Finale

A new album by Pentangle was released last year. Given that the band had split up shortly after I saw them in Oxford back in 1973¹ and, more pertinently, that two of them have died, it couldn’t be a new recording. But it’s not just another compilation, either. The original line-up reformed in 2008 and did a 12-date UK tour that year. Finale: An Evening with Pentangle,  released on 7th October 2016, is a two-CD album² of recordings from the 2008 tour. Why it took so long to get it onto the shelves of the brick-and-mortar shops and into the catalogues of the online retailers is a mystery that my Google Fu has been unable to solve.

The latest album has several things going for it. For a start it’s a relatively recent recording that captures the sound of a live performance extremely well. Just listening to the deep, round, plummy tones of Danny Thompson’s double bass (he calls it ‘Victoria’) is enough to bring a joyful tear to the eye. The guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn ring out as if all the paraphernalia of the recording process has dissolved. There are no pickups, microphones, mixers, equalisers, recorders or speakers between the instruments and our ears, nothing to distort or subtract from the musicians’ art. OK, so Terry Cox’s drums sound a little muffled and Jacqui McShee’s voice is a little indistinct at times but as live recordings go this is a good one, a really good one.

Then there’s the performance, fresh and vibrant as the day the band was born. If you’ve never heard Pentangle live, take this album for a spin. It has songs that will caress and delight you. It has folk tales that will enchant you, too, transporting you to another place, another time; and it will welcome you and your friends to the telling.

Finale has nearly all the fans’ favourite Pentangle songs on it: Light Flight, Hunting Song, House Carpenter, Cruel Sister, Bruton Town and more. In the past I recommended Light Flight – The Anthology as the one essential Pentangle album but with Finale it has a rival. The Anthology compilation has my own all-time favourite song, The Trees They Do Grow High, but Finale has the better sound and the immediacy of a live show. Sadly, neither include the heart-warming story of Willy of Winsbury (from Solomon’s Seal) but no album is perfect.

There are no bad Pentangle albums (as far as I know) but Anthology and Finale provide a magnificent summary of the band’s work. So, ignore my previous advice. Both albums are, I think, essential for any Pentangle fan. Get them both and when you fancy a little folk with a light frosting of jazz pick one or the other according to your mood.

Notes

  1. I had nothing to do with the band’s demise, I assure you!
  2. Finale was also released as a 3-disc vinyl LP in 2017.

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Pain Killer (Summer Rain)

umbrella

It’s been a typical British summer this year. Anchored in the Atlantic Ocean just off the western edge of mainland Europe these islands get weather that is politely called ‘changeable’. In Ireland they have a saying: if you can see the hills, rain is coming; if not … it’s raining already.

A little farther east, in England, we tend to be plagued with showers. No matter how bright and sunny it is when you wake up in the morning by the time you’ve got dressed, had breakfast and stepped outside your front door the clouds are gathering. And if you are fool enough to pack a picnic and drive out into the countryside you can be sure the heavens will open just as you take the first bite of Mama’s delicious home-baked pork pie. Nothing dampens the spirits quite like eating soggy pastry and limp lettuce in the back seat of the car while peering through rain-spattered, steamed up windows, believe me.

Of course, to experience the full horror of the British weather you need to go camping. Just booking for a three-day music festival puts cloudy skies in the calendar and packing the tent guarantees a downpour on day one. The Glastonbury festival is renowned for muddy fields, but the show does (usually) go on¹. The recent Y Not festival, however, was curtailed for safety reasons because of what the organisers termed “exceptionally bad weather” – as if heavy rain is unusual in that part of the country².

While Crotchety Man waits for the increasingly rare warm, dry summer day he is reminded that Turin Brakes found the answer to inclement weather back in 2003.

Take the pain killer, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind.

Quite how they thought getting on a bike would let you outrun the storm clouds I’m not sure but at least a large dose of analgesic pills would counteract the ache in the legs as you struggle up those endless English hills.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain) was a single from Turin Brakes‘ 2003 album Ether Song. The single reached number 5 on the UK chart and the album was certified gold four days after its release.

band

Turin Brakes – Olly, Gale, Rob, Eddie

Turin Brakes was founded in 1999 by two guitarists whose names have quintessential English connotations. Oliver (Olly) Knights’ name takes us into the world of Arthur King of Camelot, Merlin the wizard, and a band of noble swordsmen pledged to fight for the king³. His partner in song has Iranian/Armenian ancestry, which accounts for the very un-English surname of Paridjanian, but his first name is perfect for a music festival in the green and pleasant lands of England: it is (hang on to your hats) Gale.

