It’s a musical ‘all you can eat’ buffet; a long-time outsider’s view of American popular music exploring some of the high protein meat dishes, but meandering through some of the more delicately flavoured and textured dishes as well. To add to the complexity, it’s a set of songs created by a self-taught musician who also happens to have studied for a popular music degree. Sophistication and raw rock power are both on the menu for this musical feast. On his previous album, “Whatever You Wanted”, Bob Bradshaw saved the best (in my opinion) for last, closing the album with the wonderful road song, “The Long Ride Home”. On “American Echoes”, he opens with the lovely, acutely-observed “Exotic Dancers Wanted”; all of smalltown America is there as he melds Tom Waits with Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” to create a quiet classic of a song about desperation, drugs, booze and pole-dancing. He even throws in a W.B. Yeats reference.

To keep the culinary metaphor on the boil, “American Echoes” is a smorgasbord of musical stylings, or a pick ‘n’ mix if prosaic is your preference. It ranges all the way from the out and out rocker “Weight of the World”, with its huge riff, two guitars and The Who stylings to the acoustic ballad “Stella” with a Chris Izaak guitar sound and a vocal that’s a dead ringer for Elvis Costello in lower-register ballad mode.

There’s a bit of lyrical invention as well, to match the musical melange. “My Double and I” is a modern take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme matched up with a laid-back New Orleans jazz groove (with a nod towards Steely Dan’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo”), while “Working on My Protest Song” combines the kind of rhythms Paul Simon discovered in Africa with a mildly sarcastic dig at musicians who opportunistically appropriate protest movements for their ends. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is that Bob Bradshaw has produced another very fine album indeed. “American Echoes” is packed with great lyrical and musical ideas and gets better with repeated plays.

“American Echoes” is released in the on UK Fluke Records on Friday October 20.

rachael-sage-interview-scrollerAs far as interviews go, I think I’ve been really lucky. In six years, I’ve never had that experience of the uncooperative, bored, jet-lagged or just plain hostile interviewee. I’ve had to work in cupboards stage-side while rock bands soundchecked, but everyone I’ve met has been interesting and charming. I’m pleased to say that Rachael Sage (singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, artist and designer) extended my winning streak when I met up with her before her performance at the Discovery showcase at 229 on Great Portland Street to talk about her new album “Choreographic” and her current UK tour (among other things). I even added a new Yiddish word to my vocabulary. Here’s how it went:

Allan – Hi Rachael.

Rachael – Hello.

Allan – How’s the tour going so far?

Rachael – The tour’s been really great. This tour’s a little bit different because, in addition to the club shows at night, we’re also doing workshops in the daytime along the tour route at various schools, either performing arts schools or the dance and drama departments of general schools along the way and it’s been fascinating. I’ve never really done that before; I’m not a teacher, I’m kind of inexperienced at that, but I seem to have a special relationship with kids between nine and fourteen so we’ve been enjoying and learning a lot.

Allan – And presumably that means that you’re performing at unusual times.

Rachael – Indeed it does. We’ve had some crazy call-times to meet at the tour van in the morning, like seven-thirty in the morning to drive a couple of hours to perform at 10 a.m. Actually, this morning we played at 9:30. But on the upside, our jet-lag is so confused that it’s non-existent; we don’t know what time zone we’re in. When we go home to New York, it’ll probably be easier to re-acclimate.

Allan – When you come to the UK, do you find the audiences very different from American audiences?

Rachael – I suppose it would be more politically correct to say no, that audiences everywhere and every environment around the world are just about the same, because people are people and we have deduced that people around the world love music the same amount and they all want the same things out of life and there is that unifying theme that we experience. But in terms of audience reactions we’ve found UK audiences and European audiences in general to be a lot more open and expressive when they really, really like something and it’s not necessarily loud whistling or heckling. They’ll come up to you after shows and have that familiarity and treat you like you’re their buddy they’ve known forever and talk to you about their own lives and themselves; it’s just an openness and we love that, that’s part of why we keep coming back.

Allan – I’ve spoken to American artists who think when they start the set that they’re dying on stage and suddenly at the end of the song, the audience erupts.

