Archive for April, 2013

Is the alien boy with the lightning bolt makeup on the cover of this 1973 David Bowie album actually Ziggy Stardust? Many think of this iconic image when they think of Ziggy. Such is the fuzzy-edged mish-mash of pop-culture that many inaccuracies, misreadings and plain mistakes become icons for the ages, true or not – and this is one of them. Or is it?

The album is called Aladdin Sane but the character seems to be an extension of the ever-morphing Bowie phantasy persona of the 70s. Bowie himself referred to Aladdin Sane musically as “Ziggy goes to America”, so the Ziggy character logically got the U-S-of-A buff, shine and chrome-plating as well.David-Bowie-Aladdin-Sane

And that same buff, shine and chrome-plating was mirrored in the sound and subject of this new album. Whereas its predecessor, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, told a dystopian tale of rock’n’roll stardom, totalitarianism and suicide, Aladdin Sane seemed to be a celebration of America, freedom and the excesses of the flesh. Where Ziggy seemed very Old World, wrapped in the rain of a bleak future England, Aladdin was all New World, New York, Marilyn Monroe and doo-wop – its vibe distilled into the lyric from ‘Jean Genie’: “New York’s a go-go, where everything tastes nice”.

Which doesn’t mean to imply the music was in any way shallower than Ziggy. Bowie produced these two albums (and arguably, their predecessor, the sci-fi-Gothic Hunky Dory) on a blindingly creative roll. His art was, like the Beatles before him, outstripping all around him in great leaps forward. In many ways Aladdin Sane is a deeper and more creative album than even Ziggy.

One reason was that Bowie seemed utterly unfettered by any limits in his songwriting and lyrics. His established starpower allowed him to now bring in all of his influences from the avant-garde that only were on the periphery of the songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. Unlike today where many stars eschew any growth in creativity to consolidate their career positions, Bowie (once more, as the Beatles had done) used his star power to propel his music into some dangerous areas.

Remembering that this was a UK Number One album, check out piano-player Mike Garson’s solo on the title track ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’ – Garson rakes and smashes the piano like the uncontrollable bastard child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Cecil TaylorElton John it ain’t.

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-costumeThen there’s Mick Ronson’s volcanic Les Paul intro to ‘Cracked Actor’ and the cartoon Berlin cabaret of ‘Time’ – ‘Time/He flexes like a whore/Falls wanking to the floor…’, the fuck-off arrogant cover of the Stones ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ and the nightmare doo-wop of ‘Drive In Saturday’. Bowie tested his fans with some wild creative lunges, and yet, batting at the top of his game, rarely misfired.

Lyrically, Bowie also pushed it. Always a challenging and incisively-intelligent lyricist, on Aladdin he gave us some surreal treasures. ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’s ‘Motor sensational/Paris or maybe hell/I’m waiting/Clutches of sad remains/Waits for Aladdin Sane/You’ll make it…’ or lines that owed more to pulp science fiction than to T.S. Eliot such as ‘Cursing at the Astronette/Who stands in steel by his cabinet/He’s crashing out with Sylvian/Bureau Supply for ageing men’ from ‘Drive In Saturday’.

Produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the soundscapes are perfect – they ride the line between Velvet Underground menace and 50’s rock on the rockers (almost burying the vocals under the spitting phalanx of guitars on opener ‘Watch That Man’), and sci-fi soundtracks and art music on the moodier pieces such as closer ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (‘Cologne she’ll wear/Silver and AmeriCard’ – Bowie’s lovesong to the seduction of moneyed America).

This reissue is timely as Bowie has just released his finest work in decades – the album The Next Day. Even though Aladdin Sane is of another time and another planet, the cord of Bowie’s art ties the two together unmistakeably, linking the wild alien boy with the lightning-bolt makeup to the current pensive wizard with the faintly sad eyes.

(Parlophone will be releasing the 40th Anniversary Edition of Aladdin Sane on April 12. This 40th anniversary edition has been remastered by Ray Staff at London’s AIR Studios. Ray cut the original LP during his time at Trident Studios and has received plaudits for his remastering of the Ziggy Stardust 40th anniversary edition last year.)

Published April 2013 on theorangepress.net

Advertisements

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

__________________________________________________________

tajmahal

Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

jimmycliff

Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

carlossantana

Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

________________________________

allentoussaint

Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

sensationalspaceshifters

Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

________________________________

Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

saskwatch

Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

_______________________________________

stilts

Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

There is too much talk of cookie-cutter sameness and lack of originality and art in music these days, and not enough listening to what is actually out there.

Turn off the electronics, unplug yourself, walk out into the street listening and pop your head into a music house or two – something as new and lovely as Melbourne band Catch Release might be playing.

catchrelease1The idiosyncratic vehicle for New Zealander Tom Lee-Richards’ equally idiosyncratic songs, Catch Release is a really nice discovery – like stumbling across a small walled garden off a street you never knew was there, a garden of new dark plants and head-clearing perfumes. The six songs on their debut EP Asleep is a Friend of Mine come fully-formed from their own small revolving world.

The instrumental mix of Tim Hannah’s French horn and Navin Gulavita’s violin in with the guitar-bass-drums reflects the lyrical and melodic twists and turns of Lee-Richards’ songs. It is a lovely balance – poetry in both word and instrument: the band’s arrangements creating a shifting and translucent backdrop behind lines such as “Shared the sound of the ceiling/Under the misty spell…” or “Been swimming in my shoes again/Not sure they walk like the bleed/The swell could take me anywhere…”.

