David Crosby – Croz (2014)

I suppose it’s a minor miracle that Crosby is still writing, recording and performing music. Though it’s not like he can sit on his yacht and count all that money he made with Crosby, Still and Nash – there’s hardly any of the money left and he had to sell the yacht! A combination of hangers on, dishonest management and super sized substance abuse problems left him nearly broke. There was a much publicised spell in jail and a second conviction. Infamously he eventually needed a liver transplant but couldn’t afford it (Phil Colins paid).

Crosby is a true rock ‘n roll surivor. Keith Richards isn’t fit to tie his boot laces!

Apart from being the experimental edge of the Byrds and the social conscience of CSN he produced a striking, adventurous solo album in the early 70s. If I Could Only Remember My Name featured a Who’s Who of the 70s California scene – an indication of his pivotal role in that scene and the respect in which his peers held him.

Now in his seventies he has produced his first solo album in literally decades. He had no record deal and had to self-release the album. It is full of touches that will be familiar to CSN fans: Lots of harmonies, a bit of hippy philosophising, typical harmonically complex, jazzy chords and shifting time signatures. Which is playing to his strengths and staying in recognisable Crosby territory.

But it’s also a very contemporary record. There’s a lot of trademark Crosby here, but also bought fully up to date.

In the run up to this album’s release Crosby said that he was looking to challenge himself, to not make an easy, commercial record but to make the record he wanted to make. In fact by following his instincts Crosby actually took care of the other concerns too because this album has been by far his best seller for years. His voice is still in good shape – maybe a little less resonant than it once was, but he still has accuracy, a good range and strength across that range. The core performers here are Crosby (who plays very little guitar and concentrates on singing), producer, keyboard player and electronics whiz James Raymond and guitarist Marcus Eaton. Members of the Crosby, Stills and Nash touring band also appear. There are two notable guest appearances from guitarist Mark Knopfler and noted jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and both of them make a telling contribution on the track on which they each appear.

James Raymond’s work with synthesizers and samplers is impressive and is a large part of the sound of this album. He’s very good, not just as a player but as a sort of sonic magician, and sometimes deceptive. I was wondering who played those tasty pedal steel licks against Knopfler’s guitar on that opening track. Well it turns out to be a “virtual pedal steel” played by Raymond.

Elsewhere he uses guitar samples to play very convincing “guitar” parts on his samplers. He conjures up an exciting and novel sound from a synthesizer under the guitar solo at the end of “The Clearing” to propel that track to it’s conclusion. He makes very intelligent use of the technology and the musical effect is usually satisfying – even if you know it’s not the real instrument.

A striking aspect of the songs here is the absence of the anger and hippy paranoia that marked several songs he cut in his prime. There’s nothing here like “Long Time Gone” or “Almost Cut My Hair” or “What Are Their Names” (the last from the aforementioned first solo album). Instead we get the opening lines of “Time I Have

People do so many things that make me mad
But angry isn’t how I want to spend what time I have

He hasn’t – on the strength of these lyrics – abandoned all his 60s ideals, but there is a mellowing though perhaps not resignation.

In several cases the interest in the songs is harmonic rather than melodic. I was tempted to bracket the compositions on this album as the sort of new-agey thing that a lot of hot-shot acoustic players come out with or that rock musicians who have “grown up” and want to start fooling with jazz find themselves drawn too. These are not necessarily complements in my book. But there’s always been this side to Crosby, he walked down this musical road a long time ago, so it’s not like he’s embraced some popular ideal. Indeed he was busy with the jazzy chords and the harmonic intrigues before they became more common in rock circles.

And a lot of the time it WORKS, not least because of the strength and precision of the musical backing. A couple of tracks drag on repeated listens – EG “If She Called” (which is cut from the same cloth as “Guinevere”) and “Holding Onto Nothing” which is partly redeemed by a fine trumpet solo by Wynton Marsalis (the sort of playing that is all about the timing and spacing of notes rather than notes per second – and that is a complement in my book).

Overall it’s a strong record – and it’s typical without being too predictable or safe. Very nice sounding too with clarity and a good dynamic range that allows it some breathing room.

