Thursday, 13 December 2007

A Year of Gigs

I'll wait until I see Bruce Springsteen next week before deciding what my favourite gigs of the year were. However, as an aide moi, I've just gone through my diary to remind myself who I did see live in 2007.


The Broken Family Band @ The Tricycle Theatre

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan @ Shepherd's Bush Empire


The Decemberists @ Shepherd's Bush Empire
The Hold Steady @ The Borderline


Arcade Fire @ Brixton Academy

Malcolm Middleton @ King's College

Andrew Bird @ Bush Hall

Dan Bern @ The Borderline

The Broken Family Band @ Koko


Camera Obscura & Au Revoir Simone @ Koko


Carrie Rodriguez @ The Luminaire

Wilco @ Shepherd's Bush Empire

The National @ The Astoria


Ryan Adams @ LSO St Luke's

Andrew Bird @ The Scala

Beirut @ Koko


Josh Rouse @ Madam JoJo's

The Hold Steady @ Shepherd's Bush Empire

Grand Drive @ The Luminaire

Cambridge Folk Festival


Tom Russell @ The Luminaire

The Hold Steady @ The Electric Ballroom


Richard Hawley @ The Roundhouse

Guy Clark @ Bloomsbury Theatre

Rachel Unthank and The Winterset & Devon Sproule @ Spitz


Will Kimbrough & Tommy Womack @ The Borderline

Old Crow Medicine Show @ King's College

Son Volt @ The Luminaire

Justin Townes Earle @ The Luminaire

Mark Olson @ Dingwalls

Charlie Louvin @ Dingwalls


Jim White @ The Borderline

Rilo Kiley @ Shepherd's Bush Empire

Monday, 12 November 2007

Three Sheets To The Wind

An Excellent Book About Beer By Pete Brown

My friends Dave and Natalie gave me this book for my birthday last month. Remarkably, considering I'm a paid-up CAMRA member and have taken days off work to attend beer festivals, it's the first book about beer I've ever read cover to cover.

Pete Brown, a drinks marketeer and author of Man Walks Into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer, takes a tour around the world's most noted beer-producing nations exploring its role in each country. Brown's an entertaining tour guide, illuminating everywhere he visits by not only recounting his pub crawls but also trying very hard to find out why beer drinking in other countries rarely results in the vomit-strewn pavements it so often does here.

He enjoys cerveza y tapas in Spain, sings along with oompah bands at Oktoberfest and marvels at the Bond villain architecture of the Asahi brewery in Tokyo. The section on America is fascinating. I've long been a fan of American beer like Sam Adams and Anchor Steam and the book contains a revealing insight into why US beers are currently so tasty. Karl Ockert, the brewmaster at Portland's Bridgeport Brewery, says:

"In the UK you had a real ale tradition that was almost wiped out. CAMRA rescued it, but because they were trying to preserve something. Here, [in the USA] the tradition of making beer decent beer was completely wiped out. Destroyed. There was nothing to preserve. So craft brewers started with an attitude of experimentation. We don't worry about whether something is traditional not, just if it's great beer."

It's an interesting point. The book is full of them. It also made me realise that I'm still probably too much of a beer conservative. I think the reason I've never been a fan of Belgian beer is not because I don't really like the taste. It's because they don't taste like the British beers I love. Any suggestions of what to broaden my tastebuds with gratefully received.

As I said, the book's full of the sort of trivia that's irresistible to pub quiz bores like myself, my favourite being the fact that home brew was illegal in America until 1979 (God bless Jimmy Carter).

I actually bought a copy of Pete Brown's previous book a few years but never opened it. That was until last night when my thirst for beery facts was not yet satisfied.

Since most of my posts here have so far been music related, this is a perfect opportunity to share a few songs from the superb Barstool Mountain blog. Hank Thompson, who died last week, was a master of beer-inspired song. You can download two of his classics below.


