Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cambridge Folk Festival, 25 – 28 July 2013, with photos by Soo Martin

Didgeridoo

My second year attending the wonder that is the Cambridge Folk Festival, and whereas last year was about acclimatisation and making sure I didn’t miss the acts I’d noted in advance this time I went for a looser, more scattergun approach – wandering in and out of things and trying not to buckle to the pressure to be in the crowd for the big names if there happened to be something that sounded more interesting going on elsewhere. As before, I’m astonished at the quality of this event on more or less every level, from the artists on the bill to the catering and clear-up arrangements to the intoxicatingly tempting stalls selling musical instruments to the uniformly polite and considerate attendees. If you’re remotely interested in unpretentious and vital music where the spectacle’s all in the playing rather than the trappings it’s really worth considering getting a ticket even if you’re not sure about folk as a genre.

So here are some impressions of the acts I saw, with photographic evidence provided by the excellent Soo Martin (apart from the two blurry ones, which are courtesy of my rubbish camera phone). I’m very aware I inevitably missed a whole bunch of good stuff, but you can’t be in five places at once, even at a festival this geographically compact. This is going to ramble on a bit, so you might want to get yourself a cup of tea (herbal, naturally) at this point.

BrassFunkeys

Opening slot at the Club Tent goes to The Brass Funkeys, a local ensemble who specialise in pumping out lively versions of pop standards rearranged for trombone, trumpet, sax and especially pleasingly, sousaphone. They get everyone bopping with their takes on Seven Nation ArmyOne Step Beyond and Sweet Dreams and there’s almost tangible disappointment in the crowd when they have to wrap it up after only forty minutes. Next year they deserve to be headlining somewhere.

RobertsLakeman

Husband and wife duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, formerly of seasoned folk outfit Equation, have recently re-emerged after a period of maternity and paternity leave with a strong new album Hidden People, from which much of their set here is drawn. It’s respectful, traditional sounding stuff that showcases Roberts’ powerful voice (particularly on the sinister ballad Huldra, sung with no accompaniment) and the duo’s talent for narrative songwriting.

WillyMason

Willy Mason is a world-weary bluesman’s name if I’ve ever heard one, and despite still only being in his twenties the man in question sure lives up to it. His voice is soulful and lived-in, his delivery is laconic and his songs are pleasingly full of tough lessons, though the compositions display an originality and invention slightly at odds with his sleepy-eyed stage persona. He’s best when playing solo, or with just one of his cohorts playing a saw behind him – when the full band come on he tends to get a bit drowned out, particularly by the keyboard which has surely been given far too much prominence in the mix.

RustyShackle

Meanwhile, my Club Tent correspondent reports that Welsh quintet Rusty Shackle are a right laugh, and big fans of lampshades too.

LucyRose

Upcoming star Lucy Rose seems slightly bemused to be playing at a folk festival, and understandably so as her music has almost nothing of the traditional about it. It’s pretty impressive nonetheless, and the audience love it despite an absence to my ears of easy crowd-pleasing devices like hooks and obvious choruses: it’s a blend of dance beats, complex riffs that never quite settle into grooves and Rose’s delicate vocals and guitar playing.

EllieRusbridge

I only caught the end of Ellie Rusbridge‘s set at the intimate Den but wished I’d seen more – charming and baroque fiddle-adorned chamber-pop, slightly in the manner of Regina Spektor. A lovely way to come down after a loud evening in a packed marquee.

DeadRatOrchestra

Well, that was unexpected, who knew cotton field hollering was alive and well in Colchester? That far flung town’s Dead Rat Orchestra alternate sultry dirges performed on violin and harmonium with O Brother Where Art Thou style spirituals and it’s a heady mix. At one point the three committedly bearded men place a log in the middle of tent and go at it with hatchets, the blows forming a percussive backdrop for one heartfelt acapella lament. Were Health & Safety consulted about this?

LarkinPoe

Larkin Poe are as bright and radio friendly as the writers who make up their name are doomy and depressing. Rebecca and Megan are two-thirds of former folk act The Lovell Sisters, and it’s presumably elder sister Jessica who was the major roots music fan as the new group trade in commercial hooky pop that seems tailor made for accompanying videos featuring fast cars and deserts. They’re pretty talented, mind: good tunes and good voices, and the appearance of a mandolin and a dobro gives a clue to where they came from musically.

