Monday 29 October 2012

Neglected Nuggets #3: The Northumbrian Small Pipes

This is the kind of thing I mean…

A 1969 by Jack Armstrong & Patricia Jennings called The Northumbrian Small Pipes on Clock Tower, catalogue no. MIN 3073. Genuinely old, curious, rare, wonderful music, going for a song on eBay because nobody knows or cares. And why? Because the artistes are, well, elderly, and, what’s worse, are wearing kilts on the cover.   

But what’s not to love in this set devoted to the Northumbrian small pipes (friendlier and more approachable than their cousins, the Highland bagpipe) and so evocative of place, especially on tunes special to the locality like ‘Lads of Alnwick’ and ‘Bonny at Morn’. The legend on the label reads “Made in Newcastle Upon Tyne by G.L. Morton & Co. Limited”. 

Also in this category - that is, terminally unhip but wonderful nonetheless - one might include Brenda Wootton, Again, it’s a problem of image: if she were a beautiful vagabond, silhouetted against the sky whilst taking her whippets for a morning walk, she might command the cult following of Anne Briggs. Instead, the cultural reference is to Hattie Jacques as matron in Carry On Nurse. (Another notable folk singer of wide girth is Rosemary Hardman, but their contrasting personalities warn against generalising according to body type.) I would particularly commend Wootton’s work with Robert Bartlett as Crowdy Crawn. No Sing to Sing (Sentinel, SENS 1021) is a jewel - casual, homegrown, and inspired - and, credited as Brenda Wootton & Robert Bartlett, Tin in the Stream (Stockfisch, SF 7001) is nearly as good.Whereas Pamplemousse (Barclay, 920.475), alas, is one to avoid. 

Maybe (casting around for gainful employment to fill the hole left by journalism) I could offer my services as a professional Duendeist (someone, if you remember, in the business of the transmission of art) by recommending all these wonderful records known only to the coterie. Patrons who lead busy lives but would nevertheless like to advertise their esoteric musical taste, might like to try the Duende Deluxe service, in which dog-ears are given to sleeves and scuffmarks applied to vinyl to make records appear played and loved. Naturally, Duende Deluxe comes at an added cost. 

Sunday 28 October 2012

Tennessee Descending

I went to the theatre last night. I never learn. The last production of Tennessee Williams I went to see, Vieux Carre, a late effort, was so bad it left me concerned - why do actors put themselves through the nightly ordeal of ersatz anguish? - and mildly soiled. OK, so there was no gratuitous nudity and no exploitative rape in Orpheus Descending, but it was bad enough to make me realise that Vieux Carre was not a sad lapse from a great playwright in decline, but typical form. He was always rubbish. 

The plot: Val, a handsome youth with two treasured possessions - a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Woody Guthrie and King Oliver (?) - sends the community of a backwater town in the Deep South into uproar when he shacks up with the store-owner’s wife, Lady. The store-owner is upstairs, slowly dying but mostly out of sight and out of mind. Subsidiary characters are stock Southern stereotypes: bigoted sheriff, religious maniac etc. Then there’s the free-spirited and wayward sex-kitten, a type only encountered in Tennessee Williams plays, a monstrous nurse and Lady’s ex-beau. “I have never told you this before,” shouted Lady from the top of the stairs. The ex-beau repeated “I didn’t know” often enough for several of us to suspect that he had forgotten his lines, and exited, never to be seen again.   

Not one member of the cast got the accent right, but the strain of it made natural dialogue impossible (not that natural dialogue was ever Tennessee Williams’ chief concern). Lady was supposedly an Italian emigre but Imogen Stubbs located her in Poland or somewhere else middle-European. 

The situation was hokey, the emoting was intense but trite, Val had a nice torso (not on show for very long, alas), but no discernible musical (or acting) ability, the racist rednecks were straight from Hammer horror rent-a-mob (if nothing else, the play gives work to lots of actors). And cliches which had merely been stupefying in the first act tipped into full-scale bathos in the second, when the forgotten store-owner recovered enough to climb downstairs and shoot Lady. She was pregnant with Val’s baby, we learned, hard on the heels of another shock revelation: the store-owner was the cause of Lady’s father’s death. This, to underline three times in red that he was a bad man. Val was lynched off-stage, in deference to the strict rules of Greek legend rewrites and the tropes of Southern Gothic. 

