Nothing But Time (2020)

In the first week of February this year my nephew & I drove to the Sheffield City Hall to see Britain’s best comedian Stewart Lee. Both Mike & myself have always enjoyed shooting the breeze about potential world-ending catastrophes, swine flu, climate change, the zombie apocalypse & in the spirit of the upcoming evening we lightly riffed on the infectious bother the Chinese, in particular the Wuhan clan, were suffering. That night, apart from a family wedding with a severely restricted list of guests, has proved to be my final social gathering of 2020. Five weeks on (two weeks too late), the double whammy of age & “underlying health conditions” indicating that it was probably “so long, it was nice knowing you” if Corona called, meant that social isolation it was then & mostly still is. Just me, that pile of books I’ve been meaning to start, intimations of my own mortality & worry about family & friends. A blizzard of depressing, ominous, confusing, changing speculation on the information superhighway hardly helped, relief from introspection & flatlining was called for & admiring my huge stash of toilet paper didn’t do it because that was imaginary. It has always been music that soothed…still is.

I’ve done a lot of listening in 2020, appreciating an opportunity to savour & appreciate the complete works of John Cale, to be stirred by the old-time Sixties idealism of Paul Kantner & Grace Slick & to investigate the dusty, neglected Reggae albums at the back of the stack. Van Morrison & John Martyn have been the ideal companions at the end of another day of not much at all. It’s not all comfortable immersion in my record collection. My end-of-year highlights usually includes at least one new release by an artist of my own generation who has been making music for longer than I & they probably care to remember. Not this time.

Pinegrove "taking some time off" as frontman responds to sexual coercion  accusation | NME

In January Pinegrove released their fourth studio album “Marigold”. A group that had immediately appealed, I bought their record “Cardinal” (2016) within 30 minutes of hearing them & looked forward to their progress. An accusation of sexual coercion against frontman Evan Stephens Hall, then a clumsy apology/statement on social media, followed by the self-release of the “Skylight” record & a year’s hiatus stalled their momentum. Inevitably these events informed listening to the new collection. Hall’s meticulous, contemplative & articulate lyrics are one of the reasons Pinegrove are so distinctive. Such a public airing of his situation was not something the songwriter would take lightly. It’s not all introspection on “Marigold”, Hall & the group are developing their palate & it’s their strongest album yet. The title track, a reflective six minute long instrumental, ties a soothing, ultimately optimistic record together. They are still a band to be reckoned with.

Elsewhere 2 | Pinegrove

Unable to tour in support of “Marigold” Pinegrove retreated to their Bandcamp enclave & released “Elsewhere 2” a short “pay what you can” live set expertly mixed by guitarist Sam Skinner. From what I’ve seen & heard it is on stage that the group really flourishes. The 2016 session they recorded for Audiotree, with sterling support from the sound engineer, is the best showcase of their early work. Playing live the band’s melodic Country-Folk tendencies have more Indie drive bringing late-period Teenage Fanclub to mind. I’m not tech-savvy enough to separate just the one track from “Elsewhere 2” so you’re just a click away from the full 30 minutes. It’s a great mix of new & old material , the rapport between the band & their audience is apparent & it’s this music that has given me the most pleasure in 2020. To close here’s a song from “Marigold”. “I wake up & feel totally the same. I woke up the same as yesterday with no news of any kind”, “Endless” still hits the spot as a song for these times. “When this is over hold me forever”. Damn right!

Daniel Romano's Outfit Merseyside Tickets, Future Yard, 75 Argyle Street,  14th Jun 2021 | Ents24

Bandcamp was also the place to be to try to keep up with Daniel Romano. As a devoted fan, even with time on my hands, it has been a stretch to get a handle on all of his new music this year. I reckon there have been 8 maybe 9 new albums in 2020, solo works, with his band Outfit & collaborations. It’s a list starting with “Visions of a Higher Dream” & perhaps ending with “How Ill Thy World is Ordered”. Daniel’s name got around playing artful old-time Country songs, a classic structure that Buck Owens, George Jones & Gram Parsons could have recorded. His move away from this, a progression that acknowledged his Punk roots while embracing Folk, mid-60s Dylan & psychedelic Rock, was a journey that I was glad to share. Each album has contained songs that linger & grow in stature. From this year’s torrent perhaps “(What Could Have Been) Infidels”, a re-imagining of Bob Dylan’s 1983 record inspired by his iconic TV performance with the Plugz, is a little esoteric while “Content to Point the Way” is a return to that Country thing he does so well. Pick a record, any of them & you’ll find a uniquely talented singer-songwriter with the ability to lasso & shape the many ideas he has about his music.

