Starlight Highway ScrollerI could review the new Corinne West album in one word: seductive. Of course then I’d have to go on to explain that I didn’t mean seductive in the dim all the lights, pink champagne and Barry White sense of the word. “Starlight Highway” seduces the ears and the soul with playing that’s subtle and restrained and harmonies that will melt the hardest heart. The album’s opening song, “Trouble No More” sets the tone with a gentle combination of mandolin, Hammond B3 and Corinne’s multi-layered harmonies augmented by the voice of guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps to create a perfect setting for the pure and seemingly effortless lead vocal. And that’s only the first song.

The album never shifts too far from a laid-back Americana/country feel, although there are slight shifts of emphasis, including the jazz-tinged “Gypsy Harbor” and the delicate strummed guitar and subdued piano fills of “Find Me Here”. The stylistic shifts aren’t allowed to undermine the unity of the album, which is held together by the quality of the playing and, particularly, the two main voices working together to deliver perfect harmonies and just the right degree of contrast for the duets that dominate the album, from the delicate “Audrey Turn the Moon” to the classic Nashville sound of “Cry of the Echo Drifter” and the slow country-rock of “A Night Falls Away Singing”. Shades of Gram and Emmylou.

The title track is a mandolin-driven uptempo country song with the message that music can be an escape for us, with an additional twist of synaesthesia in the lines ‘Mother she’s a rainbow, Father’s made of sound’ emphasising the multi-sensory nature of music and the visual arts. It’s a great collection of songs (ten in total, all superbly constructed and delivered) and vocal performances to die for from Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps.

The album’s out in the UK on Friday April 29th on MAKE Records (MAKE7447) and she’ll be touring the UK for the first time in four years from mid-May to early June.

Rosanne Review Title

Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal supported by Dean Owens at The Union Chapel; now there’s one that ticks all the boxes. The sound in the venue is outstanding for acoustic performances (it is a working church after all), the audience is receptive and the atmosphere’s always warm and friendly; even the security staff are pleasant. If ever there was a perfect venue for Dean Owens to play his biggest London show so far, this was the one and he wasn’t about to disappoint.

He opened with “Shine like the Road after the Rain” and immediately had the audience on his side; none of this polite applause nonsense, this was a crowd that immediately recognised great songwriting and performance. With only a thirty minute slot, Dean chose his songs carefully with four from his new album, the intensely personal “Into the Sea”, which we reviewed earlier this year. The gentle longing of “Valentine’s Day in New York” set a few toes tapping before the triple emotional whammy of “Virginia Street”, “Evergreen” and “The Only One”. The last song should have suffered from the loss of Will Kimbrough’s studio harmonies, but it didn’t; the audience listened entranced and gave the song the best response so far. Which left enough time to fit in “Raining in Glasgow” (just one of Dean’s anthems) and a completely unplugged crowd-pleasing romp through Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”. And leave them wanting more…

Rosanne Cash is a bona fide country legend, regularly bracketed with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and with good reason; she’s written some superb songs and also recorded some fine interpretations. The current European tour, with her husband, guitarist and songwriter John Leventhal, is nominally in support of her last album, the double Grammy winner “The River & the Thread” but it’s obvious that the show is much more than that. It’s about the links between that album, the delta, the blues and the history of the Southern states, and the various tributaries gradually joined up as the set progressed.

So, not surprisingly, songs from the latest album were heavily featured, particularly at the start of the set, which opened with “Modern Blue” and featured “Etta’s Tune”, “The Sunken Lands” and “The Long Way Home”. “The River & the Thread” featured again towards the end of the set as we heard “When the Master Calls the Roll”, “World of Strange Design” and “Money Road”, while the middle section featured some of the greatest hits including “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, “ Sea of Heartbreak” and “The Way we Make a Broken Heart”. The obligatory “Seven Year Ache” made an appearance towards the end of the set after many audience requests (and there’s a very personal story behind that one which I’ll share with you another day) but the focal point of the entire set, where the rivers and threads were gathered together, was a Bobbie Gentry song.

Rosanne and John’s performance of “Ode to Billie Joe” was heart-rending, the minimalist guitar picking underpinning the lyrical contrast between domestic banality and sensational events which are never fully explained. The song silenced the audience and drew the best response of the night while joining the dots in the overall picture the duo created; if you need a definition of tour de force, this was it.

