Well, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.
I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.
Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.
That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.
Phil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.
In the literal sense Dean Owens’ “Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.
Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.
Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them. Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability. Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.
One nomination for this category of mine this year. I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.
Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases: John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’s “Kintsugi”.
As you can see from the piece below, Dean Owens has had a pretty eventful 2015 (including four London gigs, the release of his album “Into the Sea” and the two major events at the end of the piece). We’re pleased he’s had a chance to slow down a little and tell us about some of his personal highlights this year. Dean’s also given us a substitute for his five-a-side team, so we’ve decided to include that as well.
A gig I really enjoyed was Doug Seegers at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Kind of took me by surprise. His is a great story of survival. Check out his debut album “Going Down to The River” which was produced by my friend Will Kimbrough.
A big highlight for me was seeing my team Heart of Midlothian win the league and promotion. It was great to be at the matches with my dad (the inspiration for Dean’s beautiful song “The Man from Leith”).
Visiting the grave of my great, great Grandfather Ambrose Salvona (the lion tamer) with my dad in the Scottish Highlands. Ambrose features in the song “Dora” from my new album “Into the Sea”. It’s a great story.
Finally doing a session for legendary presenter Bob Harris at BBC Radio 2 was special. It was kind of strange sitting opposite the great man and singing a couple of songs for him. Strange in a nice way.
Opening for Roseanne Cash at Union Chapel in London was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. Such a beautiful venue. It was a magical evening. (This event also got a mention in one of Allan’s High Fives this year).
So how about five great gigs this year? Well, I’ve had plenty to choose from and I can’t say that I’ve seen a bad one, so it hasn’t been an easy choice to whittle it down to the top five (and no cheating this time either). These are all gigs that I walked away from feeling elated, feeling that I’d seen something special that I wanted to tell the world about. So I did, and here’s a reminder of how good these gigs were.
On a freezing February Friday night in Shoreditch, Rich Mix was a welcome respite from bars full of bankers and ‘exclusive’ lap-dancing joints. The venue is a social enterprise where the motivation isn’t purely profit and programming of events is always interesting. On this particular night, John Fairhurst, along with Pete Episcopo (bass) and Toby Murray (drums) played a raw and raucous set of blues focussing on the 2014 album “Saltwater”. Some of the album versions of the songs were fairly big production numbers but the live performance was strictly a power trio affair with John’s blistering guitar topping off the mixture. The journey back through Shoreditch didn’t seem quite so bad after a night of proper blues with electric guitars playing way up loud. You can see some photos from the gig here.
Mollie Marriott @The Half Moon
This one was firmly in the eagerly-anticipated category. Mollie’s been working quietly for some time putting together a great band for live and studio work featuring her Jim Stapley bandmates Izzy Chase-Phillmore, Sam Tanner and Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley. After an interesting acoustic support set from her nephew, Mo Evans, Mollie’s full band made their first live appearance in a Half Moon packed with fans and a few well-known faces as well. It was obvious from the start that this isn’t just a bunch of hired hands; this is a bunch of really good mates as well. None of their playing is showy or attention-seeking; everything serves the songs and underpins Mollie’s phenomenal voice, and it all works perfectly. The audience were onside anyway, but Mollie and the band gave a great performance of material from the upcoming debut album and a couple of covers as well. Here are some photos of this one.
This was a very special gig. I’d been invited along to see Mad Dog Mcrea and I had no idea about the support on the night, Sound of the Sirens. It’s such a great feeling when you see an artist for the first time and you know instantly that they’re something special. And it’s not just me; apparently Chris Evans was quite impressed with them as well. Anyway, they played a storming set completely winning over the audience with their powerful songs, dynamics, and harmonies. If the night had stopped at that point, I would have been perfectly happy, but we still had Mad Dog Mcrea to come, with an energetic run through material from their album “Almost Home” plus a few old favourites and crowd pleasers. Two great bands with enough in common to appeal to the whole audience but with enough differences to create a very varied night. And there are some photos here.
Another interesting double bill, this time with two very different artists, linked by the era which saw the start of their careers. John Cooper Clarke (now making the most of his honorary doctorate) has been doing poetry and comedy events for a few years but the tour with Squeeze put him back in front of big audiences filled with people who remembered him from the first time round. He throws more one-liners and gags into his routine now but a lot of the old favourite poems are still there, although some of them, particularly “Twat”, have evolved over time. On this night he was a barnstorming crowd-pleaser, building up the audience nicely for the headline act.
