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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Record Review - Head South By Weaving & Alison O'Donnell

The Execution Of Frederick Baker

Following on from their 2008 single covering Nico and Nick Drake, cult prog-folk icon Alison O’Donnell (formerly of Mellow Candle) and Hampshire’s Head South By Weaving reunite for a full album.

Marking O’Donnell out from many of her generation is her willingness to experiment with a range of current musicians, including the experimental Irish free-folk collective United Bible Studies and the glassy brilliance of The Owl Service. Here, she and HSBW are generally in measured mood – the overall musical feel is of gentle folk-rock, but the music is awarded complexity through some striking lyrical themes.

Throughout her career, O’Donnell has always bitten and scratched her material with her voice. Songs like ‘Fleeing Limbus’ continue this tradition, mixing some violent and chaotic imagery with a stinging vocal delivery, all underpinned by a mellower musical base. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Bird In A Cage’, O’Donnell and HSBW interact with folk tradition, coming up with a Trees-esque beast of epic ambition.

Jeanette Leech

Record Review - Mondo Jet Set

Provincial Drama Club

Double albums, eh? Isn’t the traditional reviewer response to say ‘well, this could have made a great single album’, and lambast the self-indulgence of the creators? Indie duo Mondo Jet Set seems like the least self-indulgent band going. Provincial Drama Club does offer 23 tracks, yet none top four minutes, and most come in under two. Boredom isn’t really an option with this particular double album.

Firmly in the C86 tradition of shambolic cuteness, the melodies are joyous, and the vocals are extremely appealing; the sweetheart male voice stays the right side of wet even when the music itself gets a little too cloying (notably on ‘We Are Having A Pyjama Party’). There’s also room for more strident songs, like the great ‘Moth Attack’ which recalls something from the late ’90s on the Kill Rock Stars label, and the rhythmic ‘Cadaver In Motion’, its New York post-punk aesthetic charmingly filtered through polite English delivery.

So, no – it shouldn’t have been a single disc. Provincial Drama Club is an album that deserves its running time.

Jeanette Leech

Record Review - Elephant9


Atlantis sees Scandinavian trio Elephant9 tackling their fourth album with the aid of Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske. And it’s a beauty – a steaming full-throttle mash-up of rock and jazz that could strip paint.

Imagine Soft Machine or King Crimson at their dizzily inspired free-form best, with a shot of ’70s Miles Davis thrown in for good measure.

Opening track, 'Black Hole', sounds like it’s about to collapse under the weight of its own momentum, its layers of analogue keyboards sounding deliciously fuzzy and distorted over furious drumming - genuinely exciting stuff.

'A Foot In Both' is gently bucolic, spidery guitar skittering over glasslike keyboard shimmers before 'Psychedelic Backfire' kicks up the dust again with an almost Sabbath-like riff of pile-driving heaviness built over a two-note bass hook. Despite the furious technical chops on display, things never get too cerebral or too clever. This is music which aims for the gut, rather than the head.

Neil Hussey

Record Review - The Lemon Clocks

Now Is The Time

The Lemon Clocks wedge themselves firmly in the lineage of illustrious Liverpudlian psych-pop bands. They’re a trio of multi-instrumentalists who sport their ’60s influences proudly, melding them with a ’90s indie aesthetic so seamlessly that 'Life Is Like A Dream', for example, sounds rather like Teenage Fanclub covering The Beatles.

If that kind of thing appeals, then you’ll like this album a lot. 'The Bright Side' and the title track both have a pleasing Byrdsian jangle, and it’s only the odd squelchy synth sound and the polished production values that locate this record in the present.

'Rainbow Bridge' breaks the spell – its trippily repetitive riffs and rhythms and thickly applied smears and smudges of heavily reverbed guitar recalling ’80s/’90s riff-heavy psychonauts Loop. 'Better World Beyond' has the requisite backwards bits and phasing effects, but the overall quality of the material marks them out as more than clueless pasticheurs.
Neil Hussey

Record Review - The Luck Of Eden Hall

Alligators Eat Gumdrops

What strikes me about this, the fourth LP from The Luck Of Eden Hall, is how English much of it sounds, despite the band’s roots in deepest Michigan.

Admittedly, the title track combines garage band riffing and self-consciously trippy lyrics into its brief lifespan, and Bangalore mixes up heavy ’70s drums and guitars with spidery sitar embellishments, (“Batgirl does Bollywood” is how the band themselves describe it). 'Ten Meters Over The Ground' though, has a catchy, sax-driven Bowie/Mott style chorus, and 'Amoreena Had Enough Yesterday', with its swathes of cosseting Mellotron, evokes nostalgic reveries of a fabled Englishness that possibly never even existed.

The band have a winning way with a melody: 'A Carney’s Delerium' layers guitars and mellotron in a lovely, evocative soundscape; and 'Summertime Girl' is a pleasingly warm and fuzzy mix of acoustic guitars and organ which generates enough warmth to ease the winter chills outside.

Neil Hussey

Record Review - Lord Fowl

Moon Queen

Connecticut four-piece Lord Fowl are a stoner-rock act with classic rock leanings and a real eye and ear for quality riffs and melodic songwriting. What I didn’t really get from this album, however, was a sense of anything particularly original or groundbreaking.

The band has clearly mastered the formula on tracks like ‘Woman King’, where the riffs, vocals, powerful rhythm section and mood coalesce into something genuinely incredible. All too often however, the band just seem super-competent and self-assured rather than utterly transcendent.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical here. Chiding a stoner-rock band for unoriginality is like complaining your plate of fish and chips isn’t a bowl of snail porridge. While I would unreservedly recommend this album to any fans of stoner-rock, if you only occasionally dip your toes into the genre then you might want to wait for the next bus to come along.