Melodrama is a kind word for this combination of overripe emotion and implausibility. Pedro Almadovar might be able to do something with Orpheus Descending, but you know what? It would still be rubbish. 

Thursday 25 October 2012

A Good Night for Singing

“You don’t expect competence in a folk club, but you do expect sincerity. It should be a requirement” - Bill Leader, talking a performer at Ramsbottom Folk Club whose name I shan’t mention chiefly because Bill forgot to tell me, even if he knew himself. 
It was a good night for singing at Oddfellows. It was the crowd rather than any individual who shone on Monday last. When the spirit hits, the Oddfellows audience sound like one voice, raising fragile, loveable Ian Sidebotham to new heights, and reflecting his steadiness and sincerity. As a group, they can sing quietly, which the lone Donal Maguire can do very well, but is a rare accomplishment for a crowd. The combination sounds very rich, ranging from the deep-felt clean-cut articulation of the WAGs to the semi-spoken whispering of the lovely old man beside me. 

Sensing the way it was heading, the performers pitched towards the universal side of things. Ian Reynolds sang ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’, and Sidebotham offered  ‘The Circle Game’, which manages to condense all human experience in a catchy chorus (a youthful Joni Mitchell wrote it). Donal offered ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times’ and struck an empathetic chord, of course. John Howarth (pictured) responded with his two fail-proof singalongs, ‘Ee, When I Were A Lad’ and ‘They Don’t Write 'Em Like That Anymore’. The former is wryly nostalgic whilst assuming that life gets better for every successive generation (so funny and optimistic). The second mourns the passing of the singsong with its own singsong. 

At the end of the evening - you’re not going to believe this - Howarth replaced Oddfellows’ traditional leave-taking song ‘The Parting Glass’ with ‘Toddlin’ Whoam’. Beautiful bucolic Lancashire, for one week at least, superseded bitter-sweet tragic Ireland. Beautiful laconic John Howarth never wanders far from his roots and makes a virtue out of modesty. 

Friday 19 October 2012

The Duendeist - A Job Description / Neglected Nugget #2: Morning Brings the Light

In English texts, the Spanish word ‘Duende’ always comes with the stock phrase - “this word is untranslatable in English,” which only goes to show that they haven’t tried. Here is a definition in Spanish, from a documentary about the late great flamenco singer Enrique Morente, extracted on youtube  : “duende es el misterio de la transmision del arte”. Or, in English, “duende is the mystery of the transmission of art.” 

It occurred to me that, minus the mystery, the business of the transmission of art has been my chief occupation. I’ve been a duendeist all my life without knowing it. It unifies all those diverse and seemingly random activities: the music journalism, the composing. editing the small arts magazine GRR, painting, selling records on a Camden Town stall, promoting Abner Burnett. If you’re lucky the underlying pattern of life reveals itself, at any point from middle age on. For me, it’s all encapsulated in the single word ‘duende’. 

I wonder if this self-knowledge will help at my next Job Centre interview. “What is your occupation, Mr Butler?” “I’m a duendeist.”…  

And the eBay trading is all of a piece, being at much concerned with spreading rare and good music as earning a livelihood. Naturally, duendeism can sometimes be a thankless task. Which brings me to my next neglected nugget, Morning Brings the Light (TRA 219, 1970) by John James. 

Described on the sleeve as “a shy unassuming Welshman”, James was/is the arch exponent of a style that flourished briefly in the early seventies, when acoustic, ragtime-tinged guitar accompanied sensitive self-penned songs, and, for a while at least, the world seemed a more gentle and romantic place. Morning Brings the Light is the classic of the genre, and can be guaranteed to warm the cockles of the sternest heart. It scarcely registers that James’ voice is on the weak side. Oddly, his vocals got more frail as his instrumental virtuosity grew. He finally became another Stefan Grossman, but I liked him much better as another Ralph McTell. Morning Brings the Light is his masterpiece. Its eponymous successor, with a Hipgnosis cover, is only marginally less good. Significantly, the only non-originals were some Scott Joplin rags transcribed for guitar (this before The Sting inspired a Scott Joplin revival). He was already flexing his fingers for guitarist distinction.

