19.1.24

MUIREANN BRADLEY – I Kept These Old Blues

If, like me, you were out on the lash on New Year’s Eve and as a result missed Muireann Bradley on Jools’ hootenanny I can only hope that, like me, you took the trouble to record it in the hope that a gem might be lurking among the more predictable turns. Seems I did the right thing for about half way through, after Rod Stewart and others, the stage was cleared and the lights dimmed for a single spotlight to pick out a shy looking teenage girl sat on a stool, her long dark hair solemnly centre-parted, her acoustic guitar looking way too big for her. 

Moments later she was picking away like a lonesome old blueswoman, midnight on a Mississippi porch with nuttin’ but a jar of moonshine and a hungry bobcat for company. Candyman,’ she sang in a high-pitched, girly voice, ‘salty dog,’ repeating those lines two or three times, shifting up to a higher register now and then, while her fingers did the business. Three and a half minutes later she closed out the song with a nifty little bent note up on the fifth fret. ‘I wish I was in New Orleans, just sittin’ on a candy stand.’ The applause was the loudest of the night.

Muireann turned 17 in December. According to her notes on I Kept These Old Blues, her debut album, which I ordered on January 2, she grew up steeped in old blues thanks to her dad, who played this style of music on his guitar and, starting when she was nine, taught his daughter to play too. She honed her skills during Covid when her preferred pastime of combat sports was curtailed by lockdown. Beyond the health benefits, it’s hard to pinpoint how lockdown advanced lives but Muireann’s accomplished guitar picking is certainly among them. 

Researching ‘Candyman’ I got confused. It’s the title of a song by Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966) but what Muireann played was ‘Candyman Salty Dog’, a tune by the Rev Gary Davis (1896-1972), a blind bluesman much admired by Bob Dylan and others. It’s the opening song on her record, 12 tracks in all that show off her dexterity and, to an extent, playfulness among blues and ragtime classics by Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton and others, her arrangements inspired by Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk and John Fahey, whose records I’ve savoured since the early seventies when I was given one to review. In an era dominated by bland televised talent shows, there’s something enormously reassuring about how this music has been interpreted so wholeheartedly by a teenage girl from Ballybofey in County Donegal. 

Grossman has evidently given Muireann the nod of approval, which isn’t surprising as her Travis picking style is way up there on the instrumentals ‘Vestapol’ and the quicker ‘Buck Dancer’s Choice’. Also, it’s rather charming to hear one so young sing, “All my life, I’ve been a travelling gal” on ‘Police Sergeant Blues’, while the expressive strength she brings to ‘Delia’, a song about the murder of a 14-year-old girl covered by Bob Dylan and, of all people, Pat Boone, belies her age too. The closing track is a beguiling take on ‘Freight Train’, ever so cleanly picked, which I first heard in 1957, aged ten, by Chas McDevitt’s Skiffle Group, sung by Nancy Whiskey. On the internet, though not on this CD, you can see her tackle ‘When The Levee Breaks’  by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, famously covered by Led Zeppelin, not that their version sounds remotely like Muireann. 

        While the CD might open Muireann to accusations that her work is little more than an imitation of the musicians that have inspired her, her friskiness suggests otherwise. Here and there she jumps out at you with an unexpected lick or vocal tease. To me, the record is more a tribute, while her skills suggest it won’t be long before she creates her own body of work in this style. If I’m still on the porch with my moonshine I’ll be buying it.


16.1.24

BEE GEES: Children Of The World by Bob Stanley

“The Bee Gees didn’t fit in,” observes Bob Stanley at the start of Children Of The World, his new biography of the Gibb brothers. He’s quite right. In my own dealings with them for Melody Maker in the first half of the seventies I felt they were removed from the mainstream of pop life, in a parallel world but somehow apart, somehow cloistered by their familiarity with one another. This created within them an ‘us against the world’ attitude which, coupled with an adolescent, slightly na├»ve, arrogance, meant they would never be fashionable, never cool, never given the respect their hit-making track record deserved. “In spite of their great success, they seemed somehow easy to mock,” writes Stanley, drawing attention to a lack of self-awareness that invited cynicism, especially from music press staffers who enjoyed bursting balloons.   

    Bob Stanley knows his pop. A founder member of St Etienne and a dedicated convert to all things indie, he writes about music with the air of someone unafraid to offer judgements unlikely to sit well with accepted theory, ever keen to challenge, ever keen to seek out an undiscovered gem. To write a substantial book about The Bee Gees that analyses their music admiringly, most especially dozens of songs that weren’t hits, might be considered courageous – but for me to say that is to slip into the trap that Stanley identifies early in his book, the back-handed compliment, the suggestion that whatever good reviews the Bee Gees received were “distant”. “No other group has had to consistently defend themselves, their approach and their music,” he writes.

    Children Of The World does its best to rectify this. Stanley is clearly a fan but is unafraid to investigate the fault lines in a musical career that began on a Manchester stage in 1957 when Barry was 11 and twins Robin and Maurice eight, and continued until 2003 when Maurice’s death brought the curtain down. In between times they sold more than 250 million records in all kinds of styles, wrote numerous hits for others, filled the world’s biggest stadia on the road and, until Michael Jackson’s Thriller, were the principal contributors to world’ best-selling LP, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

    In 2001 I commissioned and edited Tales of The Brothers Gibb, a 730-page doorstopper whose three authors investigated every facet of the Gibb family to produce what I thought was the definitive Bee Gees book that couldn’t be bettered. What it lacked, however, was the critical nous that Stanley brings to Children Of The World, and also his literary ability to compress the endlessly fascinating biographical details of the Gibb’s life into a book just over half that length. Furthermore, his understanding of the bigger picture enables him to place The Bee Gees into context, comparing their fate with fellow-travellers, to which end he opens each chapter with the top ten for that particular moment, and to draw judicious comparisons with that other group of three brothers, The Beach Boys. 

    We follow the Gibb family from extreme poverty – Barry, Maurice and Robin really were juvenile delinquents – to unimagined wealth that enabled them to sue manager Robert Stigwood for $200 million in 1980, only to be countersued for $300 million. (It was settled out of court.) We learn about their nomadic early life, from Manchester – where the family often did a midnight flight to avoid the rent man – to the Isle of Man to Australia and back to the UK, to London, thence to LA and finally Miami. We learn about their lack of education – Maurice and Robin left school at 13, as did tragic younger brother Andy – and how this contributed to the slightly disjointed lyrics in their songs, which – as with Abba – did them no harm at all. We learn about their brotherly intuition, how they were able to finish one another’s sentences, and the occasional fall outs, usually instigated by Robin’s stubborn diva tendencies, or Barry’s oppressive ‘big brother’ controlling manner, with Maurice often in the role of calming arbitrator. 

    But most of all we learn about their resilience, how they were able to mould their songs to the times, to pick themselves up and start again after setbacks and, most importantly, to fall back on their skills as songwriters to see them through periods when it looked like we’d seen the last of them. “We’re durable, persistent little buggers,” says Robin. 

    It’s an epic tale of highs and lows well told, not without the odd error but a book those slightly strange, deeply sensitive, immensely talented Gibb Brothers deserve. It contains 27 pages of discography but no photographs, for which I’d dock it one star, but this is no doubt due to financial constraints on the part of the publisher.