Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Musical Conversion

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Boss

Tomorrow night I’ll be standing on the pitch at the Emirates Stadium watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It will be the seventh time I’ve seen him perform. Ten years ago I’d never have predicted I’d ever write those last two sentences. But that was before my conversion to The Boss.

With hindsight I’m surprised it took me so long to come round to Bruce. I think the main reason is that I couldn’t shake the image of a denim-clad rocker plucking girls from the crowd to sing Dancing in the Dark. How ridiculous could you get?

Unlike many Springsteen detractors I knew Born in the USA wasn’t the tub-thumping anthem Team Reagan wished it to be. After No Depression listed Nebraska as one of its hundred essential albums I bought (but rarely listened to) Springsteen’s bleak, stripped-down 1982 LP. Still, even hearing him pay tribute to Woody Guthrie, cover Tom Waits or write songs inspired by one of my favourite books wasn’t enough to convert me. The scales only came off my eyes after witnessing the full-on live power of Bruce Springsteen and the “house rockin', pants droppin', earth shockin', hard rockin', booty shakin', love makin', heart breakin', soul cryin', death defyin' legendary E Street Band”.

In 2003 my friend Dave Mynard, a man for whom a Springsteen gig is a generation-spanning family outing, suggested that I join him, his sisters and his mum and dad to see the Boss on the May bank holiday weekend. The Rising world tour was coming to the distinctly unglamorous destination of Crystal Palace athletics stadium. Tickets weren’t cheap, but Springsteen’s new album had good reviews, Dave is an incredibly enthusiastic individual and curiosity must have got the better of me.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was if Bob Dylan had been crossed with both the 1950s hip-shaking Elvis and the crowd-pleasing, over-the-top incarnation of his Vegas heyday. There was absolutely no sense of irony as Bruce slid across stage on his knees, sparred with bandana loving guitarist Steve Van Zandt or gestured wildly at the crowd. All that concerned him and the band was entertaining thousands with the best rock ‘n’ roll show in the world. In the Guardian’s review of the show Alex Petridis wrote that “the on-stage antics at a Springsteen concert, should be painfully embarrassing. However, the singer exudes an appealing earnestness that lets him get away with hokum”. That perfectly summed up my feelings. I was captivated.

I recall reading that after Springsteen and the E Street Band’s first ever London show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 John Peel sniffily dismissed them as little more than jumped-up Yankee throwbacks. I think that's unfair. At Crystal Palace Sprinsgteen channelled all of his classic American musical influences – soul, rock’n’roll, folk, girl groups, country – into something that sounded fresh rather than horribly nostalgic. He and the band combined this with such energetic showmanship and sheer love of performing that it felt like they were playing to 50 in a small club rather than thousands in a clapped-out arena. After a more than two-and-a-half hour show I was a Bruce Springsteen fan.

A few months later I started going out with Joanne, who, like Dave comes from a family of Springsteen fans (it turns out my new in-laws were at Crystal Palace en masse the day after me). Not only was the entire Bruce back catalogue at my disposal, I was with someone who would never want to miss an opportunity to see her musical hero. Since then we’ve seen Springsteen transfix the Albert Hall with just a guitar and piano, bring his old timey band to the tiny LSO St Luke’s for a barnstorming session of American folk songs and rock out the cavernous O2 Arena for the best ever pre-Christmas party. I have little doubt that everyone who sees The Boss in North London this weekend, despite him playing a 60,000 capacity football stadium, will find it a peculiarly intimate gig. There aren’t many performers who can pull that off.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Stardust Memories

Have you seen the poster for Cassandra's Dream? You'd think Woody Allen's name still had enough cachet to draw in the punters. The marketeers who hope you'll be rushing to see his new film when it opens on Friday obviously don't think so. I can't find a copy of the poster online but it advertises Cassandra's Dream as "The new film from the director of Match Point". That's the film Phillip French in the Observer called "disappointing" with "clumsy, lumbering dialogue that draws unintentional laughter" and The Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson reckoned to be, "a modest and mildly pretentious mediocrity in the Woodman canon". Not exactly Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeaners then.

In smaller print, under pictures of Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, the poster does say something like "a Woody Allen film". This is more than US cinemagoers got. From the looks of it, the American poster barely mentions the writer/director's name at all. Where does Woody Allen still get respect? It's an easy question. The French still adore an auteur. There, the poster proudly displays that Le Reve de Cassandre is "Un Film de Woody Allen". No wonder he loves a trip to Cannes.

By all accounts Cassandra's Dream is another stinker in Allen's recent CV so it's no surprise the publicists are hoping to lure fans of Miami Vice rather than Manhattan to the film. I must admit I've not seen any of his new films since The Curse of Jade Scorpion six or seven years ago and I'd consider myself a Woody Allen fan. It is sad to see a once great filmmaker churn out mediocre work though. Thankfully, some of the great directors from the 70s are still making decent films and I'm looking forward to "the new picture from the director of The Departed" next year.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Bald Men And The American Tradition

I saw Tift Merritt play a great solo show last night at the Green Note in Camden. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen her play and she’s often made remarks about how quiet the crowd seem or asking whether they are really ‘getting into it’. I think the reason Tift’s British audience are more subdued than what she’s used to in her native North Carolina is who are at its core. There were about 50 people at the Green Note and I reckon at least a quarter, probably more, were middle-aged bald men. With all due respect, from what I’ve seen, they are not a demographic particularly inclined to rock out.