Daniel Romano's Outfit Announces US Tour - Closed Captioned

It’s another live album that is my pick of Daniel’s busy year. The aptly named “Okay Wow” came around in March, issued under the name Daniel Romano’s Outfit, recorded on their 2019 tour. With his brother Ian on drums, David Nardi (guitar), Roddy Rosetti (bass), Tony Cicero (organ) & Juliana Riolino (vocals) Daniel has assembled a blistering Rock & Roll unit. From the opening “Empty Husk” the band scorch through songs from his extensive back catalogue with a brio & energy that brings to mind fellow Canadian Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. His songs have always been dramatic & even the gentler country tracks benefit from this direct charge. “Hunger Is A Dream You Die In” from 2016’s “Mosey” makes the cut here because I think it’s the best of his many songs & I get to choose. This is 21st Century Rock not some Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen derivative & I can’t get enough. The Outfits set in Kristiansand, Norway was filmed & is an absolute delight. You are busy people, I hope that you can spare 45 minutes to enjoy one of today’s great songwriters & a band at the top of their game.

Here at loosehandlebars three is the magic number so I only have one more choice from 2020. More than honourable mention should be made to the fastidious Prog-Pop, gentle Psych of Tame Impala’s “The Slow Rush” & to “Punisher”, a radiant collection from Phoebe Bridgers, the heartbreak offset by her light conversational style & a dry sense of humour, marking her arrival in the big time. I read that as well as kicking over the statues Black Lives Matter, a timely, important reaction to violent institutional racism, is a Marxist organisation dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. In the words of the British collective SAULT, “You Know It Ain’t”!

Sault: Untitled (Rise) review – mystery collective make best album of 2020,  again | Music | The Guardian

The two “Untitled” albums released this year by SAULT, a unit that eschews publicity & promotion, are a wonderfully crafted blend of R&B beats, Neo-Soul, house, disco & world rhythms. I don’t know much about SAULT but I know that they know. The seamless. insistent groove of “(Black Is)” & “(Rise)” recalls club nights soundtracked by Bohannon & Roy Ayers. The last time I heard musical influences so capably configured into a whole new thing was when Massive Attack came around. The lyrics concerning the Black experience, oppression, loss, resistance, strength & hope, are in the tradition of Nina Simone, the Native Tongues & even the Last Poets. It’s been 50 years since Marvin told us “What’s Going On”, it’s shameful that this discussion has still to be had & it’s important that it is. SAULT made important music in 2020.

After 9 months of diminished social interaction I am like many of us suffering from pandemic fatigue. Those “what the fuck now?” moments don’t come around here so often, I follow the news less closely, ignore the views of amateur epidemiologists & willingly wear a mask in consideration of the health of those around me. The one statistic that I still find relevant is the daily record of deaths in the UK, a number that is still shocking, saddening & too high. This awful toll confirms that the actions of the British government, a fetid cocktail of incompetence, insensitivity, mendacity & corruption, have not matched the sacrifice & effort made by so many & that they should be held to account for for their failures. I am optimistic that community responsibility & a programme of vaccination offers hope for a healthier future however here in the not-so United Kingdom we are facing further economic uncertainty after the similar mismanagement of our separation from our trading partners in the European Union. I have considered expanding the parameters of this blog to include “Tasty Ways To Cook Your Shoes”, proof indeed that I have had too much time on my hands in 2020. I wish you all a Better, Busier New Year.


2020: The Year When Everything Happened And Nothing Happened (Danny McCahon)

It’s an annual pleasure to welcome celebrated Scottish playwright Danny McCahon to our short series of guest contributions to the blog. I would like to thank Danny for his support throughout the year, to wish his expanding family the Happiest of New Years with the hope that going to the football & to gigs become things again in 2021.

When Mal offered me some space on his blog to talk about highlights from 2020 I thought there wasn’t much point as nothing much had happened in 2020. The highlight for me was the birth of my gorgeous granddaughter, Phoebe, but I’ve bored enough people with tales of her magnificence without continuing it on my mate’s site. (bore away Danny, she really is a beautiful, happy baby)

Incidentally, she likes “Oh You Pretty Things” more than she enjoys “Kooks”.

Loosehandlebars, though, has been one of the constants through this year of unpredictability and something that usually brings me new knowledge and a bit of pleasure, so I felt it only right to pay a little back.

Those of us doing our bit for our fellow man have stayed close to home this year and my three selections here are close to my home. The last gig I saw was Earl Slick playing with Glen Matlock at the start of March, the last time I was in a cinema was to see “Tenet” at the start of September and the thing that stands out most from my memory of TV binge-viewing is “Band of Brothers” which just about everybody saw a couple of decades ahead of me. So I am sticking to records here.