Three Sheets To The Wind by Pete Brown

Man Walks Into A Pub by Pete Brown


MP3: Hank Thompson - Six-Pack To Go

MP3: Hank Thompson - Hangover Tavern

Friday, 9 November 2007

Tom Russell on Radio 2

The Cowboy's Last Ride, Thursdays, R2, 11pm

When I saw Tom Russell play The Luminaire earlier in the year he mentioned that he'd recently made a four-part radio series for the BBC about the history and myth of the American cowboy.

The first part aired last night. In episode one Tom takes in the massive influence of Mexico on cowboys (they used lassos and wore wide-brimmed hats long before Americans) and the contribution that Easterners Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, novelist Owen Wister, and artist Frederic Remington had on creating today's image of the cowboy.

Tom also talks a little about how cowboy and western themes fit into his own songwriting. (If you're not familar with Russell I've posted a couple of MP3s below - one cowboy song, one State of the Union address).

The series continues next Thursday but you can listen to it all on the Radio 2 website.


MP3: Tonight We Ride

MP3: Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?


Wounded Heart of America (Tom Russell Songs)

Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs

Monday, 5 November 2007

Cheer up, it's nearly Christmas!

Malcolm Middleton Vs. Spice Girls For Christmas #1

I normally say "Bah humbug" to any mention of Christmas before the end of November but the news that Malcolm Middleton is making a 1000/1 bid for festive chart glory is more than welcome.

The former Arab Strapper is releasing We're All Going To Die from his brilliant album A Brighter Beat as a single on 17 December. As Malcolm explains on his MySpace page, "Although at first seemingly negative, the song is intended to make people think about being alive and making the most of our time here, which to me are your generic ‘Xmas’ themes... Dying is a bit like writing a letter to Santa. Unless you've been a good boy or girl, you're fucked."

You can read more about the release and hear the song, as well as Malcolm's other seasonal ditty, Burst Noel, at

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Jim White

The Borderline, Saturday 3 November

It's always as entertaining to hear what Jim White has to say as much as what he's got to sing. Last night's packed show was no exception with Jim sharing banter with his two bandmates (guitarist Pat on particularly fine form) and recalling some wonderful tales from his troubled stint as a New York cabbie, a period in his life when you suspect he struggled with his own psychosis as much as difficult passengers. These included attempting to share a 'vision' with Woody Allen and yelling driving tips to Paul Simon: "Slow down! You move too fast!"

Jim is always at pains to stress that songs about subjects like a motor home-driving Jesus are only fanciful to audiences who've never stepped foot in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida. Anyone who has seen his star turn in the superb film Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus won't disagree.

Jim's approach to merchandise is also refreshingly unique. Forced to finish his set by 10.30 to accommodate the Borderline's Saturday club night, Jim set up stall on the pavement outside to sell not only CDs, but also shirts, jackets and caps he didn't want to lug home after a month of touring (those weight allowances on flights can be restrictive).

I've yet to hear the new album, Transnormal Skiperoo, but from what Jim played last night it sounds as gloriously off-beam as his previous releases.

If you've never encountered Jim White, this short documentary about the new record hints at what you're missing, as do the MP3s to download below.


MP3: Jim White - Still Waters

MP3: Jim White: If Jesus Drove A Motor Home


Transnormal Skiperoo

Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus DVD


Monday, 29 October 2007

It's A Mad Mad Mad Bob World

My First Take On I'm Not There

"It's partly like a dream, partly like a drug and partly like a Dylan song."

That's how Todd Haynes described his audacious and amusing vision of the "many lives of Bob Dylan" at the screening I was at last night. It's a pretty accurate summation.

The first Dylan track in I'm Not There is Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, a song that conjures up images as odd as Shakespeare "speaking to some French girl" and a preacher with "twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest". Starting with a song that makes little literal sense sets just the right tone for what follows.

I'm Not There is unlike any music biopic you've ever seen. Instead of recreating a linear narrative à la Walk The Line or Ray, Haynes essentially riffs on various aspects of Dylan's biography and art, so instead of one actor playing 'Bob Dylan' we have six embodying seven distinct persona, none of which are called Bob Dylan.