He shows that there’s life after fame and after giving up so many trappings of the hippy dream (City life and the depersonalisation it can bring seems to be one of the recurring themes of the record) he still has the drive and the ability to make a new record rather than just continue playing CSNY hits to well heeled baby boomer audiences hungry and willing to pay for nostalgia. Maybe it wasn’t all a fad, maybe some people really lived it and maybe there’s still a hope that the dream can come true.

Waterson:Carthy – Holy Heathens And The Old Green Man (2006)

I always listen to this in the middle of the calendar year. When it’s time for music festivals in the long days up north, it’s short days and cold weather here in the south. Johannesburg is a mile above sea level, and whilst we might argue about exactly how cold it is there’s no doubting that it’s cold.

This album is mostly, but not entirely, songs that have some connection to Winter or to the solstice or to Christmas (if you wish to differentiate between the two). Mostly but not entirely they’re traditional songs that have been passed down through the ages and whose ultimate origin is now uncertain. Things can be deceptive (although there is no deceit). There’s a song to St George whose lyrics and tune seem to drip with tradition, but it’s a contemporary song, written by one of the greats of English folk music, and a repeated collaborator with Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick. Some of the Christmas songs are rooted in the apocryphal gospels or combine the gospel with pre-Christian traditions and attentive listening will reveal details that present a take on Christianity that you will not here preached in many contemporary churches.

Unmistakably modern, though informed by tradition, is “Jack Frost”, a tribute to the “master craftsman” who leaves his chilly work on the windows in the English winter. It’s very well sung by Eliza Carthy, and written by her uncle Mike Waterson.

Sometimes the meaning of a song is a bit uncertain. In his typically excellent and enlightening liner notes Martin Carthy admits to puzzlement about the opening track – an old New Year carol  – and especially the repeating line “residue sing residue”. He argues that on some levels it doesn’t matter, and really here it doesn’t because it’s such a marvellous performance, rich with the joy that the Waterson family take in simply singing. They added to the lyrics, but clearly this was always about the solstice rather than about Christmas.

The vocals are very much too the fore here, and several songs are a capella with the core band being augmented by three newer names from the surprisingly vital English folk scene – Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley.

Typically English, I think, and rich with old-fashioned (but not ancient) Christianity is “Time To Remember  The Poor”. “Residue” is one song from this album that I love and find topical at this time of year, and “Time To Remember The Poor” is the other – though it goes on to remind us that even when the weather warms up the poor are still with us. It’s marvellously sung in a very English choral style.

As with the previous Waterson:Carthy album that I commented on, this one closes with a baptist hymn, this one titled “Gloryland”. I am struck by how much richer these old hymns are than the modern praise and worship music – it’s not just pop that is getting more simplistic. The tune and lyrics are far richer. Eliza Carthy delivers one of my favourite vocal performances. But more than anything else this album presents again the special magic of the extended Waterson family. Nobody else makes the business of making music sound so joyous.

Waterson:Carthy – Common Tongue (1997)

Two of the leading lights of the English folk music scene in the 1960s were singer and guitarist Martin Carthy and the singing Waterson family. Carthy and the Watersons both embraced and loved the traditional English folk canon, but in both cases their presentation of those songs owed as much to themselves as to tradition.

The Watersons concentrated on the folk songs of their native East Yorkshire, but their harmonies were completely their own and stemmed from their own imaginations and from a practice of finding a key for each song that none of them could quite manage for the entirety of the song, thus forcing them to deviate from the bottom line melody and find new harmonies.

Carthy adopted the vocal style of Norfolk fishermen, but his guitar playing style was unique. He developed alongside the revolution in British folk guitar that began with Davy Graham and the DADGAD guitar tuning, but developed along different lines. He never embraced DADGAD, saying that he couldn’t come to terms with it, and developed a different tuning scheme of his own and pursued his own vision of the instrument. Nobody plays guitar like Martin Carthy does, and in the unlikely event that those songs were first sung with guitar for accompaniment, you can bet that the arrangements were nothing like Carthy’s.

Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy married in 1972 and Carthy became a member of the Watersons performing lineup.

