iPod Shuffle, February 2017

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  • Pancho and Lefty : Townes Van Zandt (from Live at the Union Chapel)
  • Satie: Ogive No. 2 : Sarah Rothenberg (from Rothko Chapel)
  • Famous Blue Raincoat : Jennifer Warnes (from Famous Blue Raincoat)
  • Sitting on Top of the World : Mississippi Shieks (from Stop & Listen Blues)
  • Cold Enough to Cross : Joe Henry (from Scar)
  • Three Guitar Special : Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (from Anthology, 1935-73)
  • No One Gets In : Bill Frisell (from Disfarmer)
  • Driving Home : Liz Simcock (from Seven Sisters Road)
  • Let Him Roll : Guy Clark (from Old No. 1)
  • My Girl : Otis Redding (from Otis Blue)
  • In a Mellotone : Duke Ellington (from Highlights of the Great 1940-42 Band)
  • I’m Pulling Through : Billie Holiday (from Billie Holiday & Lester Young, Complete Studio Recordings)

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Music 2016

Another symptom of ageing – mine – is that I get to see less live jazz year on year. The fact that I went to Dalston’s Café Oto, home of the avant garde and free, to see the American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was  down to Jack McNamara, director of the stage version of Darkness, Darkness, whose bag – as they used to say – this is. And was I glad that I took his advice and joined him there. Smith played with a terrific sense of continuity throughout, his style and tone managing to sound contemporary whilst referencing the mainstream jazz trumpet tradition from Miles Davis back to Louis Armstrong. And the supporting band, with the amazing Steve Noble on drums, were just great too. Thanks, Jack!

mi0003745895Otherwise, the musical highlight of the year for me was listening to the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted with quiet intensity by Juraj Valcuha, playing Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony. Astonishing.

What else? The LPO under Osmo Vanska playing the entire cycle of Sibelius symphonies over four nights at the Royal Festival Hall; Billy Bragg and Joe Henry bringing their songs of the American railroad to a crowded Union Chapel on US election night; and a joyous evening at Rich Mix in Shoreditch listening to the Fitkin Band doing their minimalism-jazz-70s disco thing, and featuring, in their second set, a new set of songs under the heading Don’t Take This the Wrong Way, featuring Melanie Pappenheim on lead vocals and counter-tenors Fergal Mostyn Williams and Tom Scott-Cowell brilliantly and so happily singing back-up. (You had to be there!)

Performance of the year : Patti Smith singing Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony.

Song of the year: Joe Henry’s Our Song

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
It started badly and it’s ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it’s my right if the worst of it might
Still somehow make me a better man

Album of the year – for, sadly, all too obvious reasons: You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

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iPod Shuffle December 2016

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  • Ko-Ko : Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (1940)
  • Edgar Bergen : Joe Henry from Scar
  • Feeling Blue : James P. Johnson (1929)
  • So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines w. Otis Spann & Big Walter Horton (1966)
  • They Say (Alternate Take) : Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra with Billie Holiday, vocal refrain (1939)
  • The First Time I Ran Away : M. Ward
  • From Hank to Hendrix : Neil Young from Neil Young Unplugged
  • Your Song : Elton John from Tumbleweed Connection
  • Summertime : Miles Davis from Porgy & Bess
  • Railroad Bill : Billy Bragg & Joe Henry from Shine a Light
  • How Could We Dare To be Wrong : Colin Blunstone
  • Crepuscule with Nelly  : Thelonious Monk from The Complete 1961 Amsterdam Concert71flw7fvjdl-_sx425_

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Shining a Light, Keeping Track …

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It wasn’t a bad night [though that came, and with a vengeance, later]. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at the Union Chapel in north London, the second night of the UK leg of their Shine a  Light tour, which began in Nashville, Tennessee and will finish, after appropriate breaks, in Melbourne, Australia. A tour about a tour.

It began in back in March when the two musicians, plus a little recording equipment, plus guitars, boarded a train in Chicago and began a journey that would take them south and then west across the United States, stopping at St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson on the way. Some 2,728 miles of track. And here and there along the way, they would find a waiting room or similar space in which to record a song. A song that, in one way or another, was inspired by the rails, boxcars, the iron horse, the lonely whistle of a freight train passing through the night. Train songs, folk songs, Leadbelly songs.

Two men with a couple of guitars each and an upright piano standing off stage right. Henry’s voice is the higher, distinctive, slightly nasal; Bragg’s, a deeper baritone, takes on an American tone. [An American tune.] Two of the first three songs – Railroad Bill & John Henry – I know well from my own fledgling skiffle group days,  as, it transpires, does my companion for the evening – jazz aficionado and crime writing critic and commentator [I like to refer to him as the thinking man’s Barry Forshaw – sorry, Barry!] – Bob Cornwell. Bob shared with me, as I discovered in the interval, the distinction of having played single string tea chest bass in a youthful, enthusiastic and, by the sound of it,not overly successful skiffle group in our teenage years. Both of our initial public appearances seem to have ended precipitously with a request to pack up our things and leave the building. No matter, those songs brought it all back in its dubious glory – as, later on, did The Midnight Special and, of course, Rock Island Line.

While we were talking about this that Bob raised the name of Lonnie Donegan, not quite the first but certainly the most famous British skiffler, saying that he thought Donegan had never quite got his due. It was a point taken up strongly by Bragg during the second half, when he mentioned a book he has just finished writing which marks Donegan’s recording of Rock Island Line – the first record to top the UK charts featuring someone singing and playing guitar – as the major turning point in popular music; where previously it had been, to a greater or lesser degree, based on or around jazz and jazz instrumentation, from hereon it, it would be about guitars.

In addition to the songs they performed together, each man played a short solo set, Henry taking to the piano for a Randy Newman-influenced This Was My Country [painfully prophetic in the light of what was to come through the early hours of the morning, but leavened by hope nonetheless] and finishing with a beautiful and deeply felt version of Alain Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion. Unsurprisingly, Bragg, digging into his back list for  Accident Waiting to Happen and There is Power in a Union, voice reverting to its London twang, was the more directly political, pointing up the links between Brexit and what was happening politically in America, and drawing a clear connection, via Woody Guthrie, between the treatment meted out to the Okies when they left the dustbowl in the 30s and headed out to California looking for work and a better life for their children and what was being done to refugees in various parts of Europe on our behalf.

We stepped out into the night knowing we’d experienced something special. The UK leg of the tour takes a break two-thirds of the way through November, picks up again in January. You can find the details here …

If they come near you, try not to miss out.

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