Little Feat – Waiting For Columbus (recorded 1977)

Little Feat were one of the most interesting bands of the seventies. They had an element of classic (as it became) Southern rock a la Allmans to them, but they also incorporated other American sounds into their mix – funk, New Orleans boogie woogie, gospel, a bit of country. A similar approach to The Band, I suppose, but drawing on a more contemporary version of Americana. They sold tolerably well at the time without ever seeming to crack the big time and despite touring consistently and building a reputation as a live act.

This live album, acclaimed on it’s release as one of the finest ever of that type, comes at a cusp in their career. The band had six albums to their name and thus depth in material. They were at the top of their game as a live act and starting to expand their sound in interesting directions.

But founder and erstwhile kingpin (also principle songwriter and singer and distinctive slide guitarist) Lowell George was starting to resent the way that keyboard player Bill Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere were asserting themselves and trying to steer the band in a jazzier direction. He was starting to feel less than central to what had been his own band.

Simultaneously (more or less) other band members fell out with George and/or his attitude and his desire to release records under his own name (which would mean questions about whether Feat were getting his best material).

Reportedly there are live bootlegs from this period in which drummer Richie Hayward can be heard changing the lyrics of the chorus of the trucker’s anthem “Willin’” from “I’ll be willin’” to “I’ll be fucked up” – an on-stage needling of the one-time El Supremo. Maybe a bit of unhappiness and angst does make for good music.

You can fill in with your own pet theory about discontent as a driver of strong art. Certainly the the tensions within the band seemed to fuel them for a short while before pulling them apart.

This though is not readily apparent listening to this live disc. They sound very together, very unified. There have been suggestions over the years that George would leave the stage for the newer material that, so the suggestions continue, he didn’t care for and in wich he had no part to play. but on the basis of this album I don’t buy that. You can always hear him playing.

That said the album is not entirely unvarnished, and there’s a debate to be had as to exactly how “live” it is. Certainly George redid most of his vocals later on in the studio and some of the guitar tracks were touched up. But all of this is underpinned by the energy and excitement of the live performance.

I’m not singling out Little Feat here, by the way. Several allegedly live albums have a degree of re-recording or editing. There were many claims and counterclaims about how “live” Thin Lizzy’s famous live album was. Frank Zappa often blurred the line between “live” and “in studio”. And many bands these play to a click track. Pre-recorded parts are not unheard of (nor unheard) – how do you think U2 reproduce their studio recordings so completely with just four of them on stage? There’s a continuum with absolutely unaided, unedited live performance at one end and imitative nightclub singers performing to canned backing tracks at the other. Joan Armatrading’s recent tour was advertised as “solo” with some small print explaining that some use would be made of pre-recorded backing tracks at certain points in the show.

I’ll leave you to decide exactly where on that line you drive a peg into the ground and say “no further”, but there’s a school of thought that still finds practical application that says that the way to make a great record is have the band lay down the basic tracks live and then overdub solos and vocals. The idea being that the excitement and natural slight advances and retardations of tempo will permeate what ever gets overlaid and thus result in a more natural sounding, more exciting record. There have even been cases of cutting to the chase and simply recording the new material live on stage (EG Joe Jackson’s Big World album).

You certainly get extra excitement here. Nearly all of the band’s key songs are performed, but with an extra kick up the jacksy and some extended arrangements. Little Feat had previously used the excellent Tower of Power horn section on records, and for this tour they had them on stage as well. This fattened up the sound and extended the possibilities, and they cleverly take advantage of the extra firepower yet leave the songs recognizable and essentially intact. So “Dixie Chicken” breaks down in the middle and hands over to a dixieland horn arrangement and Payne’s New Orleans style piano; George’s slide guitar solo on “Mercenary Territory” gets extra wings courtesy of the horns.

What I particularly enjoyed about this album is the band’s great feel for dynamics – which is only heightened by the horn arrangements. They don’t overplay, which means they always have a gas pedal to stomp on for effect when needed. In particular George and Barrere integrate their guitars well and often hang back a bit and let the unflagging rhythm section and the always excellent Payne carry proceedings. Even when they solo it’s seldom wig out time – especially George whose slide solos burn slowly but are well constructed and unerringly effective.

