Spiers and Boden – The Works (2011)

Why does England hate it’s own folk music? Fashionable girls at Madrid discotheques squeal with delight when the DJ puts on a sevillanas at midnight and they dance it with grace and enthusiasm. Irishmen sit happily for hours in a country pub listening to fiddlers and accordian players. A sophisticated Roman won’t turn up his nose at a tarantella. Abba’s Benny Andersson appears at Swedish folk festivals with his accordion and has produced recordings of traditional polskas. In England the mere thought of a morris dance team or unaccompanied ballad singer sends most natives running for cover.” Joe Boyd in his book White Bicycles (published 2005).

And Boyd has a point. England has a rich folk music tradition, but the English don’t embrace their folk music the way the Scots or the Irish embrace theirs (and don’t think it at all remarkable that they do).

They’re missing out. In 2012 whilst on holiday in the UK my wife and I detoured to Banbury for a night to catch Spiers and Boden in concert. They played two sets. The first already had me convinced. It was full of top musicianship, strong, witty stagecraft and rich songs. But the second set… that became an unstoppable riot of dance tunes, shanties and the generally danceable that had the audience in the small venue riding a mighty and very enjoyable wave.

This album gives a pretty good idea of what they played that night. It also gives a pretty good idea of the range and quality of English folk song. The bawdy “Tom Padget” and “Horn Fair”, the half-silly sing-along “Bold Sir Rylas” (is there a better song about boar hunting?), the tender “The Birth of Robin Hood” and dance tunes such as “The Rochdale Coconut Dance”. Live it was just the two of them – John Spiers on various squeeze boxes, Jon Boden on vocals and fiddle or guitar. On this album they are joined by the great and good of English folk. The list of guest players includes Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Maddy Prior, Eliza Carthy, Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney and Hannah James, and if you don’t know who they are then you’ll be getting triple value because you’ll get an introduction to some very fine players.

Not that Spiers and Boden themselves aren’t pretty damn good. Jon Boden is a fine singer who conjures up tender paternal love on “The Birth Of Robin Hood” and triumph in the final verse of “Prickle-Eye Bush” (surely a distant ancestor of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole”). Spiers has a great knack for rhythm and syncopation and is so adept with the left side of his instrument that you are not bothered by the lack of an obvious bass instrument. Boden’s fiddle playing is skilled and energetic and overshadows his guitar playing although the latter is actually quite good as the ear catching introduction to “Bold Sir Rylas” demonstrates.

So here’s not just a good introduction to the English folk music canon, but a strong inducement to love it either privately whilst nobody’s looking or more openly and proudly. You can even get your rocks off.

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Beasuoleil – the Very Best of Beausoleil (1998)

Beausoleil are perhaps the biggest name in Creole music. They are headed up by Michael Doucet who is one of the finest exponents of Creole fiddle.

This is not music by and/or for hicks. Firstly these guys can really play. Secondly they are not mere archivists but create their own new music that draws on contemporary sounds as well as their Creole roots. And there’s something about those Creole rhythms and syncopations that really makes a body want to get up and cut a rug.

I got this album because I’d read that Richard Thompson likes to have a blow with Doucet when he gets the chance. OK… I’m past being objective about Thompson, but this goes to show how musical discovery can work. You find one interesting guy and then check out the acts that they admire or want to play with. Because of Thompson’s expressed admiration for Martin Carthy I went to a gig by the latter a few years ago. It was one of the finest performances I have ever seen. But enough about Thompson, and Carthy but please note that sometimes one good thing can lead to others.

Doucet was initially a rocker, convinced that Creole music had had it’s day, but way back in the 60s he heard the Unhalfbricking album by Thompson’s then band Fairport Convention (OK, I lied. Sue me). On that album Thompson and Co began to infuse English roots music with rock, but they simultaneously did the same for Creole music with an original song “Cajun Woman” and with “Si Tu Dois Partir”, a French language rearrangement of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” with Zydeco instrumentation. Doucet was moved to revisit and eventually to revive his home traditions (Doucet and Thompson ended up a mutual admiration society and Thompson gets in a fine guest spot solo on the track “Conja”. And now I will really try to stay on topic).

Like so many great roots musicians Beausoleil are not presenting museum pieces – even when they perform traditional numbers. They present the music as living and vital. There’s a great feel of abandon to many of the tracks. It’s not sloppy, but it hasn’t had all the fun and energy polished the heck out of it either.