DarrellScott

My pick of the festival, and one I really didn’t see coming, is journeyman songwriter and guitarist Darrell Scott. I’d never even heard of him before the Friday, but his fifty minute solo set on Stage 2 left me gasping. This man is the full package. He’s got brilliant, evocative, carefully structured and disciplined songs, sung in a rich, warm and unfussy style, and as a player he’s impossibly talented, with his fingers dextrously picking out complex patterns in places where the compositions need variety and drama, or strumming cleanly and unshowily where the words and vocal melodies need to ring out. His subject matter tends to be drawn from his impoverished upbringing in Tennessee and he throws in some background about this and his close relationship with his musician father between numbers. Go see him if he ever happens to be playing on the same landmass as you.

Levellers

Levellers2

This far into their rabble-rousing career alt-folkies The Levellers could probably raise the roof at a festival in their sleep. Thankfully, they’re very definitely awake for this one and do exactly what the occasion demands by cranking out one singalong anthem after another, with a minimum of time wasted on showboating and coasting on their undoubted versatility. Hell, I don’t even know most of these songs and even I was singing along. One high point is when an impish white-faced character unexpectedly comes on wielding a didgeridoo, which he then seems to play continuously for about ten minutes, all the way through the next couple of numbers. Another is when the band insouciantly play their best known song One Way only halfway through the set, and another is when they bring on headliners Bellowhead to help them with the encore The Recruiting Sergeant. A brilliantly energetic set with no lulls…and towards the end it suddenly occurred to me how much my beloved Decemberists take after them, though I’m sure it can’t be deliberate…

BohoDancer

To round evening two off another sortie to the Den where Danish trio Boho Dancer‘s pared down, but somehow still otherworldly sound fits in perfectly with the alternative boutique vibe of this small and cosy stage. Their songs aren’t exactly catchy, but they hang in the air nicely and the audience seems to appreciate having something non-bombastic to fill their ears with.

MartinSimpson

Stage 1 is a big old marquee but folk legend Martin Simpson fills it effortlessly with just an acoustic guitar, some deft and soulful playing and a bunch of stories, some spoken and some set to music. He announces the news of the death of J.J.Cale and dedicates the opening In The Pines to him, and then uses a reminisce of teenage parties as a launchpad for a take on Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song that’s considerably more filled out musically than the original. His own songs are just as memorable, particularly the story of a heroic but officially unrecognised World War One soldier and his donkey. Another set that seems much too short.

SteeleyeSpan

SteeleyeSpan2

Did I just say folk legend? What does that make Steeleye Span, one of the key acts in bringing folk in from the margins at the end of the sixties and playing here for the first time in nearly twenty years? Rumour has it that this line-up doesn’t have much in common with the 1969 version other than singer Maddy Prior, but let’s not be purist about it – they sound in rude health, with a beefed-up electric sound that verges on the proggier end of heavy metal at times. Most of the set is taken from their current album, based on a Terry Pratchett novel, so we get lyrically dark takes of supernatural beings and shady morris dancing practices set to complex, but generally tight and disciplined arrangements. Actually, most of the time it sounds pretty great, and plenty varied in terms of dynamics and the range of instruments both ancient and modern pressed into service. At the end they give in and let the audience sing along to All Around My Hat, which after last year’s experience of hearing the Brighouse and Rastrick Band play The Floral Dance, puts me one further down the road of collecting Radio 2 classics from my youth.

HeritageBlues2

The Heritage Blues Orchestra sounds like something dreamed up by a government focus group but they’re actually a bona fide group of highly talented blues and jazz practitioners from New Orleans. At the base of their sound is an authentically swampy blues pulse, carried mainly by guitarists Junior Mack and Bill Sims Jr – this is augmented by the highly impressive vocals of Chaney Sims and urgent harmonica of Vincent Bucher, with a four piece brass section providing added punch and occasionally keening held notes a bit reminiscent of Miles Davis. However they put it together it boogies like a madman and the audience end up with sore hands from all the involuntary clapping along they find themselves doing.

StateOfTheUnion

…meanwhile over in the Club Tent celebrated local songwriter Boo Hewerdine and American slide guitarist Brooks Williams are covering Alt-J and cracking jokes under the name State Of The Union.