Rachael – I’ve experienced that to an extreme in Japan, where you think you’re not going over at all; they must hate it, and afterwards there’s the most gentle clapping and they come up to the merch table and they want to buy all your CDs when you weren’t even certain they were into it. People have their own way of processing music and there really is no wrong. As long as nobody throws tomatoes, we’re happy.

Allan – I understand there’s an interesting event you’re involved in at the end of the tour as well at the Royal Albert Hall.

Rachael – The Dance Prom? That’s an event where we’re running a contest and the school that performs the winning routine to one of my songs will receive a scholarship from my record label Mpress Records and myself. I’m not performing at the event, but it’s very much tied in to the “Choreographic” dance theme of this tour. We’re going to be back in London at the O2 Academy in Islington on October 28th, and The Bedford on November 1st. Looking forward to that.

Allan – For the benefit of the MusicRiot audience, tell me a bit about your background, because it’s been very varied, hasn’t it?

Rachael – It has, and yet everything has had the thread of music really. I started playing piano by ear when I was about two and a half/three years old which the exact same time I was thrust into a pre-ballet where really all you’re doing is running around and spinning around and having fun, somewhere for you to be busy while your Mom gets a break, but it quickly bloomed into a full-blown young ballet career and I ended up becoming quite serious as a ballet dancer and at the same time very serious about being a songwriter. I learned to play by ear pretty much exclusively from sounding out all the music I heard every day in dance class. So I would go home and play all these classical pieces and I have no knowledge of the composers or what they were called because it was an informal education, but it was a very thorough education and I think my sense of melody and dynamics really stemmed from classical music.

Jumping ahead, I kept the songwriting up and I pretty much knew, I wanted to be a professional singer/songwriter and composer well before high school, maybe at thirteen/fourteen. Then for my Bat Mitzvah, my relatives got together and bought me a four-track tape recorder. Once I mastered that, I fancied myself as a budding producer, bouncing vocal tracks and having a good time with that, and by the time I went to college, I was very firm that I wanted to be a recording artist and tour the world doing pretty much what I’m doing now, so I guess I was a planner.

Allan – I’ve spoken to artists who agonise about the genre they’re working in and the way it affects sales of their work…

Rachael – There’s an expression in Yiddish that I have to respond to that; it’s spelt F-E-H. Genre’s a useful tool to help maybe turn people on to your music to be able to describe it in an elevator pitch, as they say. Actually, yesterday another writer asked me ‘How would you describe your music in three words?’, and I said colourful chamber pop. The reason I said that was first of all, I’m in England and I feel like you have a unique appreciation of pop music and also that pop music is a broader genre here. If you say pop in America, people assume you mean Katy Perry and here it could mean The Beatles or Elvis Costello, you know, pop/rock, so it’s broad enough to feel like I’m at home in that category.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, you’ve pretty much invented your own genre, haven’t you?

Rachael – Oh my goodness, thank you. I didn’t invent the word, unfortunately. I guess what I did, what’s interesting is that my music was being used and embraced by the lyrical dance community in America and also over here well before I was aware of it and then a few of my diehard supporters started sending me YouTube links where I would see these full-blown dances to my songs in competitions and winning awards and I didn’t really know about that competitive dance culture because the in dance culture that I grew up with, there were no contests; it was strict ballet and that wouldn’t have been allowed, but it was fascinating to see these young, very prodigious, hard-working kids performing and interpreting the music in a way that that was completely different from how I might have envisioned it and sort of humbling. At the end of the day, you create it and the minute it comes out of you, it’s really not yours anymore; it’s collective ownership and I love that. Eventually when the show ‘Dance Moms’ started using the music, it brought me back to that time in my youth when dance was a huge part of my life and it defined who I was as a person and I hadn’t really thought about that time for a long time. When you’re a former ballerina, you kind of put it behind you because there’s some bitter-sweetness; it was painful and very gratifying, like breaking up with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. You move on and you let it go, but this was a good time to revisit it and come at it musically from a more positive angle, I would say.

