Love Rat

lovable rat

I first heard Sally Barker some time around 1990 when she was touring in support of her second album, This Rhythm Is Mine. Guest musicians on that album included Mary MacMaster¹ and Patsy Seddon, harpists from Scotland, who subsequently joined Sally and accordionist Karen Tweed to form the all-woman folk band The Poozies. If my memory serves me correctly the concert I attended at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester, UK was billed as Sally Barker but all four of The Poozies were on stage.

I particularly remember that evening for a story told by Karen Tweed. The band had arranged to rehearse at Sally’s house out in the Leicestershire countryside, a place that Karen had never visited before. When she arrived Karen found a rambling house at the end of a long drive and surrounded by a large garden with lots of trees and bushes. She knew from the directions she had been given that this was the right place but, at first, it seemed deserted. Karen had to ring three times before anyone came to the door.

When the door opened a stranger stood there with an expression on her face that seemed to say “whoever you are, don’t bother me now”. Karen hesitantly explained who she was and why she was there and the woman at the door ushered her inside saying curtly, “Go and wait in the kitchen, we’re a bit busy right now”. Karen followed the pointing finger down the corridor and as she did so she noticed a flustered figure scurrying through the house. Some furtive words were exchanged in the next room but all Karen could make out was “we may have to call the police”.

Karen found the kitchen and waited. From time to time far off voices could be heard from the garden. They were calling out to each other and sounded worried. They were looking for something, something important or precious. No-one came to the kitchen. Karen could sense that some emergency had happened and might take some time to resolve. In the meantime she thought it best to stay out of the way and decided to make herself a cup of tea.

As Karen started to search for mugs and tea she thought she heard a scratching noise from one of the floor-level cupboards. The building was probably an old farmhouse and she imagined the kitchen might be home to mice or even rats. Nervously, Karen opened the cupboard and a little girl’s face peered up at her. “Hello”, said Karen, “what are you doing in there?”. But the girl said nothing. Karen explained that she plays the accordion and she had come for a rehearsal. “Shhsh”, whispered the girl, “they’ll hear us”.

Puzzled, Karen asked the little girl why she was whispering and if she knew what was going on – what were they looking for out in the garden? “Shhsh”, said the little girl again, “They’re looking for me!”.

Sally

It was an enjoyable concert. Sally Barker writes unusually original songs and she has a warm, distinctive, soulful voice. The other musicians were faultless – I was particularly impressed with Karen Tweed’s accordion playing. So, yes, readers, I bought the CD. Although I didn’t know it at the time guests on This Rhythm Is Mine include some of the most respected musicians on the folk circuit: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Danny Thompson to name but three. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

From 1995 to 2006 Sally Barker put the music business on hold while she had two children and then cared for her husband who became ill with cancer and died in 2003. In 2007 Sally rejoined The Poozies and in 2013 she relaunched her solo career. The following year she became a contestant on the BBC talent show, The Voice, in which she finished in joint second place. As a result, according to her website, “Sally’s album ‘Another Train’ featured in the official indie charts and ‘ebayers’ were asking in excess of £100 for 2nd hand Barker LPs and CDs!”. That’s quite a comeback.

Sally Barker’s latest album, Ghost Girl, was released earlier this year but it’s not on Spotify² so I’ve chosen her Love Rat EP from 2015 as my Album of the Month. Here’s a live version of the title track. Listen to the words.

Did a chill run up your spine at the one minute mark? No? Then perhaps you’d prefer the studio version with drums, bass, organ and slide guitar supporting Sally’s vocals. (The link above is to the full band recording on Spotify.)

In addition to the title track the EP contains three original songs (Jealous Bones, Kissing a Stranger, Heart & the Shell) and two covers (Walk On By, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood). The covers are done in typical Sally Barker style; either you like them or you don’t. For me, nobody beats the original Dionne Warwick version of Walk On By, but Sally Barker’s take is pretty good, too. I do like Heart & the Shell, though. It’s one of those songs that has all the wrong characteristics for my taste: a folksy waltz, country-tinged slide guitar, not much of a tune. And yet, Sally Barker’s voice burrows under the skin and the poetry of the words sinks deep.