If I’m understanding things correctly then a lot of their songs deal with the legends of the Cajun people – a people who are not easily defined but do have a definite and not well documented history. They also get more recent with a tribute song to one of the fathers and greatest evangelists of Zydeco (another Louisiana music form) Clifton Chenier (also name checked by Paul Simon on his Graceland album).

They range from folky acoustic waltzes to electric, rockier numbers. Doucet isn’t the only hot player here by any means. The “other” Doucet, brother David, is a pretty good flat picker and the band constantly kicks rhythmic butt, especially with highly rhythmic fiddle and accordion lines that are reminiscent of Zydeco. The opening “Zydeco Gris Gris” sets a fine example – a folky, toe tap provoking, syncopated fiddle motif overlays a harder rock rhythm to fine effect.

The state of Louisiana has bestowed many musical gifts upon the world and was significant in the birth of jazz and of rock ‘n roll. Michael Doucet and his band are a more recent example of the state’s rich and vital musical legacy. Y’all should check them out – there’s more to American roots music than blues and bluegrass.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

PS: This compilation is dated 1998, though it stretches back into the 70s. It’s not the only compilation by this name, but they’re all on different labels. This one is on the Music Collection International label and is compiled from recordings made for the Rhino and Rounder labels.

The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream (2014) (morphs into a rant about the desirability of paying for music)

Sorry to be so damn current. There’s been considerable praise for this album and it’s now making lots of year end “best of” lists. I did manage to get to this album in the year of it’s release, but I’m still late to the party.

And I don’t know what to make of it – though I may still – because there’s a remarkable feature to this album that I found quite distracting. That is it’s synthesis of 80s and late 70s influences. I thought I was imagining this. There were, my ears told me anyway, clear nods to Springsteen, to Van Morrison, to Infidels era Dylan, to several other things that sounded so damn familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on them, and, perhaps a little more fancifully, I thought, Chris Rea, Bob Seeger and Bruce Hornsby.

I’m not saying that this is bad or wrong or reduces the work to mere imitation. The influences, and especially the era, are quite obvious but it’s never imitative. Besides, it’s hard for currently active musicians to not have influences. But I found it distracting – which may just be me. What wasn’t just me, it turned out, was the spotting of that 80s FM friendly rock sound. I checked several other reviews and found that almost without fail the reviewers (often more experienced and more knowledgeable than me) had picked up on this. Hornsby turned out to be not so far fetched, everybody agrees on Springsteen (though I think the particular aspect that is being picked up here is the more cinematic texture that Roy Bittan bought to the Boss’s sound) and most check Dylan, quite a few invoked Dire Straits (which I’m less sure of personally) and one or two detected a nod to mid 80s Rod Stewart. So I’m not alone.

The War On Drugs are one of those “bands” that are really about one person and that person’s vision. In this case the person is Adam Granduciel, and he was born in 1979. So he wasn’t really there in the 80s, but his command of the styles of that era is remarkable. What is especially interesting is the way that he’s managed to receive so much of the musical style of that often reviled era but manage to miss out on the production gimmicks that beset so many records made back then.

I’m hedging around making a conclusion – for reasons I’ve already touched on. But here’s another thing: I hear from time to time wailings about the lack of new electric guitar-driven pop and rock music in this day and age – with the obvious exception of the whole metal scene, the guitar being essential to metal music. Sure the old guys are still busy touring and performing their old hits, and the Kings Of Chaos still pop up and do their self-tribute band act for silly money. But where is the new guitar-driven music?

Well, here’s a place to start. If you’re fond of that 80s and latter 70s “classic rock” sound then what’s not to like here? And I don’t believe this is the only game in town either. I’ve been listening to My Morning Jacket and there’s plenty of riffery going on there as well.

What I think is a problem, certainly here in South Africa, is that the radio doesn’t play this stuff. We have to turn to other sources now to find the happening stuff that you might like. For me, in the last couple of years, it’s become clear that this is actually a very good era for music. There’s lots of it around, lots of it new. And additionally all the classic albums you heard people my age raving about (and even some that I missed because I was just too young to really get into music in the 60s) are available on iTunes and the like. HIT music seems rather less interesting than it did even in the 80s, but there are lots of independent labels around servicing audiences that are less swayed by current fashion and mass appeal. So all you have to do really, is give up on the radio and on MTV and look in other places. If you have a curiosity about music then you’ll find it.