Various forces slowly ate away at the Watersons and these days there is no act with that name and Norma is the sole remaining original Waterson. But Norma and Martin’s daughter Eliza Carthy is a talented player and singer in her own right, and at some point Waterson:Carthy emerged – built around a core trio of Martin, Norma and Eliza. With Martin and Eliza maintaining parallel solo careers.

In 2008 I saw Martin Carthy play in a pub basement in London. I’d head much about him over the years but had little idea of his music. I was blown away – at times it felt literally so – by the passion of his performance and by his unique guitar style. And his guitar SOUND, rich and ringing.

Then in 2010 I saw a one-night show titled A Night Of Political Song. Martin Carthy was on the bill that night, and so were his wife and daughter.

On the tube out to the South Bank Center I was pondering the matter of song and politics and thinking that maybe governments were sometimes a bit too scaredy cat about political song. After all, they’re just songs, right?

Maybe 20 minutes into that show Norma Waterson was helped onto the stage. Clearly not in good health, she had to use a walking stick and sat down to perform. She started singing a Thathcher-era mining strike song “Coal Not Dole” and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. By the time she was done with that song I wanted to run out of the hall, make a placard and join a picket line.

And I understood exactly how potent a force a song could be.

Norma Waterson sang five songs that night. I will treasure the memory for ever. In a company that included her husband, he daughter, a crack band, Tom Robinson and my main man Richard Thompson she shone brightest of all. A superb performance. On one song she duetted with daughter Eliza and they put on a stunning display of vocal skills – but it felt like they did so more out of the sheer joy of singing rather than just showing off. Like her husband she showed an amazing ability to connect to the story in a song and deliver it to the audience, and like her husband when she presented a song from another century she didn’t treat it like a museum piece but presented it as a vibrant, vigorous living thing.

They didn’t confine themselves to their nominal territory that night. Norma started with a song written in the 1980s and also performed the American pop song from yesteryear “Buddy Can You Spare A Dime” (which got the then government and big business very worked up and was forced off of the radio stations). In my experience the greatest “folk” musicians are not snobbish or narrow in what they will perform. I have a Martin Carthy CD on which the grand old man of “folk” performs Heartbreak Hotel and a Bee Gees song.

On this album, though, and by design, Waterson:Carthy confine themselves to traditional English songs.

The musicianship is top notch. Are there people who think that “folk” music is all about a few strummed chords and maybe a blues lick or two? If so then think again! Eliza and Martin, with the help of accordionist Saul Rose display considerable skill and invention here.

There is an instrumental medley on which Eliza puts her fiddle chops on display – and they are mighty – and Martin demonstrates the great rhythmic drive that he can deliver. Martin’s guitar part on “Claudy Banks” (beautifully sung by Eliza) is wonderful, and a text book example of a part that nobody else could have conceived or executed. Eliza gets most of the soloing space, and her playing has a lovely, singing tone and that same joyous feel to it that was a trademark of the Watersons vocal style.

The album kicks off with “Ramble Away”, a song about an inconstant, wandering seducer. As Martin Carthy points out in typically excellent liner notes the character in the song does not disguise what he is – indeed he advertises it. It is the ladies that fall for him and then just fall. It’s in waltz time with a great melody that Norma Waterson has fun with. Eliza adds ornamentation and Martin’s guitar carries it all.

Martin also gets his mandolin out, giving “Rackabello” a great rhythm part. He sings, Norma and Eliza provide the backing vocals and Eliza syncopates outrageously in her solos. There is no percussion at all, but the rhythmic punch of the performance will get your toe tapping and thoughts of dancing should not be ruled out.

Throughout the performances are top class, as should be expected given the experience and reputation (and it is not hype) of the core trio. And they leave perhaps the best for last.

Norma’s brother Mike and sister Lal, both retired from touring by this time (but still alive), and Mike’s daugher Eleanor combine with Waterson:Carthy for an acapella performance of an old baptist hymn “Stars In My Crown”. It’s a wonderful, rich performance that is simultaneously authentic and sophisticated and gives us a taste of the trademark Waterson vocal style.

