What makes a great venue? Well it’s certainly not the size – have you ever really enjoyed an arena or stadium gig? There are all sorts of factors involved; sound, light, programming, staffing, ambience, and the list goes on. The best venues make decisions about how they want to define themselves and focus on getting this absolutely right and they understand that this approach will always involve compromises. We asked Allan to pick out his five favourite venues from the viewpoint of a music fan and a photographer. Here are his thoughts on the venues he’s worked in this year, as always, in no particular order (and not always in London).

Green Note, Camden

It’s been winning awards for years now; that doesn’t happen without a good reason (or several good reasons). It’s difficult to know where to start with the plaudits; the programming is an esoteric mix of styles, which I won’t even attempt to classify and the sound is always excellent. If there’s a power cut (which happened a few years ago) the venue is small enough for bands to play unplugged. The staff are friendly and helpful and it’s what’s known to artists as a listening room. Generally speaking people are there to listen and the conversations stop while performers are on stage. There’s also a downstairs space which is even more intimate (with a capacity of about 20). And only five minutes from the Northern Line.

The Foxlowe Arts Centre, Leek

It’s been interesting over the last couple of years to revisit Leek (where I lived for about a year in the nineties. Pretty much everything I say about the Foxlowe applies to the town and to their annual Blues & Americana festival as well. The building, which was opened in its current guise in 2011, relies on volunteers to deliver its programme of music, performance, film and education. This doesn’t mean it’s unprofessional; professionalism is a characteristic that doesn’t necessarily depend on remuneration. My visits to The Foxlowe have been mainly based around gigs, but centre arranges exhibitions, show films, hosts private functions and has a very nice café serving freshly-cooked food. Sometimes it’s good to escape from London, and Leek is one of my favourite places to do just that.

The Bedford, Balham

The Bedford in Balham has been a grassroots live music venue since the late sixties and hosted early-career gigs by U2, The Clash and, more recently, Ed Sheeran. More recently, it’s had a new lease of life following a major refit and the good news for music fans is that a significant portion of the expenditure was on the performance space at the back of the venue. The sound is great and the lighting’s interesting. Even better is the news that the legendary Tony Moore is still programming the live music and Caffe Nero is holding regular unsigned there. I suspect most people won’t be aware of the commitment to new talent displayed by Tony and Caffe Nero’s Pablo Ettinger. Both of these people go above and beyond the call of duty in their support of new music. If you needed a bit of icing on the cake, it’s one of very few places where you can shoot photos from the balcony around and above the stage. Lovely jubbly.

The Roundhouse

And back to Camden again, although the pedants will probably it’s closer to Chalk Farm, and The Roundhouse. It opened in 1966 with a Pink Floyd, was derelict for nearly 15 years from 1983 and is now a successful charity promoting the arts. Each time I’ve shot there, the staff have been incredibly helpful (even when I’ve occasionally bent the rules) and it has that friendly feel you get when you have large numbers of well-trained and enabled volunteers. It’s another perfect demonstration of professionalism that doesn’t rely on money changing hands. It was always one of my aspirational places; I would walk past on my way to The Barfly or The Monarch and imagine how great it would be if I could shoot there. It’s always a great experience.

The Camden Chapel

Still in Camden and there’s now somewhere that’s more intimate than Green Note. There’s a room at the top of the London Irish Centre that was used as a chapel by immigrant Irish workers (the confessional is still there). The capacity is about forty and most of the seating is in the form of beanbags and cushions. I’ve never been in a venue (even Green Note) where more respect is given to performers. This has to be down to the stance taken from the opening night onwards (and made very clear by compere Ray Jones from Talentbanq, which supplies the artists) that while people are on stage, everyone else is quiet. Simple, really. I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the lighting setup for photographers, but I’ll also admit that one of my favourite shots of 2019 was taken at the opening night of Camden Chapel – go figure.

There are two venues that could easily have made this list. Only a few weeks ago, I visited The Electric Ballroom for the first time for a Stone Foundation gig; great experience from start to finish, everything was right for a live music experience. Also 229 on Great Portland Street which has not one but two venue spaces, both superb in different ways; one intimate space and one with a full-size stage, both lovely spaces. There was a time earlier this year when a friend asked me if I was paying rent there.

Our next guest contributor is Richard Bolwell; we’ll let Allan tell you about him. ‘I first met Richard at a Sound of the Sirens record launch in London and since then we try to meet up for a beer when he’s shooting a gig in town. Since that meeting he’s started up his own website MNPR Magazine packed with news, reviews of live and recorded music from all over the world and, of course, photos. He’s a cracking live music photographer and, in common with most people who have that vocation, is passionate about music. He’s also a bloody good bloke’. We don’t know if it demonstrates in-depth knowledge of their subject or it’s just showing off, but both Allan and Richard managed to shoe-horn Weissenborn guitars into their High Fives pieces.

I have a soft spot for the violin, especially when used in the crossover, upbeat Celtic Punk-rock/folk genre. This image is of Hannah Johns from the Weston-Super-Mare based band ‘The Leylines’ at the beautiful Carnglaze Caverns near Liskeard in Cornwall, a disused slate mine. Many of the images from the gig feature the beautiful surroundings of the ancient cave, but I was pleased to be able isolate Hannah and capture her in all her glory and in ‘the zone’.

My job as a concert photographer (and I am reluctant to call it a job because of the sheer enjoyment I get from it) takes me to many places, and leads me to cover many genres of music. This image of Nashville based country-blues singer-songwriter Austin Jenckes is typical of the style I have developed over the years. There is only so much you can do when the artist is a sitting down with just a guitar and his voice for accompaniment, but I feel this image captures the sheer emotion of the song, and the sheer force of his voice, another example of the artist being in ‘the zone’.

