19.6.19

LED ZEPPELIN: THE DAY I WAS THERE by Richard Houghton



Seeing Robert Plant referred to as Bob is as rare as seeing Bob Dylan referred to as Robert, but in Led Zeppelin: The Day I Was There Derek Thomas, who was 14 at the time, recalls that in 1965 ‘Bob’ Plant was fronting a band called Black Snake Moan at St John’s Hall, Stourbridge. “Bob was always around,” he says. “If there were any local gigs on with local musicians up would pop Bob and he’d take over lead singing or join the band. I even saw him at a New Year’s Eve gig at Dudley Town Hall. Roy Harper was there, all nice and gentle, and up pops Bob. At the end of the evening he and Roy were singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to us.”
         It is anecdotes such as this that make these ‘I Was There’ books published by This Day In Music such fun to read. Following on from The Beatles, Stones, Who, Bowie, Dylan, Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Hendrix, TDIM now brings us this one on Zep, compiled by Richard Houghton but in reality written by fans for fans. The books all follow the same format, with several hundred attendees writing about shows they’ve seen, and there is no question that in their own way they tell a story, not just of the story of the act in question, which is self-evident, but a story of devotion that, in some cases, is not just extraordinary but also life affirming in an era when rock music seems to matter less and less to its innate constituency.
         Pleasingly, this new addition to the series opens with a handful of pre-Zep gigs by ‘Bob’ Plant in a band or two around the Midlands, and the Yardbirds, featuring Jimmy Page, in the USA (though, strangely, not the UK), right the way through the Led Zep years (and slightly beyond) to June 30, at Frankfurt, on their final European jaunt in 1980, a tour misleadingly described as ‘disastrous’ on the back cover copy. While certainly not in the same league as the barnstorming tours of the early seventies, ‘Zeppelin Over Europe 1980’ was a genuine attempt to rediscover their roots, cut down on the excess and somehow find their way back into a rock world that had changed irrevocably since the setbacks that caused the group to withdraw from the arena after the debacle of Oakland, July 23 & 24, 1977. Now that really was a ‘disaster’.
         Many, though not all, of the gigs that I saw are included in the book so it’s nice to read reports from fellow attendees whom I never knew, especially Sharon who hitched from Wales to the Bath Festival in 1970 and mentions she was also present at a ‘horrendous’ festival in Yorkshire the same year. That must have been Krumlin where I saw Elton for the first time. Sharon and I are in total agreement re both events. Andy, who was at the Marquee on 23 March, 1971, a show I reviewed for Melody Maker, doesn’t mention how packed it was, and neither Ian not Dee, who saw the Alexandra Palace show on 22 December, 1972, mention the atrocious sound. A shame the publishers were unable to find anyone who in October 1972 was at Montreux Casino where, in hindsight, the two concerts I saw rank as my best ever Zep encounter. The wearing and tearing that bedevilled Led Zep in January 1975 – Plant’s throat problems and Page’s injured finger – concur with my memories of these shows, along with the restoration of normal service by the time they reached New York and Madison Square Garden by February. I saw the group from the floor a few rows back at the same Garden in June 1977, when I went as a mere spectator, not as an MM critic, my 12th and final Zep show and the first time I didn’t take notes, so it’s nice to read what those around me thought.
         What does come across by reading all these accounts of shows is not so much the performance reviews, which are uniformly positive, but the extreme tests of endurance that many fans had to undergo to obtain tickets and travel to the venues. Queueing overnight, hitching and experiencing bad weather outdoors or insufferably crowded stadiums are all borne with a shrug, as if nothing is too awful to bear for a glimpse of Zep in action. Only football teams generate more loyalty from their fans but football teams are transient, changing every season with players coming and going all the time. Certain older rock groups are slowly doing the same thing, of course, but modern ticketing – let’s not talk about the prices here – stadium layout and improved seating make life far more comfortable for the 21st Century rock fan. So spare a thought for Jen who queued for eight hours for the Leeds Uni show in March, 1971, and tells us she would have queued for eight more hours had it been necessary. That’s dedication for you.


