Sunday, 30 September 2012

Toronto Tim Says: Memphis and Stars

It's been a while but here I turn over the page to Toronto Tim who's waxing lyrical about two Canadian bands:

MEMPHIS - Here Comes A City
STARS - The North
(Canadian, eh?)

MEMPHIS is one of a number of growing side-projects of Canadian indie electro-pop band STARS' Torquil Campbell. Recently interviewed on CBC Campbell joked that he's hoping to earn 50K a year if he can find 5 or 6 more side projects. This time he's joined by his longtime friend, NYC Central Park carousel operator/actor Chris Dumont

"Here Comes A City" is the band's latest offering. 
Campbell often cites Prefab Sprout and the Go-Betweens as musical heroes, so it's not surprising the album title is a nod to a song by The Go-Betweens. I must say my expectations for this CD were mediocre given the good but uneven electronic and jazzy excursions of previous Memphis releases. However here those inclinations have been somewhat shelved in favour of well-crafted melodic pop delights mixed with just the right touch of darker lyrical ambiguity. Lush guitar jangle, swirling strings, subtle pedal steel swoop throughout the tracks creating a blissfully dreamy atmosphere. 
It's hard not to like this. 

On another note... Stars' have a brand new release "The North". Their last CD, 2010's "The Five Ghosts" was a disappointing mess, but this is a one is a nice return to form. Wearing their influences on their sleeves more than ever, it's fun to play spot the inspiration.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Lovesong: Ian Hunter: Irene Wilde/Letter from Britannia

I always loved Mott the Hoople; sure there was that 70's trashy excess but they had great tunes and with Ian Hunter, one of the great under-rated front men.
Hunter, once a journalist, also wrote the classic 'Diary of a Rock and Roll Star' which, as a kid, I kept under my pillow with the tissues...
When he went solo he dragged Mick Ronson along from the band's corpse.
Ronson was already a hero of mine, I love his playing on Bowie's 'Hunky Dory', particularly for his restraint and melody. In the 80's he and Nils Lofgren were the ones that I strutted to in front of the mirror with my tennis.
'Ian Hunter' is currently at vol '11' on my player. 
It's been remastered and the memories are flooding back. It's full of rockers, but it is Hunter's ballads that get my ticker. 'Boy' has lost non of its emotional punch and the moment when 'It Ain't Easy When You Fall' segues into the poem 'Shades Off' is priceless; probably what got this writer reaching for his poetry pen; I even notice a line that I've nicked; about "compromising the lack". 
Sorry Ian.

My favourite two Hunter songs though come from the follow up album 'All American Alien Boy' which fought for space on my boarding school hi-fi with 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'
Here Hunter found his jazz chops, using some stellar international players including the bass genius of Jaco Pastorius and David Sanborn's raucous sax.
'Letter from Britannia to the Union Jack' could have been an abrasive rant at the country he'd turned his back on, but is full of reflective sadness and affection for the losses the 'old country' was suffering. 
There's a sadness too (loss of youth etc) to 'Irene Wilde' which is all consuming ("gonna be somebody someday.")
Hunter is 70 now and he's just released a fine, lusty album 'When I'm President'.
It was listening to Bill Fay's 'Life is People' that reminded me of Hunter's albums; they share a voice and a vulnerability, although Fay seems a gentler man... 
I'm sure that the retirement home the'll surely share will be rocking... but gently.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sunday Morning Blue: Pat Metheny & Charlie Haden: Cinema Paradiso

I stayed too long at the party last night...
It was a friend and neighbor's 40th birthday celebration; all within crawling distance of home.
There were dancing girls and Mojitos and a vodka luge and no Di to hold me back...
I woke up at 11am with my shoes on; at least I got to bed.
It reminds me what a balm music can be.
I'm recovering to the delicate strains of an album Pat Metheny made with bassist Charlie Haden.
'Beyond the Missouri Sky' is a beautiful thing; only just better than silence and a pill...
Here's some footage of the twosome in concert taken from the Festival de Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz in 2009; playing the main theme from the wonderful 'Cinema Paradiso'.
I've followed it with a clip of Morricone's original score, which maybe should come with a 'Spoiler Alert' for those who haven't seen the film.
For those who haven't seen it: See It!
It all reminds me of when Di and I saw Haden live at Les Paul's legendary club in New York: 
Funnily enough the trip was my 40th birthday present from Di. 
We'd just flown in and had somehow blagged front seats at the tiny venue. I noticed that Haden kept looking over in my direction; nudging his piano player and chuckling; I looked to my right and Di was asleep blowing a big drool bubble... 
That's dancing girls for you...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Eva, Lisa and Brian

