Auntie Aviator

http://www.historynet.com/nancy-harkness-love-female-pilot-and-first-to-fly-for-the-us-military.htm“Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom”, said Auntie, whisking the model aircraft high above her niece’s head, adding “we’ll never touch the ground”. “And if we don’t want to”, replied her niece with a grin, “we won’t come down”. They were both remembering last week’s flight when Auntie took the controls of her light aircraft and took the little girl up into the clear blue skies for the first time. Soaring over the green fields of the English countryside with its quaint little villages knitted together by roads and rivers, pilot and passenger had wished the flight would never end.

There’s a serenity about John and Beverley Martyn’s Auntie Aviator that transcends time and place. I first heard it on the John Peel radio show nearly fifty years ago and when it came up on a playlist this week the title alone was enough to trigger a wave of warm nostalgia. The choice of this latest Track of the Week was never in doubt.

John Martyn

John and Beverley Martyn were a husband and wife folk duo. John had a highly successful career, releasing two studio albums with Beverley and another twenty as a solo artist between 1967 and 2004. Beverley was passed over by the record companies after the second John and Beverley Martyn LP, The Road to Ruin, although she continued to contribute to her husband’s solo projects until the marriage broke down at the end of the seventies.

John Martyn was a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist. The biography on his official website mentions a long list of influences and collaborators including: Danny Thompson, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Ronnie Scott, Tim Buckley, Paul Weller and John Paul Jones. But John is, perhaps, best understood as another Nick Drake. By that I mean a folk guitarist with a flair for original songs and a flawless technique. He was also a troubled man at times.

Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle’s double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975’s Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair’s musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

James McNair, From his obituary of John Martyn, 30 January 2009

album lions

Although John Martyn was a singer and guitarist, the vocals on Auntie Aviator are Beverley’s and the acoustic guitar retreats behind prominent piano and theremin-like electronic sounds. It’s a combination that lifts us up into a child’s playground among the clouds.

Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom. … We won’t come down.

The Weaver’s Answer

bayeux tapestryLast week we had an Audience with a House on the Hill. They told us a story that asked where in life’s rich tapestry we belong. So, this week, it seems entirely appropriate that we look for some answers. And where better to find them than in the studio of those master weavers of sonic and lyrical threads, Family.

Family came into existence in 1966 when line-up changes in an R&B band called The Farinas¹ resulted in a change of direction towards psychedelic rock, with folk and prog rock influences. The name change was suggested by an American record producer because, at the time, they wore double breasted suits on stage making them look like a contingent of the mafia. The dress code was soon abandoned but the name stuck.

There are quite a few similarities between Audience and Family. So much so that Crotchety Man often confuses the two. Most strikingly, Roger Chapman’s singing for Family has been described as “bleating vibrato”, a phrase that perfectly describes Howard Werth’s vocals on Audience tracks. Add to that the fact that Family, like Audience, made full use of their multi-instrumentalists to craft a pleasing patchwork of sounds (Jim King contributed saxophones, harmonica and piano; Ric Grech bass, violin and cello) and you can begin to see how easily one’s thoughts can become tangled.

family

Family ca. 1970

As a band, Family was relatively short-lived, but between 1966 and 1973 they wrote and recorded many highly original songs. There were something like a dozen candidates for Track of the Week this time², but the one that always sticks in my memory is The Weaver’s Answer.

It starts gently with an acoustic guitar and violin introduction, the opening words falling on the ears like a poetic spell:

Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry.

An old man is reflecting on his life. It rolls by in his mind’s eye, unfurling like the Bayeux tapestry, telling a story. Not a story of war and invasion but of love and marriage, of his children growing up, of exquisite joys and the bitter tragedy of losing his wife.

There is a pause filled with a saxophone echoing both the good times and the bad.

When the tale resumes we find the old man now is blind and lonely. Though he can hear their laughter he can not see his grandchildren. His only comfort lies in the memories stitched into the warp and weft of his past and he longs to rewind the cloth, to see again the people and the places he has loved. Then, as if the Weaver of Life has heard his plea, he begins to see the loom on which his living threads are woven. And he sees, too, that the spools are empty. He is about to die.