I like old things but try to stay current and avoid being caught up in the vortex of nostalgia. Thomas Leer has been an important name in electronic music since way back and, despite the spotlight missing him for a while, the Port Glasgow maestro has never stopped moving forward. He’s avoided that vortex.

Dark Days: Thomas Leer – Emotional Hardware | Documentary Evidence

That meant the show he played to close a fantastic exhibition celebrating his and his friend Robert Rental’s contributions to UK music was anything but a jukebox of greatest hits. Instead it was an exciting 21st century genre-melding treat. Then in August of the year when nothing happened much of that night’s set appeared on the “Emotional Hardware” album. Here’s track five of six:

Thomas is from the next town to me. Keeping it local, just a few seats along from me at a Celtic home game you are likely to find three of the central characters that form The Bluebells, another lot associated with another time that have kept on keepin’ on. Each has his own current musical projects but when they get together for a Bluebells gigs you are going to hear tunes first aired on their 1984 hit album, “Sisters”.

The Bluebells - Sisters - Music

As the years have rolled on, the album’s reputation has grown and it has become sought after in the vintage vinyl market. The boys in the band, though, had never been totally happy with the album’s mix, the production on some tracks and the running order, so when Scottish label Last Night from Glasgow approached them to re-release the record, they took the opportunity to make it closer to the collection they always wanted it to be.

They added two tracks, replaced two existing tunes with versions produced during sessions with Elvis Costello and swapped the running order of the final two tracks. It’s an album I’ve always liked but hadn’t listed to from start to finish in a long time. My new green vinyl version sounded so fresh and the guys I would have bumped into at Celtic Park during a normal season have told me they are much happier with the mastering this time round.

Here’s a Bluebells song I was enjoying long before I was a father and am now enjoying all over again as a grandfather.

Foxy Orthodoxy | HIGHRESAUDIO

Next up is another Scottish songwriter with a track record. Kev Sherry is best known as the frontman of Glasgow indie band, Attic Lights. And – declaring my very local interest – he has enlisted my son, Roddy, to play drums live and in the studio for a number of side projects in recent years. This year Kev, with a hit graphic novel under his belt, released his first solo album,” Foxy Orthodoxy”, and the reviews have included words like ‘allegorical enchantment’ and ‘poignant lyricism’. Although I don’t disagree with any of that, I don’t think that should overshadow the fact that this is a record full of good pop songs. To me, “Foxy Orthodoxy” follows a Scottish lineage that includes Aztec Camera and Teenage Fanclub while, like those two, totally reflecting the times it was made in.

To promote the album, Kev brought together a young band he’s called Low Fruit, with Ken McCluskey of the aforementioned Bluebells as chief scout, and was ready to hit the road when the pandemic shut the venues, so he had to settle for a series of one-man-and-his guitar live streams.

In a year when we’ve all been looking for things to feel good about, this video brings a smile to my face. Produced by in-demand Scottish keyboardist, guitarist and producer, Kev’s sometimes bandmate Jim Lang, it makes me feel good and I hope it does the same for you.

Move To Another Groove (Soul December 19th 1970)

This final selection of the year from the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations of December 19th 1970 leaves me, just like all the others, spoilt for choice such is the quality of this 50 year old chart. This week’s Top 10 is Motown-packed, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder & Gladys Knight & the Pips grouped together at numbers 2, 3, 4 & 5. Rising 7 places to #7 is the ground-breaking “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go”, Curtis Mayfield’s solo debut after leaving the Impressions while at #9 Al Green’s “I Can’t Get Next To You”, a Motown cover, began a run of success which made him the most popular male vocalist in Soul. Keeping all these great records from the #1 spot was the only major hit by King Floyd & it is this good…

In late 1969 celebrated arranger/producer Wardell Quezergue (pronounced Kuh-zair) whose work had earned him a place at the top table of New Orleans music set up a deal with the Malaco label to use their modern studio in Jackson, Mississippi. In May 1970, in a borrowed school bus, he & five artists made the three hour drive north. During the resulting sessions he supervised the recording of two stone Soul classics. Jean Knight’s “Mr Big Stuff” (“who do you think you are?”) will still fill a dancefloor anywhere in the world & “Groove Me” by King Floyd was the current #1 record on the Cash Box chart.

