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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New video from The See See

Longtime Shindig! favourites The See See mark their debut US single on Sundazed Records, 'The Rain and The Snow', by releasing this promotional video. Their psych-folk pop still hits the spot, and this song hits the streets on coloured 7" vinyl on January 26. Click, watch and enjoy!

Focus live in High Wycombe



The first of the 'big gigs' at the Wycombe Arts centre will launch not only the new venue but 2013 itself in spectacular style, as the one and only Focus - Thijs Van Leer, Pierre Van Der Linden, Bobby Jacobs and Menno Gootjes- bring their annual dose of progressive neo-classical rock and roll mayhem all the way from Die Nederlands to South Bucks.

Expect probably the most riotous show ever performed by an all-instrumental band (bar the yodelling of course) featuring such joys as 'Focus 1, 2, 3 and 4', 'House Of The King', 'Sylvia', 'Black Beauty' and the inevitable 'Hocus Pocus'. The first of hopefully many touring shows to be performed in the Greater Hall of the Arts4every1 Centre (the former St John's Church). They've done 'gigs' before, but this is a true event! 

Tickets are £17 in advance from Wegottickets, Ticketweb, Stargreen, Counter Culture and Ruby Moon.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Live Review - John Mayall

Leicester Square Theatre, London
December 17 2012

This was a hard choice to make - to see Thin Lizzy's "farewell" gig, or to see a man who's partially responsible for the existence of half the rock music in the world as we know it, who I'd never previously witnessed in the flesh. As you'll no doubt be aware by now, I plumped for the latter. Which is probably just as well, really, as I predict the Irish rockers' (or at least two of them's) soon-come rebirth as Black Star Riders or whatever they're called will last approximately five minutes before the agents realise they can't sell it and start baying for a return to the old brandname. It's also a wise choice because you wonder, at 79, how many more chances you'll get to see him. But also because at 79 he's still incredible. Quite extraordinarily so.

In some respects, there are few surprises to be gleaned from tonight's performance: the man plays the blues, or at least a galvanised, powerful brand of blues-rock, and that's exactly what you get. However, other things are definitely different: for one, despite their undoubted ability, not one of the bandmembers onstage with JM tonight are what one would consider 'virtuosi'. Nor are they, with the possible exception of bassist Greg Rzab (who wears his high slung axe with a certain insouciant cool) in any way particularly fascinating to look at, and secondly, (probably for that very reason) the focus is now very much on the leader himself rather than his sidemen.

Some would venture "about time too", and they may be right: perhaps it's been this way for a while, and, having not witnessed the live spectacle before, I just didn't realise. But, being honest, isn't Mayall the one artist in the history of rock music always destined to be better known for the people he nurtured, tutored and set on the road to stardom (in particular, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the other founding members of Fleetwood Mac, and Mick Taylor) than his own, often incredible, achievements? Therefore, even if nobody of note has played with him for decades, you expect him to be surrounded by stars in the making. The fact that he clearly isn't, even if little more than a minor culture shock, is still enough to make you pause and reflect. That their pedigree is impeccable is without question - guitarist Rocky Athas is the former jamming partner of Stevie Ray Vaughan and an acknowledged influence on both Scott Gorham and Brian May, Rzab's resume includes stints with the Black Crowes, Gov't Mule and the Allmans as well as time spent in the band of practically every US blues legend still alive and performing between 1980 and the present day, and drummer Jay Davenport is a veteran of the Chicago scene of some 30 years standing. But for all that, they could be literally anyone up there. Their solos, while accomplished and technically flawless, ring with the smooth professionalism of the very circuits they belong to, but are decidedly lacking in personality or individuality. At least that's how they appeared to me tonight: maybe a few more days on the road in their sonic company might present a different picture, but for now, I have to call it as I see it. Sorry, chaps, and don't take it personally - I said the same about Johnny Winter's band three years ago. And at least none of you wore a baseball cap backwards...