Payne gets in some big solos and they’re always full of interesting twists and turns, light and shade. When he uses his synthesizer he manages to avoid both the pop-corny sounds that often came out of synths in the seventies and the cheesy imitations of other instruments. It’s a rich, thrilling sound – his own, not an imitation of something else. His solo on the opening “Fat Man In The Bath Tub” makes great use of the synth, builds to a thrilling climax and provides real excitement and power very early on.

They strike a balance: Well worked out and rehearsed on one the one hand (the horns come in on cue every time – which means there are cues – but not polished to the point of boring shininess. They left the edges on the music.

I’ve had various Feat albums on vinyl and tape over the years, and I couldn’t tell you where any of them are now (and I really liked The Last Record Album) but as I said, unless you’re a completist, (a sad species that I can’t take a pot shot at because I am one myself, just not a Feat completist) this is all the Feat you need – the best performances of their best songs. Forget any “greatest hits” type compilations, it’s all here and with the excitement dial turned up beyond the studio albums.

Waiting For Columbus, then, is a document of Little Feat at a high water mark. The band is sure-footed and well integrated. They know what they’re about and they know how to do it and they’re still excited by it. They play with authority and confidence and vitality. But in this case the high water analogy is a better than usual fit because the tide was about to turn.

Feat didn’t last long after this tour. Waiting For Columbus  was released in 1978. By mid ’79 they had broken up (Payne walked out after a show down with George) leaving an unfinished album behind.  Two weeks later George, on the road to support his solo album, died in a hotel room. The remaining members finished the aborted album (released as Down On The Farm) and then called it a day. They reconvened a decade or so later with other players filling in for George, but they never again sounded as exciting and compelling as they do here.

 

PS: The work done in the studio was always to repair, never to add. The decision was taken to not add anything that wasn’t on stage. So there are REPLACED vocals but no EXTRA vocals.

PPS: There are different versions of this available with different running sequences. I’ve got the Rhino re-issue which seems to take the original double vinyl and swap what would have been sides two and three. This makes for a fine build up to a horn enriched “Spanish Moon” before the laid back valediction of “Willin'” and then the encores. But it has a number of bonus tracks that are interesting but also out of sequence. You can save money by buying the original set on iTunes – it’s cheaper than the re-issue and you can easily reshuffle the tracks. It must be said though that the physical Rhino set has better packaging with worthwhile liner notes.

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Bela Fleck – Perpetual Motion (2001) / Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer – Music For Two (2001)

I’m a song guy (or that’s what I think). I tend to think that if you have a good SONG (must have lyrics) then that’s hard to beat. I enjoy songs with clever or evocative (or both!) lyrics. I love Richard Thompson’s mid 90s output for the quality of his lyrics (sure, the guitar playing helps – but the lyrics on Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us? are very attractive to me).

Last night I saw Russ Barenberg play an hour long solo set of instrumentals. I thought it would be hard work for me, but it wasn’t really. And he talked between songs about looking for things other than lyrics to hang onto.

And this is what I’m increasingly finding – different musics have to be appreciated in different ways. (So you knew this donkeys years ago. So I’m a slow starter. At least I started).

I don’t think it’s a binary thing either. It’s not a case of “words” or “no words”. The “no words” stuff has multiple possible attractions.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to a couple of albums by Bela Fleck – and he’s not famous for his lyrics (or even despite them). What did I find to enjoy?

There are similarities between the two: The hugely talented and very versatile bassist Edgar Meyer has significant involvement on both; and both albums have lots of formal, classical pieces.

Indeed Perpetual Motion is all classical pieces, and Fleck teams up with some big names from the world of classical music – most notably Joshua Bell and John Williams (not the soundtrack guy, the ace classical guitarist). But he has guests from other musical postal codes too. He opens the album with another player with prodigous skills and who emerged from but never confined himself to the world of bluegrass – Chris Thile. They team up , banjo and mandolin, on a piece written for keyboard instruments. The playing is impressive in all the technical ways; Consistency, speed, accuracy., clarity.

If there’s anybody still hanging on to the notion that the banjo is a hick’s instrument (you always get one) then they should listen to Fleck in this sort of mode. Or consider the broad stylistic arc of Fleck’s output.