These days Turin Brakes has four members: in addition to Olly and Gale there’s Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). They play a kind of folk/rock/indie blend that falls easy on the ear. It’s not the most exciting of sounds but it’s pleasant enough to engage casual listeners right across the popular music spectrum. Try it. Take the pain killer they offer and enjoy the summer. And, remember, you can go dri-cycling even in the rain.

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Notes

  1. As far as I know Glastonbury has never been cancelled because of rain. It does have fallow years, though, when no festival is organised.
  2. It isn’t.
  3. What’s the collective noun for a group of knights? A round? A table? A Keira?

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.

Zamzama

cannon

Kim’s Gun – outside Lahore Museum

The third track on my Release Radar playlist this week was called Zamzama, which is obviously a made-up word and gives no clue to its musical style. It’s by Avi Avital, Omer Avital, Yonathan Avishai and Itamar Doari, names which suggest foreign influences but which throw no further light on what might be in store for the curious listener. The album title doesn’t help either: Avital Meets Avital seems deliberately designed to mystify rather than inform.

What does it sound like? Surprisingly, I can give a very accurate description. It sounds very much like an instrumental cover of Pink Floyd‘s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun performed by a Jewish popular folk band. There are just four instruments: mandolin, piano, double bass and hand drums. The piano carries the tune and adds some faintly jazzy chords. The bass tumbles along echoing the gentle jazzy feel. The drums inject the rhythm of a joyous dance. And a light smattering of mandolin notes flash like the white hem of a wedding dress as the bride dances with her new husband.

Here’s a live version with some wonderful improvised solos:

Curiosity prompted the Crotchety fingers to search for further information. First stop, the album, which offers various blends of klezmer, jazz and classical styles, including slow ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. One track, Ana Maghrebi, sounded too much like a piece for a bar mitzvah ritual to tingle the Crotchety senses much but everything else has plenty to offer, not least some very impressive musicianship from all the players. Listening to the album convinced me that Zamzama was worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

But there was an obvious problem. This blog puts an appropriate image at the top of every post, a picture that illustrates the subject and helps this old man (and, hopefully, my readers) remember the music and my response to it. How could I choose a picture for a nonsense word? The task seemed impossible, so I decided to pick another track from the Avital Meets Avital album instead. Perhaps I should choose one of the ballads – Lonely Girl or The Source and the Sea would be worthy of a mention – and pictures for those shouldn’t be hard to find. Or should I choose something more representative of the album as a whole? Avi’s Song, Maroc and Hijazain would fit the bill but an appropriate image for those would be just as hard to find.

Avi & Omer

Avi Avital (mandolin) and Omer Avital (double bass)

And then the Crotchety brain cells sparked into life and commanded my flesh and bone digits to consult with the virtually infinite store of electronic digits that is Google. To my complete surprise the cyberspace oracle informed me that Zamzama is not a nonsense word at all. It is, in fact, the name of a very large cannon. Also known as Kim’s Gun, it was cast in 1762 in Lahore and is now on show outside the Lahore Museum. That, of course, made the choice of headline image a no-brainer.

Apparently, Zamzama is also the name of a shopping mall in Karachi and seems to have some connection with a film star famous in at least some parts of the Indian subcontinent (judging by the images Google serves up). More pertinently, though, zamzama is a Persian word meaning “murmur, whisper or pealing thunder”.

So here we have a British blogger listening through a Swedish streaming service to Israeli musicians playing a track with a Persian title used to name a gun made and fired in what was then India but is now Pakistan. Come, let’s murmur its name among our friends, whisper it to strangers and send it like pealing thunder across the rest of the globe. Let’s make it earn the tag of ‘world’ music.

Additional Note

  • There’s a rather lovely video here of Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey playing a Bach piece arranged for mandolin and harp.

Summertime

sing it!

Porgy and Bess, 2014

After childhood and adulthood there is a third age of man, an age in which the ignorance and naivety of youth have evaporated, the responsibilities of work and parenthood have been largely left behind and we are free to use our time-ripened talents in any way we choose.