What holds it all together, therefore, is the man whose name is printed on the ticket, a man who, as the promoter is keen to point out afterwards, is probably the only rock musician of almost 80 still doing this. You know what though - age be buggered. Mayall is stunning in any context: as either blues or rock singer, he's easily the equal of a Plant, Rodgers or Rod in their heyday, and deserves to be better known for it. Then again, maybe he was always too busy drumming inspiration into the minds of musicians to promote himself as the great entertainer he clearly is. Several vocalists of better renown now display half the range they once had, but Mayall's seems to have actually grown: on 'Help Me Baby' and that ironic paean to the teetotal lifestyle 'Give Me One More Day', his voice is amazing, while on the little-aired 'Heartache' from his debut album it simply demolishes, wringing the notes into submission. His reputation as raconteur and storyteller par excellence is also well deserved, with almost every number prefaced by one fascinating anecdote or another, told in the same laconic Mancunian drawl that could win over any audience of non-converts.

If all that weren't enough, his own guitar playing has now almost improved to soloist level, while his keyboard playing remains exemplary: not only in a technical sense, but also in his choice of textures. 'California', from my second favourite Mayall platter The Turning Point is given a subtle, jazz-inflected treatment that more than respects the album version while refusing to regurgitate, sporting velvety vibraphone tones worthy of Milt Jackson, while 'Nature's Disappearing' (from my very favourite, USA Union) now re-emerges with a heavy-rocking, organ-drenched approach. True, the violin of Sugarcane Harris can never be replaced, but I wasn't expecting it to be: trust me, I've seen many a 'legend' ruin their back catalogue with unnecessary instrumentation, and at no point tonight does Mayall do this. Until the climax of the show anyway, when, after allowing us the deep breath of faultless, traditional blues that is 'They Call It Stormy Monday', we are dragged kicking and screaming into the fray with a frenetic rendition of another Turning Point highspot, 'Room To Move'. For three minutes, Athas' guitar twangs like it was still 1969, the rhythm section (nonexistent on the original) provides a suitable flurry of scattercushion funk, and Mayall's own harmonica playing - frenetic, earthy and warm - is a wonder to behold. As is his loose-limbed, very Northern, laconic onstage persona, egging his charges on with enthusiastic cries of participation. Truly inspirational. Then, just when they've got us in the palm of their hand, they ruin it. Well, almost. All it takes is one meander down the wrong path of indulgent show-off drum soloing, one slap bass line too many (actually, unless you're Stanley Clarke or Colin Hodgkinson, one is ALWAYS too many) or the tiniest inkling toward the more 'chartered accountant' end of widdly for a blues band to blow it - and JM and his crew somehow manage to do all in the space of five minutes, losing the entire song somewhere in the resulting melange.

Don't misunderstand me, I love self-aggrandising, pompous, widdly prog soloing, and I've been listening to it for years, but you don't expect to see John Mayall do it, especially when the rest of the show has existed quite happily without it up to this point. Then again, he did say it was the 'grand finale' piece, and once the melody returns it does end on a suitable high note, but a little more restraint wouldn't have gone amiss. Thankfully, it's a minor blip and by the time the band return - first to swop instruments, then to threaten each other jokingly with them whilst fighting over who's going to get to introduce their leader and mentor, and finally to bow out gracefully with, what else but a swinging run through Freddie King's 'Hideaway'. All is forgiven, if not necessarily forgotten. Especially when you consider how, after BB King, who similarly seems to show no interest in stopping anytime soon, Mayall is almost definitely (let me know if you know otherwise) the next oldest man alive still playing in the genre, which is why you MUST see him if possible. White and British he may be, but, naysayers, that shouldn't rob him of his place in the pantheon - and for that very reason, I feel inclined to correct a line in my second paragraph. The man doesn't play the blues, nor has he got the blues: he IS the blues.


