My mate can drink 3 pints of lager through a straw in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.
According to some, this makes him a ‘legend’.
Brian Wilson is regarded by many as a ‘genius’.
I would argue these labels have caused problems for both men and have probably influenced their behaviour and probably not in a good way.
Fortunately, these days, Brian Wilson is old enough (73) and wise enough to realise that Einstein was a genius and yer man Brian Wilson is extremely good at what he does and what he did. It kind of takes some of the pressure off.
Crushed up against the barrier for one of a very small number of UK dates at the ‘Together The People’ Festival in Brighton on a soaking wet and windswept evening that screamed ‘Autumn!’ very loudly isn’t really the vibe you want upfront of the appearance of the guy most responsible for connecting music and summer in America in the sixties, but this is Britain after all, and all that a temperate climate implies. Or to put it another way I’m cold and wet and I really hope this is worth it.
The ensemble set-up is promising though, with a massive array of instruments you aren’t likely to see at many festivals this year. This is perhaps unsurprising as Wilson’s band intend to recreate “Pet Sounds”, the 1966 album which forced the Beatles to ‘up their game’; a fantastically complex concoction which even with today’s technologies must be a challenge to present. For it is 50 years since Brian Wilson recorded “Pet Sounds”, and this tour honours that landmark.
It is also a ‘good sign’ when the best part of a dozen musicians troop on, including The Man Himself and fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, who is so fabulously wealthy he CAN’T be doing this for the money. This clearly isn’t going to be a bargain basement cabaret trip. These boys look like they mean this.
But what are we going to get? Fabulous though it is, the album is not two hours long. Intentions stated straight away, though and after the briefest of intros Wilson announces the band’s intention to start with the ‘finest record The Beach Boys ever made’ – a sentiment Al Jardine seemed to concur with – “California Girls”. Cue the mellotron-style opening and flatulent orchestration, which sounds like distilled essence of summer, and off we go. Rinky-dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, Game On, we’re off and running. “I Get Around”, ”Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe” in short order, followed by Jardine taking the lead on “California Saga”.
So, twenty minutes in and we’ve already had songs about girls, cars, California surf culture. That’ll do me, lads, we can all go home happy now. Quit while you’re ahead.
On, then, troops Blondie Chaplin, a South African guitarist who was a Beach Boy for a year or so in the early 70’s. He’s a real old Les Paul-totin’ rocker and he’s been in with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and insert name here. Some observers have been a bit unkind about his contribution to the tour but I must say I really think it added a bit of mid-set ‘grit’ to proceedings and he made a fine job of “Wild Honey” and the massively under-rated “Sail On Sailor”.
After that Wilson introduces the “Pet Sounds” section of the show, slightly apologetically announcing that we’ll be back to some good old rock n roll later; but for now, the band will present us with the more personal and intimate delights of probably the most influential American album of the sixties (a claim I make despite the fact it took America about two decades to realise this).
And sure enough that’s exactly what they do, from the angel’s harp and six-ton drum strike which announces “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, through the Folkeoke of “Sloop John B” and the song which Jardine blithely reminds us is Paul McCartney’s favourite song, the majestic, dignified and perfect “God Only Knows” through to the crystalline beauty of “Caroline, No”, complete with the audio train charging across the stage marking the end of the album with the barmy barking dog et al.
And did they pull it off?
Too right they did.
But how? It is no secret that the ageing process and the difficulty of the journey has robbed Brian Wilson of some of that fabulous range and vocal flexibility. He also seems to need a bit of help with the lyrics, using a sight screen linked to a tablet computer. No shame in that. That’s just using technology to support what you’re doing. No different to using a PA system or an FX pedal. And he has another formidable weapon in his armoury as well. He’s in fine voice trucking through the mid range sections of the likes of “California Girls” but when it all gets a bit much he chucks the ball across to Matt Jardine, who was pitch-perfect all night and reached the places which a 73-year voice could no longer be reasonably expected to scale (and in fairness, sometimes never did; many of the most striking voice parts on the original recordings weren’t Brian Wilson).