I am a huge supporter of new music, and up and coming talent, so let me introduce Charlie Louise, a young singer-songwriter from Cornwall. Charlie has the voice of an angel, and can silence a crowd with just a piano, or a guitar, and her voice. The nature of my work takes me to many a dive-bar, with less than favourable lighting. Whilst taking this image of Charlie, I was blessed with beautiful lighting, and was able to capture this image of the young songstress. Although there is no instrument present in the image, I feel the simplicity, and the negative space I composed in the framing adds to the overall feel of the shot. Charlie was performing as part of an ‘Introduces…’ series, and this image invokes great memories of a great evening of local talent.

This image is from the same gig as the previous Charlie Louise shot. As previously stated, the lighting was particularly good that night, but this black and white conversion really showcases the mood and atmosphere of the gig. The subject in question is Tom Bushin from Devon based alt-indie rock band The Kaizens who were playing a special gig with the Devon Youth Orchestra. Another reason for my love of the image is that it is reminiscent of the iconic Kurt Cobain from way back when.

Again, this tight headshot and use of negative space is indicative of my photographic style. This image of Wille Edwards was taken during his recent solo tour, raising money for, and awareness of, the homeless crisis sweeping this country. Edwards is the frontman of internationally acclaimed acid-roots rock band Wille and The Bandits and it’s rather rare to see Wille playing solo, let alone doing a full-blown solo tour. I had the pleasure of following Wille on this tour, and there were so many images I could have chosen from, 5 of which will be auctioned to raise money for his chosen charities. Again, as a singer-songwriter, seated during his performances, there are only so many angles and shots one can capture. Edwards has a strong, deep, husky voice, and this shows the emotion and heart he puts into every song and every note on his signature Weissenborn lap slide guitar.

We think this will the last episode of the Allan-showing-off saga, but there are no guarantees. This time, again from a very interesting range of venues we have Allan’s selection of five favourite colour shots of female artists from 2019. And he’s managed to sneak in an extra one as well, but we think he just about gets away with it.

 

 

Basia Bartz (Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band)

Did you know that I absolutely love Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band? I think I may have mentioned it at some point. When I got the opportunity to shoot them on a concert stage at The Roundhouse, I didn’t hesitate for a second. Each member of the band is interesting to shoot, but they often play on smaller stages where it’s difficult to pick out one person without any distracting background; not a problem at The Roundhouse. Three songs and out – also not a problem, this came from the opening song of the set and it captures the real Basia, picked out in proper stage lighting, giving it 100%.

Tori Sheard

This was the first time I saw Tori this year. The second time was a daylight gig, which was ok, but this shot was from a Caffe Nero unsigned artists night at The Bedford in Balham with proper stage lighting. Tori’s songs are gentle and contemplative and that’s the essence I was trying to capture; the moment when Tori was totally into the song and the exposure and focus pull your gaze towards her face.

Hjordis Moon Badford (Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band)

I’ve seen this band a lot of times and never really been happy with a photo of Moon (or H as she’s also known). She’s always tucked away in some dimly-lit corner of the stage, but not this time. At The Roundhouse, there’s nowhere to hide. The backlighting around the hair was the bit that I was actually trying to do, but the beam of blue across the shot was just a bit of good luck when I had everything lined up.

Lady Oracle

Lady Oracle, or Lady O, or Nadine is the lead singer with Houndstooth, another band that I’ve shot many times now. The reason I’ve shot them so many times is that they’re incredibly interesting visually; in the words of Derek D’Souza (long-time Jam and Paul Weller photographer) there are loads of ‘blink and you miss it’ moments with the whole band. This shot was taken at the new Hard Rock Hotel at Marble Arch and I’m just going to say that the lighting there is a challenge – let’s leave it that.

Natalie Duncan

I respect Natalie Duncan hugely. She has huge talents as a writer, player and singer and is determined to pursue her own musical vision and play the game her way. The limited contact I’ve had with Natalie personally gives me the impression that the only thing she cares about is her music; anything else better just join the line. It’s been a few years since I last photographed Natalie, the opportunity to get some shots as she did a Friday lunchtime outdoor gig at Hay’s Galleria in London as part of a series of gigs arranged in conjunction with the Talentbanq organisation. The weather gods were smiling on us that day and I managed to get in close and capture some of the intensity of Natalie’s performance. If you get the technical stuff right, Natalie is one of those people that will give you the shot.

Natalie Duncan encore

Another bonus ball for you. I don’t really see this one as gig pic, but I like it. All of the Hay’s galleria gigs were staged in front of the David Kemp sculpture ‘The Navigators’, which is so striking that I knew I had to work it in to a shot somehow. It took a few minutes playing with the different angles, but the shot finally took shape. It was only ever going to work with a keyboard player, creating the impression of controlling some diabolical machine from a console in front of them. If you’re ever near London Bridge station, go and have a look at the sculpture; it’s worth a few minutes out of your day. And check out Natalie Duncan on whichever platform you use to access music.

 

Just let me be completely serious here, the whole idea of reviewing albums and gigs and doing live music photography is something I wouldn’t have dreamt of ten years ago. Whatever gods you believe in, I will thank them for this opportunity. Every album I hear or gig I go to is another bonus and I truly appreciate it; I’ve made many friends as a result of doing this and had some wonderful times. Every year for the last five years or so, I’ve had few moments that stop me in my tracks and they’re still coming. Here are a few from 2019, in no particular order.