Weaver of life, at last now I can see
The pattern of my life gone by shown on your tapestry.

The violin returns to tie off the loose ends. The old man has his answer. One more life has ended, the tapestry is complete.

Additional Notes

  1. This name reminded me of the Italian design company, Pininfarina, responsible for the styling of Ferraris and many other sports cars. It also triggered a memory of a concept car called the Ikenga which got a Crotchety lad very excited back in 1969. So much so that he went up to central London to see the prototype on display in the Harrods department store. Here’s an article that casts a fond look back at that project. And there’s a YouTube video of the car on the set of the Blue Peter children’s programme.
  2. I’ll mention here three other tracks that are well worth listening to: Burlesque, In My Own Time and No Mule’s Fool.

 

Burning Shed Free EP

burning shed

Back in March 2017, in my Album of the Month post on Moroccan Roll by Brand X, I opined that the latest incarnation of the band had fully rekindled the energy and enthusiasm of their early albums. As evidence I cited a live version of Malaga Virgen recorded on their reunion tour just a few months previously. Then, towards the end of the year, Brand X released a full album of live material from that tour. It’s called But Wait … There’s More and it was ordered for the Crotchety collection over the Christmas/New Year period.

In the UK the new album is only available from Burning Shed, a company that describes itself as “an online label and store specialising in Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock music”. I had ordered CDs from Burning Shed before but this time their website said that customers who hadn’t bought items since May 2017 would need to re-register. Having re-entered the Crotchety Man details the website kindly offered me a free download EP. Never one to pass up a promising opportunity, as soon as the Brand X album was ordered I hit the free download button.

In no time at all over an hour’s worth of music flowed onto the hard drive. Here’s the track list:

  1. Passing Clouds by Colin Edwin
  2. Surprised by Jane Getter Premonition
  3. The Perfect Wife by Nosound
  4. Bloodchild by Old Fire
  5. Friends Make the Worst Enemies (Public Services Broadcasting remix) by Paul Draper
  6. Heavy Hearts [2016 version] by Rhys Marsh
  7. Aftaglid (Tambura Backing Track Mix) by Steve Hillage
  8. The Confined Escape by The Pineapple Thief
  9. The Warm-Up Man Forever by Tim Bowness
  10. Il Sogno di Devi by Alessandro Monti
  11. Slow (Final mix 1_1.1) by UXB

Most of those artists were unknown to me but the ones I did know were all ones I like. As soon as I had some time to spare the digital bits of the extended EP were sent coursing through the wires from computer disc to headphones. Here’s what I found …

earphone

Colin Edwin is best known as Porcupine Tree‘s bass player but he has also worked in collaboration with several other musicians and has released a couple of solo albums. Prompted by the free download the Crotchety elves were tasked with finding out more. They came back with a basketful of data that I won’t try to summarise here. Suffice it to say that Colin has had his fingers in a variety of pies centred on progressive rock but ranging from ambient to metal.

Passing Clouds, the track featured on the Burning Shed Free EP, sits comfortably within that space, slightly off-centre towards ambient, dominated by a bass riff and electronic effects. It’s more pleasant than exciting, but Crotchety Man isn’t grumbling – it was free after all. That particular tune doesn’t seem to be on YouTube or Spotify but Exit Strategy from Colin’s Third Vessel album will give you a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from.

According to Guitar Player Magazine Jane Getter is “The fieriest fretboarding female ever to strap on a Stratocaster”. In her Spotify biography she is described as a jazz guitarist but Surprised is more of a heavy prog rock/pop tune to the Crotchety ear. The elves report, though, that Ms. Getter’s early releases were definitely jazz albeit with strong leanings towards fusion. The evidence so far suggests the Jane Getter Premonition is just the prog side of Jane’s wider musical persona. And surprisingly enjoyable it is, too.