In affluent countries with modern healthcare the number of third-agers is increasing rapidly; in the UK nearly a quarter of the population is now over 60. In recognition of this untapped pool of knowledge, skills and experience a UK version of the University of the Third Age was founded in 1982. There are now 1000 independent U3A organisations in the UK all affiliated to the Third Age Trust, a national charity, and with links to many other U3As across the globe. Unlike the Université du Troisième Âge in France, whose individual groups were guided by their local university, the UK U3As are entirely independent of academic institutions, relying instead on their members to provide education in its widest sense.

The Crotchety Couple joined our local Charnwood U3A last year. With over 80 interest groups covering the whole gamut of arts, sciences and leisure activities there’s something for almost every third-ager still active in mind and body. There were two music-related groups last summer: Classical Music Enjoyment and Singing for Pleasure. Neither of those piqued Crotchety Man’s interest enough to join. Then, in September, a proposal for a Making Music group appeared in the newsletter and the glowing coals in Crotchety’s musical grate were fanned with the bellows of enthusiasm once more. Eyes aflame he fired off an email expressing his interest.

not us

No, this is not the U3A group.

For various health and personal reasons the Making Music group took a while to come together. We met for the first time on 9th March and had our first rehearsal two weeks later. As you can imagine we are a somewhat motley crew. The instrument list goes like this: several recorders, flute, clarinet, trombone, piano, guitar, bass guitar and African drum/percussion. Almost everyone had played a bit a long time ago and is now very rusty. We needed something to play that was both simple and familiar. Our leader selected a couple of show tunes for us to try and something vaguely resembling music issued from our tubes and strings. Well, it was a start.

In my case it wasn’t clear which instrument I should play. I had been taught to play the clarinet at school but switched to bass guitar when I went to university. Over the years I have also owned an electronic organ, a semi-acoustic guitar, a piano and an electric piano all of which I messed around with but never seriously tried to play. The organ and piano went to better homes decades ago. The guitar, bass, amp, speakers and electric piano spent 17 years gathering dust in a back room. Before moving house in 2015 I sold all instruments and equipment except the electric piano (which, you remember, I can’t play). So the question was: should I learn to play the one instrument I still own or borrow something from our leader’s collection acquired over many years of teaching music?

At the first rehearsal we had a pianist who, though hesitant, far surpassed my own abilities. A borrowed acoustic guitar seemed to offer the best opportunity for me to contribute and I strummed it as best I could. I had to miss rehearsal 2 (for a funeral) and by rehearsal 3 another five songs had been added to the group’s repertoire. One of the new songs was that perennial favourite, Summertime, from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. That’s a song composed in 1934, well outside the qualifying period for this blog, but it’s a classic and I’m featuring a relatively recent version by Rick Wakeman, whose latest album, Piano Portraits, includes this rather nice arrangement for solo piano.

There are three more reasons for choosing this version of Summertime as my Track of the Week: Rick Wakeman is currently touring in Italy and will bring his Piano Portraits show to UK venues later this month¹; Rick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last week as a member of Yes; at 67 Rick is well into his third age and his piano playing reminds me why I could never be anything more than a moderately enthusiastic amateur musician (on any instrument).

Now I must go and practice my new electro-acoustic guitar and see if I can play the chords for the U3A group’s arrangement of Summertime. Let’s see … Am, E7, Am, E7 … Oops! That Dm always catches me out. OK, once more from the top. 1, 2, 3, and …

Notes

  1. I shall be getting tickets for the performance at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester on 17th June, I hope.
  2. According to Wikipedia there are over 25,000 recordings of Summertime and there’s a fairly comprehensive selection of them on this website dedicated to the song. Rick’s version, though, seems to be missing.

Redemption Song

quotation

I realised the other day that I have sinned. This blog has no mention of Bob Marley! Fortunately, it’s Easter and Jesus died to redeem us of our sins (or so the Christian Church would have us believe). So, by way of penitence, I have chosen Redemption Song as my Track of the Week.

Both the Spotify link (above) and the YouTube video are of the version performed with Marley’s band, the Wailers. It’s not as well known as the solo version but I like the fuller sound and the reggae beat.