I'm Not There - Trailer

Cate Blanchett is probably the most unusual bit of casting. She plays Jude, the drug addled rocker who alienates his folk fans by 'going electric'. It was fun to see Haynes' depiction of the Dylan's notorious 1965 Newport performance (complete with axe-wielding Pete Seeger) just a few weeks after seeing The Other Side Of The Mirror. However I found the less obviously fact-based segments more entertaining.

Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor, plays 'Woody Guthrie' an 11-year-old hobo with a penchant for metaphysical songwriting. More bizarre is Richard Gere's 'Billy'. This imagines the reclusive Dylan recast as Billy The Kid, who having survived Pat Garret's bullets hides out in the town of Riddle, a Wild West backwater that brings to life some of the weird Americana that Dylan channeled on The Basement Tapes.

Other aspects of Dylan's life weaved into the film are his marriage breakdown (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his reluctance to become the Voice of a Generation protest singer (Christian Bale). Bale also reappears as a 1980s born-again Christian. The Dylan who ate half a library, as memorably recalled in Chronicles, becomes 'Arthur Rimbaud' - Ben Whishaw essentially getting all metaphorical in straight-to-camera monologues.

This unusual approach to biography works brilliantly. In the post-screening Q&A Todd Haynes remarked that Dylan's life has always been markedly delineated - once the protest singer phase ended that was it, he moved straight into psychedelic rocker. Don't look back indeed. I've read and watched a more than healthy amount about Bob Dylan over the years and still find him elusive. That's part of his appeal. Every new thing you learn about him seems to add a further layer of mystery and intrigue. And I'm Not There is nothing if not intriguing. While the film might not elucidate on specifics about Bob Dylan's life it certainly makes you think about him a lot more.

The soundtrack, of course, is terrific - a mix of Dylan originals and covers by the likes of Calexico and Mason Jennings. The film's a visual treat too, taking blatant cues from sources as varied as the French New Wave for the Ledger/Gainsbourg segments and McCabe & Mrs Miller in the Richard Gere western scenes.

Hardcore Dylan fans will obviously have a field day spotting every reference in the film but I'll be more interested by what friends who aren't as familiar with Dylan's biography and songs make of it. I hope it might convert them. I suspect they'll leave the cinema entertained but baffled.


MP3: Bob Dylan - Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again

MP3: Jeff Tweedy - Simple Twist Of Fate

MP3: Sufjan Stevens - Ring Them Bells

Amazon: I'm Not There Soundtrack

Related Posts

Bob Dylan: The Other Side Of The Mirror

The Old, Weird America

Radio Bob Returns

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Mark Olson

Dingwalls, Wednesday 17 October

In the early 90s, The Jayhawks, more than any other band, opened the door to me then labeled I owned a second-hand copy of Hollywood Town Hall before I owned a CD player and while my school friends were singing along to Cigarettes and Alcohol, I was discovering the delights of the steel guitar.

Originally The Jayhawks had two singer-guitarists, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, but Olson quit in 1995, upping sticks to Joshua Tree, CA with his new wife Victoria Williams. I never got to see the twin-pronged Jayhawks live. I seem to remember that they played a London gig the day before my English A-Level.

Mark Olson's new album, The Salvation Blues, is his first proper solo record and sits comfortably alongside his albums with The Jayhawks. After leaving that band he formed The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers with his wife and released a solid run of A-grade twang. However, that marriage ended a year or so ago and this new record is the sound of Olson reasserting himself.

Wednesday's all too short set drew heavily from The Salvation Blues, plus three old favorites from The Jayhawks' classic Tomorrow The Green Grass and a handful of Creekdippers tunes. Olson's small continental band comprised a sprightly Italian, Michele Gazich, on fiddle and double bass and a Norweigian, Ingunn Ringvold, playing percussion and keyboards.

They sounded terrific and though not exactly chatty Olson seemed to be having a good time. Much of The Salvation Blues was written in the UK so it's also entertaining to hear references to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and National Express coaches in such rich slices of Americana.