And no-one was buying! Even offering the two together as a job lot for £10! And I actually have five surplus copies of Morning Brings the Light, courtesy of the Ian Chappell collection! Looking on the bright side, it solves my Christmas present problem this year.      

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum

The Sandbar, Oct 16, 2012 

Mike Walker’s journey from fire-breathing guitar virtuoso to inner-directed exquisite melodist is fascinating, and perhaps can be better gauged in an intimate pub gig like this (the Sandbar is virtually my local!) than the concert halls he plays with jazz supergroup The Impossible Gentlemen. Here his partner is Stuart McCallum, with whom Walker meshes intuitively (he was once his pupil). He also embraces McCallum’s electronic box of wonders. 

The music is characterised by focus and restraint, and largely improvised. ‘Where Do We Go’ by Bill Frisell sets the tone with its space, spontaneity and beauty. Walker has gone far beyond “look-at-my-fingers-they’re still attached-to-my-hand” dazzle. Technique now is a means to an end. There are some  standards - ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘All the Things You Are’ - but these are re-imagined and re-sculpted into fresh shapes.   

The third tune, an extempore excursion, goes from whirling dervish to intense ballad. Walker’s modus operandi is evident: weep and dig deep. Yet it’s McCallum who largely sets the terms for the first set. The fourth tune is based around a drifty motif, which loops electronically and is overlaid with a counter-melody by McCallum as Walker obsessively hammers percussive harmonics. Then he crafts a solo with a biting, skewed melody. Anything McCallum can achieve by synthetic means, Walker can replicate with nylon and blood. McCallum proposes chilled-out bliss; Walker offers sublimated yearning. 

Well, don’t say synthetic, say rather electro-acoustic, which fits the music to a tee. Other pairs of opposites spring to mind: bitter-sweet, yin-yang, introspective, and, well, introspective. Anything but aggressive. And how at odds with the braying noise of the drinkers next door (a thin partition cannot keep the noise out) and how at odds with the world itself. The journey is spiritual and selfless. 

Walker prevails in the second set. There’s less electronics, the tunes are more composition-based and less improvised, and some even come from the Impossible Gentlemen’s repertoire (was that ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’?). A new, untitled piece, known only as ‘The French One’ possibly because of its distant, unconscious echoes of Django. The familiar melody of ‘All The Things You Are’ only gradually reveals itself, broken down by patterns, and devices and odd textures. 

I interviewed Mike Walker once but so many years ago he’s obviously forgotten the face (a subsequent interview, conducted around the time The Impossible Gentlemen played Bridgewater Hall, was over the telephone). So when I approach uncertainly, at the end of the night, he says, “Come on, I know you want to say something. Out with it!” “Thank you for the music,” I say, “it was balm for the soul.” “You don’t have to say more than that,” replies Mike. “It’s all I hope to do.” 

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Oddfellows: Monday Night at Nine (15.10.12)

I was at Oddfellows last night (being something of a regular). Another good night, despite the absence of John Howarth and a few of the other stalwarts. Rioghnach Connolly - young in physical years, but of course age has no meaning for a voice like hers - dropped in, and Donal Maguire was there too. Personally, I think Donal Maguire is the finest Irish traditional singer in the land. 

Anyway, a girl from the next room, that part of the bar that serves as an active shrine to Manchester City FC, listened at the door for a while and then asked if anyone knew the song about the nightingales. She meant 'The Nightingales Sing', which the group promptly struck up, and Donal, who knew the words, carried the song with the girl aiding on the chorus. 

It was a beautiful instance of two worlds colliding. Then, perhaps overdoing it, she asked if we knew the one about the mother knifing her baby in the neck. 

"You mean Brookside," said the Oddie next to me, and instantly the established order reasserted itself. 

