Sunday 6 June 2010

James Apollo, Kreg Viesselman

Contact Theatre, Manchester, Saturday June 5 

Here's a proposition: two New Dylans on one double-bill. Well, New Dylans in so much as both James Apollo and Kreg Viesselman hail from Minnesota, and both got out of there as soon as possible. "It's only leaving that makes a home at all," sang Apollo at one point, in one of a few allusions to his itinerant lifestyle. Kreg Viesselman, meanwhile, has made his home in Oslo, Norway, whose special micro-climate seems to suit his introspective temperament. 

Indeed, Viesselman was a revelation.  Firmly in the US songwriter idiom, he brings to it an intensity of feeling and an expressive voice that is all his own. To see Viesselman perform is to partake in a soul-deep session of primal therapy. On a song like The Well ("how deep the hole I pushed my brother in / He lost his grasp and gave a gasp") he more or less defines the sick soul, exposing an acute sense of sin and an unvarnished fear of the universe. Although the feeling is directed inward, that extraordinary gravelly voice communicates to an audience, who respond with a mix of awe and self-recognition. The shamanistic element came out most forcefully on Half Baked News, a number where Hobopop Collective's Kirsty McGee and Mat Martin guested on vocals (it was a Hobopop promotion). This was spirit music indeed, and came from deep within.

In contrast to the introspective Viesselman, James Apollo is strong on chutzpah. His smouldering stage presence and charisma are legendary, and here he was joined by a Stateside band of bassist, accordion-player and percussionist. Their instrumental skills were ordinary and their backing vocals were, to put it kindly, undistinguished. The surprise entrance of the latter pair - from the side aisles at the climax of Apollo's second number - was an ineptly-managed piece of business. They were endearingly bad, in short, and displayed more courage and pluck than many slicker musicians.

Apollo, whose gaze became more anxious during the course of the evening, sang a song called I've Got It Easy with calculated irony, and a song called Happiness with relentless joylessness. He raised the quality by including Moman and Penn's Dark End of the Street (uncredited) in the set, before reverting to his own material, which alternated between narcissistic self-regard and romantic claptrap. There is something heroic in such naked self-belief, and Apollo may be in danger of turning into the larger-than-life figure he likes to project. It worked for Dylan, after all.  

Tuesday 1 June 2010

The Beatles, David Bowie and Other Great False Starts

A debut album is often an unattainable career peak, for the reason identified by singer-songwriter Paul Curreri in an interview he once gave me: "I had 26 years to write the first record and only six months to write the second". This holds especially true for singer-songwriters: think of the eponymous offerings by John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Jackson Browne etc. But Bob Dylan's first was his most dispensable offering until Empire Burlesque came along thirty-one years later. There have been other dud debuts. Here are a few examples of talent squandered or misused. These are the Ten Greatest False Starts in Music History.  

1. David Bowie - 'David Bowie' (1967)
Before Iggy Pop, there was Anthony Newley. Well, not even Anthony Newley: Michael Crawford seems to be the dominant creative influence, with the cheeky chappie remark at the fade of 'Love Me Til Tuesday'. "Might make it to Wednesday," eh? 'The Laughing Gnome' is more embarrassing, but not by much. On the whole, very revealing about the Brit B-movie source of Bowie's theatricality.   

2. Townes Van Zandt - For The Sake of The Song (1968)
Hamstrung by misconceived arrangements and the song Talkin' Karate Blues, which this writer took for evidence of failing powers when Townes revived it for his 1987 UK tour. Immortal songs like Tecumsah Valley and Waitin' Around To Die had to wait awhile for their definitive versions. 

3. Tom Waits - Closing Time (1973)
Not irredeemable, but the sentimental barfly schtick hasn't worn as well as the malformed polka and voodoo schtick.    

4. Jimmy Webb  - Jim Webb Sings Jim Webb (1968)
Produced, according to Webb, "by a bunch of ruffians from some old demos of mine and tarted up to sound like MacArthur Park. It was quite a piece of crap and received with… crushing disappointment." 

5. Duffy Power - Leapers and Sleepers (2002) 
A double CD set of Duffy Power sides from 1962-1967. Larry Parnes exerts a deadening influence until at least halfway through disc two, when Little Boy Blue and Mary Open The Door reveal true greatness.   

6. Man - Revelation (1969)
Pretentious proto-prog that traces the history of Man(kind), complete with a prolonged and quite off-putting orgasm and Grieg (is it?) quotations. This, from the group that made Merthyr Tydfil ring to the sound of 'Spunk Rock'.   

7. The Humblebums - First Collection of Merry Melodies (1969)
As a folk singer, Billy Connolly makes a great comedian. 

8. Aretha Franklin - Soul Sister (1966)
The textbook case of a hidebound major label misusing and abusing notable talent.  The LP includes the Queen of Soul's interpretations of 'Ol' Man River' and 'Swanee'. 

9. Acoustic Ladyland - The Jazz on 3 Session
From 2003, when Acoustic Ladyland were a Jimi Hendrix tribute band and unplugged. 

10. The Beatles - The Sheik of Araby, Like Dreamers Do, Three Cool Cats…  
The failed Decca audition, 1st January, 1962. The false start to end all false starts. 

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...