There have been concerts I attended when, as I have been leaving the venue, I have thought, “Well,that is some of the best music I have ever seen”. The Grateful Dead one enchanting night at Alexandra Palace, R.E.M. on two consecutive nights of the “Green ” tour, Taj Mahal on more than one occasion. It’s a long list. The night I saw Joe South is the one that returns to my mind most regularly. It was not only Joe’s contribution that evening which made it so memorable. Writing about Joe has brought it fresh to my mind again.
The concert was billed as an “Southern Songwriter’s Circle”. These gigs , where the artists share the stage, are more commonplace today. This was the first of it’s kind in London and they hadn’t really got the format down. It kinda helped make the night unique. There were five artists on the bill which is too many. Now there are usually three. The deal was that a compere would ask questions of the participants who would share their secrets about song-writing. The M.C. was Charlie Gillett a respected label boss/D.J./facilitator on the British scene. Charlie was one of the good guys, his book about early rock & roll, “The Sound of the City” is one of the finest books on music I have read…I have read more than a few. This was not your night Charlie. The first time he tried to initiate a conversation he was shouted down by the audience. “Play the music !” was the rallying call. Gillett was not heard from again and we got the night we wanted…more music.
Well, there are few finer ways of opening a concert than hearing Guy Clark perform “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”, the original “outlaw country” classic. Guy wrote some great songs but “Old No 1” released in 1975 is his finest LP. A good friend of mine, still performing and recording, included this in his set through the mid 70s. It was a song I loved and to hear it played by the writer was most satisfying. Whichever way the concert went this was one to savour. The clip is from a movie, “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary on the Austin, Texas music scene centred around Townes Van Zandt. It captures some fine music.
Guy Clark sat to the left of the stage. Next to him was the youngest of the performers, the least commercially successful of the five. Vic Chesnutt, out of Athens Georgia, had recorded three LPs by this time and was less well known to the audience. In a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands since a teenage car accident there is a natural simplicity and frailty about his work. He was sharing the stage with some heavyweights and he performed some of his lighter and more accessible songs with great charm. Two weeks later a friend and myself went to see Vic in his own show at a dark little club in North London. We were at the front and helped lift his wheelchair on to the small stage. He, with his band, melted and then broke our hardened hearts with his individual take on Southern Gothic. (I ended the night discussing Flannery O’Connor with a well known comic actor). In a bigger auditorium, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the river, Vic was happy to be the light relief.
Joe South was at centre stage. I have written about his career and his songs before. His contribution maintained the high quality of the evening’s entertainment.
The two men to the right of the stage are two of the men I most admire in music .I am not going to attempt to do them full justice in this memoir, They merit, and will get, longer consideration.
Here was Dan Penn, part of the history of soul music through his time at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and at American Recording in Memphis. Those young white men from the Southern states with a love for R&B, a talent for writing, playing and recording music which went around the world, had helped to shape a sound regarded as predominantly African-American. They must have led such fascinating lives as their songs were transformed into gold records during a time when some of their work colleagues could not eat in the same restaurants because of the colour of their skins.
Tonight Dan played his greatest hits. Dressed in his hillbilly denim dungarees he could be unassuming when he knew that there was not a member of the audience who had not been touched by one or all of these songs. “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman were perfect but it was “Dark End of the Street” which absolutely rocked the place. It may have been James Carr, Aretha Franklin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder or Richard and Linda Thompson who put you on to this song. Great voices were attracted to the song and never approached it lightly.
Dan Penn’s performance was conducted in an awed silence. This was how this song had been originally and we were privileged to hear it. When the song finished the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was not for a great performance it was for writing a song of such stature. I had been in the middle of similar appreciations at concerts but never one which contained such an element of gratitude. It was a fine moment.
Finally, on the right of the stage, sat by a piano, was a true legend of American music. I love the music of New Orleans. I find the way there is a complex though logical rhythm but sometimes only a hint of a structured song both fascinating and irresistable. I discovered this idiosyncratic sound through the 60s records of Lee Dorsey. I have moved forward with it and looked backwards to the musicians of the 40s and 50s. The fulcrum and link to all of this music is Allen Toussaint.
Toussaint is more visible these days. Peter Buckley in “The Rough Guide to Rock” describes this appearance as a “return from exile”. You could not tell. A trim man, dapper in a suit, he must been confident that whatever he chose to play there would be big love for him. I’ve seen a tracklist of his songs from that night. I’m sure that “Fortune Teller”, the Benny Spellman tune was a medley spanning “Mother In Law” (Ernie K Doe) and “Working In A Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey). I have a memory of a shouted request for “On Your Way Down”, recorded by Little Feat , a band held in high regard in the UK. I remember him playing at least a part of it. If he did not and I’m guilty of a wish-fulfilment of one of my sweetest dreams then I apologise for misleading anyone.
Allen Toussaint provided my personal highlight of the evening. To see him play was good enough but there was one particular song I was hoping to hear. For many years his “Southern Nights” LP had been one of the most treasured in my collection. I have seen reviews which refer to psychedelia or use the adjective “trippy” but that just ain’t right. The use of the title track as a motif throughout the set is a reverie anchoring the journey through the varied styles and talents of the composer. “Southern Nights” had been my go-to late night feeling good record for a very long time. (Feeling bad ? “No Other” by Gene Clark).
When Allen’s turn came around again he told a story about his Creole grandparents. I knew this was a prelude to him playing “Southern Nights” and , I believe, the word is “frisson”. There were a few empty seats at the back of the hall. I left my place and went to sit by myself…this was a personal thing. I have had few musical experiences which can rival hearing this most beautiful of tunes played in front of me by the man responsible for it’s creation. Now I am older such experiences can be somewhat lachrymose. Back then this horny-handed construction worker was warmed by an inner glow of contentment. Man, it felt good !
We lived, at this time, in Westminster, just a spit away from the Thames. We left the gig and walked in the summer night along the Albert Embankment on the South Bank of the river. Feeling good, we were in no hurry. We sat on a bench, smelled the air and took in the illuminated view of the Houses of Parliament. We sat and smoked quietly, buzzing that London could be as great a place as it was being that night. If there had been a better concert on the planet that night then good luck to it. It was after midnight. The bench, the view, the river, the city, was ours. We knew it was not ours to keep, by the morning we had to share with 8 million others. That’s why the times you felt this way were to be honoured and then filed away to memory.