And for Pete’s sake PAY for the stuff. The entire Lost In The Dream is available for download in several places – and in none of these instances is it made available by the band or their label. And this is not an isolated case – as you can easily verify. I mentioned My Morning Jacket – and they’re in the same situation. A few years ago I went to a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain show in  London, and they observed from the stage that “some bastard” had uploaded their current DVD in it’s entirety. There are people I very much want to continue making music – and a lot of them don’t have mansions in Beverley Hills. It seems only logical to pay for their produce so they can afford to make more of it rather than jacking it all in and doing something else for a living.

Here endeth the lesson.

PS: Streaming services such as Spotify don’t count – the money they charge you has a way of not making it’s way to the artist. Taylor Swift withdrew her latest album from Spotify for precisely that reason – she wants herself to be paid for her work. Herself, and, of course, her band and her producers. Spotify, it seems not unreasonable to conclude, are wanting to drum up business and then make themselves rich with an IPO. They have no long-term interest in music or musicians. It may not even be sustainable in the long run BECAUSE artists – Swift is not the first to go this route, though hers is probably the most publicised stand – will realise that for them it’s not a good deal and will exert control over the distribution of their output.

Martin Taylor and David Grisman – I’m Beginning To See The Light (1999)

Martin Taylor is a finger style jazz player with phenomenal technique. David Grisman is a (nominally bluegrass) mandolin player with great skills and eclectic leanings. This was their second recorded collaboration.

There is, as far as I can tell, nothing revolutionary or ground-breaking about this record. The songs are all jazz standards (“The Autumn Leaves”, the title track, “Cheek to Cheek”). The combination of the guitar and mandolin in a jazz style had been done before (by the two of them on an earlier album) though if, like me, you’re still getting used to the idea that “mandolin” doesn’t have to equal “bluegrass” then there’s some novelty in hearing Grisman take on these pieces (though I’m fast getting over that now).

It’s all in a pretty traditional style as well, despite both players having taken on more exotic projects than this. Taylor mostly eschews the baffling multi-part playing that he can deliver and stays in a jazzy, bluesy postal zone.

The selling point is the sheer excellence of the proceedings, the skills of everybody involved (which includes a fine, simpatico rhythm secion), the inventiveness, the tunes they find within the tunes and the way it’s all about the musical effect, never just musical muscle flexing. When Taylor goes for fast runs – and he executes them with faultless clarity and precision – it’s because the musical effect is heightened.

Both the featured players repeatedly deliver clever arrangements and solos that are often understated but in fact full of detail and very fine playing. Even the rhythm parts are interesting and often complement the lead part on the other instrument. The rhythm section never miss a trick and underpin everything in fine style – again not in any sort of ground breaking way but with musical sympathy and great skill.

This is the sound of excellence.

Die Lemme – Rigtingbefok (2013)

Die Lemme are more of project than a band. Forty musicians play on this album. There are nine producers. The thread that holds everything together is Gary Herselman, one of the ou manne of the local rock scene (he played bass in Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gereformeerde Blue Band on the Voelvry tour) who wrote all but two of the songs here and who steered much of it even when he wasn’t actually producing or performing.

Herselman has been sitting on some of these songs for years, so he had plenty of material at hand, and his long career in the music industry, as a player, songwriter and owner of a distribution company meant that he knew a lot of people and a lot of people knew him or about him. All of this came together to produce a remarkably good record  with  distinctly South African charm to it. This is especially prominent in many of the vocals as well as the songs themselves. Herselman sings in an unshamed white South African voice, and several of the other vocalists follow suit. This is a record with a South African accent.

And if you’re bothered by or despondent about the state of South African rock music then here’s an album with a South African vibe to it that you can get behind. Especially if you’re embarrassed by the state of Afrikaans popular music. Herselman always wrote in two languages a and there’s a sequence of Afrikaans songs here with remind us that as a member of the Gereformeerde Blues Band and a participant in the Voelvery tour all those years ago he was was part of a movement that allowed Afrikaans and rock to embrace each other. One of those songs is Johannes Kerkorrel’s “Liefde” with a well judged vocal from Arno Carstens and a dark, throbbing arrangement that includes all the surviving members of the Gereformeerde Blues Band.

The other cover is the Radio Rats “ZX-Dan” with original Rats Jon Handley and Dave Davies performing, and a witty brass re-arrangment tacked onto the end.