Gary Louris and Mark Olson have recently recorded an album together, due out some time next year (after Louris' first solo LP) and they're hoping to tour together next Autumn. I can't wait.

MP3: Mark Olson - Poor Michael's Boat

MP3: The Jayhawks - Over My Shoulder

MP3: The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers - Custom Detroit Railroad

Buy Mark Olson CDs at Amazon

Buy Jayhawks CDs at Amazon

Mark Olson - Salvation Blues (Live)

Mark Olson - National Express

Monday, 15 October 2007

In Praise Of... Gideon Coe

This week is Gideon Coe's last in the 10am-1pm slot he's presented on 6 Music since the digital station launched in March 2002.

I've listened most mornings since then and if it wasn't for this show my 6 Music consumption would be minimal. Gid has the qualities of every great DJ: personable, witty, engaging, knowledgeable and brilliant at making his listeners feel part of something quite special.

The list of artists who've played sessions on his show since 2002 is phenomenal and includes personal favourites such as Andrew Bird and The Broken Family Band as well as far bigger names. In the last week I've snuck out of the office twice, just after 11.30 to see great Hub Sessions from Richard Hawley and a reformed Carter USM.

I'll obviously be tuning in next Monday at 10pm to hear Gid's new show. I'll reserve judgment on George Lamb, his mid-morning replacement, but my confidence is not high in a DJ on a music network who expressed curiosity on air that the Sugarcubes lead singer sounded curiously similar to Bjork.

Until then, I'll be savouring what's left of this perfect pre-lunch radio show and wearing my Duffer Badge with pride.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Justin Townes Earle & Jubal Lee Young

The Luminaire, Wednesday 10 October

Before this gig I'd barely heard a Justin Townes Earle song, let alone seen him perform. Like most of the small audience at the Luminaire I imagine, I'd come based solely on the fact that Justin is Steve Earle's son and he's named after Townes Van Zandt.

Thankfully Justin more than delivers on his heritage. His songs' references are broad enough to encompass the American civil war and his own checkered past. He introduced one song by saying, "I've been a junkie, thief and alcoholic. Somewhere I managed to fit in singer-songwriter" and dedicated it to a girl who'd worked at the methadone clinic in Asheville, NC. Like father, like son.

I suspect Justin's had a fairly difficult relationship with Earle Sr. I think Steve's time in jail would have occurred when Justin was a young teenager. When someone in the audience shouted "Your dad's alright!" Justin's quick reply was, "He's a damn fine songwriter".

It's a measure of Justin's own songwriting talent and his stage presence - just him and a acoustic guitar - that I wasn't constantly thinking, "That's Steve Earle's boy up there" though Justin did concede to play one of his dad's tracks, explaining that he never used to but would be pretty pissed off himself if he'd gone to see Arlo Guthrie and didn't hear one of Woody's songs.

Impressed, I bought Justin's six-song EP Yuma. It's superb.

Support came from Jubal Lee Young, another southern songwriter progeny. I don't know much about Jubal's dad, Steve Young, but he has a good turn in the brilliant 1975 doc Heartworn Highways.

Jubal looks and sounds like a good ol' boy but his raucous songs aren't all about women and boozing - he's pissed off politically too and found a willing audience to engage in some low-level Bush baiting.

The encore saw Justin and Jubal share the stage, swapping songs, but sadly not playing together (no rehearsal time apparently). It didn't matter - Jubal played a bunch of his dad's songs and Justin's set of covers included a lovely version of Gram Parsons' Song For You, though the harmonies from the pissed-up bloke next to me didn't quite match Emmylou's.

MP3: Justin Townes Earle - Ghosts Of Virginia

MP3: Jubal Lee Young - Greed Is The Creed

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Bob Dylan: The Other Side Of The Mirror

World Premiere, NFT, Tuesday 9 October

I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of Murray Lerner's new film about Bob Dylan's crucial three years, 1963-65, at the Newport Folk Festival. You can see it on BBC Four on Sunday as part of a tasty looking Dylan at Newport night curated by Arena.