On the whole Sally Barker is an acquired taste. She’s no rocker and her mix of folk with a little bit of country and a soupçon of jazz will never appeal to everyone. She has a really good voice, though, and I’ll leave you with another live video that I think illustrates her talent. Anyone who can do justice to a song made famous by Sandy Denny must have something to blog about.

Notes

  1. Mary MacMaster was also mentioned in my earlier blog about the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra, a very different sort of music.
  2. There is a video of the title track on YouTube performed live as a solo piece but I don’t know if that’s representative of the album.

Jessica

We started the year in quiet contemplation here on the Crotchety Man blog but now it’s time to shake off the torpor of the holiday season and get moving. And, you know, nothing says “let’s get this show on the road” better than Jessica by The Allman Brothers Band.

Jessica is an instrumental from the Brothers and Sisters album released in 1973. It was written mostly by Dickey Betts, the lead guitarist. He had the germ of an idea but was unable to develop it until his baby daughter, Jessica, came in and started bouncing to the music. Taking his cue from little Jessica’s antics Betts nailed the carefree rhythm and playful tune that makes this track so irresistible. It needed a bit more work before it could be performed and recorded, though, and that led to a certain amount of controversy and bitterness.

The story goes that Betts invited session guitarist Les Dudek over for dinner and they played the unfinished song together. While Betts was checking on the steaks Dudek came up with a bridge that Betts felt was exactly the right missing piece to complete the song. The whole band then worked on the track in the studio. In the final arrangement Dudek played acoustic rhythm guitar which provides a nice intro but is largely overshadowed by Greg Allman’s organ and session musician Chuck Leavell’s electric piano, not to mention Dickey Betts’ wonderful lead guitar.

Dudek, who felt he had written an essential part of the song and had worked out guitar harmonies with Betts, was somewhat miffed. What rankled him the most was that he wasn’t credited as a co-writer but, as he was only drafted in as a session musician, there was nothing he could do about that. As spats among rock musicians go this was a minor tremor compared with some of the more earth-shaking bust-ups we read about from time to time but it clearly left Dudek quite resentful.

painting

The Allman Brothers Band ca. 1971

Jessica is the finest example of Southern Rock known to Crotchety Man. It marries the boundless energy of a toddler with the clean-living country air of the Georgian farmstead where it was written. And it bounces along like a seven month old baby grooving to her daddy’s guitar, which is, of course, exactly what Dickey Betts was trying to achieve. The Allman Brothers Band made plenty of really good records but, for me, Jessica is far and away the best thing they ever did.

In the UK, at least, Jessica is familiar to millions of motoring enthusiasts as the theme from the BBC TV programme Top Gear. Until fairly recently the programme was hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May who entertained viewers with silly stunts and amusing reviews of the latest cars. Jeremy Clarkson, especially, could be dismissive or downright insulting in his comments. (There are several pages dedicated to Jeremy Clarkson quotes on the Internet.)

I didn’t watch Top Gear but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, after the theme tune and a few words of introduction, Clarkson used to call out to his co-presenters, “let’s get this show on the road”. And I’m sure little Jessica Betts would gurgle her whole-hearted approval.

The Rising Sun

The House of the Rising SunThis time, for my Track Of The Week, I’m going to do something a bit different. Instead of focusing on a specific recording I’m going to explore about a dozen different versions of the same song: The House of the Rising Sun. The link is to a Spotify playlist containing recordings from 1941 to 2001 given in chronological order.