I’m a soft touch for this record. The guys like Herselman who kept South African rock unbowed (despite being bloodied) in the 80s are perhaps the only musical heroes that I have. Herselman and his supporting cast of  veterans and interesting unknowns was hard for me to resist. But this is a record with depth and staying power  – it stayed interesting and entertaining after that initial thrill wore off. It’s more than just a late chance to get to grips with a veteran of the local music scene. There’s real quality in the songs, and the performances all are sympathetic towards the songs (or the songs are strong enough for their character and characters to shine through). And sustained quality like this over the length of an album (actually quite a bit more in this case) is a true test of music and makes for a satisfying listening experience.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn (2014)

Husband and wife, both stars on the banjo, produce an intimate record of duets, with Washburn singing and both of them playing banjos in various shapes and sizes (cue joke: “What’s the difference between a tenor and a baritone banjo?” “When you throw all the banjos on a fire the baritone will burn for longer.”). And that’s it.

It is a quite charming record – remarkable in a low-key way. Full of fine playing and singing, and with a timeless sound and feel to it. If you’re not a musical historian type then listen to this without peeking at the liner notes and try to sort out which pieces are covers of old folk songs and which are the originals. Most of the time it’s not apparent, so complete is their grasp of the roots of the instrument and it’s trademark style. But they’re also ready, willing and most certainly able to step out of the banjo’s comfort zone with instrumentals that include a pair of pieces by Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartok.

Sonically it’s very intimate sounding – like they’re playing a private show right in your front room (or wherever else you’re listening – you can have them riding in your car with you).

Washburn’s vocals often provide an effective emotional centre. Never more so than on the lovely “Ride To You” where she injects romance and a little sense of forever into the repeating lines “Remember my long brown hair / And the way I loved you everywhere.”

As is so often the case with the best players, this music sounds very simple. But as repeated listens will reveal it isn’t really. It’s just the best make it seem easy.

Forget that it’s the thing worse than a banjo – TWO banjos! – this is a record of quiet excellence and considerable beauty.

Dave Alvin – Eleven Eleven (2011)

There are two kinds of folk music – quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” – Dave Alvin.

Alvin said that his previous album, Ashgrove, was the one that sounded like him, that showed all he could do and all the aspects of it. But Eleven Eleven may be a step forward, another refinement of a musical vision and style that Alvin’s been chipping away at since the mid 80s at least (before he went solo he was the principal songwriter and lead guitarist for the band The Blasters fronted by his brother Phil).

What sets him apart, I think, from so many other superficially similar American rockers is the sense of history and mythology in his songwriting and the homage he pays to his roots. And his totally effective delivery. His half-spoken baritone vocals are coupled with a tough, no frills electric guitar style that is very much his own whilst it sounds so ancient and universal (or American universal at any rate, and American rock ‘n roll ancient). Alvin lands plenty of punches in his performance without ever being flashy.

Lyrically he’s dealing mostly with the marginalised and the desperate. The narrating voice of “Gary, Indiana 1959”, a man who once marched proudly for the union but is now resigned to the inevitable, seems to be a cue for so much else of what is on this record:
“And you can’t get ahead no matter how hard you try
‘Cause the Big Boys make the rules, tough luck for everyone else
And out on the streets, brother, it’s every man for himself .“

There’s not a great distance between that situation and the bounty hunter in “Murrietta’s Head” who doesn’t care too much if the wanted is truly guilty because the bounty is going to keep his farm from repossession. Or the down and out cast aside ex-boxer of “Run, Conejo, Run”.

What makes these songs so good are the deft strokes with which Alvin draws the characters and the restraint he shows in directing us as to how we should feel. He shows us more than tells us. We get to draw our own conclusions, or just watch.

Stylistically it’s Alvin’s entire range of Americana – from the tough rock that is his bread and butter on this album to quieter, more introspective country and folk-tinged pieces. All unified by that unfussy but quite skilful delivery. Alvin’s been doing this for years now, and he’s very, very good at it.

His guitar playing is supported and complemented by the always excellent Greg Leisz, a session player with a considerable CV and reputation. The combination (not a new one, they’ve worked together on and off since 1987) is a very strong one that delivers lots of punch and not a little finesse. Alvin’s guitar tone, like everything else about him, is strong but simple. He doesn’t add a lot of colour to his sound with effects pedals, the main effect seems to be to turn up the amp.

Alvin isn’t a household name and at this stage of his career he probably never will be. If he were maybe he’d be phoning it in by now. But he isn’t and he doesn’t.