When Bob Dylan sang political songs like With God On Our Side and Only A Pawn In Their Game at the 1963 festival he appeared youthful, bright-eyed and in thrall to hobo chic. Three years later he looked wired, wore a leather jacket and was met with boos and brays when he played Maggie's Farm on an electric guitar.

This superb film charts these momentous three years by simply showing the full performances of songs Dylan played it Newport in 1963, 64 and 65. There are no interviews or narration. There doesn't need to be. What's apparent from the music is a total transformation in Dylan's songwriting and his audience's reaction to this change.

With God On Our Side w/ Joan Baez - 1963

Maggie's Farm - 1965

There are some great non-musical moments too: Joan Baez constantly molly-coddling Bobby; Dylan asking if anyone has an E harmonica and the crowd bombarding him with mouth organs. But it's the subtle shifts in Dylan that are most intriguing. In 1963, when he sits on a small stage with the likes of Clarence Ashley, he's part of the folk tradition. By 1966 he's a bona fide rock star - not just because he sounds like one, but because he's got hordes of teenage girls trying to get in his car.

As well as the BBC Four screening the film's also in the Electric Proms at the Roundhouse on Saturday 27 October. Then, of course, it comes out on DVD.

MP3: Chimes of Freedom (Live, Newport 1964)

MP3: Maggie's Farm (Live, Newport 1965)

Buy Bob Dylan CDs at Amazon

Related Posts

Time Out's 50 Greatest Music Films

The Old, Weird America

Radio Bob Returns

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Old Crow Medicine Show

King's College, Wednesday 3 October

More bands should take a leaf from the Old Crow's book and forgo a support act in favour of playing two sets. On Wednesday night the crack "old-time string band" effectively warmed up an already enthusiastic crowd with an opening 45 minute salvo drawn mainly from their latest album, Big Iron World. After a 15 minute break the second set included more songs like Wagon Wheel and Tear It Down that induce dancing, whooping and hollering. They opened with a fantastic cover of I Want You. This bodes well for a possible OCMS Play The Hits Of Bob Dylan album as the encore included Lay, Lady Lay sung in three-part harmony.

There's something infectious about seeing five blokes tear up a room with distinctly old-fashioned instruments, playing some very old songs. My tolerance for people chatting at shows is borderline dysfunctional but here I couldn't have cared less that a bloke standing next to me was playing along on a harmonica right in my ear!

As a veteran of seeing many bands of an Americana ilk, one of the other pleasures of an Old Crows gig is that the audience comprises far fewer bald men than I'm used to. Most of Wednesday night's crowd were under 30 and about a 50/50 boy-girl split.

But perhaps the greatest thing about Old Crow Medicine Show is that the band's five members seem to enjoy playing so much. Fiddle ace Ketch Secor is a charismatic front man but the rest of the boys (with possible exception of stoic guitjo maestro Kevin Hayes) play each gig as if it were their last. They get extra bonus points for introducing the band as Jim Royal, Armitage Shanks, Liam Gallagher, David Beckham and Basil Brush. Not bad cultural references from five Nashville cats.

MP3: Take 'Em Away

MP3: James River Blues, live on the World Cafe

Wagon Wheel Video

Buy Old Crow Medicine Show CDs at Amazon

Time Out's 50 Greatest Music Films

This week's Time Out magazine has an interesting list of "The 50 Greatest Music Films Ever!". I've only seen 15 of them and really must get round to watching DiG! and The Devil & Daniel Johnson. Of the oldies, I've always wanted to see Coal Miner's Daughter.

There's already debate on the Time Out website about notable omissions. I'd always put Big Time and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart on a personal list. Heartworn Highways is a wonderful film that's not on there either, though it's good to see Be Here to Love Me, the recent Townes Van Zandt doc, at number seven.

Here's the full list with a few YouTube vids and links back to the Time Out article. Any of your favourites missing?