TommyEmmanuel2

If in terms of pure attack most folk guitarists are a gently wagging finger then the cheery Australian Tommy Emmanuel is an inter-continental ballistic missile. This guy’s surely a freak of nature: he hits his amped-up acoustic harder and faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, yet at the same time the delicacy and accuracy of the wildly complicated picking he’s doing is utterly faultless. He seems to be able to not only play rhythm and lead lines simultaneously but also function as his own drummer – he often lets his left hand sound the notes and chords on its own while his right hand beats out syncopated rhythms on the body of his instrument. In terms of the sheer number of notes he manages to play over the course of his hour long set he must be the world record holder by a considerable margin. It’s truly awesome, so much so that you can forgive him his reliance on standards and hoary old blues progressions as the starting points of his extended workouts and the overly sentimental nature of some of his original songs. If you’re going to look him up on youtube try to find his version of Over The Rainbow, in which he somehow conjures up what sounds like a harp, or his song Mombasa which climaxes with him successfully emulating a full African drum troupe.

CCSmugglers

My spies tell me that CC Smugglers nearly caused a riot over in the Den. Standing room only, apparently…look out for them on a main stage next year.

JohnHegley

Last day, and I get on site in time to catch most of John Hegley‘s delightful lunchtime children’s concert (apologies for the above indistinct picture of a far-off stage, but I didn’t feel like elbowing the kids out of the way to get a closer shot). Hegley works his way through the alphabet, throwing in daft definitions, songs and a marquee-load of the brilliant comic poems he’s loved for. I haven’t seen him for years so it’s reassuring he’s still standing up for spectacle wearers everywhere and drawing our attention to dogs whenever he can.

CarthySwarbrick

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick (acoustic guitar and fiddle, respectively) came to prominence in the sixties via their tireless efforts to bring traditional British folk music to a wider audience, and they’re reunited on the main stage on Sunday afternoon to play some venerable ballads and jigs. It feels like an odd platform for this (they’d surely be more at home in the back room of a coaching inn next to a log fire) but they don’t seem to mind and their chatty and convivial stage manner is a nice contrast to the knotty and often esoterically accented material they’re presenting (Carthy must be well practised at funny time signatures by now, but he makes it clear he doesn’t find them particularly intuitive to play in). Ancient yarns and not quite so ancient anecdotes abound.

LizLawrence

Back in the Den Liz Lawrence supplies tunes much more recent and much more easily digestible. She accompanies herself on crisply strummed acoustic guitar and sings her clear and catchy songs in an attractive soul-y drawl that has something of the Winehouse about it. She’s also the winner of my just dreamt up “best original lyric of the festival” competition with the unassailably ambivalent “I’m stuck between Rock and Roll and Health and Safety”.

WeBanjo3

We Banjo 3 are initially a bit confusing, given that there are actually four of them and only two of them play the banjo, but that’s about the only false note in their high-energy crowd-pleasing set. These Irish lads put on a right proper hoedown that has the audience toe-tapping from the start and screaming for more by the end and somehow seems miles fresher and nimbler than your average wedding ceilidh. Irresistibly infectious.

MudMorganfield

Mud Morganfield bears a startling physical resemblance to his father Muddy Waters and it turns out that the similarities between them don’t stop there but extend absolutely to the music. Morganfield’s set is straight down the line classic Chicago blues, played by a backing band of slicked back, sharp suited, weathered faced men who’ve come straight from central casting. The man himself has got the impossibly deep and rumbly vocals off pat and booms his way through a bunch of well-worn standards with aplomb. Close your eyes and it could be Muddy himself. Open them again and it still could.

Staves

The Staves have been gradually moving up through the various size stages at the festival over the last few years and now find themselves with an evening slot on Stage 1 itself. It doesn’t seem to phase them. These sisters from Watford specialise in gorgeous three part harmonies which they apply to their own generally mellow, but with a hint of bittersweet, compositions to arresting effect. They’ve got a couple of lads in tow to handle the bass and drums when things need to rock out but the high points of their performance are inevitably when they use just a single guitar as backing and let their voices do their stuff. All three Staves are comfortable covering short breaks for retuning and swapping instruments by exchanging down-to-earth banter with the crowd – it’s like they come here every night to do this. When they eventually hit on the right, commercially irresistible tune they’ll be bestriding the world.

Waterboys

And so, the finale (for me, anyway. There are more acts available for a while for those lucky enough not to turn into organically grown pumpkins at ten o’clock every evening). Way, way back in the day I used to get quite snooty about The Waterboys and Mike Scott’s cod-mystical leanings, but after witnessing this blistering set I’m right there at the Humility Foods concession with my order for extra-large pie. The band play with the kind of urgent rock’n’roll scrappiness that I suddenly realise I’ve been desperate for over the long weekend, reeling off half a dozen unexpectedly familiar (and, yes, actually really great) selections from their back catalogue in short order before repeating The Levellers’ gesture of throwing down their big hit (in this case The Whole Of The Moon) only midway through their slot. And then…they abruptly raise the stakes by indulging in some theatricals involving two members of the band stalking each other in Venetian masks that has the effect of reminding me of how sinister I always find old footage of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, before Scott leads the group through a positively incendiary version of Don’t Bang The Drum, with lurid green lighting heightening the atmosphere. Suddenly, we’re not at a nice polite folk festival anymore, but in some Satanic alternative reality. They close out with This Is The Sea to wild applause and whooping before coming back to seal the deal with the garage-punky Be Me Enemy. The place explodes with adulation and I spot the perfect point to sign off on the festival. I should do this every Sunday evening to set me up for the week.