Things get a lot quieter when Nosound take over although, mercifully, this Italian alternative and post rock band does not take their name literally and leave us in complete silence. The Perfect Wife is taken from their latest album, Scintilla, which is aptly described as a collection of “sonically intimate” songs on the band’s website. It makes a refreshing contrast to the bold brash prog of the previous track.

Twenty minutes into the EP already, next we find the slow, sparse vocals and piano of Bloodchild. This is taken from Songs from the Haunted South by an outfit called Old Fire, an ad hoc collaboration of musicians brought together by U.S. instrumentalist and producer John Mark Lapham. The whole album has an air of melancholy, wistful nostalgia and in Bloodchild the emphasis is firmly on the melancholy. “At least he’s no longer in pain”, moans a sad female voice. Crotchety Man sighs and moves quickly on to the next track, feeling both disappointed and unfulfilled.

Friends Make the Worst Enemies takes us from Old Fire‘s unmitigated sadness to a slightly bitter paranoia. “Never trust your friends …”, warns Paul Draper, “‘Coz your friends can hurt you most”. But the backing track steps lightly and the vocals sail on a fair wind in this alt rock single. Both the original and the remix bring a much needed breath of cool fresh air to the EP. (Links to original and remix are given in the track listing above.)

Sadly, the elvish research team have been unable to find any mention of Heavy Hearts by Rhys Marsh anywhere other than the Burning Shed Free EP. A little background digging, though, suggests that Rhys, as a solo artist at least, is not likely to find a warm place in Crotchety Man’s old and flabby heart.

On his website Rhys is described as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. And that’s about it. There’s very little that might inspire a casual web surfer to investigate his work. The diligent elves, though, did turn up loose connections to King Crimson, Jaga Jazzist and Anekdoten, which is a lot more promising than the wishy-washy song on the free EP. And there’s an interesting album by Rhys Marsh and The Autumn Ghost called Blue Hour. If you’re curious, drop the heavy hearts and start with that.

Next up we have a classic Steve Hillage track from 1975. Steve is best known as the guitarist with the Canterbury scene band, Gong; he has also made a name for himself as a solo artist and as half of the duo System 7Aftaglid is a psychedelic instrumental from his first solo album, Fish Rising. The version on the Burning Shed EP is a remix featuring the tambura, an Indian instrument resembling a fretless lute, which is reputed to add a slightly more mystical feel to the composition. Frankly, though, the effect is too subtle for the Crotchety ears.

The version on the original album is some 14 minutes 44 seconds long, the tambura remix is shorter at 12:42 and the Steve Hillage website has this 3:36 extract, which provides a representative taster of the prog and psychedelic rock Steve was playing in the mid seventies.

After ‘Glid comes a track by one of my favourite bands, The Pineapple Thief. They have appeared in these pages twice before when I reviewed the album Magnolia and offered Fend for Yourself from Your Wilderness as a Track of the Week. The deluxe edition of Your Wilderness comes with a bonus disc containing seven further compositions welded together into one 40 minute track. The bonus disc has its own title, 8 Years Later, and it’s another absolute treat.

The Burning Shed EP contains track 6 from 8 Years Later, the instrumental The Confined Escape. It sounds a lot like some of Pink Floyd’s more meandering, ambient works and it’s the highlight of the EP so far. Unfortunately, that track doesn’t seem to be on my chosen streaming service but the full 8 Years Later album is on YouTube and it’s well worth listening to. (The Confined Escape starts around 22 minutes in.)

It’s no surprise to find a Tim Bowness song on the free EP. He founded the Burning Shed operation along with Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan in 2001 and still has a central role in running the company. In addition to his solo work Tim is a member of the bands No-man (with Steven Wilson), Henry Fool, Memories of Machines and Slow Electric. He has also collaborated with Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord (of The Pineapple Tree), Judy Dyble (ex Fairport Convention) and many others.

The Warm-Up Man Forever has the characteristic wispy, almost whispering vocals of Tim Bowness over a pulsing drum beat and synthesiser wash. The words sing a sympathetic lament for an artist who will always be second best, but those restless drums speak of an irritable angst that the warm-up man will never quite shake off. Tim may be (metaphorically) blowing his own trumpet here but this song stands up really well in the context of the whole EP.