King Floyd Tulsa Civic Center Concert Poster (1970s).... Music | Lot #89620  | Heritage Auctions

After a stint in the Army King Floyd III joined a gang transplanted from NOLA to Los Angeles led by producer Harold Battiste & Dr John. His album failed to attract attention so he returned to New Orleans to take a job with the Post Office. his trip to Malaco studios changed his fortunes when the self-penned, punchy, irresistible “Groove Me”, initially a b-side picked up regional airplay before busting out when Atlantic stepped in. Quezergue, with steadfast support from the session men, created a lovely collision between the rhythms of New Orleans & the drive of Memphis to create a new Southern Soul sound. It made the name of the studio & the rhythm section, labels sent their artists to Jackson hoping to share & it was influential on the pioneering disco of TK Records in Florida. King continued to record some fine tracks at the studio, the groovy “I Feel Like Dynamite” featured in a 2018 TV commercial back when Corona was just a beer, without the same success. Hey, he & we will always have “Groove Me”

The CHI-LITES | Soul music, Funk bands, Black music

Eugene Record’s high school group the Chanteurs became the Hi-Lites & both incarnations released singles. Another unit had claims to their current name so, in honour of their home city Chicago, they became the Chi-Lites. In the mid-Sixties they came to the attention of Carl Davis who had gathered & encouraged the city’s young talent at the Okeh label & aimed to repeat that in his new role as head of Brunswick’s Chicago operation. In Eugene he signed an ambitious musician & a prolific songwriter who responded to the mentorship of Davis. A fruitful partnership with singer Barbara Acklin found hits for her & others. When a piano track was added to the backing of Barbara’s “Am I the Same Girl” & released by Young-Holt Unlimited as “Soulful Strut” Eugene found himself as the writer/producer of a gold record. Having earned his trade & proved himself it was time for the Chi-Lites to step into the spotlight.

Chi-Lites / Delfonics / Chairmen of the Board 1970 Chicago Jumbo | Lot  #89526 | Heritage Auctions

OK Ms Beyonce Knowles, you got good taste. The opening blaring brass hook of “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)”, #20 this week, was a prominent sample on “Crazy In Love”, a world-wide super smash from her debut album. Eugene, properly, had a writing credit, a 21st century Grammy &, I’m sure, sizeable royalty cheques arriving in the post. In 1970 the Chi-Lites were consolidating the reputation they had made on their own debut “Give It Away” with two hits from the album “I Like Your Lovin’ (Do You Like Mine)”. Both the title track & “Are You My Woman” have got the Funk & owe quite a lot to the urgent vocal gymnastics of the Temptations’ new direction. The following 45 “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”, there was a fondness for a bracket in early 70s Soul, was in a similar vein & the group’s most successful yet. At the end of 1971 Eugene, gauging a change in taste, dusted of an older, slower song “Have You Seen Her”. This & “Oh Girl” took the Chi-Lites to the top of the Pop charts, giving the group a popularity on both sides of the Atlantic which they maintained for some years even after Record left for solo pursuits.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David Songs, 10 Works of Genius

I was painting the exterior of a shop in South West London directly opposite a vintage vinyl emporium…irresistible, of course. This was before record collecting became the new trainspotting for middle-aged men so bargains were to be had. These used records may have been slightly scratched but would sure look good in our stack so the right thing had to be done. That’s how unplayed copies of Dionne Warwick’s Golden Hits Parts I & II, on the US Sceptor label ended up round my house & it’s difficult to think of any other 24 track collection that is more beautifully crafted tunesmithery, wonderfully & sympathetically interpreted by a singer. Young Dionne’s group, the Gospelaires, were in-demand backing singers in New York when she was called upon to record demo vocals on the songs of Burt Bacharach & Hal David. The synergy was immediate, Dionne was signed to Sceptor & when “Anyone Who Had a Heart” & “Walk On By” were recorded in a morning session in November 1963 the only problem was which one should be released first. Both records made the US Pop Top 10 at a time when the British Invasion was all the rage. The reputations of the singer & songwriters were firmly established.

Dionne Warwick - Very Dionne (1970, Unipak, Vinyl) | Discogs

“Make It Easy On Yourself” was one of the first Bacharach/David songs Dionne was given but housewife turned Sceptor label boss Florence Greenberg passed on it & Jerry Butler ended up with the US hit record. Dionne would later express resentment about other artists having chart success with songs she considered hers but for the rest of the decade her sophisticated interpretations of often intricate songs ,which challenged the ephemeral nature of Pop music, provided an uninterrupted run on the Pop & R&B listings. “I Say A Little Prayer”, had us at the “wake up/make up” opening rhyme, the eerie beauty of “Walk On By” is another perfect record. We all have our favourites & I will never fail to be charmed by “Are You There (With Another Girl)” & “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)”. Dionne’s original of “Make It Easy…”was included on her 1963 debut album “Presenting…”. At #30 on the Cash Box chart this week was a live cut of the song performed at the Garden State Arts Center in her home state of New Jersey. This time around Marie Dionne Warwicke from East Orange was returning as an urbane, assured international superstar & on this track you can hear why.