Austin Matthews

Record Review - The Condors

3 Item Combo

Imagine you and your mates are holidaying in LA and stumble across their equivalent of the Dog & Duck, advertising ‘Live Music Tonite’. After a few sharpeners, you hear the familiar crackle of buzzing amps being switched on and mics being tapped.

“Pretty f***ing good”, you all agree as local boys The Condors race through a set of tight, gruff-ish, powerpop originals. A couple of sherbets further down the line you reckon you’ve discovered the new Fountains Of Wayne and snap up a copy of their new album 3 Item Combo (which sits alongside the first two on the tiny merch stall by the bog – “all complete classics”, according to beefy chap running it).

Next morning, you can’t wait to stick it on, which is when your fuzzy head suddenly realises The Condors remind you of that bloke Derek from Southend and his bluesy, new wave outfit, The ’Triffics, back in the ’80s.

There’s no doubt The Condors can kick ass, it’s just that they sound too uncomfortably close to yet another Feelgood-inspired British pub rock outfit – even with those jen-you-wine American accents.

Chris Twomey

Monday, 17 December 2012

RIP Down In The Grooves

It fills us with great sadness to announce that BBC Radio Leeds' fab Down In The Grooves is grinding to a halt due to further BBC cuts. Grrr. The man behind the show and its presenter James Addyman has his say.

I’m sad to be writing this because the radio programme has been part of my life for more than eight years,  Down In The Grooves, the show I do for BBC Radio Leeds is to finish at the end of December, along with dozens of other disparate shows across the BBC local radio network, as part of the DQF savings. DQF (Delivering Quality First) is a typical management confection that was basically cooked up as another phrase for cuts, once ex-Director General Mark Thompson had decided that he didn’t want to stick up for the BBC and froze the licence fee for six years – a decision that has had consequences right across the BBC ever since.

For the uninitiated, Down In The Grooves played a mix of garage-punk, psychedelia, R&B, soul, funk, ska/rocksteady, music library, soundtracks – taken mainly from the years 1955-75 but featuring modern acts echoing those eras and their music. When I started the programme in September 2004, I invited all sorts of DJs, producers, artists to come on the show such as Ady Croasdell (Kent Records), John Schroeder, Gary Walker (Walker Bros), Preston Ritter (Electric Prunes), Andy Votel & Dom Thomas (Finders Keepers) and it was great to hear all their tales. All this helped pass the word around about the show.

I got emails from all round the world saying how glad they were to have found a show that played northern soul next to Hungarian psych next to ’50s rockabilly next to German garage beat. These emails arrived from glamorous and not-so-glamorous locations all over the world including a geologist working in the deserts of Yemen who was blasting my show out to some bewildered goats and their herdsmen!! Now, it’s not uncommon for internet radio shows to have playlists as esoteric as mine but I suppose what people appreciated was that there was a BBC show willing to go beyond the bland playlist. That’s what people told me anyway.

I guess I should have known the writing was on the wall when Mark Lamarr was considered persona non grata at Radio 2. The reasons I was given by my manager was money and apparently 6Music cover the same sort of territory (not the last time I looked) but I guess the same manager knows what she’s doing in keeping two hours of Brass Band music on air and a Big Band Show presented by someone who wasn’t invited to be part of a Radio Leeds Big Band event!!

All I can say is that it saddens me that in the current climate, anything a bit unusual is not going to cut the mustard but hopefully there are outlets for the weird and wonderful sounds of the ’50s/60s/70s out there somewhere. Luckily the show enabled me to DJ in places like Barcelona and Berlin, which were unforgettable nights but I’m just wondering who’s gonna turn the next generation of kids onto the wonders of a Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich B-side!!  

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Record Reviews - Surf-Age Nuggets

Surf-Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals 1959-66

100-odd selections of beachy twangdom are on offer here. There’s enough drum rolls, coiled guitar runs, and doses of maximum treble to fill up both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I was delighted to hear so many gems that were new to my ears (the emphasis being on relative unknowns of the genre, thus the “Nuggets” in the title), in addition to old favorites like The Vistas ‘Moon Relay’ and The Cherokees’ ‘Uprisin.

The 60-page booklet is a treasure that contains images of record covers, gig posters, comic strips, magazine ads, etc. all of a nature in keeping with the sounds on the discs. It’s odd to be listening to a box set of surf music here in November, so for now I’ll suffice with the couple of much-enjoyed spins I’ve given the set, and in the meantime I’ve informed my friends that I’ve got first dibs on the stereo when we meet up for our annual beach vacation next summer.

Brian Greene

Monday, 10 December 2012

Live Review - Greg Lake

London Shepherds Bush Empire

November 25 2012

Allegedly, "the three worst things that can happen to you on the road are earache, backache and Greg Lake". So quoth one of his erstwhile bandmembers after his short tenure as frontman for Asia in the early 80s. No, the worst thing that can happen to you is getting stuck in a rain-drenched bus station in Hemel Hempstead on a Sunday night with a knackered mobile phone and a braindead Chavette yelling in your ear en route to a gig, resulting in your arrival some 35 minutes later than planned. Still, at least that means that, although I've sadly missed 'From The Beginning' and '21st Century Schizoid Man', I've also been spared a rendition of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. Our Greg, you see, is revisiting his entire life in words and music, and this not only includes songs wot 'e wrote or recorded, but ones he loved in his formative years. His decision to perform the first Crimson album in almost its entirety therefore makes sense (although none of the songs are technically his) but his hesitant semi-medleying of 'In The Court Of The Crimson King', 'Epitaph' and 'I Talk To The Wind' into each other makes less, especially when the beatific quietude of the last-named is unsuited to the booming tone of his now considerably deepened vocal. Ironically, Lake seems to have inherited the baritone range once possessed by Scott Walker, whereas Scott's voice has stretched further with age into the utter stratospheres. Did they ever meet and do a swap, perchance?