Predictably enough, there were a couple of (well-deserved) standing ovations to round off an evening of powerful songs delivered by three gifted performers and everyone left happy and emotionally drained. Doesn’t that just define a great gig?

 

Kennedys interview titleJust before the end of their recent twentieth anniversary tour of the UK, I was lucky enough to chat to Pete and Maura Kennedy at Kings Place in London just after their soundcheck. We talked about how they met, songwriting, technology and a whole lot more. Here’s how it went:

Allan – So, twenty years together this year. I’ve heard the story but I’m sure Music Riot readers will love it. Could you tell them the story of how you met?

Pete – Well, that happened down in Austin, Texas and we always say that the only trouble with Austin is that it’s surrounded by the rest of Texas, because it’s very much a college town and not typical of the American South at all but it’s a very rock ‘n’ roll and folk and songwriter-oriented town. There’s a place called The Continental Club which is the roots music Mecca of America; I was doing a gig there and that’s where the two of us met. First we talked about music, we didn’t actually play or sing and we then met up a day later at a little songwriters gathering and when we did sing together we found out that we loved each other’s songs and we had a bit of a harmony blend and so we started writing but I had to leave right away and play with Nanci Griffith up at Telluride, Colorado. I drove up there through the desert and into The Rockies and I called Maura after the show and we really wanted to get back together. We were talking on the phone and we decided that since we both knew that we loved Buddy Holly, we would meet at the equidistant point between Austin, Texas and Telluride, Colorado and it was Lubbock, Texas which is where Buddy Holly’s from and he’s buried there. We each drove five hundred miles solo with no cellphones, so we didn’t really know that the other person was doing this and we met at Buddy Holly’s grave and we’ve really been together ever since because very shortly after that, Nanci Griffith needed another band member, a female singer to do harmonies and Maura stepped right into that role and so we’ve been working together steadily ever since we first met.

Maura – And when we left for that tour, we were both in her band but, at the airport, she told us we were going to be her support act for that tour, back in 1993, and we’d only written that one song, we didn’t have an act worked up but we didn’t tell her any of this because we didn’t want to blow that opportunity so we bluffed our way through the first couple of gigs.

Pete – The Southport Theatre was the first gig.

Maura – And by the end of the tour we had our first album’s worth of songs.

Allan – That is a great story.

Pete – We always acknowledge Buddy Holly as our patron saint…

Maura – And Nanci Griffith as the bird that pushed the little chickadees out of the nest.

Pete – She was our mentor: no doubt.

Allan – The first time I saw you was actually in this venue two years ago and that year you had one album out, last year between you, you had two albums out, this year it’s three albums. By anyone’s standards that’s pretty good going, so what can you tell me about the three albums?

Maura – For some reason, both of us were on a real writing spree over the last six to eight months and we were both writing together, both writing independently and gathering songs and it was apparent that we had more songs than we needed for one album, but it also looked pretty obvious how the songs would divide up. The songs we were writing together would be on The Kennedys album, which is called “West”, and that came out last month. Then I was working with a published poet out in California; he provided me with all these lyrics that he wrote specifically for me to write music to and these had a different quality so we decided to have all those solo songs on my album “Villanelle”, which is coming out next week. Meanwhile Pete has been working on this, I think it’s his masterpiece, he’s been working on these songs a good five years. It’s a cycle of songs set in New York City and he sings on these. People are used to him releasing instrumental albums but this is a really cool rock ‘n’ roll album and it’s called “The Heart of Gotham” and that’s coming out in June. So rather than take the twentieth anniversary as a moment to look back we charged straight ahead.

Allan – So apart from having three albums of new material, over the years, how do you keep the live shows fresh?

Maura – Oh, that’s easy. For the past few years we’ve been doing all-request shows. Now we’ve got all this new material and we’re playing a lot of that but three albums is more than you can do in one show, so we’re mixing that up and playing a lot of new material this time. We always get people who have come to our shows before and they have requests so we try to honour as many of those as we can but the shows in the past four or five years have been really audience-driven and that keeps it fresh for the ones who come back to more than one show a year and it keeps it really fresh for us; we have to stay on our toes to remember all those songs.

Pete – We literally go through the audience right before the show and write down what people want to hear and that’s the setlist for that night, so every show is different. Right now we’re not doing that format because we have so many new songs we want to introduce those to the audience.