Martin, Eliza and Norma are members of a remarkable musical family that should be regarded as a national treasure in England. Their history and catalog is complex, large and sometimes obscure, but very well worth exploring. There are other musical familes – some well known, others less so – but I would venture that none of them make the business of making music sound as joyous as the extended Waterson family do. Common Tongue is a fine album, and because it looks forward to the future (now the “now”, in which Norma has retired and Martin and Eliza have recorded a duo album) and also back to the hey days of the Watersons serves as a fine starting point for anybody who wants to explore their remarkable body of music.

John Hiatt – Bring The Family (1987)

In 1987 Hiatt seemed to have a good future behind him after years of respect from his peers that didn’t translate into sales and a drinking habit that had caused him to get on the wrong side of a lot of people. But he still had his supporters, and a small independent label in the UK promised him some money if he wanted to record again. Sober but plagued with self doubt, Hiatt was convinced by eventual producer John Chelew that his new songs were strong and the small budget was spent on one of these sessions that legends are made of.

There was enough money to give Hiatt and a small band just four days in which to make a record. But Hiatt still had his admirers and the small band was mighty indeed – Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Lowe took no payment for the sessions and he and Hiatt had to share a motel room. Hiatt didn’t even have enough material to make a record – he had to write some in the studio. Thus there are no out takes, no left over tracks that will flesh out a de luxe reissue CD release. Maybe this is a good thing – it’s hard to see how you could add to this record without diluting the magic. Everything was rehearsed in the studio and then laid down with minimum fuss and little overdubbing.

Bring The Family was Hiatt’s biggest seller by far to that point in his career, and thereafter sales would be respectable and his reputation as a songwriter and a performer was assured. The record that he’d made when he’d thought his career was as good as over turned his career around. A&M eventually picked up the finished disc and were able to add some marketing muscle. Many of the songs on this album have been covered by other artists (from Bill Frisell to Bon Jovi), notably the Barry White influenced “Have a Little Faith In Me” and “Thing Called Love” which was included on Bonnie Raitt’s big selling Nick Of Time album that marked her own career turn around. The royalties would have done Hiatt’s finances no harm at all.

I know it’s Hiatt’s record, but it has to be said that Cooder turns in the performance of a life time. His parts are sympathetic, inventive, wonderfully executed. There’s his riff on “Thing Called Love” which Bonnie Raitt and her band could neither replicate nor match. There’s the spine chilling slide intro on “Alone In The Dark”. He rocks real hard on “Thank You Girl”. He constantly delivers what each song needs. And there’s his tone – rich with the sound of an overdriven amp. Legend has it that he spent years trying to recreate the sound he got on this album.

With everything effectively live in the studio because of time constraints Hiatt’s vocals are packed with passion. His signature vocal style sits at an intersection of soul and country. His voice is strong and clear, his delivery electric. Best of all is his hair raising performance on the stripped down soul song “Have A Little Faith In Me”. It’s a magical take – just Hiatt and the piano and a big bag of genuine emotion. It marked the end of side one. You flipped the record and there’s Cooder kicking off “Thank You Girl”.

The material is strong. Hiatt’s craftsmanship is peaking here and this may be the finest set of songs that he recorded. The lyrics are sharp, the melodies strong. Add in his own vocal performance, one star turn after another by the band (Keltner is superb – repeatedly demonstrating why he’s been an in demand drummer for decades) and an unobtrusive production by Chelew who doesn’t try to gild the lily or bow to 80s recording fashions and it’s a magical, perfect album, characterised by it’s live-in-studio spark.

This is one of my desert island discs. A record that long ago captivated me with it’s passion and it’s craftsmanship. I can shut my eyes any time and recall nearly every note and word of it. Despite it being so burned into my memory I never tire of it. It always delights, and I can’t imagine that it will ever do anything else.

Thoughts on dodgy practices

Something that has struck me about the current goings on involving FIFA is how things that weren’t made clear in real time are suddenly being trotted out, and how everybody is concerned about ethics AFTER the fact.

We see this a lot with big business (and, to be fair, some small businesses I can think of). They are always concerned about the fire once the smoke is proven to have it’s origins in actual flames. They talk about how lighting such fires is not something they encourage or stand for and how they’re going to find out what happened and who made it happen and see that it doesn’t happen again.