The addition of the orchestral instruments and the wider, deeper moods they create tempts one to use the term ‘cinematic’ but this music is too elegantly balanced for the bombast and ‘wide-screen’-ness the (overused, not least by this writer) term suggests. Quite the contrary, the songs have an airy openness and the instruments never become cloying or obscure the songs.

Special mention goes to drummer Bill Bate whose playing is nicely considered throughout – it is hard for a drummer to know what to play in music this finely held, but Bates picks his feels and timbres. The jazzy 6/8 groove of ‘Chasing Ideas’, the hand percussion of ‘Out of Sight’ stand out.catchrelease2

But it is ultimately Tom Lee-Richards’ songs and voice that all of Asleep is a Friend of Mine hangs from. And again, the voice balances and matches the songs, just as seamlessly as the instrumentation and arrangements. Whether a big song like ‘Freedom is a Squeeze’ or the mostly chamber-quiet closer ‘Sound of the Ceiling’, Lee-Richards’ voice is one which has that rare story-telling quality in its shadows and colours.

Asleep is a Friend of Mine is six songs only and yet it feels quite complete. Whether limited by restraint (artistic) or constraint (financial) it still leaves one feeling perfectly sated. Why do more?

Which does not mean to say I am not looking forward to more music from Tom Lee-Richards and Catch Release. Theirs is an original voice that can only flower and seed beautifully into the future.

The band’s website is www.catchreleaseband.com

Published March 2013 on theorangepress.net

Two new releases by modern masters of the acoustic guitar were transmitted to my magic listening box this week. Two very different releases by two very different artists – Australian maestro Bruce Mathiske and edgy NYC star Kaki King – both bound in approach by the warm wood of the acoustic guitar.

Playing any acoustic instrument – guitar, horn, drums – sets up a resonance in the body of the player that creates a feedback loop between emotion and technique – often missing in amplified electric instruments. This loop comes closest to realising that old cliché of ‘becoming one’ with your guitar, allowing a greater range of dynamics and feeling. It just seems more ‘real’.

The trade-off is that, since every sound you make on the guitar is there to be heard, there is nowhere to hide – your technique has to be seamless and perfect. And the trade-off there is that, too often, perfect technique leads to glassy, boring performances.

In both Mathiske and King, we hear players that have come out the other side of perfection into that spiritual area usually reserved for the great jazz or classical virtuosi. Nothing is impossible for their heads, hearts and fingers, so their artistry is about cutting to the heart of the music – exploring the emotional side, the blue-black depths, the sunflower highs.

mathiskeBruce Mathiske’s new release My Life is as coolly measured and mature as Kaki King’s Glow is wild and bursting with anarchic juice. It is his seventeenth album and her sixth (not counting EPs). Mathiske’s songs are called ‘River Stories’ and ‘The Bridge’; King’s titles are as esoteric and literary as her music – ‘No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Complete’ or ‘Skimming The Fractured Surface To A Place Of Endless Light’. Mathiske plays a masterful blend of flamenco and country fingerstyle on beautiful handmade guitars; King appears to attack anything with strings in any way her hands can get at it.

Enough of the differences, now to the similarities which I find the most interesting in such diverse artists. The first is, quite obviously, the love of the acoustic guitar: in Mathiske’s hands a rounded, pearlescent gut-string flow, as strong and as translucently lovely as a river, whereas King goes at the thing, throwing off metallic spangles of sound. There is also a similar love of rhythm – Spanish, folk jigs and reels, some gypsy-jazz, Celtic. There is My Life’s Djangoesque ‘In Rhythm’ and Glow’s Celtic shred-fest ‘King Pizel’. Both artists really get those strings dancing.

And of course there is the über-virtuosity – yes, even though these artists are beyond that as a means-in-itself, they just can’t help themselves. (Why put all those millions of hours of practice in if you can’t shred a little now and again?). A mesmerising flourish such as Mathiske’s on his gypsified Stones cover ‘Paint It, Black’ or King’s skipping guitar harmonics on ‘Holding The Severed Self’ make one really sit up and take notice. They are dazzling but also serve to stamp Mathiske and King’s authority on their respective albums.

One big difference between both works is the production: but only different, not good, not bad, and in both cases entirely apt (almost) and vernacular to the sound-world each inhabits. Bruce Mathiske’s self-production is lean and focused on the natural sounds of the guitar. Apart from some vocal and midi-strings (and one ill-advised slab of heavy cod-Floyd rock complete with howling Stratocaster on ‘The Close Call’), he has stuck to gut string guitars, some sinewy double bass from Phil Stack and Ben Edwards and percussion and conga from Calvin Welch and Paul Kirtley. And it all works beautifully.

kakiking828

Glow is a whole different trip. Producer D James Goodwin has wrapped King’s “guitars and things” in almost cinematic clothes on every track. The focus here is less on the guitar and more on atmosphere and mood. And, again, it all works beautifully. Opener ‘Great Round Burn’ chugs with strings from orchestral ensemble ETHEL. ‘Bowen Island’ shimmers over an ocean of violet-turquise drone. ‘Holding The Severed Self’ skips along, whistling through the graveyard of reverbed ghosts in the background.

It is gratifying to hear in Bruce Mathiske’s My Life and Kaki King’s Glow the past, present and future of virtuosic acoustic guitar music. Both have taken the instrument to areas previously unimagined and shown us all the excitement that can still be wrung from a what is pretty much a wooden box stretched with steel.

Bruce Mathiske’s webiste is www.mathiske.com.au

Kaki King’s website is www.kakiking.com

Published March 2013 on theorangepress.net