Meyer joins this dynamic duo for one of Bach’s “Three Part Inventions” and let’s just say that he’s not overshadowed. Indeed throughout this album the playing is of the highest quality.

Chopin’s “Etude in C# Minor” has Fleck playing with great speed and accuracy, but also great verve. Like much of this album the piece sounds like it was written for the banjo even though it quite obviously was not. Indeed, this impression is quite consistent – these are compositions for piano, for violin, for classical pieces written by men who probably never saw or heard a banjo. Yet it all fits and sounds so natural. This is partly due to Fleck’s remarkable instrumental skills, but also, I feel, to the arrangements which are by Fleck and Meyer.

The one exception is the closing track – Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” (also the title track) on which is Fleck is joined – as player and as arranger – by Bryan Sutton, one of Bluegrass’s finest flat pick guitar players. Here they make a classical piece sound like it was conceived as a bluegrass show piece, and Sutton’s solo is jaw dropping.

It’s also the one piece that seems to invite us to admire it for something other than superb technical musicianship and skilful arrangements – though this album makes a case that those qualities are not without their attraction.

Perpetual Motion was released on Sony’s classical imprint (and Grammy nominated in various classical categories) and the recording has the hallmarks of a classical recording with a natural sound and good dynamic range. I found it interesting that there’s very little listener fatigue resulting from repeated listens – even on earbuds. (for an insight into the problems with compression on modern recordings click here)

After Perpetual Motion Fleck and Meyer hit the road with a show that mixed their own compositions with classical pieces and also some interesting covers. The shows were recorded and the album that emerged from this is Music For Two.

Like some other Fleck albums I had it sounds like a dubious proposition at first glance (err…). This is a live album by two guys who play banjo and double bass.

The combination of the two instruments works brilliantly, though the skills of the two players help to make that happen. Listen to the two of them on their co-composition “Pile-up”. An intriguing composition erupts into an outrageous Fleck solo. Then Meyer gets going… the power these two acoustic instrumentalists can unleash is considerable.

They also take on a Miles Davis composition – “Solar” – and they are fully up to this jazzy challenge.

There are several classical pieces too – many of them from the pen of Bach – but there’s no overlap with Perpetual Motion .

Their breadth and confidence is striking. They play with great precision and discipline on the classical pieces. They improvise joyously on the originals. They even execute a humorous composition that relies on a recording of a cell phone (NOT on silent, as protocol demands at classical concerts) for the running joke. They make it all work, and, again nothing sounds contrived – it is all made to fit perfectly on the two instruments.

Well, I say “two” but they both double up – Meyer on piano and Fleck on guitar. And wouldn’t you know it – they’re pretty damn good on those instruments too. Fleck the banjo player need not lie awake at night worrying about Fleck the guitarist, but that’s because on Banjo he is untouchable whilst on guitar he’s merely very good.

This album is rich with the sheer joy of doing remarkable things – though it’s not a showy off, vain sort of joy. They exult in the playing and take us along with them.

So there are some of the joys of non-rock instrumental music (indeed rock, especially with a capital R, is a bit too straight faced to try to crack a joke), and they are not inflexible. It’s like swooping swifts in the summer, or a top notch athlete producing something out of the ordinary. But you can carry it around on a smart phone and get your kicks on a train.

Fleck is one of the most remarkable, imaginative musicians on the planet. These two discs are a fine place to start with Fleck, or for getting to grips with acoustic instrumental music. And I would not bet against them being great places to revisit.

Various Artists – The Joy Of Living – A Tribute To Ewan MacColl (2015)

null Ewan MacColl was (amongst other things) a performer, recording artist and a prolific songwriter, but he seems to have been a little coy about recording his own compositions. He loved the traditional folk canon, the songs that have lived on after the origins and authors have been forgotten. He hoped that he might write one song that would burn itself into the collective memory and live on long after him.

It might well still happen.

2015 marks the MacColl centenary, and his family have overseen this project to mark the occasion. They invited performers that they knew and/or admired to record the old man’s songs.