Thursday, 3 January 2013

Live Review - The Fall

Islington Assembly Hall
London, December 6 2012

In a way, it's surprising to see The Fall play in the Assembly Hall's grandiose environs: not because they can't fill it (this is the second of two sold out nights, and for once, there isn't even a new album to plug) but because in its architecture, location and appearance, it's probably everything Mark E Smith is diametrically opposed to. Posh, plush, surrounded by yuppie bars and simply dripping with Southernness, it's Olde London through and through (much like most of the adjoining streets) and would never be found in Salford or Manchester. But IS it? On second glance, its red carpeted halls and wooden floor bear all the hallmarks of an ancient Lancastrian gin palace or pier theatre beloved of the variety business- so, in many ways, for Smith- the gurning, grimacing Frank Randle of rock'n'roll- it's his ideal home.

It also has an incredible PA, which, from the top row of the balcony, sounds as dense, brain-smashingly heavy and yet crystal clear as such complex, multi-layered music requires. Smith, with increasing support from keyboard-playing, occasional lead vocal-taking wife Elena, has a reputation (one of many!) for drilling his young musicians to near-crack precision, something which has earned him the nickname more than once of the 'indie Zappa', and the current line-up are no exception. Faceless they may be to look at (although, when they start the show with a 5-minute instrumental prefacing their leader's faux-disinterested entry, you have to) but they are enthralling to listen to. According to Wikipedia their names are Dave Spurr, Peter Greenway (no, not the filmmaker) and Keiron Melling, but this, or the matter of which is which, is largely unimportant as he'll have sacked the lot of them by the time there's an new album out anyway. The guitarist's bloody good though.

It also makes no difference whatsoever that half the material tonight is either extremely recent or, more than likely, brand new (MES spends half the night sat behind the bassist's monitor in a leather armchair, reading what are obviously freshly written lyrics from reams of foolscap). It still comes on like Beefheart being fellated by members of the Amon Duul collective while Link Wray plays along in the background (like all their best material does) and bodes well for their next release. So that's alright then. Whether this looks as good, though, from downstairs is a moot point: they probably can't see him, but then again it's so rammed down there that many of them still couldn't if he was standing up. Is he pissed? Probably, but in fine shape, bellowing incomprehensible lyrics (not because of any drunken slurring, but because they hint at an intellect and mindset most people can't even begin to grasp), strutting and lurching all at once, and belligerently leering his snook at an entire audience which he appreciates the devotion of whilst simultaneously holding their every floppy haired or shaven headed, studenty post-punk cliche in utter contempt, before heading off home to sit in an armchair listening to Peter Hammill and Joe Meek and watching Nigel Kneale plays. That's fine, it's exactly what I do. Mind you, he'll probably kick my head in for writing this as well - if not for attempting to understand him, then at the very least because I have long 70s hair, come from Essex and live in Buckinghamshire.

An early appearance of the Sonics 'Strychnine' roars and rages like a lion with its nads caught in a large metal thingy, soon followed by Elena taking strident lead vox on 'I've Been Duped'. While the missus takes centre stage, hubby meanders 'twixt amps and cabs, twisting a little here, turning a little there, fiddling with knob after dial after lead after knob in the manner only he and Gibby Haynes fully understand. But, never one to settle into comfortable routine, he's recently taken to doing it with his own amp too, often whilst singing. Perhaps the arch-sadist of garage punk has a masochistic side after all. It certainly isn't because he's run out of ideas: while there may be a definite lull in the centre of the set, leading some to head towards either bar or bog, it's only in terms of pace, with the fuzz-laden doom of one (again seemingly brand new) track soon followed by another steeped in Lamonte Young-esque concrete drone and non-percussive yet rhythmic looping. He's back on the chair for these, then he's up again for what seems the closest you'll get from such a cantankerous and deliberately obtuse musician to a 'hits section', with 'Weather Report', 'Container Drivers', 'Reformation" (only six years old and already an old favourite), 'Mr Pharmacist' and 'Blindness' thrudded out in rapidfire succession, during which 25-minute time period Smith manages to not only destroy his own mikestand but entangle the rest of the group's leads in it. The old devil. This doesn't prevent Elena from squatting haunch-down on the floor and bellowing into it to commence the encore: yes, the most awkward band in the world even do them sometimes as well. Her shrill cry of "IS ANYBODY THERE?" can only mean 'Psycick Dancehall', a trip into the murky 79-80 vintage even I didn't expect, followed by a blunt, heads down 'What About Us' before, 80 minutes after it all started, it's all ended.