 

Mavis Staples @The Roundhouse

It wasn’t the first time I’ve had the opportunity to photograph Mavis; that was Cornbury Festival last year. This was different; it was the full-on show, the proper gig experience. Proper soundchecks, full-length sets and not having to dash off to shoot another band after the first three songs. And it didn’t hurt that the support for Mavis’s two gigs in England was Stone Foundation, my favourite current UK soul band; they rose to the occasion, powering through a tight set and grabbing the attention of an audience that had mainly come to see Mavis as part of the Innervisions Festival. I’d managed a couple of decent shots of her at Cornbury, but you never pass up an opportunity to photograph a legend again. Three songs from the pit, including a few that I’m still happy with, and then what? Get to the mixing desk, stand in front of it and enjoy the force of nature that is Mavis Staples and her band. The songs always had power, the band are totally on it and Mavis’s voice is undimmed by age. What a night.

Interviewing Graham Parker

Bit of context here. As a student in the late seventies (I know, you work it out), I had access to a lot of gigs and I was just getting into gig photography (Olympus OM-1, if you’re interested). I spent a fair amount of time as a DJ with current MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner. As a DJ at that time in Students’ Unions, you got a lot of freebies. One of the freebies that grabbed my attention was an EP by Graham Parker called The Pink Parker EP (the original limited edition was on pink vinyl) and it ignited a life-long love of this guy’s music. He’s now one of several musicians that I’ve photographed at an interval of four decades; you get the picture, I’m a fan.

Cutting to the chase, in February of 2019, a Graham Parker tour celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the album “Squeezing Out Sparks” was announced and one of the dates was The Foxlowe Theatre in Leek, one of my favourite small theatres in one of my favourite small towns, coincidentally the current hometown of Mr Jenner. Tickets were bought and as the year went on, I thought it might be a good idea to collaborate with Steve on an interview with GP if we could swing it. Turns out (with the intervention of Neil Sheasby from Stone Foundation), we could. So, on Friday October 22nd in Leek, I found myself sitting with my oldest mate Steve Jenner opposite Graham Parker with a microphone between us. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can listen to it here:

It’s the first time I’ve been happy to use an interview as a podcast, rather than transcribing the whole thing. It was a bit of moment.

Sam Tanner album launch @The Half Moon

Heard of Sam Tanner? You really should have, he’s the man. Sam sings, writes songs and plays keyboards, but that really doesn’t do him justice. He’s the funkiest keyboard player I’ve heard, his songs are incredibly powerful and then there’s the voice. As a keyboard player and soul singer in the UK, the obvious comparison is Paul Carrack. I’ve seen both several times and I have to say my money’s on Sam. I first got to hear of him as a member of Mollie Marriott’s band, then as member of Brother Strut (check out this Ed Sheeran cover) before bumping into him at various gigs around town. All of that talent and it turns out he’s a really nice guy as well.

For the launch gig for his solo album he pulled out all the stops (thinly-disguised organ player gag) with a full band, horn section and backing vocalists (Mollie Marriott and Izzy Chase). This was a quality line-up with the kind of players that could follow any changes and sounded incredible. Sam was on top form vocally and even dealt with audience members talking in his trademark gentle way: “If you’re going talk along, can you do it in B flat because that’s the key the next song’s in…”. Superb band, superb vocals and lovely atmosphere; I floated back to Putney station.

Dana Immanuel & the Stolen Band @The Forum

While I’m ‘fessing up to all the bands I love, I can’t miss out Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band. I love these people as artists and as people. In October, I saw the band three times. Each gig was special in its own way, but a support set at The Forum with a full house was a huge opportunity. The band supported Polish eighties punk band Kult who still have a huge following in the UK. It can be difficult playing support to a band with a hugely partisan following, but Dana had a secret weapon (besides having a great band). Fiddle player Basia is Polish and did various links and introductions in her home tongue, which the audience loved. It’s a fabulous feeling to see one of your favourite bands get a rapturous reception at a big gig on their own manor. I suspect I’ll be at a few more Stolen Band gigs in 2020.

Poetry

I know it seems unlikely, but I got back into poetry. Over the last few years, I’ve become a fan and friend of the songwriting colossus that is Phil Burdett. It’s been no secret that Phil’s had some issues over the last few years and working on his poetry is something that’s been therapeutic. This year, Phil published a volume of poetry and prose (it’s very good and you can buy it here) and launched it at The Railway Hotel in Southend-on Sea with a performance featuring spoken word and songs aided and abetted by his long-time collaborator Steve Stott, playing the usual mandolin and fiddle. I’d forgotten how good it is to hear poetry performed live and wasn’t remotely surprised at the way Phil aced his first live recital. And the songs with Mr Stott sounded bloody good as well. As if this wasn’t enough, Ralph Dartford supported Phil with the launch of his latest volume, “Recovery Songs” and also went down a storm. The audience was perfect; totally silent during the performances and noisily appreciative at the end of each piece

And there’s still more. A few weeks later, Ralph launched (no pun intended) his volume, “Recovery Songs” from a floating bookshop on the Regent’s Canal in King’s Cross, supported by Phil and Steve. Not quite such a captive audience, but great to see people walking along the towpath stop to listen. Those two volumes are probably the first new poetry I’ve bought since “The Mersey Sound”. Another bonus was that I had the chance to have beer with some very interesting musicians, which is a theme that crops up elsewhere in these High Fives. There might be a good idea buried somewhere in that.

Nostalgia and a record

I can’t resist a bonus ball this time, inspired by the Graham Parker interview. In the same year that I first saw Graham Parker, I also saw a band from Birmingham that I’d heard a lot about, The Steve Gibbons Band. Imagine my surprise when I turned up to interview Southside Johnny at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March to discover that Steve Gibbons had been added to the bill at short notice. Forty-two years isn’t my personal record for length of time between gigs I’ve seen an artist at; it ties with Brinsley Schwarz as a member of his band and as a duo with Graham Parker, but it’s quite impressive. My options for beating that record are pretty limited now; I think it might come down to seeing Ian Gomm or Billy Rankin again – just sayin’ guys, there’s a record to be broken here… To make everything perfect on the day, the interview went really well and the gig was absolutely storming. I love this job.