Allan – With “Choreographic”, there must be certain elements that make it work for that kind of interpretation.

Rachael – Yes, what happened originally was that they were using all these different songs from various albums of mine and of course there were different types of songs on those albums, but the ones they were using were usually very pianistic and very arpeggiated. I guess the average person might say there were hints of classical technique in the piano playing, and then also a lot of stringed instruments, cellos and violins, so I picked up on that. More than anything when I sat down to make this album, I tried to come at it more from a visual perspective of what I thought would work in a multi-media context with dance and music and I could only go by what my imagination was offering. I have done some choreography in my day, it’s not my forte, but I’m such an avid fan of dance and choreography in general that I have a pretty good sense of dynamics and what might be danceable, so that’s really where I was coming from. I also had the visual in my head of perhaps, one day, bringing one dancer or several dancers on tour with me and doing more of a show that’s theatrical as well as pop and that’s still in the works. We’re thinking about mounting something along those lines in New York in January.

Allan – Presumably, as well as the musical side, it has to have a fairly strong narrative as well. Your songs tell stories.

Rachael – Well, the genre of dance which has embraced my music most has indeed been lyrical dance, which is this term I had no familiarity with and I see these young girls, sometimes boys, but not as often, interpreting the music, usually very literally. I have a song called “Barbed Wire”, which was performed on ‘Dance Moms’ and the song itself is about someone in your life who can’t make up their mind and they’re very ambivalent, and how frustrating that is for you when you are certain how you feel. I think adults or maybe contemporary professional dancers might have interpreted it with more of an abstract approach, where you felt the emotion but it wasn’t quite so literal and of course the ten/eleven/twelve year olds literally had a backdrop of a barbed wire fence and were climbing it and interacting with it, and that was so interesting because it hints at the idea of doing a live show where the average person sometimes does need those very accessible touch zones to identify with a new art form.

Allan – Is it true that you actually wrote the album here in London as well?

Rachael – I did, yes. I wrote it in Camden. I had two festivals pretty far apart for me. I like to fill every single day, because I’m a busy OCD kind of an artist and I don’t like days off; they make me nervous. We were coming up on those shows and we had choice between trying to pick up some radio in between or just leave that gap and I said ‘You know what, it’s time for me to write a record.’ I’ve never quite set that deadline for myself before. I usually just let it happen organically; over the course of a year, I write twelve songs and then I have an album and then I’m ready to go record, but I had recently reunited socially with my co-producer from many, many years ago, Andy Zulla, who did my first few records with me, and we hit it off again so beautifully and we got all excited to collaborate again. He said to me ‘When you come back from England, if you have a batch of tunes ready, I can record with you in August and then I’ll be busy again after that, but keep me posted.’ That was a driver as well; I wanted to come back armed, like a fashion designer would feel: ‘I want that fall line all ready to go’. I had five days in Camden, so I holed myself up in a hotel, ditched the car and the tour van and stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I’d go walking every day and just take in the energy of the city and then I wouldn’t let myself go to sleep unless I’d written at least one song. So that’s the story of how this record was written. It was during Glastonbury Festival too so that was what I watched if anything on the television and it kind of inspired me as well.

Allan – Apart from music and dancing, you have other artistic interests as well, haven’t you?

Rachael – I do, and that’s also why I was drawn to the word choreographic, because I’m a visual artist and I’m a graphic designer, but it evolved more out of necessity than anything else because I run my own record label and when you do that you have to wear a lot of hats, so there have been times when I felt I would just do better designing my own artwork because I had a specific vision. I just figured it all out and so there’s that graphic, visual aspect to my work and there are many artists I admire who have that as well like David Bowie, Kate Bush and David Byrne, so many artists, even John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, who I admire and I’ve become very interested in their artwork as well and that helps me to have a window into another side of them. I hope that people explore that aspect of my work as well and I have a section on my website, ’Visuals’, where you can see my paintings and collage, and just recently I developed some wearable art; I’ve been painting on jackets and dresses and things like that and it’s just another fun outlet for me creatively.