I’ve pondered the phenomenon of Americana-loving baldies for well over a decade. Jeff Tweedy infamously got so pissed off with the seeming indifference of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire audience in 1996 that reviewers still refer to the incident. I seem to remember it was Jeff’s failure to get the crowd singing along to the chorus of Kingpin that set off his truculent flap. If he’d thought a bit more about who bought tickets to Wilco’s London gigs, the incident may have been avoided.

When my friend Dave Varley and I went to Wilco or Jayhawks gigs in the mid-90s we were always the youngest in the crowd and doing our bit to increase the representation of people with a full head of hair. We were surrounded by blokes a lot older than us who wanted to ‘just hear the music’, nurse an overpriced lager and sway a little bit. My theory is that in the States Americana-flavoured acts like Wilco and Tift Merritt are staples of college radio, are covered in the ‘alternative’ press and consequently have an appropriately youthful audience. In the UK, their fans are the people who discovered them in the pages of Uncut and Mojo magazine.

Last month in Nashville I saw the Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle on the same bill playing to a young, mixed-sex, energetic audience. When I saw Earle at the Luminaire in Kilburn in October the exact same baldies I saw last night were in the crowd. I suspect they’ll be out to see the Felice Brothers at the 100 Club later in the month too.

Dave and I have been waiting for the Americana revolution to sweep the nation since we were at school. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that, with a few exceptions, the kids just aren’t interested in the sound of a steel guitar. And although we’ve still got thick heads of hair, we’re certainly catching up with the baldies age-wise. The bands we go and see just have to get used to polite applause rather than vigorous whooping.

Related links
The Green Note - great Camden music venue

Friday, 9 May 2008

Tom Waits Covers #1: Solomon Burke

I've promised to share some of my favourite Tom Waits covers for ages. One of the reasons it's taken so long is that I realised I had quite a lot to say about them, so instead of writing about a selection of songs in one post I've decided it will be more productive to take it one at a time. So, for starters, here's Solomon Burke, the King of Rock & Soul, and his version of Diamond in Your Mind from his brilliant comeback album Don't Give Up On Me.

MP3: Solomon Burke – Diamond In Your Mind

As far as I know there's no studio recording by Waits of this song although I'm sure I once heard a demo on KCRW. The song was originally written for the Waits/Robert Wilson production of Woyzeck but there are more lyrics in Burke's version than there are in the play. Solomon Burke – the "Wonder Boy Preacher" - also objected to the original line, "Zerelda Samuels said she ain't never prayed". He outlines why in this extract from a 2002 interview:

That song was written by Tom Waits. Have you met him? Solomon Burke: "No. We had one discussion on the phone, and that was the lyric change where he wrote that "she never prayed," and I said, "No, no, no - you have to call him, you have to get him on the phone." I don't care how big of a sinner you are: If someone cuts off your arm, you are going to pray to God. They said, "With all due respect, Dr Burke, you do not change the words to a Tom Waits song." I told them, "With all due respect, as a man of God, I am telling you this song is religiously incorrect." We stopped the whole session until we got a call back from him, and he said, "Okay."

(Source: "Solomon Burke Brings It Home" by Jonathan Valania. Philadelpia Weekly. July 17, 2002 Volume XXXI, No. 29, © 2003 Review Publishing – found at the superb Tom Waits Library)

I’ve just finished David Smay’s 33 1/3 book on Swordfishtrombones – probably the most illuminating book I've read about Tom Waits' work. In it he explains that "diamond mind" is a Buddhist state of enlightenment. It's no surprise then that the only version of the song performed by Waits that is available commercially is on the concert album Healing the Divide, a fundraiser for Tibetan monks.

MP3: Tom Waits & The Kronos Quartet – Diamond In Your Mind (live)

If you'd like play compare and contrast on the two versions, leave a comment below.

Incidentally, Solomon Burke is performing at the Barbican in London on 3 July and also at Glastonbury. If you’ve never seen him, it's a spectacle to behold.

Buy at Amazon

Solomon Burke – Don’t Give Up On Me

Various Artists (inc Tom Waits) - Healing The Divide
David Smay – 331/3 Swordfishtrombones (book)

Related Links

Tom Waits Announces Tour Guided By Stars

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Tom Waits Announces Tour Guided By Stars

When I first started this blog it seemed like every other post was related to Bob Dylan. Now it seems I can't get enough of Tom Waits entries.

Yesterday Tom announced an American summer tour that takes in such hot spots as Columbus, Ohio and Jacksonville, Florida. As you'll see in the entertaining press conference below a European jaunt looks likely.

Tom Waits - Tour Press Conference

Related Links

Tom Waits - official site with full tour dates

The Eyeball Kid - invaluable Tom Waits news blog

Friday, 2 May 2008

Michael Stipe Rocks Out To Born to Run

REM singer's reaction to Boss classic identical to mine

I saw this video on Stereogum the other day. It's worth watching if you still have a soft spot for REM, like Bruce Springsteen or have ever seen me dance at Uptight. The clip's from DA Pennebaker's doc about the 2004 Vote For Change tour. Michael Stipe gets quite giddy at the prospect of meeting Springsteen and does some wonderful air-punching as he sings along to Peter Buck practicing Born To Run.

Stipe and Springsteen from Walker Lamond on Vimeo.

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