I really do enjoy writing these posts about the R&B chart of 50 years ago. There have been times in 2020 when my coping mechanism for all this isolation business has caused a flatlining which affected any inspiration to write for the blog. I always found that a look at the current Cash Box listing would clear the cobwebs. I’m always saying that this was a Golden Age of Soul Music but listening to old favourites, re-discovering forgotten ones, hearing tracks that are new to me is genuinely exciting & transcends nostalgia. I haven’t looked at any of the charts from 1971 but it’s sure that I’ll keep on keeping on with this. Here’s to a busier, still soulful 2021 for us all.

Where Did All The Music Go? (Steve Pittaway 2020)

Regular contributor to the blog Steve Pittaway goes to all the gigs so that we don’t have to. It’s his hobby & it’s a fine one too. This year when live music stopped he was reduced to social media posts of the soundtrack to the increasingly unfamiliar family meals he now had time to prepare. He’s since calmed a little & reluctantly accepted the situation. Here’s his view on a severely curtailed year.

It’s been 9 months since I have been able to attend a proper, normal gig…it seems like a lifetime ago. This is the longest period of abstinence in the 41 years I’ve been attending music shows. Do I miss it? Hell Yeah! I do love spending time with my vinyl/CD collection but nothing compares to being in a crowded room with a band giving it their all on stage. Seeing a band on TV or listening to records just doesn’t give me the same feeling as a live performance & some of the best shows I have attended have left me buzzing for days after. OK, let’s start with the highlights of those concerts I was able to get to earlier in this very individual, hopefully one-off, year.

Back on Feb 2nd I made a trip down south to EartH in Dalston, North London to catch Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band. These days there are only a few artists that will get me to drive the five hour round journey to London, especially on a school night & Michael Head is certainly in that category. His tours are rare & normally a handful of dates one of those I will go the extra mile for, So if you want to catch him live you have got to be prepared to travel.

Birmingham 81 on Twitter: "Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band at EartH in  London last night. So much love in the room… "

There was no new album to promote, this was a run out for fresh members of the Red Elastic Band. This was my first time at EartH, a former cinema whose better days were around 70 years ago. Now renovated & a “cultural hub” no less, it retains its shabby chic (it’s the best kind). The band took to the large stage and struck up the opening chords to “Stranger” a song from the excellent “Waterpistol” album (1995) by Michael’s former unit Shack. Anyone familiar with Michael’s work with The Pale Fountains, Shack and then the Strands will be aware of his facility with melody & his talent to get those hooks in you. What followed was a songwriting masterclass. We were treated to 10 Shack songs and two songs from his solo output, slightly strange as I thought he would have been giving his solo songs more of a push. The one new song proved he still has a familiarity with a memorable tune. It was over far too quickly I could have stayed in the room for another 13 songs. The Red Elastic band provided the perfect backing, the occasional trumpet flourish a nice touch. At the end Micheal was grinning (he wasn’t alone) and seemed genuinely touched by the enthusiastic reaction from the audience.

Dreadzone came around in the early 1990s. Together with groups like Leftfield, Orbital, Prodigy & of course Massive Attack they made electronic heavily sampled dance music inspired by the 12″ mixes & Dubs they heard in British clubs. “Second Light (1995) yielded a Top 10 placing for “Little Britain” & 9 albums along they are still going strong. Formed by former Big Audio Dynamite drummer Greg Roberts a fluid line up now comprises Greg, vocalists MC Spee & Earl 16, ex B.A.D & Carbon Silicon bassist Leo Williams (that’s the great…!) & samples & sounds by James Bainbridge.

Dreadzone tour dates 2020 2021. Dreadzone tickets and concerts | Wegow  Great Britain

Having seen Dreadzone live on a number of occasions the one thing you are guaranteed from a show is a good time so expectations were high on the 29th February when my friends and I went to the 02 in Leicester. This was the first time that I had seen people wearing masks in an audience, a sign of things to come. The pandemic was starting to bite! Leo’s bass rumblings introduced the set & the band set to work, in high spirits & working hard to spread the good vibes. Dreadzone have always had a little more Reggae in their Jeggae &, with MC Spee’s audience encouragement, they are still about to nice up the dance. Well something like that, a Dreadzone crowd tends to bounce. I’m no dancer but it is hard to stand still in a Dreadzone gig as the music just makes you want to move. I shuffle at best, it’s close enough dancing. The whole room is moving and the mood is friendly and cheerful, the norm for a Dreadzone gig. I do wonder how a band like Dreadzone who seem to survive on live performances are going to get by until they can return to the road.

