A short announcement: I’m going to merge my various blogging efforts. If you head on over to Cresting the Words, you’ll find lots of stuff on writing, some other post where I complain about various things, my own writing which is more in the shape of word pictures, posts on photography and travelling coming up, and yes, finally, also new and more regular music content. Just up, for example, some reminiscing about Paul Simon and his wonderful Graceland concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

Hope you’ll head over. See you there!

Re-listening Dylan: Bob Dylan (1962)

Bob Dylan is playing a concert in my small, rural home town this summer. Because I cannot afford a ticket and that fact is breaking my heart, I have decided to create my own Dylan-centered activity – I will pay homage to the master by re-listening to all his albums. Chronologically.

It’s March 1962. I won’t be born for another twenty years. And one month. The young musician depicted above has his first album published. He’d got a break some six months before, thanks to Columbia’s talent scout John Hammond. He was signed to the label and recorded the songs for his first album in two days – after weeks of listening to mountains of folk songs. And now it hits the record stores.

This album is not one that gets a lot of spin time from me (ehm… rather less than that, even),  so even though I know the songs, listening to them now, with the intention of writing about them, is almost like a fresh experience. The one thing that hits me straight away and stays with me throughout the thirteen tracks is that of youthful irreverence. This is a guy who doesn’t care about how the traditional songs he sings are ‘supposed’ to be sung.

Let’s have a look at those songs:

1. You’re no good

The first song hits straight out with that irreverence I was mentioning. ‘You give me the blues’, he sings, but really he doesn’t care one way or the other. He’s almost laughing about it all and singing and playing at a pace that has nothing to do with the blues.

2. Talkin’ New York 

‘Talking’ is perfectly right. No way is this singing. Instead,  he tells the story in a sing-song voice, accompanied by fast guitar and short bursts of the harmonica.  This is one of only two original songs on this album and it’s such a perfectly typical Dylan song – the delivery, the wry humour, the art of the throw-away remark and the story told with a straight face, so that you’re never sure whether to believe a single word or not.

3. In my time of dyin’

This is a lament. And that’s how it’s sung as well. Compared to the other songs, it’s slow and quiet. I find it hard to remember that the guy singing this is a boy, barely twenty years old. The voice shows depth and experience as its wails in an intensity that is very honest and personal.

4. Man of Constant Sorrow

I connect this song first and foremost with ‘O Brother where art thou’, the movie by the Coen brothers and since I love that movie, their version is the one I have in my head. Dylan’s is very, very different. This is closer to sorrow than the movie version, but even then, it’s not real sorrow. It sounds more like weariness. Or even boredom? No, not really. Just a dusty, weary ‘whatever’.

5. Fixin’ to die

Here I hear real emotion, not so much the mocking that is part of most of the other songs. Again, the voice, the message, the delivery are all deeply incongruous with the photo on the album cover of a smooth-faced, unscarred, slightly arrogant young boy.

6. Pretty Peggy-O 

Talking of mocking… Poor pretty Peggy-O gets a good dose of that right in the beginning when  he opens the song with ‘Been around this whole country, but I never yet found Fennario!’ And he continues in the same spirit – just listen to how he pronounces ‘dove’ when he sings that she’s as pretty as one. If you ever needed a lesson in what irony sounds like, listen to this. Oh, and I can’t help comparing it to the lovely version of Simon & Garfunkel, which couldn’t be more different in any way. (And if you make me decide, I will choose that version over Dylan’s!)

7. Highway 51 Blues

His voice changes throughout the song, from a pressured belting, to a wailing cry, to a dipping, quiet, almost talking style. There’s real emotion here – if he can’t have this, he doesn’t care for the rest either and I believe what he’s saying.

8. Gospel Plow

As with most of the traditional songs on this album, Gospel Plow is fast and has very little to do with gospel. It’s strongly delivered, but with a distinct disrespectfulness – as if he’s secretly laughing about anyone who follows the advice that the song gives.

9. Baby, let me follow you down

Quieter. He doesn’t belt or press out the lyrics, nor howl them. Instead,  there’s more ‘conventional’ singing, although even here, there are a few unexpected skips or dips of the voice. It’s not mocking, and it’s not bored, but there is also no noticeable passion for ‘baby’. I still really like it.