Maura – Although we have been getting some requests and last night we got requests for songs we haven’t played in a very long time, so we were brave and played them and it was fun.

Allan – That’s very like the New Jersey bands, Springsteen and Southside Johnny, they rely a lot on feedback from the audience and the musicians are good enough to do it as well.

Pete – I think because they came up playing in clubs and bars, and there you better play what people want to hear or they’ll throw things at you so you get used to pleasing the crowds, so to speak, and we’re lucky because, and I’m sure Bruce and Southside feel the same way, we have fans who know all our songs and they’ll ask for different songs from our catalogue so we can resurrect those.

Maura – I think maybe a lot of bands will get people who come out and see them once or twice; we have a lot of fans that come to every show that they can and so, to keep it fresh for them, it was a deliberate decision to make it audience-driven, for them more than anything else. It’s good for us too, but it was really to keep them coming back.

Allan – When I looked the twentieth anniversary thing, I looked back to 1995 and I thought that so many things have changed since that period in the music business…

Maura – In the world…

Allan – How have you reacted to the changes that have happened in the music business? Do you think it’s helped or hindered you?

Maura – There are so many different aspects to it. I remember when our very first album came out, “River of Fallen Stars”, it was on the very first Americana chart, there wasn’t such a thing before and nobody really knew what Americana was. At that time, independent artists really had a wide-open doorway into the music industry; radio stations were playing our stuff and there was very varied radio across the United States and I think that was probably true here too, and then things tightened up. The digital thing has really been difficult for a lot of people and I’m sure that our record sales in the traditional outlets are not as healthy as when we started but our audience, the baby boomers largely, are a segment of the population that has always valued music and they consider themselves to be patrons of the arts, so they come to shows and they buy records form us. In fact, I’ve often had people say: ‘How do you make more money, if I buy it from Amazon or from you?’ and they really want to know. I don’t know what we’d do without them, but we’re baby boomers too and we have the same outlook as far as the value of music is concerned.

Allan – It’s certainly my experience that most of the bands I see now aren’t really making any money out of record sales so people feel they have to buy a CD or t-shirt at the gig so that something goes back to the people that are making the music.

Pete – Record shops don’t really exist, in The States anyway, so it’s not like you’d put out a record and you sit back and wait for cheques to roll in (which never happened to us anyway) but that’s not a paradigm that even exists any more, so you really have to be playing gigs, which is OK, it’s been like that ever since the first cavemen were banging on rocks. They went out and played gigs and people gave them vegetables or whatever and this is basically that same system.

Allan – You seem to have embraced the social media side of things as well. I suspect that works well for you.

Maura – When we first started we had a mailing list and we would put stamps on and stick things in the mail and it was very expensive – it would cost about a thousand dollars to send out one mailer. One really good aspect of the digital world is that we’re able to contact our fans directly at no cost and what happened over the years is that we went from just putting out an electronic newsletter to embracing a number of social media outlets, not all of them, but the ones our fans use, Twitter and Facebook and I think what’s really important, and it’s worked for us, is to take a multi-pronged approach and get the word out in all the different realms. That way you’ll get a couple of people here, a couple of people there; it’s still word of mouth for us, it’s just that it’s digital now.

Allan – I can certainly see with your fans that social media enables you to create a community. It’s not so much artist and audience it’s everybody in it together.

Maura – People post photos and videos and they make song requests via social media and so they really do feel a part of it. One thing I do a lot if we’re coming to a town and ticket sales might not be as robust as we’d like, I’ll say ‘Hey guys, tell your friends we could really use your help on this show and we’ll love you forever’. And I find people really want to help; they do get the word out, they share that information and they really have a hand in helping us in more ways than just buying tickets and records.

Allan – It struck that your music seems to cross an awful lot of boundaries. How would you define it and who would you say has influenced you, apart from Buddy Holly?