Covering the Beatles' 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' seems to be everyone's choice these days, but there is an incredibly self-effacing and humble element to seeing it covered by someone who also once filled Shea Stadium and whose ego was once rumoured to be roughly the same size in area and diameter. There's none of that onstage tonight: just a likeable, warm and immensely talented man (albeit still stood atop a magic carpet, but nowadays, the show wouldn't seem complete without it), supported only by backing tapes, playing the songs he loves on guitar, bass and piano with heartfelt passion and sharing candidly honest stories in a West Country burr undimmed by years resident on the other side of the Atlantic. He even turns the mike on us for awhile, asking for questions: as would be expected, they range from the perceptive to the utterly braindead (like the bloke who asks how Crimson came up with the title 'Larks Tongues In Aspic', a song written three years after he quit the band) but his replies are never less than perceptive, informative and full of revelation - particularly when I ask him about the pre-ELP band that never was with Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell. The "gun on the table" anecdote is priceless in itself, but I'll let him tell it, should he ever come round your way again.

Hopefully he will, as this was an immensely enjoyable experience, for once assisted (rather than hindered) by the intimacy of turning the Empire into a seated venue for the evening. By contrast, 'Touch And Go' is as big, butch and bellicose as it ever was in the 80s, but a bucolic, acoustic guitar treatment of the first half of 'Trilogy', seguing neatly into 'Still You Turn Me On', is sublime indeed. A cursory glance down the setlist might provide cynics with ample grist to their claim that "he does too many ballads", but to me, that's only a problem if you're expecting a hard rock show, and this was never meant to be that. Sadly that means there's nothing from Manoeuvres on offer, but hearing 'C'Est La Vie', originally released on the underrated second side of the otherwise self-indulgent Works Vol 1 and later a No.1 French hit for Johnny Hallyday, in this setting, stripped of the padding added by Lake and Palmer, reminds the informed listener that Lake's own songs, at their best, have less to do with prog itself, or indeed any kind of rock, and more to do with the genreless standards of Bacharach, Barry and Brel. Something which his association with arena pomp has unfortunately done its best obscure for many years.

If, alternatively, you want reassurance that the Bournemouth boy is still a rock'n'roller at heart, then his bone-snapping treatment of Johnny Kidd's 'Shakin All Over'. Again, an obvious choice to some, but you have to remember how exciting this must have sounded to the teenage Gregory on the radio in 1960, and indeed to everyone of that age, at a time when there was no psych, garage, freakbeat or even beat, just a hitherto sonambulent England finally waking up to the power of the electric guitar. Likewise 'Lucky Man', the best known ELP ballad (and allegedly the very first song Emerson ever used a Moog on) was actually written that long ago, before he even joined a band: a solemnly thankful take on Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready' also reminds us of those days when it was possible to dig rock and soul in equal measures without having to worry about the hems of your suit or the length of one's haircut.

It does, end, of course, on full-out prog thrust, with 'Karn Evil 9 2nd Movement'. A strange choice considering it's actually a song celebrating the start of a show, but there's a wry glint of humour in this that he's as much aware of as we are, as we all know, at this late stage in the life of rock music, that the show will continue as long as those who wish to play it remain. Given the choice, I'd prefer it not to be on a Sunday night when several tube lines are out of service, and to start a little later than 8pm, so I might have some chance of seeing the show "from the beginning", as it were. But ultimately I was thankful to have been there at all, as, while it would be unfair to assume Lake is seeking some closure to his career, it did seem very much like a unique performance from someone who won't offer us such rare pleasures again anytime soon. Those (and there were many) who turned down my offer of a plus one have much to regret.

Darius Drewe Shimon

Friday, 7 December 2012

Live Review - Sad Cafe

London Islington Academy

November 22 2012

There's no easy way to say this: this is a terrible turnout for such a great band. Even if you've been away for nearly 30 years, and it's well-known that your original vocalist sadly passed away some time ago, you surely could still expect more than 150 people to come out to see you. In fact, if anything, there should be more people eagerly awaiting your return. But sadly, the Islington Academy, which their agent freely admits to me is aesthetically the wrong venue anyway, is only a quarter full, and it shows.

Not that it's any way going to deter them, though. From the carefree, cheerful and, dare I say it, "rawk n rawl" manner in which long-term members Ian Wilson, Ashley Mulford and Des Tong amble onstage, be-suited, be-hatted (as is new guitarist/vocalist Steve Whalley, who resembles a cross between Sylvain Sylvain and a stray Ozric Tentacle, and at least partially fills late Paul Young's role with confidence) and oozing bonhomie. And once under way, you remember why you're here - because nobody else quite pulls off the heady brew of powerpop chops, pub-rock brawn and polished yacht-rock/harmony soft-rock dexterity that the Cafe do. Not in the UK at least. Sure, in the US, that kind of stuff ruled the airwaves for most of the late 70s, which is presumably why they (and Supertramp, and Sniff And The Tears, and City Boy, and Gerry Rafferty, and....) spent so many years there. But over here it's been sadly airbrushed from history, except in the 'ironic' playlists of Will Ferrell-loving Shoreditch DJs and cheesefest gatherings of clubs like Guilty Pleasures and Prom Night. Needless to say, none of those people have bothered to show their genuine appreciation of the genre tonight by turning up. In the words of Rowan Atkinson's disgruntled vicar, "WHERE WERE ALL YOU BASTARDS THEN?"