10. House of the rising sun

This must be one of the most-sung, most-covered songs. I don’t know any statistics on this, but I think every singer or band who is even only remotely connected to folk music, has recorded this song at some point. Here, Dylan sings it in a (comparatively) slow, serious, grieving, drawn-out voice. The inevitability of the end is audible from the beginning.

11. Freight Train Blues

Despite the title, there is no trace of any blues feeling in this song. It’s a fast, joyful celebration of wanderlust, sung with a whistle-blowing, train-break-screaming, rail-screeching voice.

12. Song to Woody

This is the second song on this album that is a Dylan original (… at least the lyrics… the melody comes from the same person that the song is dedicated to). As with Talkin’ New York, it is so very typical. The rhythm, the way he sings, the way he draws out the words, and the homage to the masters that went before him – it’s real, and honest and very touching, even if it might come off as arrogance on his side to string his name into the line of the great musicians he mentions – I choose to hear it as the confidence of youth and the promise to carry on the heritage.

13. See that my grave is kept clean

Very strong delivery. It starts slow but picks up a little speed. Despite the fact that his voice is strong and distinctly not close to death, it doesn’t sound ridiculous when he sings about his heart stopping to beat and his hands turning cold.

All together…

… it’s a fun little record that already shows the great potential of the singer. Despite the rather random collection of songs, the fast, almost hasty, way in which it was recorded (later John Hammond said that Dylan was the most undisciplined artist he’d ever had to work with) and the fact that only two of the songs are his own, the album as a whole has personality and foreshadows the future.

My favourite song? Well, I love the arrogant, mocking, individual way he deals with the traditional songs, and I like the melody of Baby, let me follow you down, but the two Dylan songs are my favourites – Talkin’ New York because of the talking style and the dry humour, Song to Woody because I find it so very touching.

guilty pleasures

Everyone has them. I’m sure you do. I most certainly have them – those songs that I feel I shouldn’t like… yet for some reason I just really like them anyway.

Those are the songs you sing along to when they come up on the radio without thinking and the other people in the car look at you in a funny way. The ones that you start dancing about to enthusiastically, just as everybody else is leaving the dancing area. The ones you lightly skim over or try to explain away when looking through your music collection with a friend.

I’m sure these songs are all wildly different for each of us, and the reasons why you feel you ‘should’ not like them are quite varied – they are kitsch, the lyrics are awful, you don’t like the singer/band, the song is not considered cool – whatever the reasons are (and often they are a multiple of those and similar reasons!), you still like that song.

Maybe you grew up with it and you have positive childhood memories? Maybe the melody just hits a sweet spot in your emotions? Whatever the reason, what I want to tell you is this: It’s alright. Do not be afraid. You are in good company. Let’s be brave and not bother about those ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts’ and just ‘fess up to songs that might not fit into our perceptions of what we are supposed to like, but that give us happiness anyway. ‘Cause that’s what music’s all about, isn’t it?

You can listen to my guilty pleasures right here:

And now it’s your turn. Step up to the mark! What are your guilty music pleasures?

Is music seasonal?

As a dry spring slowly blends into a surprisingly humid summer, my playlists begin to change. It happens so imperceptibly that I almost don’t notice. One by one, songs that I have been addicted to for weeks and months drop off the radar and others, that only a short while before I was uninterested in, emerge from the ocean of music.

To be explicit – the more introspective songs of the folk/inde-folk/[whatever-you-wanna-call-it] persuasion fade out a bit and songs that sound more robust and usually hail from the box labelled ‘pop’ enter. With rising temperatures, I’m sure that reggae and ska will make their way back onto my playlists as well.

This is not a conscious choice. Well, not quite true. Obviously I do choose what music to listen to. But it’s unconscious in the way that, come summer, I’m just more drawn towards music that has faster rhythms, that is more sensual, and usually has to be played much louder. It is music that reminds me more of my body – I can feel the beats, I can dance to it.

This is not to say that I’m not still madly in love with introspective, intelligent songs, or that I don’t enjoy them, in summer. Nor do I mean to say that they only ‘fit’ autumn, winter, spring… And I really don’t think that reggae can only be appreciated in summer.