Allan – I’m always fascinated that most of the very gifted musicians I know have various other artistic interests, like photography, as well…

Rachael – Probably keeps them sane…

Allan – One last question, is there any particular song that always make you cry?

Rachael – My favourite contemporary folk artist is Glen Hansard. I was recently at his concert at Carnegie Hall and I was weeping like a little baby. It’s on his new record. He composed the music for the movie “Once”, which was such an incredible music film and the song’s called “My Little Ruin”. He’s an Irish songwriter who was with The Frames with and there was a Broadway show created from “Once”, which won the Oscar for best song and it ran in the UK and Ireland as well. He’s in the vein of Damien Rice, that kind of vibe, beautiful string section, acoustic guitar and I’m a big Irish music fan. Anything Irish makes me cry.

Allan – Many, many thanks Rachael.

Rachael’s album “Choreographic” is released in the UK on November 11 on MPress Records. You can also see photos from Rachael’s performance at 229 here.

Home Sweet Hotel ScrollerAmelia White is from East Nashville. As Sam Lewis explained recently at Green Note, the distinction between downtown Nashville and East Nashville is one that means less and less the further you get away from Nashville, but it’s an important one. Downtown is the centre of the country establishment and East Nashville’s the edgy, hip satellite where you’re likely to hear something a bit out of the ordinary and “Home Sweet Hotel” certainly isn’t what you would call mainstream country. There’s a bit of a harder rock edge to most of the songs with a bit of overdriven guitar and some nice double lead guitar arrangements to spice the mix up.

The opening song “Dangerous Angel” is the first clue that this is a long way from mainstream country; there’s a slight emphasis on the offbeat which isn’t quite reggae, but it’s certainly leaning in that direction. From here on the album moves through a variety of musical stylings, including the uptempo country rock of “Leaving in my Blood” through the early Dylan feel of “Dogs Bark” to the slow sixties feel of “Right Back to my Arms” and “Six Feet Down” which close the album.

The lyrical theme running through the album is the performer moving along from town to town and it’s one that’s fairly common in current Americana. There’s no romance to being on the road, it’s just a succession of cheap motels and long drives and Amelia highlights this, and the longing to be back among family and friends (and with a lover). Her lyrical style is succinct; songs that seem to be densely packed with lyrics when you hear them turn out to be just a few lines long when you see them on the page. “Dogs Bark”, a warning against shooting your mouth off is a great example; it rattles along like some early multi-versed Dylan epic, but it’s really just a few very well-written lines (and some advice that Elvis Costello should have taken a long time ago).

Amelia sees herself as a songwriter first and performer second, and the craft in the construction of the songs is evident; there isn’t a word wasted and the lyrics are matched by the musical settings. And the East Nashville thing isn’t just about living there; Amelia creates a sense of place with references in “Rainbow over the Eastside” and the line ‘Hanging at The Family Wash’ from “Melissa”. It’s not just a place, it’s a way of life.

“Home Sweet Hotel” is out now on White-Wolf Records.

It’s time to move away from albums, gigs and photos for a while and take a look at some of the music-themed books that have kept me sane on buses, trains and planes during 2015. By sheer chance, I’ve managed to pick out quite a nice variety of styles and themes, so the selection staggers from light-hearted memoirs through serious autobiography to high technology and serious crime (no, I don’t mean the new Coldplay album). So, as ever, in no particular order, here we go.

How Music Got Free“How Music Got Free” – Stephen Witt

There’s a myth that’s been perpetuated about the origins of the current situation where we have a generation that won’t pay for music and a generation that doesn’t even recognise the concept of paying for music. What Stephen Witt’s book achieves is a comprehensive demolition of the myth that file-sharing came about because of some sort of people’s revolution where millions of like-minded people decided to share their digital music collections. This well-researched work picks out the various converging paths ultimately leading to the digital devaluation of music. The book explores the bureaucracy that bedevilled the adoption of a standard compression algorithm, the greed of the major music labels as they rushed into the highly lucrative CD market, the failure of the majors to react to the phenomenon of file compression (and increasing online transfer speeds which made sharing a viable proposition) and the outright criminality involved in stealing and counterfeiting masters from CD pressing plants. It’s a fascinating but ultimately depressing book.