Pete – Maura mentioned that we were on the first Americana chart and when we saw that we immediately had our own definition of Americana. A different one developed that was sort twangy, honky-tonk country and was restricted to just that and we never felt that was the entire breadth of American music. We do that stuff, our song “West” is a twangy country song because we love Gram and Emmylou and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and stuff like that, but we don’t restrict ourselves to that at all. So we include George Gershwin and soul and jazz – that’s one of the great American art forms along with blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel; those things are all tied in together so Americana encompasses all of that stuff. Even “Closer Than You Know” has a kind of impressionistic feel to it and that’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn who were very heavily influenced by French Impressionism, so that brings that in too. Someone said the other day ‘You play a little Spanish sometimes’ and I said ‘Well, if you go down to the border of Texas, that’s the way people play down there’. So we’re trying to cover the entire geography because that’s what we do in our car and we try to do it musically too. We have the broadest possible definition of Americana.

Allan – Do you have a particular method of writing that you always use?

Maura – No, and that’s a real blessing; because we write in different ways, the music evolves over time. Our very first songs that we wrote together, “Day In and Day Out” was the very first song we wrote together, Pete gave me the title and I sang the title back to him and we wrote everything, music and words, together. The second song that we wrote together was “River of Fallen Stars” and he gave me an entire lyric sheet and I put a melody to that. On the album “Closer than You Know”, for a lot of those songs, Pete had recorded instrumental tracks with form but no melody and no words and I would put the whole song to that. On my new record, “Villanelle”, these are all lyrics that were sent to me by this poet B.D. Love and they’re in poem forms, forms I would never write in, so I’m trying to stay very true to the poetic forms and still make them sound like songs. Pete will sometimes write music first and sometimes lyrics, so we mix it all up. We try to not fall into a formula.

Allan – And what will the future bring? Next year four albums?

Maura – That’s a good question. We never know but we’re always really open and we always try and go with the flow. If you had asked us that question twelve months ago we wouldn’t have known we had three albums coming out; that came together in the last nine or ten months. So we don’t know but I’m sure it’ll be fun.

Allan – One last question. Do you have a song that makes you cry?

Maura – I’ve cried a lot singing songs. “When I Go” by Dave Carter is one of them. They change all the time. “I’ll Come Over” is a good example; that’s a song to my best friend and if I know somebody’s having trouble, I’ll dedicate it to them. I’ll start singing it and I’ll start crying; songs like that I can’t even talk about. And unfortunately, that was all we had time for before Pete and Maura had to get ready to go out and do their thing.

“West” and “Villanelle” are out now and “The Heart of Gotham” is out in June.

220px-Ssilverstein[1]How did I discover Shel Silverstein?  Easy, I bought a copy of the Dr Hook and the Medicine Show album “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” (a contractual obligation “greatest hits” package put together by CBS before the band departed to Capitol and commercial success).  As an introduction to early ‘70s Dr Hook, it’s a belter.  Released in 1975, it was obviously a vinyl album; you remember those, don’t you?  I bought it on the strength of the chart hit “Sylvia’s Mother”, but that wasn’t even close to being the best song on the album; that’s at the end of the album and the end of the next paragraph.

A quick look at the album sleeve showed that fifteen of the sixteen songs were written by someone called Shel Silverstein, who wasn’t even a member of the band, and they were a fascinating collection of songs, ranging from the country pastiche of “The Wonderful Soup Stone” through the Rabelaisian comedy of “(Freaking at) the Freakers’ Ball” and “Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie” to the superb ( and much-covered) story of a suburban breakdown, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon”.  If you don’t listen to anything else picked out in this piece, you really should listen to the Marianne Faithfull version of this song.

I know this is a nostalgia piece, but there are a lot of things that weren’t better in the old days.  In the 21st century, you can find out almost everything about a group or artist within seconds; you can get a biography, you can listen to their material (released and unreleased), you can probably get a message to them directly and they might even reply.  In the mid-to-late 70s, you had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, John Peel and some independent record shops to let you know what was going on.  Although I was only really interested his music, I discovered that there was much more to Shel Silverstein than songs; he was also a gifted cartoonist, poet, screenwriter author of childrens’ books.

Eventually, I managed to track down a couple of imported albums (“Songs and Stories” from 1978 and “The Great Conch Train Robbery” from 1980).  While the albums didn’t have the polish of the Dr Hook material, they covered a lot of the same territory and gave the impression that once Shel had an idea he had to get it down and move on quickly because there were ten more ideas banging on the door behind it. I loved “Songs and Stories”, from the sheer silliness of “Goodnight Little House Plant”, “Someone Ate the Baby” and “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh” through “The Father of a Boy Named Sue” (he also wrote “A Boy Named Sue”)  to the epic stoner poem “The Smoke-Off” and the ode to cop-outs, “They Held Me Down”. It had all the manic energy of a live performance by Robin Williams, who was just emerging as a stand-up at the time.