What I do mean to say is that I think my musical preferences adjust to my (cliché?) ideas of the season I’m in. I also mean to say that I’m looking forward to summer and to bold, unapologetically loud, joyful, rhythm-driven, shout-along sounds.

Do you think music is seasonal? Or is your music taste? Or am I the only one who experiences this seasonal shift in preferences?

summer sounds…

even the darkness is made of love / Union Chapel, 25.11.’11

We’ve just come in from standing outside in the cold for almost an hour. They said the doors would open at 7pm and we were there early, because we didn’t have tickets and were banking on still getting some on the door. Needless to say, they didn’t let us in till 7.30. Shortly before that, I was close to turning to my friend and saying: “You know what? Let’s forget it and go see a movie.” Of course I didn’t. And now we’re inside, I’m deeply grateful that I disregarded my numb feet and frozen face – this venue is one of the most amazing I have ever been in, if not the most amazing.

I sit in a wooden pew, near the front, in the middle, pretty much where you want to be. My friend has gone to get us two cups of hot tea. I can feel people streaming in from behind me, surrounding me, hushed chatter rolling around the octagonal room, while above us the wooden, carved ceiling arches high, guarding the silence. It feels special to be here, in a church, a holy space and the place where so many great artists have performed wonderful concerts before. The air hums with expectancy and very soon all the places are filled up, and while people still move about, there’s many who watch the stage, talking quietly to their friends and neighbours, waiting. Music is played softly over the speakers, Greg Brown’s deep voice singing some of his more melancholic songs, and others I don’t recognize.

Suddenly a girl walks on the stage, young, red hair in two braids. She picks up a guitar and whispers into the sudden silence “I’m This is the Kit” and starts playing. The first line intrigues me (“tonight we are the same age”), and the many repetitions heighten my anticipation, but unfortunately there is no resolution. For the second song she takes up a banjo and, most endearingly, asks one of her friends, that she thinks she has spotted in the audience, if he could play the guitar part for this song. He comes up to the stage and they play the song ‘Easy Pickings‘ together. The whole set lasts only a bit more than half an hour. Overall, I think that This is the Kit is a very young performer that still has quite some growing to do. I like her voice, I like the way she plays the guitar, I like the melodies and she seems a very sweet person, but her songs lack impact. The lyrics are unsatisfying and less of the ‘ooh’-ing could be an improvement. All in all, it was very pleasant to listen to, but none of the songs stand out, and after the last note has sunk, nothing has really stuck with me.

We have about half an hour now. Most people get up and mill about. My friend gets us a hot chocolate to share, while I scribble down some notes and impressions and enjoy the atmosphere. The sound system is trickling … well, I guess it’s music, but it sounds like a guitar being tuned. Whatever it is, it’s slow and quiet and hypnotic. We exchange opinions about what we’ve so far heard.

Then, suddenly, quietly and modestly, Alexi Murdoch walks on the stage, picks up a guitar and starts fiddling around with the technical equipment laid out on the floor of the stage. Still standing sideways to the audience, he starts picking the guitar and fine-tuning the loop pedals. Nothing can be heard in the hush of the chapel except his guitar and the weird guitar-tuning sounds coming through the loudspeakers. At a nod from Alexi, those stop and he turns fully to the audience and starts playing over the looping guitar.

I’m not a fan of long standing. I have known his name for a while, I’m in love with ‘All my days’ and I like the juxtaposition of his first and last name (one so Greek-Russian-orthodox, the other so Scottish-dour-correct), yet the very first song makes me tear up. I sit there, staring at this unpretentious young man who seems to effortlessly reach inside me and touch my innermost self. The music does not need to wind through my ears and my mind – his voice simply removes all outer layers and speaks directly to my heart. I try to film or take pictures, but I simply feel too emotional, too overwhelmed to be able to concentrate on something as mundane as that. It is as if he is singing exclusively to me, and from the absolute stillness around me, I think that he has the same effect on everyone else. This is the most intimate performance I have ever had the amazing luck to attend. He seems to be equally impressed, whispering into the microphone: “This place is amazing. Where did you find it? Where did you all come from?”, then segueing immediately into the next song.