Monday 15 October 2012

Edinburgh Folk Festival '63 & The Bogus Live

The way some people dream about sex, I dream about music. This might be a good place to keep my musical dream diary, if that’s not being too self-indulgent. Anyway, I can keep it fairly simple: Gladys Knight last night. 

I was playing LK 4546 and LK 4563 yesterday, that is (for those not discographical minded), Edinburgh Folk Festival Volumes 1 and 2, on Decca, and my thoughts turned to the bogus live album, that peculiar phenomenon that once flourished and is now, thankfully, as dead as a doornail. 

They  come in different varieties and there are several ways that the trained ear can spot them. 

Applause that starts before the song ends. This runs counter to nature but is a handy ploy to conceal the studio fade-out. A textbook example is ‘Marieke’ by Jacques Brel (Music for Millions, Philips 6395 216). If you only know the song as a Judy Collins lullaby, Brel’s vitality is exhilarating. Crescendo follows crescendo, until Brel is yelling enough to drown out the orchestra belting with full fortissimo (the presence of a full orchestra in modest club surroundings is another sign of the bogus live album). The applause enters at the peak of the tumult, which is unlikely, unless it was a spontaneous collective act designed to prevent Jacques from exploding the galaxy with incandescent energy. 

But even if they decently wait for the song to end, the applause on a bogus live album always enters too soon, because record producers, like broadcasters, can’t abide long pauses. 

Nina Simone’s Nuff Said (RCA, RD 7979) is a bona fide live album which inexpertly splices current studio-recorded hit ‘Ain’t Got No - I Got Life’ (1969) into the proceedings. The joins show, to say the least.   

Then there’s the bogus live album in which the artist is complicit in the deception. The classic example here is Charles Mingus pointedly telling a non-existent audience to be quiet (Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Barnaby Records, BR 5012). Contrast with the genuine live album where the audience is so silent they may as well not be there. I would offer Tokyo Concert by the Maria Kalaniemi Trio (Amigo, AMCD 754), recorded in Japan so the polite silence might be culturally engrained. And there are numerous jazz albums where the audio is as perfect as a studio creation, and the sound of clapping always comes as a rude shock.

Presumably, live albums are more economic to make than studio albums: so why pretend to be live at all? To garner a few sales from those who attended the 1963 Edinburgh Folk Festival?

Live noises may be grafted onto studio recordings by way of musique concrete. I dimly recall the kerfuffle when David Bowie appropriated a Faces audience at the beginning of Diamond Dogs (RCA, APL 1-0576). 

Oddly enough, the audience noise on Edinburgh Folk Festival Vol. 1 and 2 is treated more as abstract sound than a means to hoax the listener, so is closer to David Bowie than Jacques Brel. And what about those albums made in the studio but with a small, handpicked audience to ensure a relaxed atmosphere? This category includes The Dubliners (Transatlantic, TRA 116) and Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson (Trailer, LES 2076), with Anne Briggs in attendance.

But going back to Edinburgh Folk Festival Vol 1 and 2, in 1963 Anne Briggs was the incarnation of purity and beauty. ‘She Moved Thro’ the Fair’ comes from Vol. 1 and ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ from Vol. 2. Let’s get the chronology right. Briggs was discovered when the cultural bandwagon Centre 42 rolled into Nottingham in 1962. She made her record debut in ’63 on The Iron Muse (Topic, 12T86) (I shall have to return to her contributions, ‘The Recruited Collier’ and ‘The Doffing Mistress’, both sublime, and very different in spirit from anything else on The Iron Muse); an EP, The Hazards of Love, appeared the same year she played Edinburgh.  

Of the other participants: Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson’s appearance predates their christening as the Incredible String Band and finds them in embryonic jug-band state. Archie Fisher and Ray Fisher impress. Archie, like Derroll Adams, has one of those voices that exude warmth and assurance. Rugged, fierce Scottish pride spreads like wildfire across the two discs, especially when Hamish Imlach essays the old Jacobin song 'Johnny Cope'. 