Detroit 67“Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul” – Stuart Cosgrove

Stuart Cosgrove has picked out a pivotal year in the history of Motown and imposed a structure of a chapter per month (it works pretty well) which sets the upheavals at Motown against a backdrop of riots in Detriot, unrest in the police force and a general national malaise. Berry Gordy plays a central role in the well-known story of Diana Ross’s advancement at the expense of the other Supremes (and the expulsion of Florence Ballard), but Stuart Cosgrove delves deeper into the sickness at the heart of the company, dealing with the unease of major artists and the ultimate defection of the Holland/Dozier/Holland writing/production team. The book goes far beyond music biography by showing these events in the context of a city in meltdown with riots on either side of the racial divide and a brutal, corrupt police force fanning the flames. It’s a fascinating read, although there are far too many typos in the Kindle edition.

Fortunate Son“Fortunate Son” – John Fogerty

Confession time: the first song I performed in public was Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend” in a school band which included some good musicians and a future nuclear physicist, and me. I was a fan from an early age. “Fortunate Son” is John Fogerty’s attempt to put the record straight after accusations and counter-accusations, suits and counter-suits with his former band members Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The book is unflinchingly honest throughout; John Fogerty isn’t trying a whitewash here. He owns up to his mistakes and errors of judgement and this gives him the right to expose others’ lies and hypocrisy. It’s difficult not to empathise with him in his battles with Saul Zaentz and the former Creedence members: he wrote the songs, after all. “Fortunate Son” pivots around John Fogerty’s meeting with his second wife, Julie, who brought order to his chaotic life and pushed him back towards popular and critical recognition. It’s good, it’s honest, it’s straightforward and it’s delivered in an authentic John Fogerty voice.

Unfaithful Music“Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink” – Elvis Costello

Declan McManus has an awful lot of stories to tell and, not surprisingly, he has a gift for writing and storytelling. “Unfaithful Music…” is a cracking read, giving an insight into the creation of some wonderful music, and life in the music business bubble. The book doesn’t follow a straightforward chronological structure; it’s much more like a conversation in the pub with each observation triggering another digression. There are some difficult events to deal with (the Stephen Stills/Ray Charles incident for example) and they’re all dealt with in a very matter of fact way. The book skips over some big chunks of Elvis Costello’s life, but the ones he does tackle are done with honesty and candour. The names that crop up as the story unfolds are a history of popular music, but this never feels like name-dropping, they’re just people who happen to have been around at certain times. This is a wonderful book.

Rock StarsRock Stars Stole My Life” – Mark Ellen

Mark Ellen’s memoir is a breezy and self-deprecating run through a life as a pop journalist, radio presenter, TV presenter and publisher. He gives an inside view on life at the NME in the seventies, The Old Grey Whistle Test and the Live Aid broadcast, all delivered in a jaunty style that’s very easy to read. He’s met and worked with some amazing people (again, it’s all matter-of-fact rather than name-dropping), but being a member of Ugly Rumours with Tony Blair takes some beating. Most of the book is fairly gentle humour, smiles rather than guffaws, but Mark Ellen saved the best for last. His account of the mayhem aboard Rihanna’s ill-conceived and farcical round-the-world-in-seven-days tour made me laugh out loud. The entire book’s funny, but this piece was hilarious.

If you don’t see anything you fancy there, Chrissie Hynde’s “Reckless” and Bob Harris’s “Still Whispering After All These Years” are both well-written and interesting biographies.

 

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

The last gig in May was in a cellar bar in Edinburgh which held about a hundred people and the first one in June is The Royal Albert Hall which holds about five thousand.  I’m going to be honest with you, I normally try to avoid the Albert Hall; the acoustics may be great for The Proms and orchestral music generally, but anything percussive and bottom-heavy usually sounds like a sock full of custard hitting a wall.  There; I’ve said it.  There may be an acoustic sweet spot, but I’ve no idea where it is and I feel sorry for any sound engineer who gets that particular gig.