One of the pleasures of the recent Aarhus festival was meeting and performing with some great folk.
The singers at the gala were Sweden's Eva Dahlgren, who duetted with Simon Strömstedt, and the lovely Lisa Hannigan from Ireland. 
There was also a guitarist, Brian Lopez from Tuscon Arizona, who was moonlighting: as well as playing with Giant Sand he also has a solo career and has recently released moody little gem of an album 'Ultra' which you can read about on Di's page here: 

Here is a video of Eva singing with Danish band 'Oktober'. The accordion player is Francisco Calí and the cellist is Ida Nørholm, both of whom played in the Aarhus 'Orchestra'.
I've then posted a video of Lisa singing a campfire version of 'Home', the song that she did for the show. 
Young Simon is yet to record but I'll feature him when he does; he's a real talent...
Speaking of talent; I'll try an track down some footage of the musicians in the 'Orchestra' and post later.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Lovesong: Don Maglashan: A Thing Well Made/I Will Not Let You Down

Don Maglashan's band The Mutton Birds were a fine unit; kind of REM meets The Chills meets Crowded House; literal and melodic. I particularly like their albums 'Envy of Angels' and 'Rain, Steam & Speed' but all of their releases contain undervalued gems. They are reforming for some shows. Why not come along to the Shepherd's Bush Empire on October 27th and meet up with Di and I for a birthday drink (Di's is on October 24th). And they are great live; along with about 40 other folk I once saw bits of them live at 'The 12 Bar Club' on Denmark Street in London. If you were downstairs you could see up to their necks; upstairs was heads only; the sound was great in both places. They played this cracker that night, after much heckling from yours truly; there are more obvious MB tunes than this but I love 'A Thing Well Made'; on the surface insightful lyrics about... taking care, but actually recount the true story of a NZ massacre. This live version is excellent; Tuba 'n' all.