Redemption Song is a protest against slavery and racial discrimination. Like all protest songs its appeal lies as much in the sentiments expressed in the lyrics as in the music itself. The first few words transport us back in time and across the oceans to Africa:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I.
Sold I to the merchant ships …

Sold into slavery, yes, but the singer remains defiant and determined to fight for justice and freedom. It’s a message, the song says, that is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. It calls on us to join those fighting to make the black man the equal of the white-skinned.

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
. . .
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?

Redemption Song was written around 1979 when protests against apartheid in South Africa were becoming violent and racial inequality in the U.S., although illegal since the Civil Rights Act of 1968, lingered on in insidious ways. The fight was not yet over and Marley adapted the words of the early activist, Marcus Garvey, from a 1937 speech:

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.

To a black man in the 1970s these are stirring words. The first step towards freedom from oppression, it says, is to believe you deserve to shake off the white man’s yoke, to believe you really are his equal. It’s not the poetry of Bob Dylan but there’s a passion and authenticity in those lines that resonates with civil rights supporters across the globe – and that’s nearly all of us in these enlightened days. It is that sense of historical injustice, I think, that has made Redemption Song one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs.

Musically, Redemption Song is a simple folk tune with the flavour of a spiritual. It was originally released on the Uprising album and as a single in 1980. On the album it was performed as an acoustic ballad – just Bob Marley and his guitar – with none of the reggae beat for which he is famous. The single included a rendition by the whole band, this time in reggae style, and that second version also appears on the 2001 re-release of Uprising.

head and colours

A song from the Uprising album about redemption seems particularly appropriate at this Easter time when many people believe that Jesus died for us and rose again. I may not share those beliefs but I hope you will all forgive me for taking so long to mention the foremost of reggae artists, Bob Marley, and his call for political change, Redemption Song.

Bottle

bottle

Paul Weller will be a father again this summer. It will be his eighth child. The announcement came hard on the heels of the news that The Modfather’s 13th solo studio album, A Kind Revolution, will be released on 12th May. Shortly after that a film called Jawbone will reach the movie screens. The soundtrack to Jawbone was written by Weller and is available now as an album from all the usual places.

paul weller

Paul Weller

One of the tracks from Jawbone came up on my Release Radar playlist last week and it surprised old mister Crotchety. Bottle is a simple folk ballad – just two acoustic guitars and a male voice in reflective mood. I haven’t been keeping abreast of Paul Weller’s work but this was so very different from what he was doing with The Jam in the late seventies and The Style Council in the eighties that I felt I had to investigate further.

The first thing to say is that the Jawbone album is the soundtrack from the film, not separate recordings of the songs. The first track, Jimmy/Blackout, is over 20 minutes long and consists mostly of atmospheric sounds rather than conventional music. Several of the other tracks include dialogue from the film, which gets in the way of the songs. This is a collector’s album for those who loved the film, not a recording purely for listening pleasure. Having said that, though, Bottle does stand up in isolation.

Words are never enough to convey the effect of a piece of music on the listener and that’s particularly true for Bottle. The lyrics tell the thoughts of a man who has lost his way and must move on if he is to rescue himself from the wasteful life he has been leading. Here, ‘bottle’ seems to stand for both the ‘courage’ he has lost and the undefeated demon of ‘alcohol’. The singer regrets many things hidden in the dark of the time tunnel called the past but there is a glimmer of light up ahead, the promise of a better future if he can but face it. And all that comes across in the simple tune and folksy guitar accompaniment.

I haven’t been able to find any credits for the songs on the Jawbone album so I don’t know if Paul Weller is playing or singing on Bottle. I can say, though, that it has an insidious charm brought out beautifully by a stripped down production. If this is what Paul is doing these days he deserves to be taken as seriously now as he was in his days with The Jam. It’s completely different material but he still has the knack of making compelling music.

Notes

  1. There’s a quite different song called The Bottle on Paul Weller’s 2004 album, Studio 150. Videos of The Bottle exist on YouTube but there are none that I can find for Bottle from the new film.
  2. Jawbone is a film about a former youth boxing champion, Jimmy McCabe, who returns to his old haunts in the hope of picking himself up off the canvas after taking too many of life’s hard knocks. “In a battle between fear and faith, Jimmy risks his life, as he tries to stand tall and regain his place in the world”.