I’m impressed with is his musical virtuosity – Alexi Murdoch changes between guitars, and between guitar and other instruments easily and smoothly. He plucks a violin like a guitar, he plays a beautiful little impression on the piano, he uses a hand organ, something I have never experience live, and he employs another instrument played with his hands, which is a total mystery to me and looks more like a toy than a serious instrument. All of it is done with grace and naturalness. If it weren’t for the fact that I am totally in awe of him, and trying to deal with the raw emotions coursing through me, I would certainly be developing a most serious case of fan crush right about now.

A recurring theme in his songs is the sea. And darkness. All the pictures he draws are somewhat dark and while they certainly aren’t light and joy-filled, they aren’t sad either. They are as inevitably honest and as unchangingly real as the coming of night at the end of the day, or the ebb and flow of the tide. The stunning setting that he performs in tonight adds to the depths of his words. The sensation is quite indescribable when his quiet voice reaches up to the ceiling of the chapel, soaring in this beautiful building with the words: “there is no God, there’s only love”.

He uses words with the same ease and lightness of touch that he uses his instruments. It seems to me that he writes songs the same way that the stonemason in the old story makes the statue of a lion by simply chipping away all the rock that doesn’t look like a lion. He seems to have a vision of what a particular song is supposed to sound like, and then takes away everything that is unnecessary until he reaches that sound. The fact that the songs still sound full and gorgeous and perfect is proof of his mastery.

On the records, his sound reminded me very much of Nick Drake – a certain quality of languid beauty, quiet desperation and overarching love is in both of them. Live, however, the songs are much starker, increasing the impact. There is no resemblance to Nick Drake left, instead I can hear a certain Irish-Celtic sound in some of the songs that I never noticed before. It’s not in his voice, but more in the way he sings.  It gives the music a deep wealth of connotations.

Towards the end, he engages in more talk, saying that he isn’t sure how much time he has left and that he always thought this whole encore-thing “a bit of a sham”, but since it makes him feel good, he will now play the last song, “if you know what I mean”. This ‘last’ song finally topples me over the edge that I have been hovering on since the first line of the first song and tears are rolling down my cheeks and breathing has suddenly become hard, because my throat has closed up and I have only ever once before felt like sobbing my heart out while at the same time being so ecstatically happy that I feel as though every cell of my body will explode with it. I am being blessed by music.

During the encore he shows his kindness, including a song that he forgot to play at the very earnest-sounding request of a fan. It’s another stunningly beautiful song, and while the words of the fan thanking him (“Thank you. That was cool.”) seem to me extremely inadequate, the emotion is clear and he accepts the thanks with a little nod, before playing the encore he had planned.

When people are filing out of the chapel afterwards, I linger, unwilling to break the spell. Talking is hard. And there is no need for talk anyway. Everything has been said.

fray, twist, skip and blaze / The Front Room @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20.11.’11

It’s been ages since I went to see live jazz. I had forgotten how much fun it is. Especially when it’s as high quality as yesterday’s free concert at the Southbank Centre as part of the London Jazz Festival.

Jazz trio Phronesis had embarked on a collaboration/workshop with a whole bunch of very young, very talented musicians and they interpreted some of their material and also included two songs by two of the young’uns. And I’m not even sure now which was better – the pieces by the old hands or by the young people. Together they were awesome.

Before I tell you about the concert, I have to warn you: I really don’t know much about jazz in the technical sense. I’ve been to a number of concerts; some of the first concerts I can remember as a kid were jazz. I listen to some of the big names from time to time. I stop and listen to street musicians improvising. But I don’t know “the scene”. And that is also what I don’t like about it – it tends to be quite elitist. However, I firmly believe that even without “knowing” one can still “know”. I cannot talk about the concert in technical detail, but I can still give you a fairly good (hopefully) impression of how it was – all fervent jazz aficionados will have to excuse me.

What I liked most about the concert yesterday was that it reminded me that jazz is unexpected. As much as I adore folk and reggae and ska and quiet singer-songwriter tunes – none of that has the ability to completely surprise me. None of the songs last night sounded like the one preceding it and – even better – none of them stayed the same themselves. What started out as a quirkly little bass rhythm with a tiny smattering of melody swelled into trumpets blaring, clarinets shrieking and the drums going wild only to suddenly fray into different strands of melody, all loosely twining around the rhythm. And what started as a pleasing, interesting melody went suddenly into blaring overdrive, only to shatter into a myriad of different instruments, playing with the original theme and only connected by one constant – the humming of the bass or the dancing of the drums or the swinging of the vibraphone or the snaring of the cajon.