But I digress. The true believers that have bothered to show (some of whom have even made their own t shirts) are enraptured and enthralled, and so am I. By the time the opening chords to 'Strange Little Girl' appear suddenly three songs in, I can't stop bouncing. The four-man vocal frontline is also amply aided by keyboardist Sue Quin's feathery tones, and on the likes of 'Fanx Ta-Ra', a nod to the band's proggy origins that I am ever grateful for, she proves herself no slouch on the lead vocal front either. Ashley Mulford, who apparently has flown in from Denmark to rejoin his former bandmates is also a revelation as a guitarist. I mean, I know he sounded this good on record, but to actually witness him is quite incredible. Never before has a man who looks so outwardly humble projected such flawless fretboard fingering, like Salford's very own personal Santana. Though this is not an issue of Classic Rock Presents Prog, so I shall refrain from further indepth technical delineation of his abilities, especially when the whole point of a band like Sad Cafe - or indeed the many unsung contemporaries that existed in that nebulous netherspace 'twixt prog, glam, AOR, pub rock, soul and the onslaught of punk - was that the song was always more important than its constituent parts.

And, verily, that it is: 'Restless', 'Emptiness' and 'My Oh My' all bear the stamp of superior construction, just as you would expect from any band who sprung from 10cc's infamous Strawberry Studios stable, with the bubblegum tinge one would expect from such a background still evident on the uptempo, spiky 'Rat Race' and even that hit single. Yes, 'Everyday Hurts' may be ubiquitous, heard on every FM oldies radio station from Dorking to Dubai, but seeing it in the flesh makes it all the more evident why. Its overlapping harmonies, chord changes and blue notes evocative of the Walker Brothers or the Foundations at their best. It's just a shame that it's still, after 30 odd years, the only song people remember this fine outfit for, when there are so many others equally worthy of attention. Although sadly, two of the greatest, 'Keeping It From The Troops' and 'Run Home Girl' are omitted tonight. And don't get me started on 'Cottage Love'...

There is definitely mileage to be had in Sad Cafe's return to the road, which was always their natural environment, as captured on their seminal live double album from 1980 which I hear they are planning to record a follow-up to. What needs to be addressed is the matter of the correct surroundings, and some kind of angle to interest more than just a smattering of diehards in rediscovering their greatness.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Record Review - Singing Adams


Singing Adams is the vehicle for Steven Adams, formerly of The Broken Family Band. This, the group’s second album, is a loosely connected suite of songs related to modern life in London: not the most original concept, one might reasonably claim.

However, Adams finds something fresh in Britain’s over-exposed capital city. He does this by being what could be termed ‘old-fashioned contemporary’. His subjects are up-to-date, and include two mediations on the 2010 riots (‘Black Cloud’ and ‘London Trocadero’), yet his tart-but-humane songwriting style has a long lineage. Adams, rather than sitting easily with the current crop of indie troubadours, has more in common with the generation before him: the latest albums by The Weather Prophets’ Pete Astor and Gene’s former frontman Martin Rossiter are its bedfellows.

The jangle is solidly played, and it’s not solely serious reflection; in fact, Moves is at its best when it allows itself a certain cuteness, notably on the Belle & Sebastian-ish ‘Theme From Moves’.

Jeanette Leech

Friday, 30 November 2012

New Fanzine - Start!

This is the start of Start! We don't see that many printed magazines and fanzines arrive in this day and digital age, and we think anyone who launches one deserves our support.

The launch issue has just been released of the mod, soul, ska, and scootering-focused publication. This one has pieces on The Moons, The Questions, John Hellier and London International Ska Festival.

It's editor is one Emma Goodman. Cost of this first issue is just £1 plus postage of £1.40 via this PayPal email.

Start! on Facebook

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Record Review - Desert Ships

Control/We Write The Sound
self-released D/L

Londonʼs dream-pop three-piece Desert Ships have that 80s/90s psychedelic indie sound just right. I suspect this is partially achieved by their producer, one Mark Gardener (Ride). Decamping to record ʻControlʼ and the rest of a forthcoming debut album Doll Skin Flag in an Oxford farmhouse with him sounds like a hoot, and this confident-sounding single should win them even more deserved fans.

ʻControlʼ is all cinematic swirling guitars, equally light and heavy - a true sonic cathedral of noise allied within a three-minute pop song. The strings are tasteful enough to come in only towards the end. The drum sound is very much in the Ride vein, carrying the song forward without ever overwhelming. Everything just sounds right. Close your eyes and it’s 1991, the sun is out, and your new beau hasn’t yet deemed to dump you, but the signs are already there.

B-side ʻWe Write The Soundʼ is different. An angry bass riff is drowned out by star-sailing warm guitars and that immense drummer again and his life-affirming beats. It’s got that early Mercury Rev feeling, which I’m glad to hear back in my life. The hypnotic, repetitive vocal line is irrepressible and a tasty as a summer wine.

It will take you mere seconds to downloads this excellent single - go do it, now.

Phil Istine

Record Review - Le Kid & Les Marinellis

Les Jolies Filles

P Trash LP/DL

These Montréal, Canada super-rock indie-garage kids have released their sophomore effort. Singing in their native French is admirable, but my GCSE level understanding means I have no clue if they're singing about revolution, sex or their supermarche shopping list.