This year Squeeze had a new album to promote so the setlist was varied, to say the least, with material covering almost forty years from “Take Me I’m Yours” to new songs like “Cradle to the grave” with the usual smattering of different interpretations of Squeeze classics. What made this performance so special was the group of musicians (mainly Glenn Tilbrook’s Fluffers) now making up the rest of Squeeze who add upright bass, melodica and other esoteric instruments to the mix as well as adding rich vocal harmonies. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have never sounded better and what an incredible set of songs. Guess what, some photos here.
Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz & The Union Chapel
And finally. One of the greatest talents never to break through in the seventies and eighties, Graham Parker, who toured twice this year; once with The Rumour and once with Brinsley Schwarz. With a songbook which again covers almost forty years and a new album to promote as well, Graham Parker mixed up some established classics, some surprises and some new songs to delight an audience which might have been a little biased anyway. His voice is still remarkable and the songs are all strong enough to work in stripped-back arrangements. This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing; there were new songs to promote and they all sounded as good as anything he’s done before. He’s a remarkable man and it was a real pleasure to hear these songs in such a beautiful venue. How about a look at GP in the seventies and now?
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?
So, Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel and I have to say that this one has a special significance for me. The first proper gig I saw was Brinsley Schwarz (the band) playing at Mansfield Civic Theatre on February 25, 1974 and you can read about that gig here. As a student I saw Graham Parker and The Rumour play at Dundee University Students’ Association (April 20, 1978 if you must know, and £1.50 to get in) and the following year at The Odeon in Edinburgh. The songs were great and the band was on fire at that time; Graham Parker should have had huge commercial success, either at that time or without The Rumour in the early eighties, but it didn’t happen. He’s continued to write, make albums, and play as a solo artist and with various group lineups, mainly in the USA, but after 2012’s “Three Chords Good” album which reunited The Rumour, the UK seems to be ready to clasp him to its bosom again.
The audience in The Union Chapel was pretty much what you would expect for this type of gig and surprisingly well-behaved (no loud conversations about how terrible the journey to the gig was or whinges about the bar prices) apart from the bunch that wanted to help GP by braying along like a tone-deaf rugby team; you can’t win them all. With a body of work going back around forty-five years and a new album to promote as well, there’s a chance that you might not get to hear their favourite song; it must have been my lucky night, because I heard two of mine.
The set started with a GP solo version of my first favourite, “Watch the Moon Come Down”, which lends itself to an acoustic interpretation and it’s probably known by most of the old fans so it was the perfect way to ease everyone in before the almost new “Stop Crying About the Rain” from “Three Chords Good”. It’s great to see Brinsley Schwarz back in live action again; his musicianship has always been superb and his harmonies add another layer to the sound. It’s not The Rumour, but it’s a big enough sound to work in an intimate venue like The Union Chapel.
The set spanned the forty years from the release of “Howlin’ Wind” (which was well represented with “White Honey”, “Silly Thing”, “Not if it Pleases Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Questions”) to the new album, “Mystery Glue” which has three songs featured: “Railroad Spikes”, “I’ve Done Bad Things” and “Flying into London”. There was an obvious warmth and camaraderie between Brinsley and Graham as well as between the audience and the performers throughout the set; GP seemed very much at ease with the whole thing and his voice still sounds superb.
As you might expect, there were a couple of interesting choices. The encore opened with an a cappella solo version of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch over Me” and ended with the big seventies hit “Hold Back the Night”. Throw in a scattering of great songs (“Turned up Too Late”, “Under the Mask of Happiness”, “Nation of Shopkeepers”, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”, “Back to Schooldays” and “Stick to Me”) from across the forty year period and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the career of one of our greatest singer-songwriters. And as for that second favourite song of mine – the second song of the encore was one of the best and most harrowing songs I know. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from the album “Squeezing Out Sparks”) is a controversial but very brave piece of songwriting which sounds as relevant now as it did in 1979.
So, Graham Parker can still do it live and this was a pretty good selection of his best songs of the last forty years. He looks relaxed in the live partnership with Brinsley Schwarz, but I suspect that the best is still to come with the reformed Rumour promoting “Mystery Glue” which is out on Monday May 18. You can also hear him doing a guest vocal on the new Stone Foundation album “A Life Unlimited” which is released in the UK in August this year.