McGlashan also writes soundtracks and produced a lovely melancholic solo release 'Warm Hands' from which this song 'I Will Not Let You Down' is taken.
If you've ever wondered about the power of song and the reasons that some of us are compelled to write, please read the following. It's McGlashan's speech made this year at the Apra Silver Scroll Awards in Auckland. 
Don McGlashan's 2012 Apra Speech:
I want to talk about power.
There are a lot of times when musicians feel a bit powerless: at the testing station, hoping the car will pass one more warrant before it bio-degrades; at the supermarket, doing mental maths in the long seconds while the eftpos machine makes up its mind; at the bank, trying to get a loan, while the bank manager asks you what you do for a real job.
But tonight should be a night when that usual order of things gets well-and-truly turned upside down. Tonight we should celebrate the power of what we do.
There's cultural power. When you write a song or a piece of music, all your life and the lives of your ancestors, and everything you've ever heard or overhead or misheard is gathered together into a high strength concentrate. And that concentrate has become the fuel for this age we live in.
Songs and music are the animating spark of the world today. Without them, the world would be like a fairground before the power switch has been turned on, before the lights blaze and all the wheels and rides start whizzing around.
And people recognize that power. When songs work, people want to use them. Whether they're making a feature film, selling you a pair of jeans or a political party. Whether they're celebrating the closing of a deal, or the opening of the Olympics.
When songs work, they put down roots deep into culture. If someone from the next century wanted to know what life was like right here, right now, they'd go straight to the music that we're making and listening to, and the music would tell them. It's that cultural value and power that songs have that we come here every year to celebrate.
There's political power. The power of music and songs to change things.
During hard times, you often see a rise in the tendency to want to punish, to demonize, and to exclude.
I think we're living through a phase like that in this country at the moment. Ambiguities are getting removed, grey areas getting bleached out, leaving only black and white labels, like: "Beneficiary", "Overstayer", "Solo Mother", "Criminal". Whoever the enemy is this week, they'll get a thumping, and while that's going on, far-reaching changes can go on quietly in the background.
So where do we fit into that? How can we work on our rhyme schemes when there's so much injustice out there?
Well I believe at times like this it's even more important for people like us to stick to our work.
To describe our own corner in our own way. By just witnessing the world - faithfully and clearly - we help to colour it with ambiguities and complexities.
By telling our truth as we see it, that's our way of fighting against those who want to sell us their version of the truth, along with whatever hidden agendas they may have. By simply describing what it is to be human, we make it harder for those black-and-white labels to stick.
That sounds like a big claim to make for something as small and fragile as a song - but it's not.
Artists have enormous power, just by doing what they do. So much so that every dictator in history has put suppressing or controlling his artists right up there at the top of his list - just under designing a fancy uniform.
There are new also kinds of power available to us, that spring from new ways of communicating our music. Download stores like Amplifier, Marbecks Mdigital, banditFM, Fishpond, and The Insong; Streaming services like Theaudience, Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, Rara, Mixtape, MusicUnlimited and Vevo; And the internet radio giant Pandora.
Many of these have just come onstream in New Zealand in the last months.
A lot of them have "If you liked this, you'll like that" features, which, over time, are really going to help new artists get noticed; and here's the thing: all of them are legal - ensuring that when music gets heard, artists get paid.
And finally, there's collective power, the power of music to bring us together as writers; to underline our sense of shared purpose.
That can be an unfamiliar concept for a songwriter, because our process is usually about solitude, not solidarity.
But when we write a song - often without even knowing it, we're talking to other writers, alive and dead, and they're talking to us, through all the songs we've loved over the years.
Tonight we can come out of our solitude for a little while, and revel in the fact that we're with a bunch of other people who have devoted their lives to writing songs and music, just like we have.
Our styles may be radically different - someone at table 31 might do a nice line in soft Country Ballads, while next door at table 28 lurk exponents of Swedish Death-Metal. But that doesn't matter. What matters is the choice we've all made with our lives - a hard choice - to follow this unpredictable, intoxicating calling of ours.
And being part of this community of writers should be something we're really proud of, no matter how much smoke our car emits, and no matter what the eftpos machine at the supermarket occasionally reveals about us.
Because what unites us is that we know what it feels like when we've written something good. When we get up and dance around the room and punch the air. Because all the power that I've been talking about is right there in that moment.
And it belongs to all of us in this room tonight.
I hope you all have a fantastic evening, and I hope, when you wake up tomorrow morning (or afternoon) that you start a new song.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Aarhus Festival

My friend Jens Folmer Jepsen has been running the Aarhus Arts Festival in Denmark for the past few years. Folmer has been kindly inviting me to perform there for a while; but I've been unable to do so until this year. This makes me sad about all previous years missed; I had a blast.

Speaking of 'blasts', Di and I flew in late to Aarhus, after being held up at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, by the discovery of an unexploded WW2 bomb in the airport concourse.

At Aarhus we were picked up by the charming Ruth and Eric who directed us to our hotel then on to an evening spent at Folmer's homely pile. There we were introduced to the Aarhus World Orchestra and were fed in fine style by Folmer's lovely wife Anne who, it turned out, is a TV celebrity chef in Denmark; think Nigella with bells on... It was a wonderful welcome to us all; a grand start to our stay. 

Next afternoon we met up with Folmer who guided us to meet with the 'orchestra' for rehearsals. 
The musicians had been gathered from around the world to perform at the opening gala, effectively the launch of the festival. 
Rehearsals went well, despite my pipes being a bit rusty; I'd spent the summer hollering at kids in my other guise as summer camp director and also, well... it's been a while. 
The players were all top notch, a true inspiration, reminding me how much I've missed hanging out with creative folk, the polite corridors of academia can get a little... dusty sometimes. The generosity and laughter was infectious; there was so much kindness and levity that both Di and I were rendered a bit giddy by it all. 