What did you expect, a ballad and an acoustic number? If you did, you were clearly at the wrong gig, although I find it very hard to believe that anyone here harbours such ideas. A friend of mine once told me he chooses to tell 'the story' at the dinner table during Passover each year in the hope that one day he'll remember it properly and get it right: in much the same way, we come to see The Fall year in year out in the hope that eventually, we'll work out why we like them. I'm still fathoming it myself- in one respect, they're the most predictable band ever, who still sound, 35 years on, like the combined ouput of the pre-punk era's most aggressive psych or prog bands all played at once on several rusty car stereos with occasional interference from low-frequency C&W, rockabilly and oldies stations. Their jarring, scraping backbeats suggesting a dozen possible directions yet always returning to point of departure, overlaid with the barked vocals of a meths drinker from a nearby bus station who looks a bit like Bill Maynard if he hadn't eaten for a fortnight. That much we know, and that much we come to see on a yearly basis. That much we wouldn't have any other way. Where the mystery lies is in how they'll do it, how long they'll do it for, whether you'll recognise it when they do, exactly what it's all about, and in what strange new key, beknownst only unto Mark E Smith himself, they'll do it in. And in that respect they will remain perpetually rock's most fascinating puzzle, in which the pieces will never fit and were deliberately not designed to.

Rarely in the last ten years have they sounded mightier.


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Live Review - Matthews Southern Comfort

The Borderline, London, December 1 2012

Grim, cold, miserable evenings such as this, that involve dragging one's carcass from your Home counties retreat into central Londinium, deserve to be rewarded with warm, soothing yet eerie and haunting music that puts a fireside glow into your heart. Thank God, then, for Iain Matthews and the new lineup of Southern Comfort.

I just wish more people agreed with me: sadly, despite being the only former member of Fairport Convention to have ever achieved anything in his solo career resembling a hit single (actually, let's not be coy, it was a UK No 1!!) Ian's concerts in the capital have often been poorly attended, and tonight's turnout is still decidedly thin. The lack of members from the original line-up may not have helped matters either.

Either as a singer-songwriter or a skilful selector of covers, Matthews has always seemed like the man who missed out. When he was on the brink of becoming one of Britain's premier introspective singer-songwriters, Al Stewart trounced him - twice. As a harmony vocalist and rhythm guitarist extraordinaire, he dwelt forever in the shadow of Graham Nash. In selling himself as Britain's very own Robbie Robertson, he was pipped to the post by early Elton John. For skilful interpretations of other, lesser-known writers' material, we already had pre-'Sailing' era Rod Stewart, and that song itself had been penned by the Sutherland Brothers, the Scots outfit who, whether subconsciously or not, seemed more adept at turning the template laid down by Matthews' own band Plainsong into hard cash than they did themselves. I can't think of many more musicians, particularly of such calibre, that have suffered such abysmal luck, yet refused to let it bother them. From the moment he strides casually onstage, picks up his guitar and approaches the microphone, the first impression you get is of a man, nearing 70 but not looking a day over 50, who clearly lives for the enjoyment engendered by being up there. 