The solos were short and snappy and to the point and played with vigour. The enjoyment of the players was evident on their faces and their passion for the work they put in to produce this concert could be seen in their hands softly or not so softly slapping their thighs when they weren’t playing, in their sometimes closed eyes, in heads nodding, in smiles spreading, in the little signs sent across the stage to some of the other performers by looks, hands and quick movements: ‘He totally nailed it!’ – ‘I knew you could do it, that was awesome!’ – ‘Wow, we really got it more than right this time!’

The voices of the ten young women (17 to 24 years old, if I remember correctly) acted as added instruments, with them doing shrieks, the sounds of raindrops or simply singing sounds. Some parts were also sung in the traditional meaning – words set to a melody. All ten sounded fabulous and very interesting. They had come together from Voicelab, a project by the Southbank Centre, and were led by Sam Coates.

The musicians, apart from Phronesis (Jasper Høiby, Ivo Neame, Anton Eger), were the 16 to 24-year-old members of Soundbank, another Southbank Centre project, and led/directed by composer Dave Maric.

Alltogether, there were twenty-four performers on the stage, plus the two directors. The fun they had playing with this material and arranging it into something unique transmitted itself easily to the over 300 people who had come together to listen to this one-off performance. It certainly transmitted itself to me. As Jasper Høiby said: “Jazz is growing. Everybody’s saying it is dead, but I don’t think so.”

I don’t think so either.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

the serious game of growing up / The Garage, 9.11.’11

How much do you bring to a song and how much is there already?

Maybe it’s because I’m grappling with this situation myself at the moment but the main theme of last Wednesday’s concert at The Garage seemed to me to be that of coming to terms with growing up, connecting the support and the headlining act in a very smooth arc. Maybe all that I heard was only my interpretation. Maybe it was there anyway. I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that it was another beautifully passionate concert by The Head and The Heart, with the support of Singing Adams, who set the mood just right and introduced me to some wonderful new songs.

Singing Adams 

Steven Adams, Matthew Ashton, Melinda Bronstein and Michael Wood have songs that extend from dancable to personal hymns. In the former category are songs like Injured Party, Good Luck or Building a Wall, while the latter holds I Need Your Mind, St. Thomas and my personal favourite, Sit and Wait.

All the songs have lyrics that in some way deal with loosing dreams, realizing that priorities are changing, becoming aware that personal ideals aren’t what they used to be anymore – in short, they deal with the transition from the adventurous, finding-onself part of adulthood to that part where things become more serious, where reality checks some of the wild ideals and first disappointments happen. Does this sound very sad and dismal? It’s anything but. The lyrics are witty, ironic, nice-at-first-glance-until-you-really-listen-and-have-to-laugh-from-surprise. The music is has driving rhythms (girl drummer, yeay!), solid guitars and the singing a cheerful, yeah-it’s-a-bit-tough-right-now-but-let’s-not-take-it-so-serious attitude. And at least two of the songs (I Need Your Mind and Sit and Wait) felt like hymns-in-the-making to me, the kind of hymns you sing at the top of your voice.

(this is from the actual concert)

The Head and The Heart

*sigh* What can I say? I love them. In my eyes they couldn’t do anything wrong. Even better, they didn’t do anything wrong. They delivered everything I expected: beautiful songs, a passionate performance, down-to-earth attitude and heaps of fun. There isn’t a TH&TH song I don’t like, but I do have some that somehow touch me more than the others,and Lost in my Mind leads on that, with Ghosts following closely behind. All of them, however, gave me chills, made me dance and some of them almost made me cry (Lost in my Mind and Josh McBride) . Chasing a Ghost, the first encore performed by only Jonathan and Charity, was almost painful in its beauty.

Drops of sadness:

a) Singing Adams didn’t hang around long enough for me to get the chance for a chat, while The Head and The Heart were beleaguered and therefore equally inaccessible (very sad!!!)

b) The London crowd’s disinclination to dance. It’s very boring/frustrating to dance to songs you love in a whole crowd of people standing still and giving you strange looks.

All in all – non-dancing crowd, but soul-freeing music in an interesting venue that I will check out more. A great evening!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.