He’s also got Al Jardine. We were warned upfront of the tour that he might not be at all the dates, but I don’t see how. Quite apart from his audible contributions to proceedings he did seem to be a key part of Traffic Control on stage; a lot of what happened seemed to be going ‘through’ him and if that’s the case then you can call me Al, for this was a masterclass.
And Wilson’s penultimate secret weapon; the band. With a total age somewhere around 10,000 years or so they are probably the oldest collective I have ever seen at a rock gig; but what you get is the sum total of a great many misspent youths. If I were Brian Wilson, even if I reached the point where I couldn’t sing anymore or tinkle the ivories I’d probably still want to tour with them just for the sheer joy of hearing my compositions played before a live audience with such love and craft. They are very special musicians.
All great musicians attract the best musicians. That’s a given. But these are something else. At times the sound from percussion, through keyboard to the bass sax and back through the spectacular control of the often mind-boggling bass guitar parts, was breath-taking.
And the final clincher is the material. “Pet Sounds” played live is an earth-shattering experience. And to think this guy created this when he was only 23. It is a work of, errm…..
And just in case anybody thinks it is home time; how about “Good Vibrations”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann” – played more rocked-up than I recall and evoking the ‘garage’ feel of the original version by The Regents – “Fun Fun Fun” and a balls-out “Surfin’ USA”. Ensemble bow, no encore, PA system plays “Beach Baby” by British band First Class, and a slightly stunned and absolutely soaked clutch of folks make their way back through the Brighton mud.
Now hear ye. We’re in the 90th minute with this now. Catch this tour. I don’t care what you have to do. Go to Oslo if you have to. Yes, Brian Wilson will barely move throughout the evening. Yes, his voice isn’t capable of doing all the things it did a while ago. But…..the body of work, the range of songs played, the virtuosity of the band, the sheer richness of the sound. And the voices. The Voices, plural. Unfortunately due to the age-related limitations I’ve already referred to I can’t give this the 5-star review it probably deserves because as I’ve said before, you can only review what is in front of you. But it was pretty clear to me I had been in the presence of genius.
Damn. That G – word again. Sorry, Brian.
I had the opportunity to meet up with MusicRiot favourite Hannah Aldridge just before her sold-out show at Green Note in Camden which is part of her current tour with Lilly Hiatt, taking in Northern Europe, England and Scotland. We talked about her new album, her previous album “Razor Wire” and a lot of other things along the way:
Allan – Good to see you again, Hannah.
Hannah – Good to see you too.
Allan – Back in the UK and you’ve been doing a European tour as well.
Hannah – I have, yes.
Allan – How did that go?
Hannah – It’s been really good actually. We did the Netherlands; I went back to Hamburg and played and I’ll be doing Norway at the end of it. It’s always fun to do Europe in general but it was fun this time because I explored a new market, which was the Netherlands. I haven’t played there before; it’s definitely different and it’s good to keep moving forward and forge new territories, so that was the goal this time.
Allan – I think Northern Europe really gets Americana doesn’t it?
Hannah – Well, I think from my perspective, the people who really appreciate what I do are people who can speak English well enough to understand the lyrics because, as much as I don’t want to admit this, my music is not quite as interesting without the lyrics. I wouldn’t call myself a really interesting guitar player or anything and I wouldn’t want to listen to me if I couldn’t understand what I was saying. That’s such a big part of it, and what I’ve noticed is that people who speak English fluently are the ones that gravitate towards what I’m doing.
Allan – And you’re doing a mini tour of Scotland this time.
Hannah – I am doing Scotland. I was trying to think if I’ve ever done a show in Scotland. I’ve been there, but I don’t think I’ve ever played there.
Allan – I think, like Northern Europe, Scotland really gets Americana as well and I don’t think country ever really went away in Scotland.