What they too often don’t do is try to make sure the fire doesn’t get lit in the first place. The ethics always seem to come into play after the fact.

The 1997 Formula 1 World Championship went down to the last race of the season, and was settled when Michael Schumacher, driving for Ferrari, tried to ram Jacques Villeneuve, driving for Williams, off the track. Schumacher and Villeneuve were the two drivers still in contention. Schumacher was one point ahead, and if they both finished out of the points (or didn’t finish at all) then he would be champion. Schumacher misjudged in more ways than one and he crashed out whilst Villeneuve’s car was wounded but continued. Villeneuve slowed down and surrendered the race lead to ensure that he bought his damaged car home. He finished third,  thus scoring enough points to secure the championship.

In the aftermath of these shenanigans, Ferrari went on the offensive and claimed that Williams had collaborated with another team, McLaren, to fix the result of the race and thus the championship. This, of course, overlooked that their own driver had tried a very different method of forcing a result.

Also the thin evidence they produced could only have come about through subterfuge. They would have had to monitor and decrypt the Williams radio communications – which was against the sporting regulations and a criminal offence in the country in which the race took place.

Now, this monitoring and unscrambling was a common practice in F1 that year, legal or not. It was one of those things that everybody knew was going on but which was very hard to prove actually happened. Ferrari, in complaining as they did carelessly confirmed that this practice was going on in at least one garage.

One of the senior Williams engineers was asked during an interview if he knew that their radio communications were being monitored. He said that they did.

He was asked if they did the same, after all didn’t EVERYBODY do it?

He said no. He said that teams that did that did it because they could gain an advantage and were unlikely to get caught, but the Williams team didn’t do it. And the reason that they didn’t do it was that before every season Frank Williams would call in all the senior management and tell them that he didn’t care what anybody else did, certain things are not on even if they are commonplace, and his team doesn’t go racing that way. So, the engineer continued, nobody was even going to suggest such practices to Frank Williams because the likely response was that they’d be shown the door.

Remember that this is a very rich sport, where the difference between first and second in the championship, or second and third, can be worth millions of dollars. But Frank Williams was still not going to cheat even if he knew the chance of being caught was low and even if it might cost him money and championship position.

I admire Frank Williams for that, and I wish more people were pro-active rather than reactive about ethics.

If Sepp Blatter, or the guys at the top of the ANC, or the CEOs of some listed companies I can think of (including one I used to work for) had laid down these moral markers up front instead of expressing puzzlement and concern after the event, there would be a lot less fires to put out.

VM Bhatt and various others – A Meeting By The River (1993 – with Ry Cooder), Bourbon And Rosewater (1995 – With Jerry Douglas and Edgar Myer), Tabula Rasa (1996 – with Bela Fleck and Jie-Bing Chen)

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is the leading exponent and inventor of the Mohan veena – a modfifed lap steel guitar with twenty strings, twelve of them sympathetic. A student of Ravi Shankar he somehow ended up founding a school of Indian lap steel guitar playing.

In the early 90s Bhatt hooked up with the American Water Lily boutique label and started making records for them. Early on he started collaborating with musicians from other genres and I have three of the resulting albums.

The first, and it was a significant boost for his profile in the West, was with Ry Cooder. Legend has it that the two of them met, jammed and recorded an album in one day. (This album also seems to have kicked off a phase in Cooder’s career during which he put his solo works on hold and operated in a collaborative mode – usually outside of his trademark styles – or as a sideman.)

The record sounds terrific. Spacious but accurate and intimate, the acoustic instruments sounding full and rich and with great dynamic range. And it’s not rehearsed to death (how could it be?) with umpteen cuts of every part polished to perfection. So there’s a spark to this music as well, the sort of energy that comes from spontaneity. It sounds alive and living.

It’s just four longish cuts that would have made up an old vinyl long player. Three of them are jointly credited and the fourth is a Hawaiian hymn “Isa Lei”. The latter is the only track on which Cooder is the dominant voice. Everywhere else he takes a lower key role, playing with outstanding empathy, clearly keeping any self-indulgent tendencies he may have in check, and showing considerable breadth of technique and imagination. OK… so he DOES shine, but not obviously.