The songs are mostly a rather innocent take on the classic, infancy period of rock’n’roll. My favourite songs are the Elvis at Sun meets The Coral rumble of ‘Dis-Moi’ and the 60s harmony folk-punk of ‘Je Ne Grandirai Pas’. Elsewhere are touches of Bolan/Bowie (‘Personne Ne Dit’), rockabilly(‘Homme Soixante’), Ramones-style punk (‘Les Jolies Filles’), Libertines-y gypsy skiffle (‘20 Ans’), and Strokes-indebted new wave-garage (‘Gina’).

The playing from everybody is excellent, but the songs aren’t finished in a way I haven’t heard before. A lot. I like that they can be accomplished with many styles, but where you sit on the diversity versus lack-of-focus side of the fence will decide whether you want to delve into this fun-packed smorgasbord. In conclusion: you should go have a listen, for you’re likely to find something that tickles your fancy.

Phil Istine

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Live Review - Shuggie Otis

London Jazz Cafe
November 20 2012

So, another day, another one of "those" gigs then. Where would we be without the occasional reclusive legend to appear out of nowhere and jolt us to our senses by the very dint of their continued existence? Well, at home in the warm, for one thing. But I digress...

Shuggie Otis, for those not in the know, is the definition of a cult (stop sniggering, I said CULT!). Son of R'n'B peer Johnny Otis, he apprenticed with his dad's band, then made (between 1969 and 1974) three of the finest albums of funk-rock/psych soul ever released, wrote hits for a few other people, played with Zappa and the Mothers for a bit, and then promptly disappeared off the very face of the earth. 

When I worked at Flashback Records in the early 00s, and the tintraweb was still in its relative infancy, we were all convinced he was dead. How wrong we were. Not only that, but he's only 59. In today's terms, considering that the band I saw the previous night featured two septagenarians on lead vocals, that makes him a positive youngster. And, despite some greying strands and a slightly more sallow, drawn physiog, doesn't he look it too? Actually, more than that- with his jodphurs, frock coat, white blouse and frilled trousers, he's an utter dandy, resembling more than anything else a mixed-race Peter Wyngarde. Except with exemplary guitar playing talent and slightly less moustache.

That is, when he eventually appears. From my vantage point, I'd actually spotted him up in the balcony some time back, but I was beginning to think he'd never get onstage. Then again, a man who hasn't been out front live in almost 40 years is bound to require a little warming up before getting up there to do his 'thang', and, true to form, the first thing he does after striding down the stairs to rapt applause and plugging in his axe (itself suffering some amplification issues) is bump his head on the microphone and become entangled in his own backline. Todd Rundgren was right two years ago - this stage is too bloody small. As the Shugster (as he was never known by anyone until now) finally gets under way with 'Comin' Home Baby' and, cue another tumultuous roar of awe, 'Inspiration Information', there's a touch of hesitation not only from the audience (will he? won't he? Is that really him?) but the man himself - as is only to be expected given how much he's shied away for many years from public performance, and he does seem genuinely uncomfortable to be onstage and so close to so many adoring people.

Slowly but surely, and backed by the perfect polyrhythms of jazzmeister Marvin 'Smitty' Smith, he begins to find himself. The high notes beginning to rise with more confidence on 'Island Letter' and new number 'Trying To Get Close To You', a preview from the forthcoming album (third roar!) which, I can happily report, doesn't suck, does sound like proper vintage Shuggie, and hasn't 'gone all Mark Ronson' on us. Thank fuck for small mercies. Why, then, he chooses to follow this with a slow, plodding blues that causes the audience's attention to wander (except during the instrumental breaks) is beyond me, but by now I'm beginning to realise that part of the Otis enigma is this very deliberate awakwardness, and an unwillingness to pander to expectations. Which explains the lack of a followup to such a well-regarded album as Inspiration Information for almost 40 years. The misdemeanour is quickly forgotten - 'Sparkle City' brings us back up to speed, and 'Aht Uh Mi Hed', still possibly his most scintillating composition, shimmers in the way it should, eliciting several aaahs and oohs from those assembled. Timing is everything, and placing these two together is a masterstroke - theoretically speaking of course.

In truth, however, the latter lacks the motorised electronic beat or the chilling strings of the original, and he's still singing slightly flat. Yet, by the time we get to an almost Leonard Cohen-like acoustic section (which literally makes us feel we're atop some lofty peak in far off Texas watching the tumbleweed blow past the coyotes) and 'Wings Of Love', another track from the upcoming album, I've decided to overlook this and just remember that I like him very much. Not only is his guitar playing matchless in this sub-genre, but the woodwind and horn solos (from Albert Wing and Michael Turre in particular) are also outstanding, deploying the sort of wooded textures heard and loved everywhere from Neil Ardley's Kaleidoscope Of Rainbows to the incidental music from The Good Life. And now, at last, the Shug looks happy to be onstage.

Just as well too, showtime's nearly over. 'Doin It Right', followed by the inevitable 'Strawberry Letter 23' (still a classic, but again, maybe galling to a man who has to take stock of the fact that after all these years, his best known tune is by somebody else) and 'Ice Cold Daydream' bring a troubled but eventually triumphant set to a close, with everybody who was once afraid of moving now firmly grooving: if Otis can keep up this particular impetus (I hear UK dates are already being pencilled in, for 2013, in larger venues) and marshall his strengths, this comeback could effectively, like that of Bill Fay, run, run and run. Plus, we need a new name in the soul frame now Terry Callier has bitten the dust, so why not one that just happens to be a god among guitarists? Shuggie Otis, despite his inevitable feet of clay as a cult idol, and with his earlier indulgences behind him, is still an inspiration and a source of information to many.