Our musical maestrodirector Diego Schissi from Argentina, played heavenly piano and did all arrangements. 

Mexican, Francisco Victor Bringas Valdez played perfect percussion and sang amazing deep throat 'Overtone' vocals. 
Our guitarist was laconic Brian C. Lopez, 
the 'dog's bollocks' indeeda real gent who hails from Tuscon, Arizona. 
He's also a talented singer who has just released a fine album, 'Ultra'. 

The rhythm section was rock solid; Thøger Tetens Lund (bass) and drummer Peter Dombernowsky who both come from Denmark but grace Howe Gelb's brilliant band, Giant Sand

The sonic quirk came from the cello of Copenhagen's lovely Ida Nørholm and Italy's charming Francisco Calí who played accordion. 
For me, their interplay was the real surprise musically; a lovely dynamic that 
I'm hoping to tap into on future recordings. 

There were three songs featured, all re-arranged by Diego: I had been asked to sing 'Hopeland'Lisa Hannigan would perform 'Home' from her recent 'Passengers' album (produced by one of my firm favorites; Joe Henry). Sweden's Eva Dahlgren would sing 'This is Our Time' with future star in the making, the young and beatifically piped Simon Strömstedt. The song was written especially for the occasion; indeed it is yet to be recorded, but is sure to haunt my iPod in future days. I bagged Eva and Simon for bvs before I was informed of Eva's stellar standing in the Swedish pop world; she and Simon very kindly elevated my mumblings with their sweet voices.


The gala was performed in front of the Queen of Denmark and 1600 silent citizens who were under orders not to applaud until the end of the show; I wish someone had told me as I was first up; exiting stage left with tumbleweed and the echo of a bloke coughing on row seven! All a bit disorienting until you got the 'concept'; an evening of debate, poetry (written and read by Josefine Klougart, a tall and very beautiful young acclaimed writer who was shortlisted in 2011 for best nordic fictionality), all interspersed with music and song; and compared with consummate ease by that fine Danish actor and fisherman Jesper Asholt, probably best known for his work in the first Dogme film by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen: Mifune
Lisa Hannigan turned up at the 11th hour, a little frazzled after being stranded at Munich airport and sang up a storm. Later Eva and Simon were just perfect together; surely the first of many such duets. A prominent part of the presentation were the designs in paper by Kathy Hinde; we actually flew back with her next day with a hundred paper birds in her suitcase. I was willing customs to stop and search her...
After the show the band got to meet the Queen and eat oysters from her table; all very surreal. 
We somehow picked up the irascible Emilíana Torrini en route. Emiliana's album 'Fisherman's Woman' is a favourite in our house and she was in town to play a show with Giant Sand and Lisa Hannigan on Saturday night: a real disappointment that Di and I had to leave that day and miss two of our favourite singers on the same bill. 
Emiliana is a hoot; no ice maiden she and we are now firm whiskey buddies, as indeed is Eva Dahlgren who was very generous with her special bottle after the rigors of performance. 
Apres Queen we were treated like Kings; Folmer whisked us off to Jimmy Holm's fantastic Spanish restaurant Can Blau for tapas and the finest Serrano Ham and acorn fed Jamón Ibérico de Bellota that I have ever tasted; all washed down with lashings of sweet, sublime 'Tres Picos'. 
We then went on to Bora Bora to cut the rug with the band and drink chocolate beer until 4.30 am; kicking out time. 
Di and Super Simon were officially the last men standing...
If you'd like to see some pictures of the event please visit Di's site:
Be sure to leave a comment; she likes a chat does Di...

Thanks again to everyone for making it such a happy time; there was much work done behind the scenes; Micha and Mie are virtual friends that I wish I'd got to meet.
Thanks particularly to Folmer; like a Prospero on happy pills he pulled the thing together with no seeming effort. It was almost as if he'd done it before...