All images except Phil’s book cover courtesy of yours truly.

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost a year since “Trouble Holding Back”, Helen Rose’s debut album, was released. We gave a cautious thumbs aloft despite Allan having a fit of the grumps about covers of “When the Levee Breaks”. Anyhow, Helen has kindly offered a contribution to this year’s High Fives with suggestions of the best places to watch the sun set in New Orleans. I just love the way creatives respond to this challenge. Life with this feature really is like a box of chocolates.

There is nothing like a Louisiana sunset. One of my favorite activities is sitting by the Mississippi River, listening to the bountifully deep music that echoes in the flow of this beautiful body of water. So here are 5 of my favorite ways to watch the sunset over the Mississippi:

1) Bout an hour before the sunsets head on over to Hanks, Wagners or the New Orleans Food Co-op to pick up a few bottles of Gingeroo (or any drink of course that suits your fancy- turmeric tea is a favorite of mine). Gingeroo is a  rum, ginger and sparkling cane juice drink made by our local rum distillery – Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. They now have a Strawberry-roo that makes any excuse for a day-drink beyond acceptable. Then scoot your boot on over the L9 bridge to the levee. The sounds of the kids and dogs running happily, the NATCHEZ and CREOL QUEEN river boat calliope playing, and the colors of the sky take you back to a simpler time and calm your mind- filling your heart with the wild wonder that is the city of New Orleans. We once watched a Pelican swim upstream for two hours… and you already know, from that day on our sweet Pelican has been immortalized within a song.

2) Head on over to Bayou St. John, a gorgeous local neighborhood here in N.O. then getchyerself a romantic early afternoon Mediterranean meal at Thousand Figs and a bottle of wine at Swirl (next door) and take a stroll on the bayou to enjoy the sunset and the light filtering through the Spanish moss dressed live oak trees.

3) This one is a little more daring and the timing must be right in sync with the seasons as it takes place on a busy road and you don’t want to hit traffic happy hour. The bridge over the train tracks on N. Claiborne in the St. Claude neighborhood has an impeccable view of the sunset and the surrounding neighborhoods. If you have a strong imagination and a bit of street smarts in your pocket- you can walk over the bridge imagining the sound of the cars as if they were the breeze by the river. Perhaps only for those who find beauty in industrial grunge. Recommended for those looking for a thrill rather than a relaxing sunset experience.

4) Crescent Park runs from the Bywater to the French Quarter. You can walk from Bartholomew St. to the French Market after some delicious BBQ at The Joint, brisket and mac & cheese highly recommended, they have great iced tea, cocktails and Daquaries to go along with your wandering. Take a walk over the Rusty Rainbow and visit Euclid Records and buy my album on the way.

5) A trip to Natchez, MS is a lovely way to listen to all of the new musicians you just discovered in the Crescent City and/or go back in time and dive into the music of the great musicians who graced this part of the earth and came before us influencing most of the music we love. Head on down to the bar “Under The Hill Saloon”, sit in the rocking chair and hear the riverboat play while watching the great Mississippi River as she winds down her day and sun kisses you goodnight. The musical “Showboat” was filmed here, and Mark Twain had an apartment on Silver Street under the hill. It is a deep experience indeed.

 

As you may have read in my review of Steve’s most recent book “Loud, Proud and Illegal”, he’s sold the commercial stations he part-owned to another company and found himself more ‘retired’ than he was earlier in the year. Didn’t last, though and he now finds himself presenting ‘Lovetown’, a selection of love songs, for a couple of hours between 11PM and 1AM five nights a week on Staffordshire Moorlands FM community station Moorlands Radio before flipping over to the digital-only service on Moorlands Xtra for the  next two hours. Not only that but another couple of nascent stations have offered him the same slot on their stations, provisional upon them being awarded licenses next year, in effect syndicating his show in different parts of the country and others are showing an interest. 

In order to celebrate this he’s listed fifty of his fave FM-friendly love songs on his ‘Broadcast Brothers’ Facebook page. Not being one overburdened with the work ethic these days, he’s sent the top five from this list in as his ‘Lovetown’ High Five this year.

 

5.Brenda Russell: “Piano in the Dark”

Very, very spooky this. This was the tune that was playing as I left the car headed for the Clifton tower block flat where I came within minutes of being Done for pirate broadcasting. (See Broadcast Brothers: On the Radio). It was also the scene of a weird one. The Clifton flats studio was draped in copious amounts of white material to deaden the sound a bit; and they only moved when the doors opened to let in the next presenter. So if those drapes moved significantly, you knew someone had just been admitted to the premises – and if this was unannounced, it was scarper time. I was playing this late one night coming towards the end of a show long forgotten now, with the legendary Josh in the studio with me feeding me the ad tapes. Suddenly, the drapes billowed, and we looked at each other…there was no-one to let anyone in, and neither of us had. ‘Funny,’ said the sadly now-departed Josh. ‘That happened the other night when we played this as well……’ Atmospheric, beautifully recorded (is that Michael McDonald I can hear in back?) and boy does she ‘sell’ this song. And with the tinkling of those ghostly ivories, every time I hear this I can’t help but think of all the pirate presenters and ‘staff’ who are no longer with us. And they are legion.