I’d never really got to grips with MacColl, though I’d certainly been aware of him. I knew a few of his songs – indeed there is one MacColl song that everybody knows – but also his reputation as a curmudgeonly, inflexible boss of the English folk song revival.

This album reminds me of the night I saw Norma Waterson perform. I’d heard so much about her over the years and if you’d asked me I’d have said that she couldn’t possibly live up to her reputation. But she did, and it was a thrill to see reality match the legend.

So it is with this album: Now that I’ve HEARD MacColl rather than just heard of him I’m happy to report that he really was a great songwriter (and not just a great POLITICAL songwriter) and the reality has again equalled the myth.

Two things struck me on first listen: Many of the songs are not overt socialist protests (MacColl was watched by the powers that be from early on because of his communist leanings), and the melodies are strong, and sometimes more than that. The best songs here are dazzling, and the overall standard is high.

The performances are pretty good too for the most part. There are a couple of unexpected clunkers from two famously political performers Steve Earle (“Dirty Old Town”, perhaps MacColl’s second best known song) and Billy Bragg (“Kilroy Was Here”). In both cases the performances are too unsympathetic, too harsh. But other than that…

Rufus and Martha Wainwright team up on the gorgeous “Sweet Thames Flow Softly” that places an expression of love and passion into a thoroughly English setting (“At London Yard I took her hand , at Blackwall Point I faced her / At the Isle of Dogs I kissed her mouth and tenderly embraced her / Heard the bells of Greenwich ringing …”) and marries fines lyrics to a memorable melody. This song gives nothing away to the equally English and more widely lauded “Waterloo Sunset”. The Wainwrights know better than to try to gild the lily and let the romance in the words and melody speak for itself. Their harmonies, with sister Lily Lanken, are exceptional.

Chaim Tanenbaum (a long time sidekick to Rufus and Martha’s dad) also plays it straight on “My Old Man” – both a memorial to MacColl’s father and a comment on the corrosive effects of redundancy – and his understated performance makes the pathos in the song all the more effective.

A side note here is that these songs are also interesting artefacts of recent history. MacColl was born in 1915, but the world he often portrays here already seems distant and well in the past. “My old man” was “loyal to his workmates all his life / gave his pay packet to his wife”. Weekly pay in cash in little envelopes – and this was all legal, common and acceptable. How times have changed.

Seth Lakeman gets another MacColl classic with a stirring melody – “The Shoals Of Herring” – and makes the most of it without getting overly grandiose.

Many of these songs have memorable melodies that are easily learned and strong choruses. This is what arena rock tries to achieve and what folk music often serves up. These are also qualities that are useful for protest songs – you want your audience to quickly learn and embrace such songs. MacColl’s parents knew, loved and sang traditional folks songs and he clearly absorbed and learned from the richness of the traditional folk canon.

Martin Simpson does well with “The Father’s Song” which alternates effectively between the tender and the cynical (“Stop crying now, let daddy dry your tears /There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear / There’s no ogres, wicked witches / Only greedy sons-of-bitches / Who are waiting to exploit your life away”).

Then there’s the Carthies: Martin is unmistakeable and very good with “I’m Champion At Keeping Them Rolling” and Eliza gives a strong performance of a strong melody with “Thirty Foot Trailer”, one of several songs that is sympathetic towards the gypsies.

Although many of the artists would be filed under “folk” in a record store (an old-fashioned concept: they sell music on physical media) and MacColl is inextricably linked with the English folk song revival of the 50s and the 60s, the producers did not impose this restriction upon the performers. Karine Polwart delivers a thoroughly modern and convincingly chilling performance of “The Terror Time” (which deals with the way that travelling people were alternately used and then terrorised by land owners) that owes more to Peter Gabriel than to, say, Anne Briggs.

There are other examples of fine performances of fine songs, and I could go on and on. I’ll stipulate just one more – the closer and the title track (and, it would seem, a self-penned eulogy) with, (again!) a memorable melody and a moving lyric, well sung by David Gray. There really are multiple star turns here.

This album has received many strong reviews, and you should believe those reviews. For the uninitiated (like me) MacColl is revealed as a compelling and skilled songwriter.