According to Google Translate, “il sogno di Devi” means “the dream of Devi”. It’s a track from the Unfolk album by Alessandro Monti. The Crotchety research department has discovered only that Alessandro is an artist and self-taught musician from Venice. He seems to use the ‘unfolk’ tag for his music project(s), directly contradicting Wikipedia’s classification.

So, is this folk music or not? The elves are equivocal. Il Sogno di Devi starts fairly quietly with a folkish mix of mandolin and violin but half way through strident electric guitar notes cut in, transforming it into a kind of prog/rock/folk instrumental. It pleases Crotchety man immensely. And the Unfolk album has plenty more of his highly original folk-based material, too. Alessandro Monti is the most exciting discovery to come from the Burning Shed EP.

The final track on the EP is a dance/trance piece by UXB, an outfit led by the other proprietor of Burning Shed, Pete Morgan. It’s not the sort of thing that usually appeals to Crotchety Man’s inner critic but Slow rolls and rumbles along most agreeably. Once again, the elves have failed to come up with any further information beyond the fact that Morgan plays bass and keyboards. The Burning Shed website does, however, have a free download of an excerpt from a remix of one of UXB‘s tracks if anyone wants to explore it.

logo wall

So, what have we got in return for registering with the Burning Shed website? Eleven tracks, only two duds (those by Old Fire and Rhys Marsh) and still over an hour’s worth of music worthy of joining the ever growing Crotchety collection. Plus, an introduction to several interesting artists. A bargain says old Crotchety Man.

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, the original tambourine man

When he was about seven Little Boy Crotchety had a part in the school play. Sitting cross-legged on the floor he used an enormous silver cardboard needle to stitch some invisible cloth, while the narrator introduced him as the tailor. I don’t remember what the plot was or even why it required a tailor. I might have had a couple of lines, then again I might not. It certainly wasn’t a taxing part and I wasn’t the least bit nervous in that scene. The butterflies in the tummy had come earlier when, along with one of the girls, I had to open the play with a tambourine flourish. Yes, folks, on that occasion I was the very embodiment of Bob Dylan’s tambourine man.

Not that I’d heard of Bob Dylan then, no-one had in 1959. And, anyway, like most radio listeners I fell in love with The Byrds‘ version in 1965 long before I knew who wrote the song and many years before I heard it sung by Dylan himself.

Roger McGuinn’s jangly guitar arpeggios announce Mr. Tambourine Man like a solo glockenspiel in an approaching marching band. “They’re coming, Ma, I can hear them!”, cries an excited voice from behind us in the waiting crowd. And, sure enough, here they come. Three guitarists, one with a twelve-string, all of them singing, then a bass player striding along and a drummer keeping time at the back. “Hey, mister tambourine man”, they plead, “play a song for me”.

This is strange. Why would they call for the runt of the instrument litter? A tambourine doesn’t ring like a guitar string or bellow like an organ. It doesn’t croon like a clarinet or trill like a flute. It can’t blare like a trumpet and harmonies are out of the question. Surely a tambourine is not a proper instrument, it’s just a device to get bored and tone-deaf students involved in a music lesson. Isn’t it? Or is the tambourine man such a brilliant musician that he can make his humble wooden hoop with its goatskin membrane and bright brass jingly zils sing with the wind and crash with the thunder?

The Byrds don’t explain, they just keep singing, their harmonious voices asking for another encore from their idol entertainer.

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship.
All my senses have been stripped
And my hands can’t feel to grip
And my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.

They must have been up all night. Their biological batteries are completely drained. They no longer have the energy to stumble forward but the Duracell Bunny is still going strong, hitting and shaking that tambourine as if he has an inexhaustible source of power.

the byrds

The Byrds‘ version of Mr. Tambourine Man was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It is regarded as the song that got the folk-rock genre started and it has been covered many times. Notable covers include those by: the late Glen Campbell (guitar instrumental), William Shatner (in one of his silly moods), Martin Simpson (a superb example of the folk guitarist’s art), Stevie Wonder, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Crowded House.