4.The Beach Boys: “God Only Knows”

The first line of the lyrics is the most complete statement I’ve ever heard about the Lurv Thang in a song. You’ve got the strength balanced against the vulnerability; you’ve got the conviction versus the doubt. And you’ve also got the greatest production genius ever to draw breath, Brian Wilson, dragging all sorts of kit in through the studio door to deliver something where the marriage between killer tune, bullseye lyrics and sympathetic production has never, ever, seemed closer. It is perfect.

 

3.Linda Jones: “(For) Your Precious Love”

This was recorded by Jerry Butler of The Impressions in his usual controlled and dignified fashion. It was a decent sized US hit and their version is well worth a listen. But oh my my, approach this version with asbestos gloves. This is anything but dignified and in control. This is THE ‘torch song’ incarnate. This woman sounds absolutely driven beyond the normal compass of human emotion. The scream approaching the end is just brutal and she nearly loses control of the whole thing in the last few bars. Again I say DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS if you are doing break-up numbers. And do not listen if you’ve had a drink. It is quite rare now as a vinyl and you will have all on to find it in this country but it is all over t’internet. Biographical detail; she died at the age of 27 whilst sleeping between shows at the Harlem Apollo at her mum’s house. A long-time diabetic, she may well have slipped into a diabetic coma.

2.The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”

This is the most played record on American radio, ever. Let me say that again. Most. Played. US Radio. Can you even begin to imagine how much this has grossed? But you can see why within the first few bars. It is all there. The sullen accusation, the descending scale on the brass and strings, the doom – laden ‘wall of sound’ courtesy of Phil Spector and company, the despairing admission to himself that no matter what he does, It Is Over. The interplay between the near – hysterical falsetto of the late Bobby Hatfield – chalk another one off due to the Peruvian Marching Powder – and the deep, aching heartbreak of Bill Medley playing off against each other and the final ‘breakdown’ of the orchestra arrangement before the end you’ve got an immortal three minutes or so; even though you know the final plea ‘Bring Back – That Lovin’ Feelin’ has and will fall upon ears that have already gone deaf.

1.Billy Paul: Me and Mrs. Jones.

‘We gotta thiiiiing going on’. Billy Paul pulls off the impossible here. On the face of it here, this is a seedy little tale about some furtive and probably sordid mutual extra – marital. And yet. The problem here is that you can’t help but be dragged into the tension, the yearning, the hurt and the difficult decisions. So much so that you find yourself identifying with and sympathising with the protagonists, against your better nature. Without Billy Paul’s stella vocal performance, which would have been reduced to the very ordinary by the classic ‘Barry White’-style delivery, this would have been just so-so and you be excused for walking away from it saying ‘serves ‘em right’. But the jazz tones in his staccato, top-end delivery mesh so beautifully with the near-glissando string arrangements, which meld with the horn section and just drift effortlessly with little sprinkles of audio angel dust here and there. And then there are the backing vocals to consider. How can anyone imbue the word ‘Thiiiiing….’ with so much soul power. Part jazz, part soul, all Philly dreamboat, this, for me, is the best FM radio love song of all time. Released in 1972, it got to number 12 in the UK top 40 and number 1 on Billboard in the US. Billy Paul died about three years ago, aged 80. But, I suspect for many years to come, he will still have a thiiing going on.

Quick footnote: Our guess is that you’ll know four of these songs really well. If you haven’t heard the Linda Jones song you really should listen to it; it has the power of Millie Jackson at her very best. Obviously, as Steve says, don’t listen if you’re feeling fragile.

 

 

A producer, a photographer and two musicians walk into a pub. Sorry, there isn’t a punchline to this; it’s just what happened. A quick pre-Christmas beer with some music business friends to chew the fat; what do you think we talked about? As always with these semi-unplanned sessions something good came out of it. We’ll leave it to Graeme Wheatley, bass player and songwriter with the band Deep Blue Sea to tell the story, enhancing it with some music trivia. You might want to start this piece whenyou have about an hour to spare because it’s a bit addictive, especially after Riot Towers made a contribution,

 

Sitting in The New Cross House pub the other night with Allan McKay (something that could very easily become habit forming), we were talking about his series of guest articles “High Fives” in Music Riot – sign up now if ya haven’t already!

I’ve written a few before and always like rambling on about whatever, so I was happy to quickly volunteer to write one for this Christmas – even before Allan gave me my first pressie of the year – even if I had no idea what to waffle on about.

We were with Iago Banet, a guitarist from a band that I’ve heard are not that bad and we were talking about a gig we did a few weeks ago. Our singer, Dre Smith, had lost her voice and we were doing the gig as a 3 piece – playing songs we’d never played before. I proudly boasted that I’d sang the entire lyric to “Blinded By The Light” by Brucie without a single rehearsal. Allan asked if I liked Manfred Mann’s version or the original best, then Iago reminded me that after 3 attempts we’d had to abandon “All Along The Watchtower” because I kept getting the first line wrong!!! Pride comes before…

Anyway, this conversation led to the topic of this High Five.

Five covers that I think are better than the original.

Only my opinion here – but when I got to thinking about it – there’s maybe 20 or 30 I could muse about. So, I thought I’d kick it off with two people who I consider to be un-betterable – but concede that in these two occasions, they are bettered.

 

Song 1

All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan – Jimi Hendrix

OK, if you know me at all, you may have heard me at sometime mention the name Bob Dylan. He’s the cat, the verbal acrobat-tery, the lyrical dexterity and temerity in all sincerity. A couple of weeks ago we were playing Bude R&B Festival, which involved a good 4 hour drive back and forth. Amanda Dal, our wonderful drummer, asked me, unprompted, to play the three albums Bob recorded in 1965 that “invented Rock Music as we know it”. Much to Iago’s horror. So we had a great journey back and forth listening to Bob. It’s Amanda’s turn next, so I am going to get 4 hours of singer songwriter LP. The fact that she’s a ringer for Bob makes me favourable disposed to her from the get go – so – I’m ok with this!

