The Unthanks at St James Church Piccadilly, Dec 2nd 2011

To my shame I’d never seen the Unthanks play before (except on the tele) and this in spite of being quite awestruck by their music.  And the fact that in their album released this year, “Last” they have produced an extraordinary set of songs. The title track just haunts you and stays in your head long after the notes have died away.  They were great on Later in April doing that. But, but, but…it’s not the same as being in the presence of people singing right there for you, or indeed with you…

I had this feeling of having already missed out on many stupendous gigs featuring their own material down the years and I still don’t know how that happened when I do have folk on my musical radar (and I usually agree with Paul Morley who lavished such praise on the spine-tingling Bairns album and its even better follow-up Here’s the tender coming).  Anyway, that was the feeling as  I approached a sold out St James Church in Piccadilly last Friday night for the start of their tour singing the songs of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt. And, as it turns out, a lovely New Year’s song written by Rachel and Becky’s dad.  I would like to hear their material but these cover versions might be quite good, I was thinking…

Unthanks St James

And I’m sure the purists would have preferred the things they usually do but…I needn’t have worried; the arrangements of these songs by other people (including Robert Wyatt, one of my heroes) were gorgeous and the sound of the sisters’ voices hung beautifully in the air.  Never mind the lack of beer or the very restricted view, this was great music from first to last, soothing our slightly weary souls.  Compelling music played by people with real heart.  It’s the sisters, for sure, but it is also the tremendous arrangements of Adrian and the sensitive playing of the whole band that it all comes together.  If you can get in anywhere to see them play these songs, you really should.  From the first songs, through the stories, the small snippets of clog dancing, the feeding of the baby (whilst the band played Alfie), the jokes, the childhood stories, the mentions of the fabulous sounding singing weekends ( I wish for one of those), the gorgeous playing, right up to the New Year’s singsong at the end, it was a healing evening, great company and great music.  They just create an atmosphere full of the warmth and mystery of great music and song.  We arrived in a bit of a state, after one of those weeks. We left much, much happier. 

Rickie Lee Jones revisits the past at the Festival Hall Nov 26 2011

Rickie Lee Jones is sometimes wrongly associated with a certain lazy, easy listening late 70s west coast sound – perhaps owing to the pristine nature of her first two immaculately produced albums, the eponymous first and the second, Pirates.  But dig deeper into these albums and you find songs which are little worlds in themselves, the slow drift along a night road of Last Chance Texaco,  the childhood memories of Saturday Afternoons in 1963 and so many others. Even the song which made her famous, Chuck E’s in Love, has a richness to the storytelling absent in many of its contemporaries on the atrophying LA scene of the time, a love of the details of dialogue and scene-setting. And in Night Train, she may have written one of the great songs of the late twentieth century, a portrait of a single mother threatened with losing her child to the social worker, set to the most beautiful, slight, almost not-there musical backing.

So here we were thirty years after the events at the Royal Festival Hall to see her perform the two first albums in their entirety, mixed in the running order as it turned out.  And there she was – now into her fifties performing these songs of her youth and recalling troubled times, break-ups and the long strange road to recovery from heroin abuse.  If this description makes you think the music itself was anything less than uplifting, then I’m sorry – that’s not at all what I mean. Backed by seven musicians of outstanding quality and sensitivity (showy solos were allowed sparingly only during those numbers which most approached the potentially indulgent jazz area), she gave a fantastic performance.  Whether it really was some kind of final exorcism of bad times long ago (As she hinted by the end) or not, there was an intensity to this singing and dancing by this strange un-categorisable performer which was moving in the extreme.  You simply don’t get this from the hundreds of hastily reformed acts from years gone by who are going through the motions.  Every line was delivered like it was written yesterday and not all that time ago…By the end she was tearful in the face of the standing ovation something really special in the way of live music had just happened. 

Sorry – no photos were allowed so heLights after RLJ Nov26re’s one I took on the phone from the bridge walking back from the Southbank to Charing Cross.

See www.rickieleejones.com too – there’s more than just the old songs going on for her

Dawes, Jonathan Wilson & Jackson Browne 19th July 2011

Jackson 008 There are always so many great opportunities to see live music in London that I could probably find an artist or band that I would want to see every night. I have long decided that choosing the venue is a good way to traverse what can be a time-consuming and expensive path. Tuesday 19th July was one of those evenings where the venue really paid off. How wonderful then to be sat opposite Jackson Browne in a boozer while he catches up with friends (I notice he asks for a plate and steals some fish and chips) knowing I am about to see him in a venue not much bigger than the living room of my small terraced house (admittedly I am including the open plan kitchen… but hey that is still an intimate setting!)

While I booked my ticket to see Dawes whose recent 'Nothing is Wrong' album is both wonderful and a fairly obvious homage to early seventies Jackson Browne there were rumours cirulating that Jackson was to attend the same line-up's Borderline show on the following night. Unable to attend the Borderline show I was so pleased to see the large cases outside the Slaughtered Lamb in Farringdon emblazoned with 'Jackson Browne'. Dawes having backed Robbie Robertson now had JB as a mentor and it seemed that he wasn't going to let these young bucks out of his sight even for a warm-up gig in a tiny basement.