Hannah – It’s really interesting the UK how every country has subtle differences in the music they like. Ireland is very different than England in terms of musical taste and Scotland I assume would be the same, but I’m not really sure what to expect because I haven’t played there.
Allan – Well I grew up in Scotland, and Scots like good songs. They like a good melody but they like a message as well.
Hannah – Well that’s good to know; hopefully they’ll like what we’re doing.
Allan – And I think the rooms that you’re playing tend to attract appreciative crowds.
Hannah – I’ll look forward to it; that makes me feel good about it.
Allan – Just to go back in time a bit, which artists would you say influenced you when you were growing up.
Hannah – That’s interesting, because I didn’t really start writing music until my early twenties, so nobody really influenced me growing up because I didn’t want to be a musician until my twenties. That being said, there were a lot of artists that I listened to growing up that now influence me, Bonnie Raitt being one of them and Tom Petty being another. I was thinking earlier, someone asked me in an interview what three artists have shaped me as a musician and I looked at him and said Gillian Welch, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty.
It’s interesting because sometimes I actually feel like I’m writing something that sounds like a mix of those things, so I do think those people do heavily influence me but, at the same time, there’s so much I’ve listened to since that really shaped me too. I think Gillian Welch gave me permission as a female to write like a man and I didn’t discover her until later; she was very influential. And Bonnie Raitt gave me permission to play with the boys too and to stand up and be respected the same way that a man is and if there are any female musicians I can think of that men are shamelessly devoted to in terms of musicality, it would be Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch, and that’s pretty cool because a lot of the time you’ll hear ‘I don’t know, it’s a girl, I don’t like girls with a guitar’, but Gillian Welch and Bonnie Raitt seemed to break out of that, so that was cool for me too.
Allan – And what about your Dad (Walt Aldridge, Muscle Shoals songwriter and performer), did he influence you either way?
Hannah – In my decision to be a musician or in my musical pedigree…
Allan – In your decision to be a musician…
Hannah – He strongly tried to influence me not to be a musician and, because of the personality I am, that actually pushed me in the other direction very hard and I thought ‘OK, we’ll see’. He’s really tough about that kind of stuff – he’s not easy to impress and it’s a different level when it’s your kid. It’s really hard to be objective about what they’re doing so he really, to this day, he calls and says ‘Why are you doing this? You can do things that pay a lot more’ and I say ‘The same reason you did it’.
It’s really interesting that what I’ve learned with him is that we function better when we don’t talk about music because we have such different opinions on it and we’re in such different markets. He was making music at a time that it was just totally different.
Allan – So, if you had to put a label on your music, what would you call it?
Hannah – I wouldn’t call it Americana, because I don’t really know what Americana is and it’s really hard for me to justify putting myself in a genre where I go ‘I don’t know what this is’, but in the same way, whatever genre you would put Ryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch in, whatever box you put them in, I guess I would fit in the same box. I think my description of my music is probably very different than other people’s, which is strange too. My description of it would be Southern rock, something like that. Singer/songwriter, Southern Rock; I’m a confused person. I’m confused when I walk out of the house every day about what to wear because I don’t know who I am half the time, so maybe some days I look like this and some days I look like that and it’s the same with writing. I think I’m constantly on a journey to figure out who I am in general but also as a musician so that makes it really hard for me to say ’This is what kind of music I do’.
Allan – I noticed you’ve created a lot of different visual identities over the years…
Hannah – I have, and think it’s become a part of the whole thing in that I‘m constantly trying to figure out what works for me as a person, and I think, more than any kind of steady identity I could give, that’s actually more reflective of me as a person than anything, that I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in to the world and I think that does change a lot for me. I played a show in Nashville a while ago and a big booking agent came out and they said to me ‘You know, I really, really like your music, but the look just doesn’t go with the music.’ And I laughed and said ‘Really, what is the look supposed to be, because I’ve been trying to figure that out for twenty-eight years.’ (Laughs). I think I’m just always going to be trying to reinvent myself, and I think Ryan Adams gave me permission to do that. He’s made it work, musically, and I hope to do the same.