Around him he has also assembled a crack team of fine (predominantly Dutch) musicians: they don't resemble the old Southern Comfort in any way, particularly as they don't include a pedal steel (an instrument Iain himself explains his disdain for later on, although it has to be said I completely disagree with him) but their skill and virtuosity is flawless. Acoustic guitarist/vocalist Terri Binion, a red-haired vision not unlike a young Sandy with lungs to match  provides the perfect foil for Matthews' gravellier, earthier tones, effective as much on newer, more unfamiliar songs like 'Perfect Love' (which she also composed) and 'O Donnell Street' as the much older 'Darcy Farrow', which the enthusiastic audience bayed fervently for and were eventually rewarded with. Yet, as much as I know both this track and the sublime, wistful 'And Me', I have to admit that I am also unfamiliar with most other Southern Comfort material, being more a collector of Matthews' material from If You Saw Thru My Eyes onwards. What I thus admire is that even now, with the name technically functioning as a collective term for whatever loose aggregation of musicians he assembles around himself, the Lincolnshire wordsmith chooses not the easy route of providing us with a selection of cross-career 'faves', but sticks to those three albums and newly-written works, which it has to be said could have easily come from any of that triumvirate. In fact, the moody, defiant 'Letting The Mad Dogs Lie' is so pointedly good it could have come from any of his best works up as far as my personal favourite, 1974's Some Days You Eat The Bear

Some of the recent tunes are reworkings, of course, but doen in such a fresh way that they sound brand new whilst simultaneously retaining the majesty of old. When other songwriters do this it normally indicates that they've run out of ideas, but not Iain Matthews: if anything, he's on a mission, as he has been for most of his career, to do it right while he still can. Producers and arrangements may have occasionally softened his edges but nothing, it seems, can blunt his razorsharp instinct, as the lyrics seem to portend. Talking of which, I now have a new favourite: "Was she thinking of you or of me, when she said 'the old man and the sea' ?" I have no idea what it means or who it refers to, but I shall probably spend the next few weeks pondering it.

Yet, even if every harmony sounds like a chorus of West Coast monks on their slow procession to some dimly-lit freethinking church atop Big Sur, it isn't just about the vocals, or the words - or even just about Iain himself. Co-writer/guitarist Richard Kennedy, guitarist/mandolinist Bart-Jan Baartmans and keyboardist Mike Roelofs are the sort of tasteful, free-improvising yet tight virtuosi that would be just at home in an ECM jazz trio, or a jam-band ensemble ala Little Feat or SCI, as they obviously seem in a folk-rock combo. Furthermore, it's their flourishes and flurries of piano, Rhodes and instruments of both 6 and 12 strings that elevate the band above the usual strictures of said genre (and indeed, the painfully polite way in which it's now played even by its pioneers). Close your eyes and find yourself transported to a variety of decades. Sometimes it's 1969 - at other times, the whole ensemble sound uncannily like the Cowboy Junkies or Union Station. But that's hardly surprising in itself considering how both those bands grew up on old Fairport and Southern Comfort records: if anything, it shows that the circle truly does remain unbroken.

Bassist Leon Bartels, while not present for the entire show for some reason, still makes an invaluable contribution upon his arrival, providing the missing piece of the rhythmic jigsaw formerly laid bare by the absence of a drummer: like many of his contemporaries, Matthews is often found playing without a full complement of musicians for budgetary reasons, but rather than let that hold him back, this is treated as yet another opportunity for interpretation and interpolation. If only everyone in such situations had such creative fervour. For this reason, the evergreen 'Woodstock', again reworked so that it bears scant relation to MSC's own vintage, let alone Joni's original or CSNY's rockier take, differs also from the version recorded by this lineup: it now has a propulsive, percussive base that leads the audience as much as the band to the swell-deserved climax. Providing, yet again, more evidence of Matthews' steadfast refusal to be bracketed, tagged with one song or made to stand still. As if to further underline this strategy, rather than end here, a short encore follows, but even if it hadn't, Matthews Southern Comfort had by now already made their point, and the long, cold, windy journey back to Zone Ridiculous felt a lot warmer than it had done on the way in. I'll see him the same time next year, and do you know what, I wager that even though his aged-in oak voice may remain constant, musically he'll sound almost completely different. Not that I'd want everyone to do that, but THAT's an artist for you. 


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