Just a few days earlier I was offered a free ticket to see James Taylor at the 02 and while it was nice to be in the same stadium size space as a legend there were too many MOR moments and sterile arrangements which were too far removed from Mud Slim and Sweet Baby James. This gig was the polar opposite.

Dawes started proceedings with 'Million Dollar Bill' a quieter moment from 'Nothing is Wrong' and previewed on the Middle Brother 'supergroup' offering suggesting that in Slaughtered lamb tradition that this would be a muted gig. With a rhodes and pump organ, bass, muted drums and an electric the foursome worked their way through the album and the volume crept up.   Taylor Goldsmith's voice was passionate and powerful, hell… 'A Little Bit of Everything' ( which could close Jackson Browne's 1974 'Late for the Sky' LP) with it's strangly poignant vignettes led by that simple motif put a lump in my throat. While straightlaced and unambigous Dawes hit the spot, highights include a John prine Cover (Crazy as a Loon) and of course 'When My Time Comes' which has my Kiwi friend howling along even though he has never heard it before. 

Jonathan Wilson, freshly signed to Bella Union had a hard act to follow and quite frankly he failed to deliver his hippy-ish laurel canyon revisited thing felt a little fake and although I have bought into it before his songs felt hollow. I am not sure if Simon Raymonde from Bella Union was wishing he had beat Loose Music to 'Dawes' I know I would be. Maybe we could all see JB sat two sofas to the left of where I was sitting. Jackson joined Jonathan Wilson for a song before launching into a beautiful 'These Days' and 'Our Lady of the Well' then 'Take it Easy'.  Hats off to a legend who is still happy to kick around in a small pub in Farringdon and champion young talent. James Taylor I hope you are taking note!

The Wave Pictures, 26th May 2011, The Scala

Wavepic2 I'm not sure who these fans are. How do you define a wave pictures fan?There's one in the picture taking a picture on her Blackberry.

Until last year I was only dimly aware of them. But my friend Neil dragged me along to see them at the Borderline. I've been hooked ever since. Darren from Hefner produced the new album Beer in the Breakers and he knew exactly what to do about that. Basically roll the tapes and let them play. This is a band who are completely simpatico and telepathic with one another. Maybe it's a feature of three-piece bands. But the playing, and the writing, and the performing find them all locked into their own little world. The guitar player and main songwriter David draws much of the attention. His playing is just beyond belief and his singing, and writing with lots of images of ordinary life sketched and held up for a closer look are just great. Allied to wonderful tunes and heartfelt playing. There's an atmosphere of celebration and warmth and you come out from a wave pictures show feeling better somehow. The drummer Johnny and the bass player Franic are just as good and deliver the spine of the music on which David Tattersall's words and playing dance. I do not understand how it is possible for this band not to be so much better known. Greatness beckons. Hopefully.

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, 25th May 2011, Union Chapel

Kc1 With King Creosote having provided the most amazing live music moment of the previous year, it was going to be difficult to beat that. He played at the Union Chapel with John Hopkins. Performing their diamond mine album in its entirety and a bunch of gorgeous encores. The atmosphere was intense and reverential because here whether real hard-core fans hanging on every note and every smile and every gesture from Kenny, John Hopkins and the guest players from geese. His most ardent fan was there as before calling out and whooping after each song. We had seen this guy last year in the slaughtered Lamb. But here the sense of occasion and the overwhelming atmosphere of wanting to hear the music overcame even his most fanatical follower. He played everything I wanted to hear and more, including a lovely version of nothing compares 2U which has been helpfully uploaded to you Tube. He played Leslie and he played And the racket they made.

There was nothing else I could have asked for.Atmospheric, unrepeatable and wonderful.

The Mekons 20th May 2011, The Lexington

 

Mekons1 Appropriately enough I am with one of my oldest friends from back in the day in Leeds. Familiar faces are all around. It's almost like some gathering of the ancient clans. They have heard the call but the  are Mekons are in town and they are gathering, one more time. Inside the venue we stand near a couple who are making a video. John Langford announces that after 38 years they are having a documentary film made about them. This makes little difference to the way they go about things. Apart from, after messing up two new songs when Langford says why should I care after 38 years have I written enough songs. Everyone is on great form. My favourite songs still come from fear and whiskey and me cons rock 'n' roll. Down the front of the stage a new generation of me cons are having the time of their lives and slowly and gently staking their claim and pushing aside the older never been in a riot fraternity. A great night as always

M Ward, 15th May 2011, The Union Chapel

MWard1

I had seen M Ward play before. But never at the union Chapel. It was a first for him as well. He makes the most beautiful, timeless sound from his guitars and it all look so effortless. Like it has always been easy for him. But this particular skill is hard one and not as simple as he makes out. The union Chapel is packed and hushed. The atmosphere is warm and Sunday night. So many of my favourites are played, including the Sandman the brakeman and me from the monsters of folk album. He plays a Nick Drake song, Place to Be, and his immaculate cover of Let's Dance both songs performed because he is in England. There is no new material but when you have been as prolific as he has at turning out atmospheric beautiful music for more than a decade you don't need to have new material. A short but beautiful set.