The Rising Sun has a special significance for me. It was the first thing we played when our unnamed band set up our equipment for the very first time in the local youth club hall in the autumn of 1970. In that first rehearsal I played my electronic organ and we managed to recreate the sound of The Animals pretty well. As I was guessing the chords and it was the only thing I could play on the organ, that was pretty amazing. Our performance that day convinced me that playing in an amateur band really was going to be fun and it was, it really was.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The origins of The House of the Rising Sun are obscure. It may have been an English folk song written in the 18th century and taken to America by immigrants from the British Isles. The oldest known existing recording is from the Appalachians and dates from 1934. The first version available on Spotify is the 1941 recording by Woody Guthrie that kicks off my Rising Sun playlist. This is an unremarkable folk/blues song in a 4/4 time with not much of a tune. In it the female singer warns other girls not to be led astray, as she was, by drunkards and gamblers. Although the words don’t say so most interpretations assume the woman is a prostitute and the House of the Rising sun is the brothel she works in.

Lead Belly recorded Rising Sun in 1944.  His version is also in a 4/4 time and still doesn’t have much of a tune. This time, though, it is sung from the point of view of a man who wants to save his younger sister from a life of misery in the House of the Rising Sun. And it has a rocking country feel, quite different from Woody Guthrie’s mainstream folk rendition.

Then, in 1947, a black American country-blues singer and guitarist called Josh White wrote new music for The Rising Sun and changed the words a bit. Most subsequent performances of the song are based on Josh White’s version, including the 1958 banjo arrangement by Pete Seeger. Now the song is in a 6/8 time and we hear the lilting tune familiar to modern listeners for the first time.

Joan Baez recorded a particularly captivating version of Rising Sun in 1960. With just an acoustic guitar and her clear, mellow voice she wrings the listener’s heart with the tale of a woman whose life has been full of sorrow and misery. Folk music at its very best.

The following year the folk singer Dave Van Ronk taught The Rising Sun to Bob Dylan and both Van Ronk and Dylan recorded it. The Van Ronk version doesn’t have an obvious time signature; the chords change in time with the soulful singing, which wanders along in traditional finger-in-the-ear folk fashion. (It’s music, Jim, but not as the pop charts would know it.) Dylan’s version is a straightforward rendition of the song but unmistakably Bob Dylan, the folk singer, as he was in 1961.

The Animals

The Animals

The most famous version of Rising Sun (at least in the UK) is the one by The Animals, recorded in 1964. Eric Burdon said that the band learnt the song from a Northumbrian folk singer, Johnny Handle, not from the Bob Dylan track as has often been suggested. It has been described as “the first folk-rock hit”, which neatly summarises the mix of folk, rock and pop that made it so successful. The Animals’ Rising Sun was a number one single in both the UK and the US and it won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. It made an indelible mark on Crotchety Man, too.

There have been numerous other covers of Rising Sun. The Spotify playlist includes versions by another six artists: Marianne Faithfull did a slow folk/pop/classical version reminiscent of French folk songs; Tim Hardin offered a very nice, passionate, folk/blues version; there was a psychedelic rock rendition by Frijid Pink that saw considerable chart success in Europe; there have been two entries into the country music charts, including an up-tempo country/pop version by Dolly Parton; George Melly gave it the cool jazz treatment; and Jimmy Nail sang it as a traditional ballad.

So it seems The House of the Rising Sun is a folk/blues/country/pop/rock song that has also been given perfectly acceptable jazz and old-school ballad treatments. It is the ultimate genre-busting track. Have a listen. You won’t like every version, but it will be good for your education, I promise. And I haven’t even mentioned the 2013 heavy metal arrangement by Five Finger Death Punch…

Falling

Here we go magic

A band called Here We Go Magic cropped up a couple of times recently. They were mentioned on a blog I follow and Guy Garvey (of Elbow) featured them on one of his radio shows. Out of curiosity I looked them up on Spotify.

They’re an interesting band. A touch on the happy-slappy side for my taste but worth investigating. Think of Crosby Stills Nash and Young at an American ‘Jesus Loves You’ evangelical church disco, clapping and singing along with the congregation. There are folk, pop and country influences here, married to prominent vocals and a driving beat.

Here we go magic - FallingThe latest single release from Here We Go Magic is called Falling and it’s my Track of the Week. Not stunning, but not bad either. And, unusually for Crotchety Man, bang up to date.