1 Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1987)

2 Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967)

Gimme Shelter (David Maysles/Albert Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
4 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)
6 Monterey Pop (DA Pennebaker, 1968)
Be Here to Love Me (Margaret Brown, 2004)

Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993)
9 Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972)
10 Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988)
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)

Rude Boy (Jack Hazan, David Mingay, 1980)
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2006)
Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976)

The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II (Penelope Spheeris, 1981, 1988)
16 The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
Sweet Dreams (Karel Reisz, 1982)
Notes from a Jazz Survivor (Don McGlynn, 1982)
Elgar (Ken Russell, 1962)
Rust Never Sleeps (Neil Young, 1979)

The Future is Unwritten (Julien Temple, 2006)
'DiG!' (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
Some Kind Of Monster (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
Jimi Hendrix (Joe Boyd, 1973)
Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
Elvis (John Carpenter, 1979)

The Last of the Blue Devils (Bruce Ricker, 1980)
Rough Cut & Ready Dubbed (Hasan Shah & Dom Shaw, 1981)
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
32 Charlie is My Darling (Peter Whitehead, 1966)
33 Magic Fire (William Dieterle, 1955)
34 A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980)
35 Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980)
36 Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2006)
37 Wonderful Life (Sidney J Furie, 1964)
38 'Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986)
39 Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid (Gimpo, 1995)
40 The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1968)
41 Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999)
42 Soul to Soul (Dennis Sanders, 1971)
43 Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, 1998)
44 Made in Sheffield (Eve Wood, 2001)
45 Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959)
46 So You Wanna Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star? (Mark Kidel, 1976)
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Aki Kaurismäki, 1989)

48 MC5: A True Testimonial (David C Thomas, 2002)
49 Sign O’ The Times (Prince, 1988)
50 Catch Us If You Can (John Boorman, 1965)

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Will Kimbrough & Tommy Womack

The Borderline, Tuesday 2 October

One of the best things that can happen at a gig is going home having discovered a new favourite artist you’d previously never heard of. Last night I saw the future of sardonic, self-deprecating singer-songwriters – and his name is Tommy Womack.

Will Kimbrough & Tommy WomackTommy’s songs mix slightly bitter nostalgia for lost youth with a wry take on his current situation (post-nervous breakdown and working nine-to-five). Lyrics like “my band was still gigging then/REM were still kicking then” meant I was an easy convert but Tommy’s version of Tom Waits’ The Piano Has Been Drinking towards the end of the set sealed the deal.

Tommy alternated songs all night with his pal Will Kimbrough. My introduction to Kimbrough came two years ago when he played a small gig with Rodney Crowell at the 12 Bar Club. Dressed in a black suit and shirt Will couldn’t have looked more different to Womack, who appeared to have borrowed his wardrobe from Robert Crumb. A lot of Will Kimbrough’s recent material has a political, though not preachy, edge but with Tommy they seemed to channel every vein of American music - country, folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll. They even managed a Clash cover. Kimbrough's also a first-rate guitar player - his slide work is fantastic.

The audience at the Borderline was fairly meagre – 45 max – but the pair were full of warmth towards the lucky few who did show up. In the interval/retail opportunity Will admired my t-shirt and Tommy expounded on our shared frustrations with REM’s recent output. It was the sort of friendly show, packed with incredible songs, that I imagine happens in Nashville on a nightly basis. And that’s made me look forward to a honeymoon in ‘Music City’ even more. If we’re lucky, Will and Tommy might even be playing.

MP3 Tommy Womack - Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood

Tommy Womack - Nice Day

Buy Tommy Womack's records and book at Amazon

MP3 Will Kimbrough - Hill Country Girl

MP3 Will Kimbrough - Less Polite, Live on the World Cafe

Buy Will Kimbrough's albums at Amazon

Sunday, 30 September 2007

The Old, Weird America

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music

This enjoyable film about the eccentric and influential musicologist Harry Smith is showing in the BBC Electric Proms next month. Like last year's Leonard Cohen film I'm Your Man, it's centered on a series of Hal Wilner produced tribute concerts. A number of artists - Nick Cave, The McGarrigle Sisters, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton - appear in both films, though thankfully Bono is nowhere to be seen in this one. Other musicians performing the old and weird here include Steve Earle and David Johansen.