And here's the clincher. On a bogus live album the audience behaves like a good child from Victorian days: you address it once and then it shuts up. Compare Edinburgh Folk Festival Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 with Folk Festival (Waverley, ZLP 2033; reissued on World Record Club, ST890), which is a real live recording of the 1963 Edinburgh Folk Festival - specifically, Usher Hall - with the same artists (Nadia Cattouse, Ray and Archie Fisher: the Dubliners appear on the Waverley and are absent from the Decca LPs, presumably for contractual reasons). There’s an inordinate amount of singalongs, and clap alongs, and verbose introductions on the Waverley: all the things that give live albums a bad name.  Whereas the Decca pair are more intimate and self-focussed, with audience interaction at a minimum (and no wonder: my contention is that they didn't exist). 
There might be a third category: the faux-bogus-live-album-from-Edinburgh. Fortuna from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 1976, proclaims the sleeve of Sweet Folk and Country, SFA 058, with the explanation: ‘Folk songs, poetry, music and humour from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 1976.’ But the title is deceptive. There is no attempt to conceal the fact that this is a studio date with Miriam Backhouse, Dave Goulder, Irvine Hunt and Brian Miller, collectively known as Fortuna, who perform singly more than as a group. The small is quite open: "Recorded at Mid Wales Sound Studios/ Producer: Joe Stead". This is another jewel from the Ian Chappell collection. Miriam Backhouse beguiles with ‘Fairy Tale’ (a John Martyn song new to me; is it from his first LP?), and as for Irvine Hunt; well, I was reminded of the time I saw the late avant garde sound poet Bob Cobbing in Birdyak, which is the last thing I was expecting from a gentle folk waxing. 


Sunday 14 October 2012

Kirsty Almeida/Manchester Weekender

Manchester Art Gallery, Thursday, Oct 11

Kirsty Almeida can write a catchy pop tune and do it well. Her Decca album, Pure Blue Green, was infectious to the point of medical guidance. But there is, it seems, a multiplicity of Kirstys. Music is only part of it: she is a dress-maker, an interior designer, and a creative catalyst for a thriving artistic community in Manchester. This free performance, opening a weekend of cultural events in the city and a series of Thursday late-night events at Manchester City Gallery, revealed the off-the-wall and out-of-the-ordinary Kirsty, and she was riveting. 

Inspired by the Gallery’s exhibition of astonishing works on paper, she sang a song suite inspired by the Life and Death of a Tree, inhabiting, shaman-like, the spirit of the tree itself. Typical of Kirsty, she cut holes into paper to form a word, which then decorated part of a paper dress (co-designed by the artist and Mrs Jones), with the word spelling out the theme of the song. The first was ‘SEED’, and she sang, as an eerie incantation, “I have the world inside my belly.” We were a long way from ‘Wrong Mr Right’. 

Next, ‘GROW’ concerned the search for sun and water. On ‘PROGRESS’ she hissed a scared ‘The humans are coming” as Ed Briggs’ electronics suggested the sound of a buzz-saw, and this inexplicably segued into a samba with wordless though joyful vocals. Now the emphasis shifted to the after-life of the tree, transmuted in various paper products. One was an official document, the brief of an executive (the  soul-destroying effects of the world of work were implied rather than stated): the other was a love letter: ”Dear love, when will I find you…” A wistful end to an inspired little performance.

And this to the accompaniment of all paper instruments (aided by subtle electronics) manipulated by the resourceful ed Briggs, who would, say, provide rhythm by cutting paper and feeding the amplified noise through his echo-box. As the paper strips got smaller, so the beats got shorter. Another time he played a rolled piece of paper as a wind instrument, using the mouthpiece of a recorder. 

Definitely, too eccentric, too creative for the bland mainstream, Kirsty Almeida proves that idiosyncrasy is not dead yet.   

Saturday 13 October 2012


Well, Love Lilt and Laughter by JEAN REDPATH didn’t attract a single bid, no matter that it’s in better condition than most half-centurions - nearly, released in 1966 on Elektra/Bounty/Clan (yes, it has the unique distinction of being released on three labels nearly simultaneously: I expect Joe Boyd will be able to clear that one up) - or that Redpath possess one of the most wondrously pure voices since the phonograph was invented. How did the quote go? “To call Jean Redpath a Scottish folk singer is a bit like calling Michelangelo an Italian interior decorator”. How true, but no-one seems to appreciate the fact. 

