Archive for November, 2014

Imagine if your favourite bar band – the one you see swaggering and rocking at your local most Saturday nights – won some fabulous lottery. And with that money they could mount the most amazingly huge and perfectly produced show they could conceive. The venue would be a mega-stadium, the lights and stage production would be utterly state-of-the-art, the sound design would be perfect.

But still, right at the centre of all this hi-tech machinery and Olympian splendour would be your good old favourite bar band, rocking away in true pub style – ripping it up, flubbing the occasional chord, grinning away and still making some joyous rock and roll.

That was the phantasy that ran through my head watching The Rolling Stones at Allphones Arena mid last week. (I half-remember a hazy quote by Keith Richards about the Stones being the world’s biggest bar band, but I could be wrong.)

The thing about this particular bar band was that they had The Songs. Songs that have set the template for all forms of rock and roll – brainy rock and desultory punk included. Everyone from Alice Cooper to The New York Dolls to The Black Crowes to The Clash – yes, even Elton John and David Bowie at times – seemed to be trying to write their Stones song at some stage.

Rolling Stones 1 Pic D. Williams


And for a long while the Stones always kept a step ahead – the brilliant Pop of the 60s, the filth and the fury of the 70s (Exile on Main Street) – hell even the 80s held some gems (‘Start Me Up’ and ‘One Hit to the Body’). But as their star waned, their live shows seemed to become more and more gigantic, more obesely over-produced and – for the deep music fan – a hollow spectacle with monstrous cartoon props dwarfing Mick, Keith and the band: maybe an apt metaphor for where the band were at.

At Allphones the stage was surprisingly bare – a huge hexagonal screen surrounded by some sharp and beautiful neon-tube-art, and a circular runway which ran out onto the audience and back again. There was not a Zeppelin-penis, inflatable King Kong or illuminated 5-story cobra in sight.

Rolling Stones 3 Pic E. BensonAnd the music was briskly tart and flab-free too. Opener ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ sounded lean and raw and had that perfect mix of grit and satin – Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts finding their sweet spot groove from the first riff. Their joy in that groove never let up – through ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)’, ‘Respectable’ and the languid black and blues of ‘Tumbling Dice’.

Mick Jagger – still snake-hipped and electric at age 71 – reminded us that he wrote the book on rock frontmen. It is hard to think of any lead singer in a rock band that has not borrowed part of Jagger’s unique mix of overt sex, androgyny, self-parody and theatre-of-the-absurd. And he still has an arse like an apple.

Keith Richards – ever the blue moon to Jagger’s sun king  – is the heart of the Stones. Artifice-free, he has created a style that is modern-outlaw: the gypsy, the pirate, the anti-authority bad boy. This is an enormous part of the Stones’ myth and attractiveness – but whatever, Richards is a music lover and instinctive musician. His three-tune vocal set was a surprising high point of the concert: the bruised country of ‘You Got The Silver’, the brittle riffing of ‘Before They Make Me Run’ and his masterpiece, ‘Happy’ were a delight of honesty and depth.Rolling Stones 2 Pic F. Benson

The rollicking roll of Richards’ mini-set put the stodgy train-wreck of ‘Midnight Rambler’ into high relief. Mick Taylor, Stones lead guitarist during their early 70s golden period, was brought out to hopefully reprise his jaw-dropping performance of the song preserved on 1970’s live “Get Yer Ya Yas Out”. But it never took off – Taylor’s lines promised so much yet meandered and lost focus. Trying to “guitar-weave” with Richards and Ronnie Wood, Taylor fell flat. It was an illustration of how the dynamic within the band has changed – Keith and Ronnie were now a little gang, who didn’t look too keen on letting the new guy in.

By contrast, backing vocalist Lisa Fischer‘s duetting with Jagger on the bone-chilling ‘Gimme Shelter’ just kept going higher and higher. Working the circular runway out into the crowd, Fischer reprised Merry Clayton‘s original 1969 recorded performance. Reprised? No, let’s say she owned it. And it seemed to thrill Mick Jagger as much as it did the rest of us.

The set-list of songs was all up and blazing – apart from a sweetly-drunken ‘Sweet Virginia’, it was all rockers: no ‘Angie’, no ‘Wild Horses’, no ‘Moonlight Mile’. ‘Start Me Up’, “Sympathy for The Devil’ – driven by Chuck Leavell‘s piano and with Jagger hoodoo-ing us all in a voodoo-man’s feather cape – and ‘Brown Sugar’ finished the set, before a huge choir (and French horn soloist) opened the first encore of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’.