But to my mind the best of the rest is this pure folk one by Judy Collins. Her clear voice gives full expression to the words, the 12-string acoustic guitar harks back to the jingle-jangle of Roger McGuinn’s electric Rickenbacker and a double bass adds depth and warmth. (OK, the YouTube poster can’t spell ‘tambourine’ but let’s not get picky.)

Are any of the covers better than the Dylan original? Popular opinion puts The Byrds‘ version above that of the songwriter’s but in the end it’s all a matter of taste. In the sixties a one verse, 2 minute 29 second single got airplay, a five and a half minute album track did not. Nowadays we’d rather hear all four verses. Then again the electric guitars and the Bach-inspired arpeggios gave that first cover a new and exciting sound. It’s a close call, but the Crotchety vote goes with the majority on this one.

My final word on the tambourine man goes to a YouTube video with over 12 million views. At first glance it’s a 2013 recording of Mr. Tambourine Man by Dylan himself and it’s very good. Irritatingly, though, it’s another cover credited to Helio Sequence, “an American indie rock duo from Oregon”, but that information is hidden away in the fine print. Still, it sounds very much like the single Bob Dylan might have produced back in 1965. And 12 million hits ain’t bad!

Footnote

Bruce Langhorne, pictured at the top of this post, was a folk and session guitarist as well as a tambourine player. It is his electric guitar that we hear on Bob Dylan’s recording of Tambourine Man from the album Bringing It All Back Home. He died in April 2017.

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Autopsy

face

Why did our relationship die?

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Fairport Convention gave their first performance at St. Michael’s Church Hall, Golders Green, London on 27th May 1967. To commemorate that occasion the band called their recent half studio, half live album, 50:50@50. The album was released earlier this year and the band is on tour in the UK right now. Crotchety Man discovered too late that they will be at Lowdham just 25 minutes drive from the Crotchety mansion this coming Wednesday. Sadly, that is the only venue that is already sold out.

I swear I heard a newly remastered version of Fairport‘s 1968 single, Meet On The Ledge, the other day and I had planned to feature that as my Track of the Week. The thing is, I can’t now find any evidence of its existence. I suspect it was on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music but a search on the BBC radio website didn’t pick it up. It’s not on Spotify, either. So, instead, I’ve chosen another Fairport song, Autopsy, from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

The Crotchety ears first heard Autopsy, I think, on the John Peel show shortly after the Unhalfbricking album was released. I was fascinated by the off-kilter rhythm, captivated by Sandy Denny’s voice and gripped by some of the saddest lyrics you will ever hear.

The song starts in 5/4, ambling along slowly like a ladybird with a missing leg wandering through the leaf litter. The guitars of Simon Nichol and Richard Thompson build a mournful backdrop and Sand Denny’s clear, pure voice oozes the sadness of a failed attempt to resuscitate a relationship that has died.

You must philosophise,
But why must you bore me to tears?

Ashley Hutchings’ electric bass and Dave Mattacks’ drums push on, right through the missing beat, as if five feet was the most natural arrangement, not only for the song but for all the Earth’s myriad forms of crawling life.

The ladybird sings about her mate, now a desiccated husk of his former self, trapped in a slough of despondency.

You spend all your time crying,
Crying the hours into years¹.

Her song then slips into a different gait. The fifth leg is stowed away under the wing casing and the creature steps on in 4/4 time, singing sweetly that they can still be friends.

Come, lend your time to me

When you look at me,
Don’t think you’re owning what you see.

The sting of this message is eased by the dock leaf balm of a heaven-sent guitar break. And then the ladybird releases her fifth leg and repeats her reasons for breaking up in 5/4 time again. What they had is broken but, strangely, not incomplete.

the band

Fairport Convention ca. 1970

My brother and I listened to the John Peel show every week in the late sixties and recorded large chunks of it on our dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder². For several weeks the 4 minute 20 second length of tape containing Autopsy passed the playback head as often as family protocols would allow.