Allan – Do you see more as a writer or a performer?
Hannah – A writer, absolutely a writer because what I really wanted to be was a staff writer. What I really wanted to do when I started this whole thing was to be a writer for film and TV. I wanted to be the person that sat in my room in my pyjamas and a bowl of cereal and made really dark music for horror movies, you know. It’s really interesting how fate, or whatever you may call it, pushed me down this path of being an artist and I reluctantly was like ‘I don’t wanna do this. I hate being on stage’. I was joking with Lilly (Hiatt) that, literally, before big shows for the first couple of years performing, I would watch Michael McDonald videos before to keep me from having anxiety, because you can’t have anxiety while you’re watching “Ya Mo Be There”, you just can’t. I would really have to push myself to do these things because I felt uncomfortable. Now, I love performing, I think it’s great and I see all the wonderful things about it, but it was definitely not something that just came naturally to me. I felt very intimated buy it and really I‘ve always enjoyed the process of being creative. So, I think in that way, I’m definitely more of a writer than a performer, you know.
Allan – “Razor Wire” (Hannah’s debut album) felt like a really personal album and it felt like there was a lot of autobiography in there as well…
Hannah – “Razor Wire” was an autobiography of where I was in my love life in a lot of ways. At that point in my life I was going through a divorce and I was trying to find out if I was capable of ever loving again and what that meant and if was a complete screw-up and all of these things and meanwhile also writing about my experiences with these other guys I was going out and dating and then at the same time. Songs like “Black and White” were what was going on in my personal life with Jackson (Hannah’s son), being a young mom, those kind of things. “Razor Wire” was definitely very autobiographical.
My new record that I’ve been writing also is, but in a very different way. I kind of went backwards and started writing about my life before that when I was a really heavy drug user and a really bad drunk and everything that led me to that point and trying to sort through all those feelings, growing up super-religious and feeling alienated by that and also fast-forwarding a bit to the age that I am now, approaching my thirties and being fearful of that. So that chunk of time was “Razor Wire” and I think the new record is a bit of a prequel to that. I think it’s what I write best; I’m not good at that third person stuff, so it was definitely a very personal record.
Allan – I played a copy of “Razor Wire” to a friend in radio and he said that there were three hits, if you could actually get them out there.
Hannah – That’s the thing that’s tough about it. It’s all about PR when you get to the point that I’m at now. It’s about somebody recognising that you’re worth putting money into because you’ve got the songs and you’re slowly building up to that point, but I watch it happen with people all around me and you go ‘Well, I’ve got good songs too’. All you can do is just (Lilly and I have talked about this a lot since we’ve been on the road together) stay focused and say ‘I’m gonna keep writing good songs’ and know that it’s not about me, whether or not it’s a hit. It’s about the fact that I don’t have millions of dollars to put into promotion. One day maybe I will, but until then all I can do is continue to write great songs.
Allan – If the catalogue of songs is there and the break comes…
Hannah – Absolutely. You can have the publicity but without the songs it doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen that happen a lot with people around me too where they get that shot and they don’t have the material to back it up. I’m not saying I absolutely have the material, but I think that it’s important to really focus, until you get your shot, on working up to that so that you’re ready for it. If I had the opportunities I wanted when I first released “Razor Wire”, I probably wouldn’t have performed well on Conan O’Brien or performed very well at The Ryman, which are the dreams that I have, but I have to recognise that I have to put in the time to get there so that when I do have those shots, I really kill it and that takes time. All of this takes a lot of patience.
Allan – I guess Maverick (festival in Suffolk) is one of those opportunities isn’t it?