Anyway if you’re still here thanks for reading. This really is a spectacularly good event, and it may well be worth booking early for next year’s if you’re thinking about going: it’s the 50th anniversary year, and surely there’ll be someone appropriately monumental on the bill. Baez? Seeger? Thompson? Surely not Dylan?

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The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas

AllHailWestTexas

I’m not normally tempted to write about deluxe reissues of classic albums but I’m making an exception for Merge Records’ remastered new edition of The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album All Hail West Texas, on the grounds that a) it’s a bit of a masterpiece (possibly my favourite record released in the last thirty years, even) and b) no-one I know has ever even heard of it, much less listened to it. And it’s such an unlikely candidate for the buffed-up audio treatment anyway, in addition to its relative obscurity. Goats leader (and on this collection, sole contributor) John Darnielle has in the past been indifferent verging on the hostile to the idea of revisiting his past recordings, preferring always to concentrate on maintaining his ferocious output of new material, and this particular album is also notable for being as lo-fi a recording as can possibly exist in this century: Darnielle recorded all these songs in his front room using only his voice, an acoustic guitar, a couple of unreliable cassette decks and on one track only a cheap Casio keyboard. There are no overdubs but there is plenty of audible tape hiss and grind – on a first listen, you wouldn’t even class these recordings as sophisticated enough to qualify as demos. One would reasonably assume the scope for remastering to be limited.

However. These fourteen tracks may be unapologetically basic in form (and Darnielle’s confident reliance on tried and tested chord sequences and strum patterns straight out of a play-in-a-day guitar primer makes the compositions sound at a first listen as unsophisticated as the recording) but I’d struggle to think of another set of original songs as rich and evocative and unshakeably memorable given a chance as these are. By the time Darnielle hit the record and play controls on his boom-box to capture this batch he’d already been releasing records and tapes and CDs for ten years and had garnered literally hundreds of songwriting credits, and all that woodshedding of his craft pays off with interest here – all of these pieces set brilliant, moving, sometimes funny and sometimes devastating lyrics to catchy, flowing melodies that stick with you like araldite once you get past the surface sketchiness and fuzz of the sound. The album’s subtitle “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys” should give you an idea of the type of characters that populate Darnielle’s songs: outsiders, drop-outs, people whose lives have become derailed through bad choices or lack of opportunity or arbitrary turns of fortune. He gets inside and articulates the pain and longing and occasional mad euphoria of those trapped in the margins like no other songwriter I know and he does it without ever becoming precious or patronising: the opening The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, which the current line-up of The Mountain Goats still tend to end their sets with, tells a tragic of tale of two teenagers’ shattered dreams before ending with a rousing refrain of “Hail Satan!” where one might have expected a moral, or a finger-wagging indictment of institutional authority. Pretty much every track on the album hits the spot, usually in under three and a half minutes – right now, I’ll recommend Source DecayPink And BlueDistant Stations and Riches And Wonders (which may be the greatest love song since Love Will Tear Us Apart) but it’ll probably be other tracks if you ask me next week. Only the sweet but slight Blues In Dallas, which features the one appearance of keyboard rather than guitar, comes off as less than essential.

So this new edition then. To be honest I’m not sure I can notice much difference in the sound quality to before, but there are a couple of good reasons for proud owners of the original CD to upgrade (and if you’re strictly old school in your listening habits you’re catered for as well: the album’s now being issued on vinyl for the first time). Firstly, Darnielle has managed to unearth seven bonus tracks, despite throwing a tape containing a lot of unreleased material recorded at the same time as the album into the garbage in a fit of pique years later, and not only are six of them previously unheard songs of a quality that damn near matches the fourteen main attractions (the seventh is a redundant alternative take of Jenny) but they sound pretty good as well, with if anything less hiss and tape noise than those on the original album. And secondly, the booklet contains a fascinating essay by Darnielle outlining his working methods at this time – basically, he’d write lyrics at work during the day, set them to music in the evening and record them straight away, ditching anything that didn’t seem to work immediately. Hence, every song on this album was recorded only hours, or even minutes, after it was composed, with many unlucky casualties rejected in between.