Shel Silverstein was that rare example of genuine Renaissance Man; he had gifts ranging across the field of creative arts, but it was as a songwriter (and ramshackle, shambolic performer) that I love his work. His serious work, such as “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” was superb, but he also wrote comedy songs that were actually funny ( I still laugh out loud at the lines: ‘Everybody ballin’ in batches, pyromaniacs strikin’ matches’ from “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball”) and you could bear to listen to more than once. It helped that he drew a lot of his humour from the fringes of society and legality, which gave it an extra frisson to anyone looking in to that world from the outside.

You rarely hear Shel Silverstein’s name mentioned these days, which is a shame, but he has left a huge legacy in print and in music. If you’re still not convinced, just ask yourself what these songs have in common: “A Boy Named Sue”, “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, Sylvia’s Mother”, “25 Minutes to Go” and “Daddy What If”? Yep, all written by Shel Silverstein. Most songwriters would kill to have written any one of those songs, and that’s before you even get to “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and the sadly under-rated “Last Mornin’”. He’ll make you laugh and he’ll make you cry, but he’ll never bore you.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):

AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?

SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.

AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?

SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.

AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.

SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.

AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…

SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.

AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.

SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.

AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?

SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.

AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.

SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.

AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.

SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.

AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?

SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.

AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.

SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.

AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?

SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.

AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.

SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.

AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.

SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.

AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.

SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.

AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?

SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.

AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.

SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.

AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?

SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.

AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?

SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.

AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.

SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.

AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?

SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.

AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.

SJ – My pleasure, any time.

HidingIn the days following the sad and untimely death of Phil Everly, one of the musicians who was regularly interviewed was guitarist Albert Lee.  I’m willing to bet that most people watching and listening had never heard of Albert Lee, despite his long relationship the Everly Brothers.  The fact that he had decided early in his career to play a style of music, country, that has rarely, if ever, been fashionable in the UK meant that he had to move to the USA before achieving real recognition, joining the Crickets in 1974, then replacing the legendary James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in 1976.  Anyway, for a few days in early January 2014, all of the old Everly Brothers songs were played across the media.  I’m always happy to hear old classics reach a new audience, but the contrarian in me wanted to hear Albert Lee again, so I dug out my old vinyl copy of his second solo album, “Hiding”.

Somehow, in 1979, a single from this album managed to grab a bit of airplay, probably as a result of a particularly persistent plugger, or perhaps it was just a bit of a novelty.  “Country Boy”, which opened the album, wasn’t ever going to win an Ivor Novello; it was a lyrical throwaway which showcased Albert Lee’s stunning guitar virtuosity.  Throwaway or not, it grabbed my attention immediately and I scuttled off to BG Forbes to buy a copy of the album.  Then back to the flat as quickly as possible to introduce vinyl to stylus while avidly reading all of the credits and sleeve notes (even an insert in this case) while listening to the album.  I’ve bought many albums on the strength of one song, and I’ve been disappointed almost as many times; nothing else on “Hiding” sounded like “Country Boy” but that didn’t matter because they were all great songs.

Looking at the playing and writing credits, there were a few surprises, even with my limited knowledge of the country scene at that time.  Names like Emmylou Harris and Don Everly stood out even then, but looking back with a historical perspective and greater knowledge, Buddy Emmons, Glen D Hardin, Ricky Scaggs, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito and Buddy Emmons were highly-respected country players at that time.  More of a surprise was the inclusion of songs and performances by Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock who, after nearly twenty years as backing musicians, were now carving out a career performing cockney novelty songs.  Actually I wasn’t surprised; I was gobsmacked, particularly after hearing the album’s second song, “Billy Tyler”, a Hodges/Peacock country original.  I loved the song from the first time I heard it and I still love it now.  I know Dean Owens will probably disagree with me here, but I think it’s the best song they ever wrote.  And those are only the first two songs on the album.

“Are you Wasting my Time” is a tasteful cover of the Louvin Brothers classic with Albert Lee taking lead vocal and harmonies alongside Ricky Scaggs.  “Now and Then It’s Gonna Rain”, with backing from Chas and Dave, is a country/rock song which hints at earlier Eagles material and side one closes with the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad “On a Real Good Night”.