On the 3rd of March, with a national lockdown seeming to be inevitable, a friend offered a spare ticket to see the Temples back at the O2 in Leicester. I had seen the band as a support act when they were starting out with just a debut single & they were OK. I’m not the guy who turns down a night of live music anyway so let’s do it. The 4th of March 2020, over 9 months ago now, was the last time I was in a venue with a crowd listening to live music.

On To Something: The Return Of Temples | Features | Clash Magazine

Temples are 3 albums into their career and it is a testament to the band that they have endured limited airplay & being dropped by their label. The audience at was small, mainly hardcore followers & appreciative. The band dress code appears to be early 70’s fancy dress which make them look slightly out of place and time but then again so is their sound. Late 60’s psychedelia with a pop sensibility that occasionally slides into Glam Rock is no bad thing when it is done this well. I found myself happily nodding along and at the end turned to my friend and said how pleasantly surprised I was by their set and how much I enjoyed it.

Here is hoping that it isn’t too long before we can get back out there into venues enjoying the thrill of live music. I have tickets for shows that have been postponed and still no guarantee when or if they will go ahead. Gigs that I was looking forward to, The Seed Ensemble, Hugh Cornwell, Dean Wareham, Teenage Fanclub (kind of bittersweet without Gerry) and Chuck Prophet, haven’t happened. I’m very reluctant to book any other tickets at the minute as the lack of appreciation, support & sympathy for the creative arts from this omnishambles of a government gives me little confidence when artists will be able to tour & whether the venues where they can play will survive. A Merry Xmas & a Better New Year to us all.

That Was The Year That Wasn’t (Frannie Says)

It’s time for a select group of invited correspondents, good friends of the blog, to give their thoughts on the past year. It will be understandable, in these strangest of times, if the tone is a little more downbeat. We are though folk who take strength & delight in the small mercies of life & in music. First up, straight outta the wilds of Donegal Ireland, is Frannie Moran a man with plenty to say & when drink has not been taken to excess (joke) makes a lot of sense.

So, it’s that time of the year again and my mate Mal has asked me to put a few words to screen for his always entertaining and enlightening blog ” Loosehandlebars “.(shucks). What a year eh ? I try to avoid any mention of it now but 2020 has been entirely decimated due to Covid-19, no live football, no live gigs, bugger me I have had 2 bloody pints of Guinness since March, small wonder Diageo shares are falling!!  On a purely personal level, my year took a sharp downward curve when my brother-in-law and very close friend, Hugh passed away in early March. There is a void there, it will take a lot to fill it.

Northern Ireland fans in John Prine tribute after coronavirus death -

On the 7th of April there was more bad news when one of my all-time heroes, singer-songwriter John Prine succumbed to the dreaded virus. The hammer had come down fairly heavily at this stage, John was a funny guy who wrote and sang some very comical songs with a dry wit, he made me laugh a lot but then on the other side of the coin, he made my cry a lot, I was introduced to him by my friend Seanan Brennan, I had moved from Ballybofey to Ballyshannon in 1992, like previous transfers I tried to befriend local musicians and man, there were a fair few in my newly adopted hometown, Jason, Michael, Johnny, Stephen and Seanan whom I invited out to my wee gaff one night along with a few others, Seanan now plays with Kila but that particular night it was all about folk songs, ya know, Neil Young, Gram Parsons. He played John’s “Angel From Montgomery” &, I was instantly smitten with an artist I knew very little about. Nanci Griffiths had covered “Speed Of The Sound of Loneliness” a hit of sorts here in Ireland, a couple of weeks later I bought a cassette tape at a local market, it was the “Prime Prine” collection, 10 songs If I recall rightly (he doesn’t, there were 12) and each one a gem. It was soon followed by THAT debut record from 1971. I had long maintained that Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Round To Die” is the saddest song ever written but then I’d never heard “Hello In There”. The sense of pathos running through that song never fails to move me, makes me want to visit my mother more often and wishing I had visited my old man more often when he was alive, it is a stone cold classic.


Fair & Square: Music

I was fortunate enough to see John Prine perform on two occasions. The first time in Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey,Donegal (his wife Fiona is from just down the road) while he was touring the “Fair and Square” record (2005), his first new material in a decade. Guitarist Jason Wilbur accompanied then and remained constantly by his side until his passing. Fast forward a good few years to Vicar Street in Dublin, John had undergone surgery for a form of throat cancer, his voice was a bit more ragged but it was another memorable gig, Lake Marie being the highlight.  This gig took on an extra emotional dimension for me, it was the last gig I attended with my close friend Pa Roche, myself, Pa and his wife Pat had a glorious night, I will miss John Prine, he was a genuinely good man!