This is one of my very favourite Fairport Convention songs. It deserves to be better known and better loved.

Notes

  1. A Google search for the lyrics throws up half a dozen sites, all with the same incorrect words for this line. The (presumably) correct lyrics are on this website, which is an homage to Sandy Denny, who wrote the song.
  2. On YouTube there’s a live session from John Peel’s radio show broadcast on 6th April 1969. This is probably the version I had on tape.

Magic

cards

I shall be away from the temptations of the blogging machine this weekend so, this week, the Crotchety notes will be published in advance of the usual Sunday date and may be somewhat staccato.

—–

For my Track of the Week I’ve chosen Magic by Bruce Springsteen. There’s no particular reason for this; it just struck me that an appreciation of “The Boss” is long overdue. Then again, I’m not the greatest Springsteen fan on this Earth. Although I’ve never heard a Springsteen track I didn’t like, his songs rarely ignite the flames of passion in me.

If the songs are not really that special what is it that makes Bruce Springsteen so popular? Well, for a start, he has gathered some fine musicians around him. He works hard, too. He has been writing songs, recording and gigging for more than 50 years. And a man who gives 4-hour concerts deserves our considerable respect. But, above all, he has an unparalleled rapport with his fans. He didn’t like being called The Boss at first; he was, and still is, just an ordinary Joe like you and me. What could be more endearing than that?

Springsteen’s success has given him many opportunities to influence public opinion and he has used them to promote a liberal political agenda both in his lyrics and in his ad hoc comments on stage. On the tour promoting the Magic album he introduced the title track like this:

We’re living in a sort of Orwellian time when what’s true can be made to seem like a lie and what’s a lie can be made to seem true. So the song’s really not about magic, it’s about tricks.”¹

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Magic has a simple folk song feel that appeals right across the spectrum of musical tastes. In the album version a violin and a mandolin add a bit of sparkle, too. There’s a subtle kind of magic in this song that grows on you the more you hear it. To the Crotchety ears it’s just as good as the singles on the album, Radio Nowhere and Girls In Their Summer Clothes. And that’s, surely, reason enough to air it here.

Notes

  1. You can hear that introduction in this YouTube video. That clip has some lovely violin playing but it ends far too abruptly.

All Flowers In Time

Sounddate: Tuesday, 26th January 2015

I heard All Flowers In Time for the first time yesterday on the RadMac afternoon show on BBC 6 Music. Curiously, it has never been released although, as you can see, it has escaped from the recording studio and is available on SoundCloud, YouTube and elsewhere.

All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun, to give it it’s full title, was written by Jeff Buckley (around 1995 as far as I can tell). The version presented here is a demo recording; Jeff’s untimely death in a drowning accident in May 1997 meant that a finished version was never made.

The demo is a composition for two guitars and two voices. If it had been given a sparse arrangement it would be a simple folk song but, here, strummed acoustic and electric guitars provide a lush carpet of camomile and clover for us to walk upon. Liz Fraser’s dancing voice paints exotic flowers onto the bushes, and Jeff Buckley duets with her as she skips between the orchard trees. The two guitars pirouette around each other, butterflies in slow motion, while the voices mingle in exquisite harmony. For a rough cut this is an amazingly beautiful production.

Reliable information is hard to come by but it seems that Liz Fraser has always wanted the ‘unfinished’ All Flowers to remain unheard and Jeff Buckley’s mother, who manages his back catalogue, is of the opinion that Jeff and Elizabeth’s recording is “too personal” to be released. In spite of this there have been many calls from fans of both Buckley and Fraser to make it officially available.

As far as I can make out streaming and downloading this song is morally questionable and quite possibly unlawful. Yes, a polished version might have more light and shade but it’s hard to imagine another take with as much joy and spontaneity as this one. It shines like the sculpted face of Venus with laughter lines etched in. It deserves to be heard.

Crotchety Man has been naughty. He has downloaded All Flowers In Time but, if it is ever released, he hereby promises to pay for it.

Jazz coverhttps://open.spotify.com/track/53JnmsrMLoTzzqdWCZ8M0Y