‘Satisfaction’ was, of course the closer. An eternal anthem of disaffection and teen-alienation, it might be the most perfect punk song ever written and resonates with everyone who has a brain in their head and a chip on their shoulder. And it always will.

Looking around at my fellow audience members – many of them looking well-nourished and pretty satisfied in their bulging Rolling Stones ’14 On Fire’ Tour t-shirts – punching the air and yelling “I can’t get no…  satisfaction”, I thought this should really be faintly ridiculous. But the joy of being part of this tribe, this club, this Rolling Stones gang, right here right now, overrides all that over-thinking.

And the Stones – like all the best of rock and roll – has always celebrated and drawn us back to the right here right now. You can see it in Keith Richards’ faintly simian grin, in the glow of Ronnie Wood’s fag-end and in the snap of Charlie Watt’s wrist as he gives us that delicious backbeat we have all come to hear.


Pics: D. Williams, E. Benson, F. Benson


Published November 2014 on

In my early twenties, I lived in a flat with my (much hipper) cousin David. The music that wafted from his room was an education in itself. To my Glam-rock gilded ears the exotic and alien sounds of jazz and Prog were always tantalising.

One of the most arresting breezes that came to me from David’s den was the 12-string guitar of Ralph Towner, then a member of the US group Oregon. It was jazz, yet it wasn’t; it was classical, yet it wasn’t.

What it was, was the ‘blues-less’ jazz that would grown hugely popular during that time – and reach its perfect expression in the arty but very alluring releases put out by Manfred Eicher’s ECM label from Germany.

Ralph Towner1Towner’s 12-string only came out for one tune tonight at the City Recital Centre on the shimmering tune ‘Beneath an Evening Sky’ – the rest of the time he played classical guitar. With him, also on gut-string classical, was Australia’s Slava Grigoryan and the German jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who played a (surprisingly thin-bodied) electric jazz box. The trio was with us tonight to promote their second album as a group, Travel Guide.

It was fitting that Towner, the elder statesman and spiritual father of the two younger players (indeed, to any guitarist who melds jazz, classical and Eastern music in their playing) sat in the middle, between the two. To his right, Muthspiel is a jazz player, to his left, Grigoryan, one of the finest classical players Australia has produced. Towner in the middle was the perfect balance of the two – delicate and technically perfect yet not averse to letting jazz dissonances rub and coaxing ‘blue’ notes to turn purple under his fingers.

Yet it wasn’t as neat as that: jazzer Muthspiel has come from classical music and Grigoryan, a concert guitar virtuoso who is also a great improviser (his opener was an entirely improvised piece which sequed seamlessly into his pearl-dropped reading of William Lovelady’s ‘Incantation No. 6’). Ralph Towner2

The concert program put every combination of the three up – trio, solo, duos (Towner and Slava / Towner and Muthspiel / Muthspiel and Grigoryan). The fleet unison and duo passages in Muthspiel and Grigoryan’s attack on the German’s ‘Nico and Mithra’ – as well as some bristling blowing – got the biggest applause of the night. Flash always does impress.

But it was Towner who was the calmer centre and the deeper artist. His chops are still intact ­– technically he is still that fearless acoustic warrior who first thrilled me all those years ago in the band Oregon – and yet a 45 year career of always progressing, always searching has made his artistry more breathtaking than ever. He quietly led the ensemble passages from within, leapt into the fray when it challenged, and held us all in his hand during the solo sections – his indigo tinged ‘The Prowler’ was particularly suspending.

??????Yet despite the slightly crystal-fragile atmosphere of the City Recital Hall, it was not all po-faced acoustic delicacy. Jokes and laughs were shared among the three – Wolfgang Muthspiel in particular ran a good line in drollery. Jokingly suffering yet more fine guitar tuning from the two acoustic guitarists, he let us know that the new album has two CDs: one of music and a second disc only of tuning. (Boom tish).

The encore piece, ‘In Stride’ from their debut album was a country-flavoured (albeit country via Keith Jarrett) workout that came as close to ‘rocking’ as anything tonight. Its sepia wildness and hoedown groove had us all humming the riff as we filed out ­– grinning and warm from music that is beautiful but more so because it is human.

Which has always been Ralph Towner’s gift to us.


Published November 2014 on