Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Aarhus: 3

Blimey: I'm sleeping in later and later. I just made the final coffee call for breakfast yesterday and then it was lunchtime, which was shared with Peter (Yorkshire), Jean and Jessie (Quebec) and Tanya Tagaq, the Polaris Music prize winning Inuit throat singer. Never dull with these guys; the craic was good, although Tanya's clangorous assessment of repressed Brit's sexual repression as a nation who 'f*cked each other through a sheet with a hole in it' startled a few passing Danes and made me inhale a piece of chicken that is still lodged somewhere between the back of my nose and my left ear.
Before I knew it it was time to get to the Art Museum for one of the Aarhus Conversations. This would see Sylvie Simmons interviewing the founder of Elektra Records Jac Holzman. Jac talked in some depth about his founding of Elektra records in the 50s and Nonsuch as a classical and budget label later in 1964; his publishing of much of Woody Guthrie's early work and much of the early folk records of the likes of Jean Ritchie, Josh White, Theodore Bikel and Bob Gibson which would have otherwise been lost to us. He later moved from folk to rock and detailed his signing of the likes of The Doors, Paul Ackles, Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley and Love. I'm a big fan of David Ackles 'American Gothic' album so was interested to later read his thoughts about the man: "I thought David was an extraordinary songwriter, but he really didn't want it enough. For some reason, I did not figure out until many years later where his passion lay. It was in the theater. I never should have done an album with David. (We did three.) I should have helped him create a theatrical show. I didn't get that at the time."
He was later responsible for the MC5 and The Stooges; music that he didn't really love, but realized that their success was more about volume and attitude, an attitude that effectively helped open the door to a new wave of music. Elektra merged with Warners in the early 70s but Holzman remained connected with the business, moving into the technical side of things because he knew nothing about it and wanted a challenge. Later in the 80s through his Pop Clips productions he and Mike Nesmith helped to formulate MTV.
On the night Jac spoke about funding the initial label "out of a cigar box', managing a then huge initial $90.000 dollar debt by only ever paying the first $300 of any bill. That way his debtors recognized a certain honor in his recognition of debt. His lateral thinking and instinct for survival saw him releasing the first ever sampler album and a million selling sound effects album; effects that can be famously heard in the intro of The Doors 'Riders on the Storm'. The competition was initially nervous but Holzman appeased them with the assurance that he 'only wanted to make the records that they wouldn't or couldn't make'. He clearly loved the early years, talking with great affection about the people who surrounded him: 14 employees was his max 'the perfect number to fit around the circular banqueting table at my favorite local Chinese restaurant."

He gave particular mention to designer William Harvey who produced all of those early iconic covers and he was gracious too about the competition; tearing up a little when talking about John Hammond who rebuffed Love's Albert Lee (I believe) who had offered him a better deal but, when Albert advised him that he'd shaken hands on a deal with Jac but that no contract had been signed, Hammond replied "And Jac will serve you well'.
Holzman is still busy mentoring Warner executives and is also involved in future planning. He's extraordinarily energetic and enthusiastic for a man who's been in the industry for 65 years. His advice to aspiring musicians was to 'persevere, love what you do and woodshed'. He wasn't particularly sympathetic to the question of streaming, telling a questioning young musician to 'learn to live with it. Make it work for you', insisting that 70% of all Spotify's royalties go back to the labels and the artists. If I'd have had the bottle I'd have questioned how much of that the label then passes on to the artist but... I liked him; he's obviously a man who gets things done but still holds great pride and affection for his abiding passion and those early years. And holds those memories close with almost total recall. Sylvie did a great job in marshaling the event and weedling some 'off topic' nuggets out of this driven and successful man who is obviously used to talking about only what he wants to talk about.
Back in the Fest Restaurant for dinner and Howe Gelb had arrived in the company of Jim White and his friends from local band The De Soto Caucus: Anders Pedersen, Peter Dombernowsky,  Nikolas Heyman and Thøger T. Lund although it seems that Thøger has recently been replaced by Henrik Poulsen by De Sotto on bass. Peter, Anders and Thøger are also members of Howe's ever evolving Giant Sand. These guys will be the backbone for Howe's musical presentation on Thursday night: "Way Too Much Light".
I left early to catch the 2nd of the Trio shows, again featuring Joe Henry and Rhiannon Giddens but this time joined by Billy Bragg and Grant Lee Phillips. It was another spellbinding set of performances.

Billy Bragg's voice has dropped into a rich, syrupy timbre, giving an unexpected warmth to his performance which has me looking forward to listing to his latest Joe Henry produced platter. Birthday boy Grant Lee was his usual charismatic self (does he remind anyone else of the lion from the Wizzard of Oz?) and offered up a reliable set of gorgeously realized Americana but... beyond Joe Henry's reliable brilliance... the evening's high spot was Rhiannon's stunning rendition of the old gospel work song 'Water Boy'. This is a principled lady whose music is laced with grievous intent. Hers are not so much protest songs as songs of resentful enlightenment. She reminded me of Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne in her unbridled frustration at the racial injustices still rife in the USA. As you can see, the artists were as entranced as the audience by this raw talent. She is surely destined for great things.

Later at the bar Howe introduced me to Steve Shelley Sonic Youth's drummer who I have confess I know nothing about. I'm sure that it showed.
The night ended back at the hotel firstly in the company of a charming Irish dancer/singer Eofer (sp?) who was here to perform with Cormac Begley and an unusually chirpy Thøger enthusing about his house (and trees) in Tucson and regaling us with a near death experience he's just had with an Italian scorpion. I ended up in the smoking zone with the Trio ensemble who had clearly stuck a few Kroners on Folmer's Festival bar bill. Under the fog of cigar smoke Gustaf and I discussed our shared love of Boo Hewerdine's work whilst Rhiannon serenaded us with her raucous take on Italian opera. We lingered long until Joe and Rhiannon's taxi arrived at 4am to dispatch them for an early morning flight back to the States.
For a miserable Englishman I'm sure having a blast.
Here's Rhiannon with that 'Water Boy'.

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