Friday, October 19, 2012

Don McLean

Colston Hall, Bristol

He distinctly sings "Lenin". All the printed libretti say "Lennon".

If it's "Lennon" then everyone else's identity falls into place — "the quartet", "the park", "the king", very probably "the jester". If it's "Lenin" then the whole idea of the song being about the history of American pop music breaks down.

Not that, at this stage in the proceedings, it matters very much. Who's paying attention to the symbolism or even listening to the words? It's more like a national anthem. The whole song, all fourteen minutes of it, is now a symbol of itself, a celebration of itself. "Sing it with me! Oh yeah! Sing it again." It's about eight minutes long on the record; tonight, he makes it last double that. There's a substantial musical break between the last two verses, during which two people on the balcony start dancing. When we finally realize that the church bells are all broken the audience start to hoot and whoop...and we get two more choruses, one more slow repeat, massive applause...."Do you want some more....let's do the first verse all together." Milking a song? Absolutely.

The band comes on first, there's a big musical build up; Don comes onto the stage; the lights go up; there's thunderous applause. He goes straight into a Buddy Holly medley that starts out as Well All Right and ends up as Peggy Sue Got married, and then says he's going to do some Gene Vincent just for fun. "Thank you, thank you, I love this place!" A lot of the congregation have clearly been singing along since 1971: I'm one of the younger people present. That indefinable yokel twang has disappeared from his voice; he doesn't move about that much. He's full of old time pop-mannerisms, yelling "One more time!" and "take it away!" with no hint of self-consciousness. There's no question of reinventing or reconstructing these songs: the guitar riffs in Winter Wood are instantly recognizable from the recordings. This is a man who's had songs covered by Elvis, who's having a film made of his life story, who's had a famous song written about him, but when he cries out "Oh, this is fun!" in the middle of a number we’re inclined to believe that that's why he's doing it. "I know its not inexpensive to go out and hear someone with a guitar singing songs, I honour you and thank you and will try to give you your money's worth."

If you wanted to be critical, you would say that his less famous songs are all variations on the famous ones; that they all come to the same kind of emotional climax at the same point. He didn't sing the one about George Reeves (which I'm rather a fan of, for obvious reasons) but he did sing one about a cowboy which said identical things about the crucifying power of fame. ("I could beat those desperados/but there's no sense fighting time") About halfway through the set he sits down and does a series of slow songs without the band, including one I'd totally forgotten about about the loneliness of being by himself in a motel in Los Angeles, and the auctioning off of the original ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz (a metaphor which Salman Rushdie also found irresistible ). It's a stream of images and pop culture references, a try out, a dry run for that Other Song and a point in favour of my theory that his whole career has been a series of footnotes to Desolation Row. But it's delivered with such perfect poise and sincerity that one doesn't feel inclined to be critical, and anyway, who wants to analyse a party? Lines like "Over the rainbow a Kansas tornado / can twist up a little girl's head / Aunt Em's on relief and the tin-man's a thief and even the wizard can't wake the dead" may be sub-Dylan but there's no-one better to be sub. (Which is ironic if Dylan is the jester who stole the people's music from Elvis, but there's nothing wrong with irony, either.)

After he's done And I Love You So and Crossroads he starts chatting about rock-a-billy and end up doing a very decent version of That's All Right Mama, by which time the band has come back on, and we're into a long sequence of lessor known rocky numbers. This was the only part of the set that I felt dragged a little, but it picks up nicely with a Johnny Cash cover and a nice ranting thing, new to me, called Fashion Victim ("How did the land of Jefferson, how did the land of King / become the land of hamburgers and raisins that can sing? / Roosevelt was cripple, Lincoln was a geek. /They'd never get elected, their clothes were never chic.") He saves Vincent for the encore, and winds up with a long, dramatic perfectly pronounced cover of El Paso. He admires and identifies with Marty Robbins, who also had a very long, very famous song who people asked him to sing over and over again.

What does American Pie mean? It means wherever and whenever your were when you first heard it; and all the times and places you have heard it since. It means drinking coffee in an undergraduate bedroom (when coffee percolators were still luxury items available only to engineering students); it means driving around the countryside trying to remember where the youth hostel was; it means the sun finally coming out in Glastonbury.

What a show-man. What a show. What a lot of verses.


I am just barely old enough to remember when "The Radio" was a big black machine that sat on its own table in the corner of the room.

When I was in Miss Walker’s class, I acquired a transistor radio, still a slightly novel artefact The only thing I can recall listening to was Junior Choice a request show which played both Do You Want To Be In My Gang by Gary Glitter (what ever happened to him?) and Nelly the Elephant by Mandy Miller (I looked it up.) The DJ was Ed "Stewpot" Stewart, who Wikipedia tells me is still alive, though no longer working. In the nature of these things, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart appeared in the 1972 production of Cinderella at the Golders Green Odeon. (You will be pleased to hear that I looked that up as well. Barbara Windsor was Cinders.) Naturally, he went on and on about it on his radio show. My parents took me to see the show. I don't know whether I pestered them to take me to see my hero giving his Buttons, or whether Golders Green was simply a relatively local place to see a Christmas panto.

Furriners will presumably not be aware that Buttons is Baron Hardup's comedy servant. He spends the first half being in love with Cinders, and gets a moment of pathos when she marries Prince Charming at the end. (Come to think of it, they probably don't know that Baron Hardup is Cinderella's father. I bet they don't know the name of Aladdin's mother, either.)