Bhatt contributes some astonishing solos and his instrument, with drones and sympathetic strings, produces a clear but rich sound.

This is not the most structured music you will ever hear, and it rambles a little at times with the two players audibly trying to figure each other out, but when it clicks it really is something. For me the outstanding track is “Ganges Delta Blues” with a potent blues riff underlying the fireworks and Joachim Cooder doing a very simpatico job on percussion.

In 1994 Bhatt teamed up with the modern American great of lap steel guitar, Jerry Douglas. Douglas has a multi-faceted career as a producer, star Nashville session player, sideman to Allison Krauss and recording artist both in his own right and on a bewildering array of collaborative projects He is nominally one of the “new acoustic” generation of players who emerged in the 70s and used bluegrass as a launching pad for explorations into other musical territories. So he’s a prime candidate for this sort of project.

It’s more structured than the album made with Cooder. More, shorter tracks. And more obviously equal as well with both men sharing the spotlight. Douglas deploys his trademark speed and Bhatt is well up to the challenge. They both step out of their nominal comfort zones (though with top players things like “genre” are often just convenient labels for record companies and stores to use for filing and categorising purposes). “Gypsies From Rajasthan” starts off in a flamenco mode before the two players take the tune elsewhere.

The remarkable double bass player Edgar Meyer appears on several tracks and he’s excellent every time. Meyer is another player with the combination of supreme chops and breadth of musical vision. His contributions often slip and slide to mesh with the two lap steels, nowhere better than his solo on “Resurrection”. He adds a low, growling arco (bowed) part to :”Many Miles From Home”.

I suppose one of the points of these cross-genre collaborations is to highlight commonalities and parallels in the different musics but also the contrasts. This album does that well whilst also allowing the two principle players their own voices. The album concludes with two solo pieces that allow Bhatt and Douglas to display their skills and their trademark styles. These are the two least interesting tracks on the album, despite the excellence of the playing.

I was looking forward to Tabula Rasa because of the great things I’ve heard from Bela Fleck. They team up with Jie-Bing Chen who plays the erhu, a Chinese two-string fiddle.

Fleck is the glue here, with both Chen and Bhatt sitting out on occasion. The playing is great, and the combination of sounds is very different from the other two albums which are really East/West slide summits.

But there are problems. The material is thin. The best tracks are Fleck’s, but he doesn’t have enough to go around. And too often it doesn’t sound like an integration of different styles but like they’ve been just laid on top of each other, like Chen and Bhatt came in separately and overdubbed on top of some Fleck tracks. The old American folk song “John Hardy” is included here, and it demonstrates the problem – Bhatt just repeats the melody instead of using it as a starting point for something more interesting and inventive. Nowhere do they play with attack and punch and attitude that made the Cooder/Bhatt record work so well.

The early 1980s saw the emergence of “world music” as a means of bracketing and marketing to western audiences music that didn’t fit into the usual pigeon holes like “prog”, “be bop”, “soul”, “bluegrass” and so on (though we’d become used to reggae by then). The point (or a point) was that great music with attitude and energy and a spark to it happened all over the world, that the world of music was much broader than we’d thought.

Bhatt is the kind of guy that “world music” was about: A highly skilled musician who was carving out a substantial career in a territory that was right off of Western radars. So albums like those we’ve examined here can serve as door ways to new musical worlds for those who are tired of the increasingly commoditised mainstream rock or just have a curiosity about the wider world of music.

By any standards Bhatt is a formidable musician, and after the Cooder collaboration curious western musicians with an interest in steel guitar and an inclination to expand their musical palette started seeking him out (I suppose this is similar to 60s rock and folk players seeking out the likes of Gary Davis). Certainly there is much that is interesting and worthwhile to be found by examining the work of such players.

These three albums then can open doors and all offer top notch playing. But the first one, the one that Bhatt cut with Cooder (who increasingly is revealing himself as a musican of skill, power and vision) is the one to go for by virtue of it’s sound and vitality.