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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