The one strong memory I have of the show is that, at this dramatic juncture, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart got to do a straight performance of one of the popular romantic songs of the day. He would play it incessantly on Junior Choice, pretending to bawl "Oh, Cinders..Cinders...." during the fade-out. The song was, of course, And I Love You So by Don McLean.

Elvis who?

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Bristol Folk House

Shall I tell you what sometime surprises me. It sometimes surprises me that you can’t get tickets for Bellowhead (that doesn’t surprise me at all) but that a group like Faustus, including Paul Sartin, (from Bellowhead), Benji Kirkpatrick (from Bellowhead) and Saul Rose (not from Bellowhed, but has played with Eliza Carthy and other big folk names) play to small, not quite full venues. Does Bellowhead now have that kind of mainstream appeal which means that people want to hear Bellowhead in order to say that they’ve heard Bellowhead, but don't want to hear people doing the same kind of thing that Bellowhead does, just as well? Or that there are people who want to hear a twelve man band doing bouncy punky jokey irreverent creative silly versions of traditional English folk songs, but won’t get out of bed to hear three men doing punk jokey irreverent...doing the same thing, basically?

Obviously, I’ve always thought of Bellowhead as “Spiers and Boden and their friends”, but after tonight I can see what a large chunk of what they do comes from Faustus as well. Would it be fair to say that the story telling and engagement with traditional songs comes from Jon and John but the wild gypsy circus stylings come from Benji and Paul? Probably not. I shall move on.

Unlike most guitar (Benji) fiddle (Paul) and squeeze box (Saul) outfits, all three performers take it in turns to sing, and all of them are very good at it. (They can also turn their voices to close harmony for an impressive Copperish Brisk Lad.)

They open up with a volley of nautical numbers: Benji does The Golden Vanity (about the cabin boy who sinks the Spanish ship while sailing in the lowland low); Paul does a slightly unfamiliar Captain Ward and Saul does the Old Miser.

The joke about preferring miserable songs, and apologizing for the odd happy ending, has perhaps been a little overworked, bit Paul’s version of the Captain’s Apprentice (which ends with the aforementioned Captain getting hung for beating his apprentice to death with a spike) does have an almost camp level of grimness to it. Things don’t notably cheer up for a slowed down version of the Deserter; even when Prince Albert comes along and says that the soldier doesn’t have to be shot after all, its delivered in a tone of voice which seems to say “This Never Happens". We get a wonderfully dead-pan version of a traditional bit of single-entendre lifted off Voice of the People about a farmer who lets a young lady have a go on his Threshing Machine. (”I puts down me hand for to cut off the steam / But the chaff had blown out of my threshing machine.”) But it might just be that the highpoint of the evening (particularly for those of us who were still on a Nic Jone high) was Saul leading the group in an extended Humpbacked Whale (properly Balina Whalers) complete with the verse about skinning kangeroos.

Folk music, as a wise person once said, is about three universal themes: Sex, Death, and Young Women Putting On Boys Clothes and Joining the Navy. So would it be true to say that in conjunction with Spiers, Boden and the others, Benji and Paul do the sex, but when they are with Saul, they major on the death? Almost certainly not. So let’s just say that this was a lovely evening of well chosen traditional music, given exciting, but not overly revisionist arrangements by an ensemble with a great on stage rapport.

And start lobbying for a full dress Bellowhead version of Balina Whalers.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Robin and Bina Williamson

Bristol Folk House

A Robin Williamson gig never fails to be a source of joy and laughter. Robin had set up his harp in the middle of the rather cavernous main hall at the the Folk House, with chairs and tables set up in a semi-circle round him; it felt less like a cabaret than a church. Already seated, he greeted punters individually as they arrived. Warmth; intimacy; connection. With all the sectarian violence and hatred in the world, he says, the one thing we can agree about and celebrate is the wonderful fact of just being alive. St Jerome translated Psalm 24 into Latin to make it comprehensible (instead of being stuck in obscure languages like – he draws the words out - Aramaic and Coptic). But the trouble with religion is that people think that they and only they know what God is really, really thinking, really thinking, and the great thing about Jerome's translation nowadays is that nobody understands it. In the course of the Latin he gets into strange burr-burr noises with his lips, and suddenly decides that he wants the audience to start chanting "diddly diddly diddly diddly" (which is the definition of a jig) while he sings nonsense words unaccompanied.

Bina contributes a couple of very evocative Indian language songs. I sometimes found myself wishing she could have taken more of a back seat in some of Robin’s numbers; her robust accompaniment sometimes threatened to drown out his quirky, idiosyncratic voice. But that would probably be to miss the point of the evening, which was clearly a product of the chemistry between the two performers: their love of music, their love of life; their positive eclectic version of God.

No Celtic folk tale tonight, but a rambling shaggy dog story without a punch line: the point of the tale is the telling, the silly voices and digressions. I loved Robin's made-up proverb about the Three Ages of Man:

The first age of man: My Dad's bigger than your Dad.
The second age of man: Oh, shut up Dad, what do you know about anything?
The third age of man: As my old Dad used to say...

He loves weak jokes ("the closest the west came to Zen"). When Bina says that a songs in A Flat, he remarks "or, as we say, an apartment." He's delighted (and so is the audience) by an American ballad about a mermaid's curse from which, apparently, the story of the curse dropped out, leaving with a song about a man who came home one evening and died.

They wind up the evening with two very nearly seasonal songs: the gypsy carol, and Sydney Carter's lovely "Joseph Came to Summers Town" which imagines the holy family staying in a disused railway carriage round the back of Euston station.

"Whatever Christmas is about" he says afterwards "It isn't about the God of Shopping."