Elvis Costello is one those artists who has been around so long, and written so many great songs that, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, he’s entitled to a bit of leeway with his live and recorded output.  Just like all of those legends (maybe with the exception of The Boss), he sometimes pushes our tolerance close to the limit and tonight was no exception, but I’ll come back to that.  This tour features the “Spectacular Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, where members of the audience are invited on stage to spin the giant wheel to pick a song from the extensive back catalogue or a theme that allows Elvis or a band member (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher) to choose where the set goes next.

The first six songs were relentless, with the band playing flat out, too fast and leaving no gaps between songs.  It sounded a lot like the 1978 El Mocambo official bootleg, and I think we all know that it wasn’t just youthful exuberance and adrenaline to blame on that occasion.  It meant that songs like “High Fidelity” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” were lost in a headlong rush to the first spin of the wheel.  Thankfully, the interactive element of the set forced some much-needed changes of pace.  From the first spin of the wheel, things became less frantic as Elvis put on his Napoleon Dynamite, Master of Ceremonies persona and introduced members of the audience aided and abetted by the mysterious Josephine and the go-go dancer Dixie de la Fontaine.

I’m not even going to attempt to give you a complete setlist for a three hour performance, but there were a lot of highlights (and a couple of lowlights), so here we go.  We got “Girls Talk” (better known to most as a cover by Dave Edmunds) fairly early courtesy of the wheel, which also gave the band the chance to play a more soulful live version of “Every Day I Write the Book”.  It was nice to see Elvis totally ignore the wheel’s selection to throw in “(The Angels Wanna Wear my) Red Shoes” because one of the audience spinners wanted to hear it.  The “Cash” segment of the wheel also gave us the obvious Johnny Cash cover, but also a Rosanne Cash song, which is always going to be fine by me.  There was also a cameo appearance by the wonderful Bonnie Raitt who, unfortunately, didn’t sing or play but did come along to say hello and be serenaded by Elvis.

A spin of the wheel also gave Steve Nieve the chance to deliver his stunning piano backing on one of my favourite Elvis songs, “Shot With his Own Gun”, which opens with the line “How does it feel now you’ve been undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press”.  As always, this song was made more powerful by the stripped-down backing which also gave a contrast to the first verse of “Oliver’s Army” before the full band kicked in for the rest of the song.

“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” was a perfect fit with the vaudevillian atmosphere of the performance, which you almost expected to lead in to “God’s Comic”, but it was another song from “Spike” which grabbed the attention.  “Tramp the Dirt Down” was an angry song, and rightly so, when it was released in 1989, less than two years before Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her party, but I’m puzzled by the need to play it now apart from the obvious unthinking kneejerk reaction it received; bit of a cheap shot, really.  If you want to score political points, the haunting live version of “Shipbuilding” stands the test of time much better and should be the one that demonstrates a commitment to something more than just pop songs.

The encores were a return to the hundred mph enthusiasm of the opening section, but with the audience fully behind the band at last as they delivered runaway versions of “Watching the Detectives”, “Pump it Up” and, ironically for this location, “(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea”.  Just before I get to the main highlight, I’ve got a few observations.  The dynamics of the show, particularly at the beginning, could have been better; the endings of the songs could have been less overblown; and, Elvis could have turned the wick down on the guitar solos.  At times he strayed into Neil Young territory and that’s a dangerous place to be unless you’re Neil Young (even then it’s hit and miss).

Maybe I’m just being too picky.  The Elvis back catalogue contains some stunning songs and even a three hour set means missing out on some favourites; I would have loved to hear “Alison”, “Green Shirts” and “Good Year for the Roses”, but I got to hear “Shot with his Own Gun”, which I really didn’t expect.  The last song of the night was Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, which made my night anyway, but there was still a surprise to come.  Steve Nieve dashed off stage and followed a crew member upstairs as the rest of the band played on.  Seconds later, the band was augmented by the thunderous sounds of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ as one of pop and rock’s greatest keyboard players had the chance to finish off the set in a unique way; I certainly won’t forget it.

I had a few reservations but, as a spectacle, (no pun intended) this was wonderful; loads of great songs, great performances and audience involvement.  I’d go back and do it again.