The side two opener is “Setting me Up”, a riff-based country/rock song written by the relatively unknown (in 1979) Mark Knopfler which is followed by another Rodney Crowell song “Ain’t Living Long like This”, a shuffle with a hint of the Buster Brown classic, “Fannie Mae”.  The album’s title song is another ballad, written by Steven Rhymer (what a great name for a songwriter) and featuring backing vocals from Don Everly.  The album closes out with the slow rocker, “Hotel Love”, and “Come up and See Me Any Time”, another Chas and Dave song featuring the dynamic duo themselves on piano and bass.

The album’s a classic because Albert Lee does all the things he does best; he plays guitar, sings lead and harmony vocals and chooses some tremendous songs and players to help him display these talents.  There’s only one writing credit for him on “Hiding” but his interpretations of songs by other writers are arranged and played to perfection.  You can hear suggestions of other artists including Iain Matthews (another wonderful interpreter of songs) and Eric Clapton but the overall sound is pure Albert Lee.  I guess it’s not difficult to see why it wasn’t a hit in the UK in 1979 as post-punk took over from punk, but it has aged very well over the thirty-five years since its release.  Even if you don’t normally follow links these articles, have a look at the live performance of “Country Boy” with Vince Gill.   It’s not just about the great playing; the audience love it and you can see that the band loves it too.  Give it a listen.

 

“Closer Than You Know” -- The Kennedys

This album’s been around for a few months but it slipped under the MusicRiot radar until we heard about The Kennedys touring to support it in the UK, so I guess that justifies telling you all about it a little late.  This is the twelfth album the husband and wife team, Pete and Maura Kennedy, have released as The Kennedys, although they have both also been involved with various side projects.  The Kennedys are one of those “well-kept secret” bands that have devoted fans but, for some reason, have never quite become massively successful.

“Closer than You Know” is an interesting piece of work.  Just for once I agree with a statement from a press release; this is “pop for grown-ups” and, more importantly, it’s music for people who really care about music.  There isn’t any filler on this album; all of the songs are good and, in my opinion, at least a couple are great.  It’s difficult to define their style, but if you take folk-rock as your starting point, add a bit of Celtic seasoning and throw in 60s UK pop and The Byrds, you won’t be far off the mark.

The opening song “Winter” sets the scene for the album with Pete’s finger-picked guitar backing  Maura’s breathy, multi-tracked, vocals before moving into the country-tinged “Rhyme and Reason”, followed by the story of a second generation illegal immigrant “Marina Dream”, which has a Celtic folk feel  and a rhythm that evokes perfectly the flight and pursuit experienced by the girl at the centre of the song.

The middle section of the album moves across a variety of styles instrumentally and vocally featuring laconic Richard Hawley style-guitar, discordant synthesised strings and classical nylon-strung guitar arrangements.  I’m not dismissing these songs by any means, because they’re all good but, for me, after a couple of listens, the album builds up to one focal point.

From the opening sus4 chords of “Big Star Song” I was hooked.  The song is a celebration of Alex Chilton’s work and a lament for his passing;  it’s a perfect marriage of words and music which evokes an earlier era while sounding completely contemporary.  Like many great songs, this has several layers and, lyrically, it’s also about losing something or someone other than Alex Chilton.  I don’t know what that something else is and I suspect it’s so personal that I don’t really want to know.  Whichever way you look at it, this is a great song.

“Big Star Song” is followed by a U2 cover, “Wild Honey” , “Happy Again” (which has more than a hint of Rosanne Cash vocally) and “Winter Lies”, which completes the cycle.  I would have reviewed this as a good album without “Big Star Song”, but with that song, it’s a very good album indeed.  You can hear loads of influences at work here (you can probably add Stevie Nicks and maybe Emmylou Harris to the ones I’ve already listed), but this is fresh and original. 

My only general criticism is that the album feels slightly over-produced at times.  This may be a reaction to working as a duo because it must be natural at times to over-compensate by throwing too much at the production and adding another extra guitar part or vocal harmony. It’s a minor criticism and I’m really looking forward to hearing the live interpretations of the songs later this week.

“Closer than You Know” is out now (Catalogue No. TK1208), distributed by Proper Music Distribution.