Surveying his victory (or should that be triumph over adversity?) he nods, shakes hands (including mine) and dashes back upstairs, leaving us to ponder what, where or when next: but at the end of the day, only he can make that decision. Oh, and what is it with McEnery brothers lookalikes this week? First a Peter at Gong, and now, in this audience, a John- bellowing away to his heart's content. Stop following me already!!!

Darius Drewe Shimon

Live Review - Gong

London Shepherds Bush Empire
November 19 2012

Sometimes, after a while in this job, you realise how much emphasis on "industry" and "business" the music industry really places - as opposed to the creation of something beautiful and altruistic for the sake of beautiful altruism itself. There I go, sounding like a hippie. But then again, I am at a Gong concert. And if you can't be a hippie here, where can you? Other progressive and psychedelic rock giants may attract increasingly "Clive"-like audiences these days, computer programmers to a man, but the Gong gang is much more esoteric in nature, with dreadlocks, strange tribal outfits and what would have once been called "bizarre garb" aplenty, right down to the bloke in the dishevelled white dinner-jacket who looked the spitting image of Peter McEnery and asked me if I'd got any mushrooms. Like, maaan.

The other immediately noticeable difference is that the audience is now sadly smaller than it was, even a couple of years ago. And this is what I'm on about. Three years ago, at the time of the superb 2032 album, Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth were rejoined ably by Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy and Mike Howlett, with Soft Machine man Theo Travis on reeds, thus revitalising a six-strong frontline which drew audiences en masse to some of their most high profile shows in over a decade. Sadly, as with all such concepts, the need for financial remonstration seems to have outweighed the desire to work together, possibly due to promoters refusing to pay the large fees required, and one by one, all the above named have drifted off, leaving founders Allen (aged 74) and Smyth (aged 79) once more as the solitary keepers of the flame, backed by a 'new generation' lineup (including Allen's son Orlando on drums) who, whilst they bring fresh enthusiasm and power to the table, don't pull in the punters. For this reason, several fans have voted with their feet by staying away in droves, which means that the venues again lose money, and next year, the tour will be on an even smaller scale, meaning...oh, you get the picture. The volatile nature of business...

None of the above, though, will EVER stop me from loving Gong's music on a very fundamental level indeed. Quite the opposite; the smaller, more intimate gathering actually makes us feel like a band of renegade brothers, inspiring much camaraderie in the process. But that's irrelevant anyway, as the sound made by the new line-up is nothing short of stupendous. Or at least it would be, if the sound wasn't, as per usual for the Empire, woefully toppy and muffled at the same time. However do they manage it? Various knock on effects of this oversight include Smyth's delicate space whisper (already at half power due to a recent cold, I'm told, and nothing to do with her age whatsoever) being drowned out on practically everything, bar 'I Am Your Pussy' (nice impromptu meowing from the audience though) and 'Dynamite/I Am Your Animal', and totally inaudible during the mid-section of 'Tropical Fish/Selene', while far too much bass drum during 'Escape Control Delete' robs the song of its inherent Kraut-mongous thrust. But any such letdowns are more than made up for by the heightened commitment of the band members themselves.

Guitarist Fabio Golfetti and bassist Dave Sturt are a tight yet freeform, locked-in yet always on-the-out rhythm section, as metal-inflected as they are jazz-tinged, and they handle the thrust and parry of 'Master Builder', 'Can't Kill Me' and the mesmeric, 11-minute thrash of 'Opium For The People' as easily as the more intricate, multi-layered, time-signature-challenging mode of 'Zero The Hero And The Witch's Spell'. Ian East, introduced as "the East Wind", is easily the most charismatic of the new bloods, even if he does look like a Trustafarian stereotype in that hat and robe combo, and makes suitable mincemeat of 'Flute Salad', which, rather than just being an intro, is now a show-stopping number in its own right. It still segues, undeniably, into 'Oily Way', with complete audience participation vocal, but the identities are no longer completely merged: ditto the following mantric tantric double-shot of 'Inner Temple' and 'Outer Temple', now just as much of a highlight as its chronological predecessor. If Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place imbued the idea of being offered a cup of dried leaves in boiling water with a terrible, sinister, sickly overtone, then Gong achieved the opposite, the repeated chant of "have a cuppa tea, luvverly cuppa tea" (improvised lyrics this time include ruminations on whether certain mushroom brands are better than Twinings) almost an anthem for the turned on, tuned in, dropped-out free-festival generation. And in case you're wondering just how turned on and genuinely psychotropic Gong 2012 are, can I just point out that I hadn't imbibed anything stronger than 3 pints of bitter that night, and I was still tripping, amply aided and abetted by the cascade of swirling, twisting visuals.

Yet, unquestionably and indefatigably, the star of the show remains Daevid Allen, the Divided Alien, aka Bert Camembert, Zero The Hero, or whatever name he chooses to be known by this week. Slim, dapper (OK, maybe not when dressed as a wizard or a giant pixie, and NO, I'm not making this up- he really still does both those things), recently chopped of several inches of barnet, eloquent, theatrical, and full of boundless energy at 74 which puts me and my generation to shame, he is never so joyful as when onstage, championing the band he truly loves, and the "planet", which has been his home on and off since 1969. To this seminal, important, yet humble Aussie man - a pioneer whose contribution to the very existence of psychedelia stretches far beyond music and is as essential as that of Leary, Gysin, Owsley or Burroughs - Gong is not just a band anyway, it's a crusade, a never-ending quest to bring beauty into sharper focus and destroy the drab greyness which infects everyday existence.