Hannah – Sure. Maverick is really cool. I love playing there because it’s one of those things where I get to connect with a lot of different artists and the other thing that’s really cool about is that everybody that I see around England, I can see them all in the same place and that’s really cool. I see some really devoted fans, the promoters that have helped me so much, the Americana UK people and artists and it’s really neat for me because it’s everyone in one vicinity and I really enjoy Maverick Festival every single year.
Allan – You mentioned the new album briefly. How’s that going at the moment?
Hannah – It’s going awesome. I’ve got everything written and I’ll be recording as soon as I get home and I’ll be done by July 30th and from there it’ll just be setting a release date. I think it’s gonna be great; it’s funny because the producer the producer that’s doing the record this time around, I wrote “Save Yourself” with, he’s someone I’ve played with and he’s someone I’ve written a lot of songs about as well. We grew up together actually and he’s so in tune with my music that it just made sense to get him to produce the record and he’s taken the songs and shaped them in a way that I can’t do. That’s really cool because I’ve never had that before where I wrote a song and gave it to somebody else and let them manicure it a little bit. It’s like adding a whole new level to the songs and that’s really cool. I’m really excited to hear how they all end up.
Allan – Well the one that I’ve heard, that you played here last time, “Goldrush”, hit me instantly and it’s rare that a song does that.
Hannah – I’m glad that you like that. I really like that song. Usually I have a good gut feeling about a song when I like one or, if it makes me a bit teary when I sing it the first couple of times, I know it’s good. Actually I had two killer co-writers on that song and that concept was so complicated for me to sort through in my mind that I called two people that I thought ‘I know they can help me’ because I don’t want to take that song idea to just anybody because I knew it could be a really cool song, so I called up two people I knew could really help me tie up the loose ends on it. I sat and talked to them about the idea and said ‘This is what I’ve got written and I don’t know how to tie this in’ and they helped me put that together so I’m really grateful for them helping me do that. I do love that song. I think it’s a good one, I think it’s meaningful and I think it approaches a topic that people don’t wanna talk about, which is getting older, so I’m glad that you like that one.
Allan – And you’re going electric this time round…
Hannah – I am going electric this time round. I was nervous as could be. I had dreams before this tour that I got out on the road and my electric didn’t work, because I’m so comfortable with my acoustic guitar, but I’m making a point with this record to really push myself and I’m trying to push out of that box that people are putting Americana in because I don’t have to be this certain thing because you’re put in Americana, it’s so broad, you know, and I really wanted to push the boundaries of what people thought of me as an artist and maybe what they think I’m gonna put out musically. I wanna stay within reason and not get too crazy, but try to get myself out of my comfort zone. I felt like a lot of these songs are meant to be played on electric and it doesn’t make sense to go out with an acoustic and try to play them; they just don’t translate so I’m literally learning in front of people on this tour how to deal with this electric guitar because I play it at home and I write on it, but I don’t go on tour with it very often, and if I do, I have a band behind me, it’s not just me standing up there with an electric. At this point in the tour, I feel really comfortable. The first day or two, I was sweatin’ bullets up on stage trying to figure out how to do everything, but it’s fun and it adds something interesting for me because it’s so easy to get bored when you play songs hundreds and thousands of times and you think ‘I don’t wanna play this song anymore’, but it’s been fun to revisit “Razor Wire” on the electric.
Allan – One final question. Have you got a song, yours or someone else’s that makes you cry?
Hannah – I have some of mine that make me cry. Other people’s songs? Pretty much any John Moreland song ever written; those make me cry. “God’s Medicine”, “Cherokee”; pretty much all of his songs are so damned good, I would say every John Moreland song and “Hallelujah” does as well; that song always gets to me too because there’s a couple of lines in there that really speak to me on a lot of levels.
Allan – Thanks very much Hannah.
Hannah and Lilly will be playing the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on June 21st, The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on the 22nd and Music in the Suburbs in Glasgow on the 23rd.