Footnote: The MacColl song that everybody knows is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, written for and to  the great love of his life Peggy Seeger, and recorded several years later by Roberta Flack. It was a smash hit, must have been a nice little earner and won MacColl a Grammy. He couldn’t collect the award in person (assuming he’d wanted to) because he was banned from entering the USA because of his activism and political affiliations.

Ketama, Toumani Diabate and Danny Thompson – Songhai (1988)

In 2012 I went to watch Flamenco in a tiny little club in Madrid. I had pre-booked and took the supper option. This was very Spanish, including, for one course, a plate of cheese and marmalade.

Ok… big deal. Man Goes To Flamenco Show would not be a headline that would sell a lot of papers. But for me it WAS a trip into another world. The good thing about music is that there’s so much of it, so many countries or continents or, if you prefer, postal codes. And there’s always surprises and new to you countries or continents or postal codes. Earlier on that holiday we’d seen Martin Simpson in Hampshire and Spiers and Boden in Hampshire – much more up one of my more well walked musical streets.

I suppose I had an idea of something fairly formal, very well played and featuring just a couple of guitars. I had no idea. Things got interesting over supper, in fact. The club had a screen set up and were playing videos. Of “Flamenco”, but not quite what I’d expected. I recognised Paco de Lucia, but hadn’t expected to see him playing in a trio with double bass and accordion. There were fiddles in another video – playing lines that I vaguely recognised and categorised as being in Gypsy territory. It was all rather interesting – Flamenco was a bigger postal code than I’d imagined.

Then the music started. There were two sets. Each about 40 minutes, each, as far as I could see (and as I later confirmed) completely improvised with the sole guitarist following the dancers. There was singing as well. The dancers added percussion – mostly hand claps (very fast, very precise) but occasionally hitting other items. The whole thing had a wild, uninhibited edge to it that I’d not expected.

The venue did not amplify music – a factor in my chosing to go to that club – and there was a sign at the entrance asking all patrons to please keep quiet during the show (in Spanish, of course).

Fat chance! In the second set those performers cranked up the excitement until the audience could no longer contain themselves and lifted themselves and the roof.

Musicians can surprise, even if you are expecting to enjoy what you expected to hear. And Flamenco is a far wider genre than I’d imagined.

You may add as many “duhs” as you like, but I am still delighted to find my musical world expanding and full of surprises.

This 1988 album helped to expand my horizons.

Ketama are a “new Flamenco” group who were very active in the 80s. They ended up seeking a jam with Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate. Having accomplished this goal they started planning a recording session. Joe Boyd wanted the project for his Hannibal label, agreed to co-produce and brought on board the remarkable – and remarkably versatile – double bass player Danny Thompson.

The big thrill for me here was to finally get around to listening to Diabate. He’s remarkable. He repeatedly plays rapid-fire, complex parts with great attack and unflagging accuracy.

Indeed the levels of musicianship are high throughout. This album offers no reason for me to modify my judgement that Danny Thompson, despite what HE says (and what does he know?) is one of the finest players on any instrument anywhere.

Ketama are right up there too with a ferocious attack, great rhythm and great rhythm playing with the very fast right hands that all good flamenco players have.

So we’ve a spanish gypsy quartet playing with an English bassist and a Malian kora player. Describe it like that and it sounds like it has considerable potential to be a mess – but it isn’t.

There’s a musicological theory that much Western music is rooted in styles introduced during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsular. It’s easy to imagine another branch sprouting from the same roots in West Africa. So there’s some common musical language between the Malian and the Spaniards involved in this album (which maybe why Ketama sought out Diabate) and with the inventive and versatile Thomopson on bass everything comes together in a pleasing and natural way. Diabate’s parts are striking but also don’t sound out of place or like they’re superimposed over the Spanish compositions. Or vice versa when it’s a Diabate composition – Ketama don’t sound out of place, the partnerships never sound forced.

Throughout there’s a real sense of joy throughout: The joy of coming together and making exultant music at a high level. This is always attractive, and generally a sign that the players involved are of a high calibre.

So this was a way for me to stake out some new musical territory. One of the joys for music lovers in this day and age when so much music is so easily available is that you can extend your borders in many directions – including some that you may not have known about, or that you had hoped for and are happy to have confirmed.