Some of it is, unfortunately, misguided- while a longstanding Ozrics lover, I've never espoused travelling or communal lifestyles myself, seeing both as problematic as the very urban existence they negate- and obviously, even in the artists' utopia which they envisage, there will always be quibbles and squabbles about money, but as long as "Radio Gnome" continues to transmit, invisibly or otherwise, across the astral airwaves, the essential message will beam into the eyes and ears of all who are there to hear it. And, if all that wasn't enough to convince you in itself, how many other bands can you name who actually bibble themselves onstage? (Er, Caravan - Ed). Surely, that says everything you'll ever need to know about why Gong are still essential in your life.

Darius Drewe Shimon

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Record Review - Little Annie & Baby Dee

‘State of Grace’

Tin Angel Records

Singer, painter and actress Little Annie (Annie Bandez) is cult stardom personified. Nearly 32 years after releasing her first single on Crass Records, the New Yorker is still, ahem, a well kept secret. Yet her fans and ‘celeb’ collaborators such as Kid Congo Powers and Marc Almond regard her as a legend who’s always pushing boundaries.

As various times the New Yorker has dabbled in punk, reggae, electronic, industrial – and other experimental musical forms. Now, though, Little Annie has teamed with composer Baby Dee, a transsexual who’s also a classically trained harpist and circus sideshow veteran, to create this collection of songs which sound as though they were nicked from a weird fringe show. Guests include Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy who duets with Annie on the title track, his singing providing welcome contrast to her theatrical EarthKitt-ish vocal style. It shouldn'’t come as any surprise that the pair are mutual admirers: they’re kindred spirits intent on finding back routes that will keep them well away from the big crowds hovering just around the corner.

Chris Twomey

Live Review - Sonny Rollins

Barbican, London, November 16 2012

Screw genres, a legend is a legend. My own personal campaign for more jazz on here notwithstanding, there are very few recording artists who command the same respect as Sonny Rollins. And at 82, I should bloody well think so too. With the exception of Wayne Shorter and Yusef Lateef (the latter of whom is 92 and largely retired from public performance) he remains possibly the ONLY great tenorman left from the pre-freeform era (please get in touch if you can think of any others). With only Phil Woods and Lee Konitz remaining on alto, and Charlie Davis on baritone: whispers have also been going round about this being his last ever London or UK show, so the incentive was upon me to get down there. I had to view the first 40 minutes or so in the hall on the screen until I was gifted a ticket, mind you- during which time I witnessed possibly the most sublime 20 minute take on Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "It's You Or No One" I've heard since Monroe sang it in Some Like It Hot- but it sure was blummin' 'ell worth it, guvnor. 

At least I think that's what he was playing - you never really can tell with a bebopper, especially one who's lived through the freedom revolution and come out the other side, and, as the bloke from the Fast Show said, (come on, it had to be crowbarred in somewhere) "Tune? This is jaaaaazzzz!". But that would actually be a little unfair, as Sonny is still very bit the lyrical, songbird-like architect of sound he was as far back as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, with sly little smears referencing tunes from both creeping in and out as the night goes on. Backed by guitar, double bass (a flawless Bob Cranshaw), trombone, drums and congas, with fascinating exploratory interplay woven in and around him by the players of each, and with his lurching, twisting stage-walking manner providing the necessary theatrics (to say nothing of his red silk blouse and his billowing, rug-like flame of white hair- can this really be the same man that once inspired me to sport a mohican?) he defines the word 'charisma'.

In musical terms, his journey now appears in his latter years to have arrived at a place where all his previous incarnations, as hard-bopper, avant-gardist, R'n'B man, fusioneer and that 'uncredited' sabbatical with the Rolling Stones at the behest of Charlie Watts have all come to rest and enjoy each other's company. He takes you on that journey again several times throughout the evening, from the booming tone of his early Coleman Hawkins-inflected work to his latter-day appreciation of Coltrane, Shepp and Sanders, forays into funk hawking, and back- with the ever-present spirit of calypso, his very own Proustian Madeleine cake, at both ends. Starting with 'St Thomas' and ending with 'Don't Stop The Carnival' was more than just a case of a well-structured set list: from the Caribbean folksongs sung to him by his mother at an early age, all the way to Birdland, Newport and the Williamsburg Bridge via Riker's Island and back again, Mr Theodore Walter Rollins has sure been around, and he wants to show you the map. Perhaps that's why his sax still coils and unwinds in a serpentine fashion. He's also still as passionate about jazz as he was in the mid 40s when a Sinatra concert changed his life, and he still wants to change yours. I think he managed it several times over tonight alone...

You can't escape the truth of mortality though, and his hunched, arthritic posture (particularly evident for one who once stood so erect) is a consistent reminder of just how long ago this all started, and sadly how soon it could all be over. There are times when the horn slips out of his mouth, although he makes light of it ("wait!! stop now!! Woh, woh, where you goin? Come BACK here!!") his humour again reminding us why he is so respected, before quickly moving on to another burst of tenor magic. If there's one complaint, it has to be that often, just when things look set to explode fully into the realms of beautiful warm noise, he fights shy by returning time and again to the melody at the end of each phrase: maybe this again reflects that we are witnessing an older, mellower Sonny, maybe he just doesn't play like that anymore. Or maybe it's because he's Sonny Rollins, he can do whatever he wants, and although he thanks us all sincerely for coming, he's long past the point where he has to pander to ANY of our expectations.