16.6.19

WESTERN STARS – Bruce Springsteen



For much of his career Bruce Springsteen alternated between albums he hoped would please his fans and those that were more introspective or experimental. The triumphant, escapist Born To Run was followed by the edgy Darkness, the sprawling River by the brooding Nebraska, the glory days of Born In The USA by the heart tugging Tunnel Of Love, the double punch of Human Touch and Lucky Town with the emptiness of Tom Joad. But if Nebraska and Joad sought to address injustice, Western Stars is more in line, both musically and lyrically, with Tunnel, an album wherein love is glimpsed but unattained, and the emptiness of those for whom the American dream is a myth stretches out like an endless highway that leads to nowhere.
         Which is not to say I’m not enjoying this album immensely. Western Stars has been on heavy rotation in my car since Friday and on the docking speaker in our house during meals, both cooking and eating, and this led to me playing other Springsteen albums for comparison, specifically Tunnel and some favourite, more heartfelt, tracks from elsewhere – ‘Racing In The Street’, ‘The River’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ among them. It’s easy to get the Bruce bug back when a new album comes along.
         Barring the folk-inspired Seeger sessions, Western Stars sounds very different from all his other albums. The pile-driving sound of the E Street Band is absent, replaced by lush strings, keening lap steel and a hint of zydeco accordion on at least one track. Comparisons have been made with the dramatic fictions of Jimmy Webb songs like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, recorded by Glen Campbell, or even Harry Nilsson’s superior Fred Neil cover ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’, but to me Western Stars leans more towards old cowboy movies made by John Ford and Sergio Leone, films where the landscape of the wild west is as important as stars like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, but with an added dash of Robert Mitchum-style film noir to increase the lonesome quotient.
         The mood is established from the outset. On ‘Hitch Hikin’’ we find Springsteen doing just that, not entirely happy with his lot and seemingly not too concerned about his destination, discarding maps for the ‘weather and the wind’, and the same theme carries over to ‘The Wayfarer’, with Springsteen ‘drifting from town to town’, unable to settle. Although ‘Hitch’ begins sparingly, with a discordant banjo adding unsettlingly to the mix, by the midway mark a string section has enhanced the mood, just as it does throughout ‘Wayfarer’, with strings and brass that swoop in to carve an uneasy groove until a resolution of sorts arrives in a melodious, dreamy orchestral break, by no means the only time on Western Stars that this device is used to counter melancholy with charm.
         The same lush feel permeates ‘Tucson Train’ in which fulfilment replaces the endless search, all accompanied by a repeated orchestral measure that is equally beguiling, our hero having swopped rainy ‘Frisco for the warmth of Arizona where he awaits his girl’s arrival on the railroad. ‘Western Stars’, less cheerful, is an overt homage to the wild west, its protagonist a washed up bit part actor ‘once shot by John Wayne’, while in ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’, which features another gleaming string break, his body is held together by pins and rods. If the Nebraska-with-strings feel of these downbeat songs is classic Springsteen, that nostalgic glance over the shoulder, then ‘Sleepy Joe’s CafĂ©’, which punctuates them, offers a touch of light relief with a skip-along rhythm and cheery tale of a favourite hangout. The only problem is that it feels out of place.
         There’s a wonderfully hymn-like sweep to the orchestration of ‘Chasing Wild Horses’, a ballad of the Big Country which, like the following ‘Sundown’, introduces a pedal steel into the backdrop. This latter song, about a place where Springsteen drifts idly from bar to bar awaiting his loved one, reminds me – oddly – of ‘Queen Of The Supermarket’ from 2009’s Working On A Dream, an album that opened with ‘Outlaw Pete’, another of Springsteen’s wild west tales, and one that at over eight minutes certainly outstayed its welcome.
         Back at Western Stars, ‘Somewhere North of Nashville’, sparse and short, is a portrait of a loser, while ‘Stones’ is a bleak memory of a failed relationship, perhaps the love for whom he is searching in ‘There Goes My Miracle’, for which Springsteen croons like a balladeer from the pre-Elvis era. ‘Hello Sunshine’, the track released early, is an easy-on-the-ear melody, welcoming the light after darkness, and the album closes with ‘Moonlight Motel’, an atmospheric portrayal of a derelict inn where some long forgotten romantic encounter took place, and which now acts as an allegory for the wistful emptiness that permeates Western Stars as a comprehensive statement.
         Anyone who’s read Born To Run, Springsteen’s autobiography, will know that when he’s not working he gets on his (motor) bike to ride the highways of America with biker pals who care not one jot about his life as the Boss, and I like to think that this experience informs much of this unusual, 19th, entry into the Springsteen back catalogue. In interviews I gather he’ll soon be back on more familiar territory with the E Street Band, but in the meantime I salute an artist who’s never been afraid to seek out new territories for whatever he can find.