Khruangbin discuss their musical process, uniting styles and cultures, and  their favorite guitarists from around the world | Guitar World

New stuff, well there is so much stuff out there now with the web and all, it really is hard to keep up but one band has drawn me in completely and utterly. They are called Khruangbin and after a sup or two of pale ale I usually refer to them as “that new 3-piece from Texas”, that’s easier to pronounce! Like a lot of newer material, I was introduced to them by Mr Loosehandlebars. An EP recorded with Texan soul man, Leon Bridges, made an immediate impression & on further investigation I found myself loving this band who I for one cannot categorise. There is funk, dub, psychedelia, rock, eastern vibes, there is a whole lotta stuff going on here. The sinewy guitar binds it all together and as for the rhythm section, man, they are tight and the bass player is also stunning to look at (careful now Frannie). Their early records are almost entirely instrumental, on the latest, Mordechai has more vocals although, I suppose, mantras or chants would be a better description, anyway, their sound, it works for me, this one is taken from the aforementioned Mordechai, be prepared to chill.

Live music ha, you must be having a laugh! One bloody gig in 2020, Supergrass in the Olympia on the 14th of February, I always thought they were the best outfit in that whole Brit-Pop thing, 100 hooks per song, choruses to die for, they did not disappoint, Not ashamed to say that my grin was a yard wide when they launched into “Alright”, I bopped like any 59 year old bopper should but I think I may have torn something, no matter, a perfect gig in many ways, Supergrass do what it says on the tin, they entertain, the company I was in that night only added to the occasion, The McDonnell brothers, Pat and Gerry, once again I thank you and all your entourage, it was a mighty night’s fun!

So, this annus miserablis is soon to end. It was what it was and it wasn’t great to be honest but hey, Mayo Gaelic football team, having beaten Tipperary in the semi, have earned another shot at an All-Ireland title. My football team, Tottenham, at this moment in time are top of the Premier League. The coach, Jose Mourinho, is not everyone’s glass of Licor Beirão & sometimes his methods ain’t that pretty at all. If, a big IF certainly, he wins our first title for 60 long years then 2021 will be a year to remember for the right reasons. I’d just like to wish anyone who reads this a happy and peaceful Christmas, stay safe and take good care of yourselves and each other !

The Blues Are The Root, Other Musics The Fruits (Fargo)

Fargo (season 4) - Wikipedia

I’m currently enjoying Series 4 of the “Fargo” anthology created for TV by Noah Hawley. A Top 3 of my favourite films by the Coen Brothers can depend on which of their productions I have most recently viewed (though possibly not “Hail Caesar” (2016) but the 1996 movie that inspired the series is a constant on that shortlist. The preceding series were, like the film, set in Minnesota & ambitious casting matched to imaginative writing made for superior TV. This time around the setting is Kansas City, Missouri in 1951. It was a little slow out of the stalls & I had some initial reservations (later for those) but it has rounded the final turn & entered the home straight at a fine gallop. The black & white Episode 9, a detour into Kansas, tipped more than a cap to “The Wizard of Oz” while the penultimate Episode 10 started to tie the multi-storied tale together. It was this installment that sent me on a very enjoyable musical journey for the next two days. Here’s the first step.

Willie Dixon’s autobiography “I Am The Blues” (1990) is one of the best books about music that I have read. Born in Mississippi in 1915, one of 14 children, Willie’s stories are of the segregated South, a developing interest in music while serving teenage time on prison farms, a move to Chicago where a choice between boxing (he was a big man) & music was interrupted by 10 more months in the joint after a conscientious objection to the USA’s institutional racism led to a refusal to fight in World War II. By 1950 he was recording with the Big Three Trio & had already lived some life. It was his association with Chess Records where he made a prodigious & pivotal contribution, as a musician, writer, producer & talent recruitment, to the development & popularity of Chicago Blues. His involvement with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley & many others invokes a long list of achievement. Later he met & influenced young British Blues-obsessed players eager to play his songs. Every youth club Beat group tried “You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover”, Cream took a fine stab at “Spoonful” & in December 1964 the Rolling Stones were top of the pops with “Little Red Rooster”, the first (only?) Blues record to hit #1. Willie Dixon didn’t get paid or was recognised for all his work, when he sued Led Zeppelin over their lift of his lyrics to “You Need Love (“I ain’t foolin’, you need schoolin’) they settled out of court. It’s undeniable that Willie was a giant of twentieth century American music.