As he descends those stairs to the backstage (there is no encore) by a respectable 9.45pm, a tinge of poignancy can't be avoided at the thought that he may never pass our way again, and this may be the last time he takes that walk: not because he's in any more immediate danger of passing than any other octaganerian, but because finally, after the upcoming European dates, the man they once called 'Newk' is finally taking the rest he deserves. Happy retirement.

Darius Drewe Shimon

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Live Review - Joan Armatrading

New Theatre, Oxford

November 18 2012

Baby, it's cold outside....so what could be a more welcome relief than an evening spent in a beautiful theatre in one of Britain's quaintest, cosiest cities, in the company of one of its best-loved (if not accordingly respected) singer-songwriters?

"Very little" is the answer, yet, because of its inherent cosiness and quaintness (some would even dare say 'twee'), Oxford on a Saturday night isn't exactly known for its rocking, party atmosphere. Some might also say this is a factor which befits Joan's subtle, reflective and still unclassifiable music perfectly: nevertheless, there was an overwhelming air of politeness about tonight's proceedings that was undoubtedly not her doing, and seemed to emanate far more from the audience, which was actually slightly smaller than one would have expected. I guess playing several dates very geographically near to each other (Cambridge, Aylesbury, Stevenage, Reading and London all featuring on the itinerary in close succession) in this day and age is more of a risk than it would have been even ten years ago: on the flipside, the fact that Joan still wants to take it speaks several volumes. 

Is she Shindig! material? Well, of course. Rooted in folk and gospel, filtered through soul, funk and blues, occasionally leaning towards hard rock, and with a new album dripping with jazz overtones (which also inflected much of her early work), she's no less than the UK's very own Joni Mitchell - except still actively recording and touring. There will also always be inevitable comparisons to the doyenne of confrontational female lyricists Janis Ian, but those are rooted more in a shared sexuality and ethnicity than the music itself. Tracy Chapman? She was shit. Tasmin who? At least Joan's songs aren't played by every shit busker from Hove to Holmfirth - probably because, even at their most deceptively simple, they're still too complicated. 'Show Some Emotion' may soundlike a perfect slice of late 70s Yacht Rock with Southern Soul overtones, but there are already so many layers going on within the opening two minutes that it's hard to take it all in.

You have to admire any artist so devoted to their music that they care literally nothing for image, but maybe the woolly bunnyrabbit jumper, grey slacks and sandals (it's safe to say that really, only she could get away with it) might have resulted in the 'Single Life' she satirises so perfectly in the new song of the same name. What a song it is, though: with a time signature Zappa would have been proud of, a melody that recalls Kenny Dorham's 'Blue Bossa', and guitar playing as good as either Beck or Santana but without the overwrought flash of either, it highlights a continued creativity that many nowadays seem content to lose as early as their 40s. 'Close To Me', on the other hand, isn't quite as interesting, but, like David Gates' or Daryl Hall's lesser material, still retains an indefinable something which elevates it above MOR blandola. So far so good, leading back into soulful pianistic classics with 'All The Way From America'- and then she blows it. If I wanted to wave my arms in the air inanely, I'd have gone to see Barry Manilow- well, no, actually, I wouldn't, which is half the point. And you'd have thought she'd take the fact that nobody except the first 3 rows did it the first time as some kind of hint, but, no, here we go again: "if you all do it at once", quoth the lady in her best Brummie brogue, "it looks really cool". Er, no, Joan, it doesn't.

What the hell though, I can forgive her- I can forgive anybody responsible for writing tunes as undeniably perfect as 'Tall In The Saddle', 'Starlight' (the title track of the superb newie) and 'Kissin And A Huggin', the latter of which features some of the most ferocious thrashing of an acoustic guitar I've seen since the last time I came face to face with Lindsey Buckingham, with suitably robust vocals to match. In fact, Joan's vocal prowess overall is every bit as powerful as during her '74-'82 heyday: she remains one of only a handful of artists whose talent in that respect has been untouched by time and age. And accordingly, she's assembled a band to match, with John Giblin (the man whose talents have stretched across the spectrum from John Martyn's Grace And Danger to Scott Walker's Tilt), outstanding on both bowed and plucked bass, again without ever stooping to the superslick virtuoso flash so redolent of today's "backing" musicians, and a wonderfully loose, intuitive drummer.

The keyboard player, on the other hand, HAS to go: despite a dizzying display of tinklatory prowess, his choice of MIDI sounds is responsible for covering everything from 'Me Myself I' (one of the essential songs of the New Wave era) to the hard-rocking 'Call Me Names' and the still-essential 'Love And Affection' in an unwelcome coating of what we used to call 'Mantovarnish'. I understand that it's a budgetary issue, as it is with many acts still touring at this level (the cash simply isn't there to hump real Mellotrons, Fender Rhodes' and Hammonds around the UK), and on a song like "Drop The Pilot", which always erred a little on the cheesy side, it's less noticeable- but I could do without it being there at all. Also, If I had my druthers, as "they" used to say, I'd have given anything to hear 'My Family', 'Head Of The Table' or anything from that seminal debut rather than the shoutalong faux-AOR of 'Best Dress On'- but then again, I'm a courduroy-clad, folksy, proggy old git (allegedly), so I'm always going to say that, aren't I?

Exterior shortcomings aside, Joan is, and always will be, a superior talent- but as it stands now, she suffers, like Al Stewart and several other contemporaries, from being unable to satisfactorily replicate her recorded sound onstage. Hopefully one day, somebody will grease the industry bods' palms enough to make the congnoscenti "reappraise" her genius, which will in turn allow her to display it to greater effect.

Darius Drewe Shimon