Anyway, some people say (fools that they are) that any cover of a Bob song is going to be better than Bob’s version. BUT THEY ARE WRONG!!!! This has only ever happened once in the whole wide universe since the beginning of time. And only one person could a done it. Jimi. Y’know, I’d love to be able to wipe the tape and hear Jimi’s version of Watchtower again for the first time. Can you remember that moment? I can’t. But listen to it now. The swagger, the invention, the sass, the sheer coolness.  Four minutes of perfect cool. If Jimi hadn’t recorded it, would we remember the original? Was it just a fairly average track on a subdued and pared back album from Bob who might have been wondering at the time where he was going next. Recorded in 1967 after the “fall” it was a total turn away from the more blues inspired electric albums and a return to his more folkie side, but Jimi took this track, rocked it up, funked it up and delivery to my mind one of the greatest little guitar pop songs of all time.

Oh, BTW, the title of Bob’s album, John Wesley Harding. It was named after a Texan outlaw of that name – only they spelled it wrong!!! He was called John Wesley Hardin.

Compare and contrast:

 

Song 2

Nothing Compares 2U – Prince – Sinead O’Connor

I was a big Prince fan. Still miss the guy. He might have had demons and might have been just a tad obsessed but look at the catalogue of pop songs. Inventive, fun, joyous, rude, rock and raunch and lovesexy. He made pop a bit dangerous, a lot of fun and a lot of cool – combined a bit of Jimi, a bit of Marc, a bit of James Brown and a lot of genius. Until Sinead covered this song I would not have thought anyone could touch the little chap at his own game. I kinda thought Prince songs were indelibly stamped with Prince’s logo. You can’t touch this….

I wuz wrong. The frailty and fragile nature of the song fits Sinead and both somehow meld. She is the song, the song is her. That just doesn’t happen very often – if at all. That revolting phrase “you owned it” churned out on brain dead TV talent shows ad nauseam for once applies. You can’t think of the song without thinking of Sinead and vice versa. They might be so entwined that it overshadows her career.

OK, that’s two down and just to sum them up, nobody else has done a cover of a Prince song better than Prince and ditto Bob. Argue away, I’m not listening.

Compare and contrast:

Song 3

With A Little Help From My Friends – The Beatles – Joe Cocker

This is weird. The Beatles FFS? The greatest band ever. The greatest song writing partnership of the 20th century. The band that wrote the book (and the sequel). Have you heard some of the covers? “Hey Jude, Hey Bing”? Trust me, it was an album. My dad had it. Can you imagine the scene in our house? He was a jazz musician and I think he made this one attempt to be down with his son. He’d spent some futile time trying to tell me that all of this pop music stuff was nonsense and real music would eventually come into its own and Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington et al would be on Top of the Pops (Pops in this case being hep cat chat for Dads). Suffice to say most covers are cheesy in the extreme or just for shock value with nothing of value added. From Matt Monroe to Siouxsie Sioux. But, Joe? That voice. That presence. That simple honesty and stripped back truth. It’s a song, dare I say, that Paul didn’t really think was the Dog’s Bs so he suggested that Ringo sang it as a little bit of fun “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” and the whimsy fitted the feel of Sgt Peppers. But it was far from a stand-out track.

Now, fast forward a mere year or so. On stage at Woodstock and Joe says “the title of this song says it all”. The song is imbued with something more. A part of the hippy dream is captured in the performance. It’s a time piece. Oh and that voice? Come on. Just go have a listen. Band ain’t too bad either.

Song 4

Respect – Otis Redding – Aretha Franklin

Like Joe, this cover takes the song into places the original didn’t. Like the others too I guess. But with this one, you start pretty high up – with that voice, Otis. A voice that can quite easily make you cry. My Girl? Try A Little Tenderness? I Been Loving You Too Long? I’m tearing up now. And I’m a tough guy…

But Aretha takes a lyric that just might veer towards a bit misogynistic these days – y’know, man works all day – comes home to little lady cooking for him and expects a bit of R – E – S – P – E – C – T – and she makes it the first bona fide feminist mega hit defining moment of the decade. Oh yeah, and it was her major first hit after 10 years fighting against “the man”!!

What Aretha did changed the world. A cover version of a pop song changed the world? Yes, that’s what I said. Made a massive difference to the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. The impact of this little pop song can’t be ignored. That’s how deep my love is.

Oh, BTW, Otis didn’t really like the cover – but learned to live with it when the dosh rolled in – and also – listen to his version – most people think the lyric “R – E – S – P – E – C – T find out what it means to me” is part of the original.

Song 5

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Robert Hazard – Cyndi Lauper

For years I’d thought Prince wrote this especially for Cyndi. Someone told me some Fake News and I never questioned it. It’s a great song and it seemed believable. It’s my wife’s favourite “getting ready for Friday Night” song – so I had to include it for her.

There’s not a great deal to say about it other than, in Cyndi’s hands and voice, it’s perfect pop. In Robert Hazards? Well, have a listen to the song below. My main question is, How did Cyndi hear this very very average song and say “I can make this song a mega hit that will last generations and become Graeme’s wifes’ favourite “getting ready for Friday Night song” for all time”? I dunno the answer but one thing I will point out is, the song lasts 2 minutes and 30 seconds and the actual track lasts 4 minutes and 30 seconds. And by strange coincidence, when my wife says she’ll be ready in 15 minutes… you can fill in the rest.

