuous elegance of its red velvet upholstery, detailed blonde woodwork and majestic dome brings a sense of occasion to proceedings. And the acoustics as the music resonates beneath that dome and around the circular forum are second to none.

Over the years the Hall’s played host to a who’s who of the British and international music aristocracy as is attested to by the photographs which line its vast circular corridors.

I’ve been blessed, as a resident of far removed Australia, to have been able to have frequently visited this august space including for performances by the likes of Sting, Crosby Stills & Nash and Bob Dylan (whose 1966 performance here was one of the high points of his increasingly seminal Bootleg series).

Tonight I’m here to see Gordon Lightfoot, a much overlooked folk singer and songwriter  from Canada who can lay claim to some of the finest songs of the last 50 years including If I Could Read Your Mind (a song with few peers)and Early Mornin’ Rain.

The elegant simplicity of the groove, the beguiling richness of the melodies – which, quietly, but surely, insinuate themselves into your consciousness – are the stamp of songwriting at its finest. And its not just the well known tacks but a pervasive quality throughout the the whole set from I’d Rather Press On to The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald, Sundown and Baby Step Back.

RAH

These gems are delivered in a polished form by a sympathetically understated but precisely accomplished band and Lightfoot himself out front on vocals and acoustic guitar.

And if Lighfoot’s vocals are showing the wear and tear of age,  lacking the sonorous depth which they once had, he is not alone in that. From Nelson to Nash, Kristofferson and, yes, Dylan we are regularly exposed to artists whose vocals may not be what they once were but who nevertheless deliver for us in live performance.

It may require a degree of generosity from the audience, perhaps even a suspension of disbelief. But the point is that such a reaction is not purely altruistic on our part but rather reflects a deeper respect in the audience which is not given but earned. Earned by the pure artistry and genius of the music which these artists have created.

And so it is tonight. I cannot help but be in awe of the artist, the songwriter, the band and the venue. As Lightfoot and his band leave the stage, I do not hesitate to rise, from my seat in the Grand Tier, to my feet to join the adulation bestowed by a solid core of tonight’s audience.

And if the ovation is less than unanimous then perhaps some are simply incapable of suspending disbelief.