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music came out in 1952 - a six LP compilation of 84 folk, blues and country recordings originally released as 78s in the 1920s and 30s. It is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the 1960s blues and folk revival, bringing artists like the Carter Family and Blind Lemon Jefferson to audiences including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

As the film explains, the anthology's origins lie with 19-year-old Smith's obsessive collecting of thousands of archaic and increasingly rare records (as Steve Earle points out - the materials used to make records became crucial war supplies in the 40s). Smith believed the bygone music he loved could change America and to some extent the counter-culture's embrace of it proved him right.

Many of the songs are showcased from the Wilner concerts, though for me, a lot of their "old, weird" qualities are lost in translation. Nick Cave's version of John The Revelator would sit happily on many of his own albums while Blind Willie Johnson's 1930 version is creepier and far more compelling (scroll down to download).

I'd known that Harry Smith was also involved in filmmaking but until seeing this doc I'd never appreciated quite how experimental and ground-breaking his work was. Smith made the incredible film below in 1946 by painting on the individual frames - no camera required.

Other contributors to the film include Smith's old pal Allen Ginsberg and Greil Marcus (who coined the phrase "Old, weird America" in his fascinating book about Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes).

I admit it, my copy of the Anthology rarely gets a spin, but I have now transferred it all onto on my iPod after seeing the film. That so many people continue to cover the songs prove its timelessness. To anyone who's never heard of Harry Smith, this film is the perfect introduction to his box of delights.

Download: Clarence Ashley - The Coo Coo Bird (1929)

Download: The Be Good Tanyas - The Coo Coo Bird (2002)

Download: Blind Willie Johnson - John the Revelator (1930)

Buy the Anthology of American Folk Music at

Related Links

The Harry Smith Archives

BBC Electric Proms

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Glengarry Glen Ross

Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
Friday 28 September

The 1992 film version of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross was the unofficial movie of my student years. The story of Chicago property salesmen struggling to make a living from bad leads is endlessly quotable.

My flatmates and I relished calling each other deadbeats and shitheads and we deployed the film's other lines and expletives at every opportunity. An original poster was stuck to the living room wall. The irony of its tag line, "A Story For Everyone Who Works For A Living", wasn't lost on someone whose presence on campus was required for just eight hours a week.

I've read the play but never seen it staged so this West End revival was always going to be on my hit list.

Jonathan Pryce, who played hen-pecked customer James Lingk in the film, is Shelly Levine (Jack Lemmon in the film), the aging salesman who's losing his touch. Aidan Gillen, Councilman Carcetti in genius cop show The Wire, is the ballsy Ricky Roma (Pacino on screen). The cast's other familiar faces include Paul Freeman (Rene Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Act I is set in a Chinese restaurant where Levine tries to bribe his boss, the inexperienced Williamson; Moss, another salesman, suggests robbing their office and jumping ship to another company and Ricky Roma tries to close a deal with the hapless James Lingk.

The second act takes place in the burgled office where all the salesmen must come to terms with what's happened and how it affects them.

Mamet's script means there's so much language to savour and the play is always gripping. But this production lacked punch. Maybe it's because it was only its second performance: Pryce forgot a line in his first scene; Anthony Flanagan as Williamson gave up on his American accent; the scene changes in Act I seemed long.

A play with a small cast that relies on lightening dialogue requires all the actors to be 100% comfortable with each other and into their characters. I'm not sure they are quite there yet. Still, a brilliantly written play, but best wait a few weeks until it hits its stride.

Book tickets for Glengarry Glen Ross

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Radio Bob Returns

Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour returned to American satellite station XM Radio last week. Those who tune in weekly to 6 Music or hear the occasional programme on Radio 2 are still enjoying Season 1 but, unsurprisingly considering Dylan is the most bootlegged artist in history, the new shows can be found as MP3s pretty soon after broadcast.