We reviewed Bob Malone’s excellent “Mojo EP” earlier this year and a couple of months later we sent Allan out to the badlands of Southend-on-Sea to see the final show of Bob’s UK tour. We were so impressed that we asked Bob to contribute to this feature. Here’s Bob’s festive favourite five:
‘Tis the season, and all that sort of thing; I can’t lie -- I get radically sentimental about the holidays. For most of the year, I bash pianos, sing songs of alienation and heartbreak, and knock out one-nighters like the road warrior that I am, but come Christmakuh, don’t come around here looking for any of that action -- I’ll be busy baking cookies, bitchez! These five records mean a lot to me, and they are what I think of when I think of this time of year.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” -- Vince Guaraldi Trio Vince was one of the great jazz pianists, with a magical, melodic, understated style all his own. This music is the perfect companion to what was probably most perfect Christmas TV special ever made. You’ll smile, you’ll reflect quietly, you get a little melancholy, and you will dig that swinging rhythm section every year for the rest of your life. Oh, and I have this record on green vinyl -- you know you want one. Timeless.
“The Spirit Of Christmas” -- Ray Charles This record is so good, you don’t even have to wait for the holidays to put it on. Crazy hip arrangements, and Ray singing his ass off and playing a sweet, sweet Fender Rhodes throughout. He even manages to make “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” sound badass. There will never be another Brother Ray, so bow down and dig. I should note, however, that this record has the widest bad-album-cover-to-great-music spread ratio ever. A book definitely not to be judged by its cover.
“A Very Special Christmas” -- Various Artists This mid 80s collection sold gazillions and is full of great tracks -- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band doing the great Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” (way cool, but not as good as the 1977 bootleg of Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” which just can’t be touched -- I’m from New Jersey -- this shit is IMPORTANT!), Chrissie Hynde’s snow-meltingly sexy version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and Madonna totally nailing “Santa Baby” -- and I frigging HATE Madonna -- but credit where credit is due. Most importantly, though, it’s got Run -- D.M.C. doing “Christmas In Hollis” -- which just might possibly be the greatest thing ever… “It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens, mom’s cookin’ chicken and collard greens…” Yes, Indeed. Oh and speaking of Charles Brown, everyone needs to own “A Very Special Christmas II” just for the recording of his duet with Bonnie Raitt on the aforementioned “Merry Christmas Baby.” It’s the kind of thing Top-5 lists were made for.
“Baroque Masterworks for The Festive Season” -- Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Betcha didn’t see this one coming! Before I discovered rock and roll and the blues, and Return to Forever, and the New Orleans piano professors, and “The Chronic” -- I was an 11-year-old classical piano prodigy and this was one of the first records I ever bought with my own money. It’s got the Pachelbel Canon, and the Torelli Christmas Concerto on it. Just get it. It’ll make you weep.
“Come Darkness, Come Light” -- 12 Songs Of Christmas” -- Mary Chapin Carpenter A dozen original Christmas tunes by one of our great songwriters -- not the normal celebratory, sentimental, or breezy types of things you hear this time of year, they are instead reflective and realistic. When you have that seasonal melancholy, and you need to dig deep -- this is the one you need to hear.
Earlier this year we reviewed the Chris While and Julie Matthews album, “Who We Are”, so when the time came to put together this year’s High Fives, we asked Chris While for a contribution. Here are her five favourite guitar breaks.
Richard Thompson’s lyrical riffs after the first verse in “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” -- Fairport Convention. I know every note of that solo and can’t help humming along with it. Richard is so musical it hurts!
Michael Landau on “Native Son” -- James Taylor. Dreamy notes with so much space, I can just listen to that outro again and again.
Gerry Douglas on “Forget About It” -- Alison Krauss. When he goes into that minor section in the solo, I stop breathing.
Howard Lees, “Now That Love is Gone” from our album “Perfect Mistake”. I have been playing with this genius player now for 30 years! When Julie Matthews and I recorded this song it ended up being a rumba with a tango bridge. We just gaped at each other when Howard broke into classical Spanish style, there isn’t anything he can’t play -- incredible!