Koko Taylor - MojoHand - Everything Blues™

Koko Taylor was a protege of Dixon’s who, when he did bring her over to Chess, sold a million with “Wang Dang Doodle”, his song first recorded with Howlin’ Wolf. Subsequent recordings were not as successful, “Insane Asylum” was recorded in 1967, a b-side in a run of 45s compiled on her eponymous debut LP where her voice, stronger & more brash than Chess’ other female star, Etta James, enhanced a claim to the title “Queen of the Blues”. What a track it is, Willie & Koko both on full throttle. raw, primal & beautiful. Koko wang dang doodled at the 1967 American Folk & Blues Festival with harmonica master Little Walter & guitarist Hound Dog Taylor, filmed for posterity & a treasure of the Y-tube. There was a further Dixon produced LP, “Basic Soul” (1972) & she continued to record & perform until her passing in 2009.

As a Sixties kid I came to the Blues through the post-Mersey Beat groups & Bob Dylan’s debut album was a gateway to the Country Blues of the 1920s & 30s from the rural South of the USA. Train songs, death songs, going down to the crossroads to sell your soul to the devil, rudimentary recordings of musicians that could play guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell. I must admit that the more sophisticated Jazz passed me by as did the popular Gospel vocal harmony groups of the time. I liked both kinds of music, the Rhythm & the Blues. It was Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin”’ on his 1982 album “Nothing Can Stop Us” that led me to the 1943 original recording by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. This contemporary, perspicacious, humorous sermon concerning the USSR’s resistance to Fascism was exactly my kind of political artefact & further investigation was required.

The Golden Gate Quartet of America – Black Music Scholar

Formed in 1934 the Golden Gate Quartet were a big thing in the early 1940s, national radio shows, movie appearances & performing at the inauguration of President Franklin D Roosevelt. Wartime personnel disruption & changing public taste in Gospel diminished their popularity but their blend of spiritual sincerity & sophistication delivered through immaculate vocal arrangements ensured an impressive longevity. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (1946), a tailor-made warning from member Willie Johnson is certainly one of their greatest hits & has been covered by many artists. Also known as “Run On” it has been recorded by Elvis Presley, a long-time admirer who spent time with them in Paris when he was in the army & they were based in that city. In 2003 Johnny Cash included his take on one of the late, great valedictory records he made with producer Rick Rubin. I’m told that Moby extensively sampled a version by Bill Landford & the Landfordairs on his big selling album “Play”. I don’t really watch TV commercials so I’ve probably never heard it. On the timeline of African-American vocal music the Golden Gate Quartet are there as predecessors of Doo-Wop, Sam Cooke, the Tamla Motown units & even Hip Hop.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon Producing Blind Boys of Alabama - Rolling Stone
The Blind Boys of Alabama Bring the Down-Home Xmas Cheer - The Santa  Barbara Independent

The Blind Boys of Alabama, like the Golden Gate crew, have been around a long, long time. Formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf & Blind they were prominent in the more declamatory Hard Gospel style that had displaced the double G’s harmonies in public taste. Always popular among black audiences in the 1950s they received $50 for each track recorded which seemed generous but there were no royalties on sales. It wasn’t until the 1980s & an involvement in a musical which transferred to Broadway that there was exposure to a wider audience. In the first decade of this century the Blind Boys won 10 Grammy awards including one for Lifetime Achievement. Included in this was the 2002 album “Higher Ground” when producer John Chelew matched them with Robert Randolph & the Family Band & a bunch of classic Soul. It’s not just the title track, taken from Stevie Wonder’s masterful “Innervisions” that is fresh, fierce & Funky. Songs by Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, Prince “The Cross”, wow!), Jimmy Cliff & Funkadelic (wow again!) are taken to church. What a track their version of “Higher Ground” is & i’m very happy that watching telly has led me to this record.

Many TV series now have the appropriate soundtrack thing down & while none of them are ever going to beat “The Sopranos”, Series 6, Episode 14, closing with John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown”, “Fargo” is doing pretty well. The many strands of the saga are not all fully integrated, I took some time to be convinced that Jason Schwarzman could be a Mafia boss, fine actors Jack Huston & Timothy Olyphant are underused but old Kansas City is looking just fine Chris Rock is killing it & it’s great to see Salvatore Esposito, so memorable as Genny in “Gomorrah”, doing his unbalanced, very tough guy act again. I’ve got just the one episode to go & however it ends God’s gonna be doing a whole lot of cutting down, that’s for sure.