This made me think of other LPs that can be had for next to nothing on eBay. Here is a random selection: 

Jesse Winchester, Third Down, 110 To Go, Bearsville. The Black Night hadn’t yet overwhelmed the Glorious Day on the eponymous LP (with the same striking gaunt portrait replicated four times on the gatefold cover), and this, its successor from 1972. Or perhaps the albums are brilliant just because of the balance of dark and light. Both are commonly found with a Buy It Now tag of £4.  

King Kong, on Decca, from 1961. The township musical responsible for the first wave of South African musical expats when it played in Princess Theatre, London, in 1961. I picked up the Original African Cast to go with my London Production Cast a few years back and had change from £5. 

The Oldham Tinkers, For Old Time’s Sake (Topic, 1975). And here’s one I got just last week for a measly 99p. It arrived wrapped in nothing but a Tesco’s carrier bag and sticky tape, mind. Caveat Emptor.  

Friday 12 October 2012


To recap, a priceless collection of folk LPs came up for auction in June this year, representing the estate of the late Ian Chappell, and I came away with 11 job lots, representing about 1,100 LP, which are currently dominating my listening and establishing my reputation as an eBay trader. But who was Ian Chappell, who died before he knew he was my benefactor? 

                                         From the Ian Chappell Collection: the incredibly strange Huvva! by Merit      
                                         Hemmingson conflates groovy Hammond organ and scraping Swede folk fiddle

Well, according to a label on one of the LPs, Chappell lived at 8 Waterloo Close, Waterlooville, Hants, PO8 8QJ. With no family and no children, all his leisure hours seem to have been devoted to cultivating the record collection. 

A Google trawl further reveals that his full name was John Ian Chappell, and reveals that he was born in 1949 and was director of the Hampshire-based South Eastern Museums Service. 

The multiple copies of certain LPs in mint condition would suggest he owned a record concession somewhere. Surely he was well-known in Hampshire folk circles? I joined the Mudcat online forum to find out more. (Do you know Mudcat? A fantastic resource. Google any enquiry on a folk music theme and all trails inevitably lead to Mudcat.) Who was Ian Chappell? I asked. It elicited a single reply. "Wasn't he a cricketer?" 

A Salutary story for vinyl junkies everywhere.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Mike Gets His Mojo Back/The Ian Chappell Collection

Apologies to all loyal readers for the enduring dormancy of this blog. What was it Sly Stone said? “Heard you missed me, well I’m back.” (Look what happened to him.)  

I shall strive to be a more regular correspondent from now on. Besides, I have a subject, renewed motivation and a new source of income since the music journalism dried up. I am now an eBay trader! 

I have my friend Cliff Lee to thanks. It was Cliff who sent me a link about an upcoming auction at Omega Auctions, in Stockport. There were some heavyweight items: oh, the usual suspects - Vashti Bunyan, Another Diamond Day; Led Zeppelin I with novel coloured lettering; Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left; Christy Moore, Paddy on the Road. And Lot 129 comprised two C.O.B. LPs, Spirit of Love and Moyshe McStiff, which attracted Cliff because band-member John Bidwell is a pal of his. I seem to remember that C.O.B. was a vehicle for Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer. Indeed, the acronym stands for Clive's Original Band. 

My own interest centred on Lots 268-298, boxes labelled Miscellaneous Folk. The auction was scheduled for Saturday, 30th June, 2012. 

To make a hard story easy: the individual items mentioned above lay outside my price range (Lot 129 fetched £600), but - thanks to the consortium I’d managed to get in place - I came away with 11 boxes containing roughly 100 LPs each. 

My purpose was threefold: 

1. To boost my record collection and, to a lesser extent, those of my backers (thank you Ant, Al and Eva). 

2. To furnish material for my proposed book on a folkie theme. 

3. To establish my little eBay trading post, which I christened one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day. This was appropriately folksy sounding and it announced my modus operandi: to list one record a day, thus guaranteeing a steady stream of income but without foul commerce taking my life.

I shall tell you how I got on tomorrow.  

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