13.6.19

WAYFARING STRANGER by Emma John




Two songs of which I never tire are ‘Kentucky’ by The Everly Brothers and ‘Green Rolling Hills’ by Emmylou Harris. The former, taken at a stately, languorous pace, is a showcase for Don and Phil’s uniquely kinship vocals, its syllables stretched out like pastry beneath a rolling pin, its harmonies as sweet as the ensuing apple crumble. It’s an old song, written in 1941 by Karl Davis and brought to classic status six years later on a recording by The Blue Sky Boys. The latter, which appears on Emmylou’s 1978 album Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, is a simple country ballad about the perils of coal mining, often titled more expressively as ‘The Green Rolling Hills Of West Virginia’, and it was written by Utah Phillips, an American labour organiser, probably in the 1960s.
         The key element of these gorgeous songs is how they extol the virtues of the American landscape enclosed within the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and the western fork of Virginia, an area dominated by the southern tip of the Appalachians, colloquially known as the Blue Ridge Mountains. If the lyrics of these songs are to be believed, and their beauty leads me so to do, this part of the world is the ‘nearest thing to heaven’ on earth, and I’d like to think that Emma John heard them before embarking on the six-month pilgrimage that is the subject of her book.
         Wayfaring Stranger is a music travelogue, an investigation into the world of bluegrass in which she seeks out its most skilled players in their own habitat. It’s a book about a closed world, a semi-secret society, and a tradition kept alive in much the same way as ancient skills like dry stone walling in Yorkshire or fishing through ice holes in the Arctic. It’s also a fiendishly difficult music to play, not just because of the lightning speed of better known pieces like ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ but because achieving the right ambience and attitude is crucial to its performance. These disciplines are at the book’s heart: can Emma become a competent bluegrass musician herself, and is she able to successfully transfer her abandoned training as a classical violinist to the art of bluegrass fiddling?
         Gingerly taking her antique violin from its case to enter the fray, Emma encounters a peculiarly social music in which most of the players know one another and meet up for jams and festivals that take place throughout the summer in the states where bluegrass is cherished. Players, well most of them, are forever encouraging one another to improve their skills – a marked contrast to the competitive and rather bitchy classical world that Emma recalls – and there are certain principles laid down by the music’s originators that must be upheld, many of which relate to the repertoire and how it is delivered in the 21st century.
         Outsiders might assume that bluegrass players are old men with beards, dungarees and check shirts, but I was surprised to learn how many teenagers join in the sessions, and how good they are, as if the skills have been handed down from generation to generation. Nevertheless, there are important traditions to be upheld, one of which is always to pepper a set with bluegrass classics that will be known to the audience, “[like] a rock festival where everyone was expected to make at least half of their set Lynyrd Skynyrd covers,” she writes. “Where every act played from the same repertoire, on the same instruments, in an attempt to capture the same sound.” By the same token, the subject matter of the songs remains startlingly similar, the most popular themes a longing for some abstract ‘home’ where a log cabin awaits, the love of an absent woman or family to whom the singer is desperate to return, or the hope that up there in heaven a dear but departed mama and papa are anticipating your eventual arrival with open arms.
         Emma’s mission takes her to US States that are avowedly Republican, God-fearing and insular, where guns are freely obtainable, rebel flags fly and Jesus slogans on billboards signpost the next town. Setting aside her natural liberal tendencies – she’s a Guardian writer – Emma boldly enters a world where she clearly doesn’t belong, and comes away from it wiser and more sympathetic to a relaxed way of life that is in stark contrast to the bustle of London. While her unmarried status arouses immediate suspicion, once it is established that her intentions are honourable the innate hospitality of the region – they really do mean it when they say ‘Mind ya’ll come back soon now’ – wins her over. Meanwhile, her progress as a bluegrass fiddler is not without its setbacks and gives Wayfaring Stranger a storyline that kept me turning the pages.
         All of which Emma Johns covers in occasionally droll but never less than honest, and sometimes self-depreciating, prose. She has a pleasing way with words – one musician she encountered sports ‘a beard that curled around his chin like a sleeping possum’ – and an easy-going style that mixes her own thoughts with factual observations, vivid descriptions of the countryside and a surprisingly honest appraisal of how the experience enabled her to learn more about herself, all of which leads to an unexpected conclusion. With alternate chapters devoted to the history of bluegrass and (very) potted biographies of its leading figures, Wayfaring Stranger is more than just a book about bluegrass music, more a book about how music, whatever its hue, can enrich our lives.
         Time was when my only exposure to bluegrass music was the chase sequence in Bonnie & Clyde, the soundtrack to the Beverly Hillbillies and a couple of tracks on a Byrds box set that feature the picking of Clarence White. The first two led to me Flatt & Scruggs and The Byrds to White’s Kentucky Colonels. Emma John’s book, to which I was alerted by The Blue Moment, my old MM colleague Richard Williams’ first-rate music blog, has opened up a whole new music world for me to explore.
         And, yes, towards the end of the book Emma reveals how friends she made did tell her, in line with the lyrics to ‘Kentucky’ and ‘Green Rolling Hills’, that the Blue Ridge Mountains are, indeed, like ‘heaven on earth’.