Just before I trot off to have a mince pie, there were a couple of things I considered but rejected and hopefully some of these will incite you to invective 🙂

  1. Leonard Cohen covers – it’s easy to say other people sing them better than Lenny. That’s not the point. We can all say a photograph of a tree looks more like a tree than a Van Gogh painting of a tree. I don’t know where I’m going with that – other than Lenny is the Van Gogh of pop – funny, sad, dark, deep, tortured and Chaplinesque – there’s a crack in everything – that’s how Lenny gets in. I like his cracks. In his house there are many flaws – all of them interesting.
  2. Led Zeppelin – when you actually claim to have written all your covers yourselves – it doesn’t apply.
  3. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a gravelly voice – don’t be silly (Sir Rodney).
  4. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a lovely voice – as above.
  5. The Blues – it’s totally impossible to compare Crossroads – Robert Johnson to Cream. Both are wonderful in their own way – and I bet you can think of lots more examples. So, off you go, your challenge is now to name 5 blues songs that have brilliant originals and brilliant – but significantly different – covers.

Many thanks to Allan for allowing me to stop work for 3 hours to write this 🙂

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, if the fates allow.

Cheers

Graeme

Written before the election December 2019 (I might not be in such a frivolous mood after that).

Sorry Graeme, but we need to have the last word here (not about the election, not even going there), especially after squeezing in two High Fives in one piece, but we did mention another song, which was a band covering their own song. Thin Lizzy’s “Nightlife” version of “Still In Love With You” should have pushed all the buttons as a duet between Phil Lynott and the wonderful Frankie Miller, but it was a bit of a mid-tempo plodder. Someone obviously worked out that it was a potential anthem, slowed it down, stuck a truly wonderful Brian Robertson solo in there and, voila, rock classic.

You may have heard this before, but one of the things we love about this feature is that musicians and creative artists generally will always put their own spin on it, as we quickly realized seven years ago when this feature started. Allan reviewed Kristina Stykos’s album “River of Light” in April this year and loved it. Kristina has a studio background, so we’d kind of expect some studio-related favourites from her. We weren’t disappointed with this insight in to the recording process she specializes in. And this one goes all the way to eleven (well six actually) – we did warn you about these creatives.

 

For the DIY musician who doubles as his or her own recording engineer, here are my five “must-have” items for the studio, plus a bonus.

 

HP Mixers

A frustrated band mate in headphones is your worst enemy. Don’t let anyone ever yell at you again that they need more … anything. With these five handy knobs, care of Furman, each musician can design their own custom headphone mix, and turn themselves up until it’s distorted, if that’s what they prefer. Set it up in advance in Pro Tools and, voila. You’ll save your hearing … and your sanity.

 

Clipboards

I can’t emphasize enough the usefulness of old fashioned clipboards to organize handwritten notes during sessions. Paper and pen are always the most reliable tools for jotting down quirky issues, superlative takes and guerrilla settings. Your computer doesn’t remember everything, nor should it have to. There is nothing worse than that feeling of “What the heck did we do?”, after the fact.

 

Guitar Picks

After years of recording guitars, you probably have collected a lot of guitar picks off the floor. This lovely origami-paper pick box never ceases to delight. When someone can’t find their own pick, the mood is one of serving hors d’oeuvres. And as you can see, a pick box also doubles as a receptacle for dice, dog licenses, and antique NYC subway tokens.

 

String Gauge Chart

I try to be helpful if someone has just broken a string. Time is of the essence in the studio, and when the mood is right, no one likes being the one holding things up. But for some reason, not all packaged strings tell you what note they are. If you want to be smarter than the average guitar player, this cheat sheet will help you avoid falling prey to unnecessary moments of awkward confusion.

 

Album Plaques

Discmakers used to offer these plaques free to studio partners, as a “thank-you” for doing business with their New Jersey manufacturing plant. Well, like everything else in life, once they’d hooked us on the idea, they started charging for them. Although it pisses me off, I always buy one, to visually commemorate the arduous journey that completing an album represents. Everyone who comes in the studio loves to look at them.

 

To-Do List (bonus) 

In case of boredom, or so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously as artists, we keep this to-do list in the tracking room. It reminds us of the many things yet to do, and look forward to, that have nothing to do with anything music related.

Our most regular contributor Steve Jenner, did a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage in late 2019 to get back to the roots of the music he loves, both as a listener and a radio presenter. Here’s his take on his favourite destinations on the tour taking in the rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll landmarks of America’s South.

 

 

STAX, Memphis

The heavyweight champion as far as I’m concerned. The range of exhibits is just breathtaking, the stunning range of photographs, the specific instruments which grace the museum, the fact that they’ve got a restored version of the jukebox I have in my house…and the fact that the building itself just reeks of the opportunity it represented as an oasis of creativity and inter-racial harmony, the unifying factor being music, makes this place a pilgrimage, an education and a re-affirmation of the love which brings you here in the first place. Flight cases stamped ‘Isaac Hayes Movement’. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s bass, Steve Cropper’s Telecaster. The pride with which WattStax is celebrated tells you all you need to know. This is the label where uncompromising soul music finally ‘gotten over’. Sell your goods and chattels and GO. The facility continues to do sterling work in the community changing lives for the better; but get selfish here. You WILL enrich your own life.

 

Sun Studios, Memphis

It would be sooooeasy for this to disappoint….but it doesn’t. Still a working studio, it actually feels like it. Not sure why they feel the need to play a Van Halen track as you ascend the stairs to the studio and small exhibition but once you’re up there…oh man. Where else are you likely to be within touching distance of a white-label demo of the first rock ‘n’ roll 78 RPM record, ever (Jackie Brenston, “Rocket 88” and I’ll brook no argument on this one.) The kit, the instruments…the room itself…and THAT microphone. The one the originators lit the blue touch paper to the cultural revolution with. Go, wait until the guide leaves the room, grasp the mic that launched a million hits and sing, as badly as you will, at least one line of a lyric that was recorded there. For me it was the first line from Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot”. Choose your weapon. And you will never feel the same again. I feel like some gold dust came off that mic and it hasn’t worn off yet and I don’t think it ever will.

Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Memphis

It takes the breath away. The range and depth of artefacts alone would reduce a grown man to tears if they were piled up in the corner under an old tarpaulin but the presentation, sequencing and ‘staging’ of the exhibits means you can hardly tear your eyes away from anything, anywhere. From huge chunks of ancient radio station to detailed explanations of how key artists ‘became’, you just can’t afford to miss this one and it makes a Transatlantic trip worth the ticket price alone. And then you step outside and you’re a couple of hundred yards from Beale Street. And you are walking with your feet ten feet off.

Gracelands, Memphis

I expected this to be much, much more tacky and a lot less interesting but still felt I just had to go. ‘I have reason to believe we all will be received in Gracelands’, right? Well, yes but it just shows what I know. Gracelands, the house, was actually a monument to a remarkably ‘normal’ life and if we disregard the loads of cars and a couple of planes, otherwise what might seem a reasonable wish list of toys for a top-end lawyer. And it seems quite small, ridiculous although that statement may appear, but very homely in a ‘seventies’ sort of way. Absolutely fascinating; and the garden of rest, where his mother, father and other family members are committed along with Presley’s remains is a real place of peace and reflection. The museum needs more energy than you’ve got in the Memphis heat to get through it all; and the range of costumes, cars, toys and paraphernalia is mind-boggling. House might be relatively modest…but he liked his transportation toys, did Elvis. And the costumes tell the story of the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll icon…who eventually went more ‘showbiz’ than showbiz itself. The true price of fame on an unprecedented scale, displayed alongside the attendant rewards; a parable for our times which sadly, many STILL don’t seem to have understood.

RCA Studio B, Nashville

Despite not being the greatest devotee of Jim Reeves, it cannot be denied that RCA Studio ‘B’ in Nashville has seen the recording of more hits than most big labels see in a lifetime from all sources. Most of Elvis’s biggest sellers were recorded here. Dolly Parton, Bobby Goldsboro, Charley Pride…on and on it goes. And once again you can cut the ‘atmosphere’ with a knife. I DID hear, and sense, the ghost of Elvis here. It was a throwback to 4AM, April 4th, 1960 when Elvis was recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight” here…in the dark. Ask her nicely and the studio guide will throw the light switch off and play you the original reel-to-reel of the original recording. ‘Saw the ghost of Elvis…then I watched him walk right through…’

All photos courtesy of Sue Jenner.

Jess Klein’s album “Back to my Green” was released in February 2019, which seems like a really long time ago now. We loved it then and we love it still, which is why we were really pleased when Jess agreed to contribute to our 2019 High Fives feature. Here are some of Jess’s highpoints from 2019. Bit of a spoiler here, the last one might make you think you have something in your eye.

 

Touring Florida

In January, I went on tour in Florida. I hadn’t toured Florida in a couple years and never outside of Tampa. The venues were all new to me and I had no idea what to expect – would anyone show up? It turned out my friend, the songwriter Grant Peeples (who had also connected me with some of the venues) told a bunch of people to come see me play. John Fullbright, who was touring Florida the prior week, mentioned my name to his audience from the stage and told them that they should come see me. Thanks to one of the promoters, WMNF in Tampa invited me on air twice in one weekend. WSLR in Sarasota pushed my show there. Every show was packed. Those were just gifts my fellow songwriters, the promoters and radio DJ’s decided to give me. They didn’t have to. I came home feeling so blessed. Creative community is powerful.

 

David Byrne’s American Utopia tour

Seeing David Byrne’s American Utopia tour: a 12-piece band playing and dancing like one rhythmic body, led by lanky, quirky David Byrne. “Burning Down the House”, “Road to Nowhere”, “Once in a Lifetime”…They covered Janelle Monae’s tribute to black lives lost to police brutality, “Hell You Talmbout”.   Byrne and his incredible band created something even bigger than the sum of their parts. My brain was screaming, “Look what humans can do!!!” It felt like the roof was about to blow off.  

 

First Sunday Revue

My husband, Mike June and I launched the “First Sunday Revue” here in Hillsborough, North Carolina where we live. The first Sunday of each month, we get our band together and play a no-cover afternoon gig at our local, the Nash St. Tavern. Nash St. is on the divier side, the sound is weird, it is not fancy. But I have never felt so loved as I do when we play these shows. People come every month, they bring their friends, they dance (all folksingers know, getting an audience to dance is a rarity). They yelp and cheer for more and leave looking happier than when they came in. We do too.

 

Song Traveler’s Songwriting Retreat

In October, I taught at the Song Traveler’s Songwriting Retreat in Nashville. The twelve students and three teachers (Wyatt Easterling, Korby Lenker and I) all stayed in one big country house outside of town. It was 24-7 writers and writing. You literally could not avoid the creativity and inspiration with so much of it flying around. Wyatt, Korby and I co-wrote a song together and it’s pretty damn good. Getting paid to just talk about what I love to do, and to help other songwriters through their processes was like a dream come true for me. I could do that all day every day.

 

Mike June

A couple weeks ago, I came home after a long, exhausting day. It was part of a long, exhausting week. Mike June sat me down and said, “I wrote a song about you today”. He walked over to the piano and played something so beautiful and simple and loving, all the crap fell away. That’s love. He had also cooked my favorite dinner (roast chicken with potatoes and Brussel sprouts). I was a mushy mess, realizing I have this human being as my partner. Love is everything.