Theme Time Radio Hour was one of my cultural highlights of 2006. For the show's first few weeks a 'recent' song (ie post-1980) would slip through the cracks but for the most part Dylan presented a mixture of arcane records, droll commentary and some pretty poor jokes.

I thought it amazing that Bob made 50 episodes. For a performer who barely acknowledges his audience during gigs, the initial announcement that the far from chatty Dylan had turned DJ smacked of a publicity stunt. However, the brilliant Chronicles Volume One should have taught us that if Bob has something to say, he will, and eloquently.

The first show of the new season was appropriately themed 'Hello'. Musical highlights included Willie Nelson's Hello Walls and Hello, Aloha! How Are You? by The Radiolites, the last song prompting Bob's brief history of Hawaiian music and the steel guitar.

Each episode is like a music history lesson hosted by an eccentric uncle for whom no subject can pass without a wry comment. Let's hope the second series runs as long as the first.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Rachel Unthank & Devon Sproule

The Spitz, Friday 21 September

Wonderful performances from Rachel Unthank & the Winterset and Devon Sproule ensured that the last gig I'll ever see at The Spitz was memorable.

I first saw Rachel Unthank & the Winterset in an incredible showcase at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year. I'd never heard of them before but became an immediate convert to their tales of Scotch border disputes, booze and the trials of getting out of bed in the morning.

Unlike a lot of English folk music, Rachel and co don't trot out many songs about shepherds toiling in the fields or fair maidens courting young squires. Instead, their music shares the darkness of much of the American music I love (they've covered Bonnie Prince Billy).

Friday's set highlighted all that's great about the band. As well as their versions of old Northumbrian folk songs, they performed emotional covers of Robert Wyatt's Sea Song (with its memorable lyrics "Your skin shining softly in the moonlight/Partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale") and Anthony & The Johnson's For Today I Am A Boy.

Rachel's and her younger sister Becky's Geordie accents add stacks of character to the songs, as does their occasional clogging. Pianist Belinda O'Hooley who until joining the Winterset, was a folk virgin whose old day job was playing cabaret classics in old peoples' homes, is hilarious, and adds light relief amid some pretty sad songs. A string quartet and double bass augmented fiddle player Niopha Keegan on a couple of songs, all crowded onto the small Spitz stage.

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset should convert even those who think they don't like folk music.

Hear Rachel Unterthank & The Winterset at

Buy their albums at

The night's other attraction was Virginia-based singer-songwriter Devon Sproule (pronounced, I think "Sproll"). I heard Devon for the first time a few weeks ago on the very enjoyable radio show my friend Rob Chester presents with his girlfriend Jess at the University of Maryland.

Her voice reminds me a bit of Laura Cantrell's and she's got a jazzy approach to folky sounding songs a la Jolie Holland and Po' Girl.

Not only are her songs witty and playful but she's got a great stage presence and nifty vintage threads. An added bonus was the appearance of pedal steel guitar king BJ Cole for most of Devon's half hour set.

Devon joins an increasing list of attractive red-headed singer-songwriters whose albums are in regular rotation on my stereo (see also Exhibit A and Exhibit B).

Hear Devon Sproule at

Buy Devon Sproule's new record at

The only downer of the night is the fact that I'll never see another gig at The Spitz. As you may know, their landlord has ordered them out after 11 years. I've probably only been to the Spitz half a dozen or so times since I've lived in London but it's a great venue which I'll miss. Fingers crossed that a replacement is found that matches the current one.

Friday, 21 September 2007

For Frak's Sake!

I have still to convince some friends that the new Battlestar Galactica is worth watching. Their objections tend to fall into two camps. 1) I just don't like science-fiction. 2) I am unwilling to accept that Starbuck is now a woman.

I don't recall ever seeing a
dilithium crystal rod or latex-headed alien on Battlestar Galactica so to objectors on sci-fi grounds I argue that BG is sci-fi in the same way as The Wire is a cop show - in actual fact they are both political/social dramas.

It's the nostalgic
Dirk Benedict fans who are harder to convince. Until now:

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