All Hail West Texas turned out to be the last Mountain Goats album to be recorded outside a conventional recording studio. John Darnielle continued (and continues) to be a bewilderingly prolific songwriter – the next album, one that a lot of fans rate as their finest work, Tallahassee, came out only a few months after this one – but this, in the probable eternal absence of a Best Of album, may be the best place to start if you’re curious. Hail Satan!

Tracklist: The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton, Fall Of The Star High Running Back, Color In Your Cheeks, Jenny, Fault Lines, Balance, Pink And Blue, Riches And Wonders, The Mess Inside, Jeff Davis County Blues, Distant Stations, Blues In Dallas, Source Decay, Absolute Lithops Effect. Bonus tracks: Hardpan Song, Answering The Phone, Indonesia, Midland, Jenny (alt. take), Tape Travel Is Lonely, Waco

The World’s End: one for The Road

WorldsEndI feel a bit churlish about not having enjoyed Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s new  movie The World’s End more. It is after all exactly as zippy and witty an effort as one would expect from the makers of the cheekily post-modern flat share sitcom Spaced and the classic zombie romcom Shaun Of The Dead and even the small-town shoot-em-up-com Hot Fuzz (although actually, I didn’t really get on all that well with that last one either, come to think of it. Maybe I need to adjust my expectations). Its central conceit of Pegg’s erstwhile coolest kid on the block rounding up his former schoolmates for another crack at a twelve stop pub crawl they failed to complete twenty-three years previously functions nicely as the plot mechanism that delivers an astute and timely satire on the increasing homogenisation of suburban British life. It features a bunch of reliably funny and likeable actors (Pegg’s onscreen collaborator in chief Nick Frost, obviously, but also Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and the much-in-demand Martin Freeman), a pithy script that often makes telling points about the dangers of not growing up versus the possibilities of mid-life crisis, a few very nicely orchestrated surprises and a whole load of punch-ups in drinking establishments. The question would seem to be: what’s not to like?

And the answer is, for me anyway, that it’s just not that funny. And I think the reasons for that are partly to do with pacing, partly to do with the thinness and generic nature of what becomes the main plot (details of which I will not go into, though that title wasn’t chosen just because it’s the name of a pub), partly to do with an excess of scenes of men, and only men, drinking (there is a token woman, played by Rosamund Pike, and she is, as is generally the case in this kind of set-up, as mature and sensible and generally well-adjusted as the male characters are not) and quite a lot to do with Pegg’s character Gary King, who is fantastically irritating and punchable, particularly in the early scenes when he’s persuading his reluctant mates to come out on the town with him. It’s really laid on with a trowel that his personal development stopped when he was about seventeen, and after twenty minutes or so of the others raising their eyebrows at each other as they gently indulge him in his outmoded catchphrases, juvenile nicknames and puerile half-remembered anecdotes I was internally screaming “OK! We get it! He’s a dick! Can we get on with it now?”

And to the film-makers’ credit, they do. Probably the best sequence in the whole film is when its abruptly revealed that Things Are Not What They Seem and the whole trajectory of the thing changes…but even after that, we’re still getting scene after scene of blokes rehashing old differences while they get gradually rat-arsed, even when insidious and mortal peril is revealed to be lying in wait literally everywhere in this seemingly bland and anonymous dormitory town. Shaun Of The Dead handled both this theme of the ordinary incrementally coming off the rails and that of the man-child stuck in a rut much, much better by letting things go awry almost imperceptibly in the background while establishing an ordinary and sympathetic man struggling to balance everyday pressures of friendship and commitment – here, we’ve just got an unrepentant tosser dropped randomly into an arbitrary apocalypse and there doesn’t seem to be too much of a reason to care that much about any of it. And, crucially, the jokes and pay-offs and call-backs in Shaun were much better – I really wouldn’t be whining so much about a sci-fi comedy not being believable if I had something to laugh at every couple of minutes.

But it’s not completely irredeemable. Edgar Wright knows how to keep things interesting visually, and there are quite a few imaginative and exciting (and probably highly expensive) setpieces and effects that play out in ways you probably wouldn’t predict. And, as I said before, the script’s pretty smart in fingering dispiriting trends in modern life even if it’s lacking in hilarity. The climax is explosive, even if it doesn’t really convince as a piece of drama, and the epilogue is intriguing, even if it seems to be more like the prologue for another, very different, sort of film. And you can bet this film’s going to be the basis for a whole bunch of drinking games as soon as it’s out on DVD.

Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour

FlightBehaviour

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is one of the most involving novels I’ve read in a long while. Set in a poor sheep-farming community in Tennessee, it’s a vivid, funny and uncommonly well-rounded account of the challenges and dilemmas faced by the young housewife Dellarobia after her half-formed impulses to walk out on her unfulfilling marriage are unexpectedly derailed by the arrival of thousands of crimson butterflies in the trees of the mountain close to her home. The phenomenon is greeted as a miracle by the God-fearing locals but a much more sober and disquieting analysis is reached by a small team of out-of-town scientists whom Dellarobia extends her hospitality to: this unusual migration pattern is a symptom of accelerating climate change, and both the butterflies and the township itself face grave peril.

With its constant and sympathetic central character and strictly linear and contained throughline this is a much more conventionally structured read than either of Kingsolver’s most celebrated earlier books, the multiply-narrated missionary horror story The Poisonwood Bible and the enigmatic, continent and decade hopping The Lacuna, but I’d say it was a more satisfying work than either of them, playing directly to her strengths of establishing realistically subtle and complex characters and situations that never develop in obviously signposted directions. In particular, the author manages to effortlessly dodge the preachiness that’s a major risk when you choose to make manmade global warming the main theme of your book – while there’s plenty of convincing and well set out detail here of the evidence supporting the most pessimistic predictions (Kingsolver has a Master’s in ecology and evolution) there’s also been a lot of care taken in getting across how the poverty and lack of opportunity in this society tends to render such concerns largely irrelevant (there’s a lovely scene in which an environmental campaigner half-heartedly finds himself advising a woman who’s unlikely ever to be able to afford a computer or a holiday to “take fewer flights”). Which is not to say there’s not real passion about the state of the planet on display here, as witnessed by the explosive (and hilarious) confrontation between the fastidious and media-wary ecologist Dr Byron and a pushy TV reporter set on getting a pithy soundbite for an early evening news package.

Flight Behaviour ends up being just as much a well-observed and non-patronising look at the type of community that’s often reduced to a stereotype as it is a deft outline of some of the warnings the world really needs to start paying attention to right away, and that it also manages to be a warm and funny comedy of manners with some highly engaging people (even the little children come across as real, fully-rounded, characters) is even more impressive. Left me wanting more, and for a 600 page book and an attention span as short as mine that’s a true miracle.

Stuart Maconie: The People’s Songs – The Story Of Modern Britain In 50 Records

StuartMaconiePeoplesSongs

Stuart Maconie’s new book is the print version of the current Radio 2 series of the same name. Lifting its format brazenly from the acclaimed A History Of The World In 100 Objects of a few years ago it’s a series of essays, each one of which deploys a popular song as a jumping-off point to examine an aspect of the social and cultural history of postwar Britain. I have to admit that going in I was a bit cynical about this approach – can a three minute pop song ever really cast that much light on the complexities of the welfare state or multi-culturalism or sexual revolution? – but I ended up wolfing down the 400-plus pages of the book over one weekend, thanks partly to the convenient bite-sized length of the chapters but mainly to seasoned journalist Maconie’s winning way of wearing his formidable knowledge and research of the minutiae of both the recent history of the UK and the business of making records so lightly. All of these essays are packed with information and insight, with hitherto unsuspected connections between seemingly disparate events, individuals and trends being revealed all over the place, but it’s all done in a highly readable manner with plenty of pretension-deflating humour and sympathy with the under-appreciated heroes of the era to carry you through. Plus, the choice of records used to illustrate the themes is frequently surprising and refreshingly counter to the top-down, music-critic-approved, lists of the great and the good that are still being handed down in the pages of Mojo and Uncut – while it was probably inevitable that we’d get to hear about She Loves You (teenage liberation), God Save The Queen (70s malaise) and Ghost Town (mass unemployment) here this might be the first time any book has offered up serious analysis of things like Spandau Ballet’s Gold (Thatcher ascendency), Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (the little-commented on mass popularity of musicals) or Y Viva España (the proletariat being able to afford foreign holidays). Maconie has a ball with all this stuff, and takes every opportunity to give some limelight to genres and movements that usually remain underground, and not in a hip way (witness the inclusion of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past and Hudson-Ford’s Part Of The Union). His story starts with Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again and is left on a cliffhanger with the forty-ninth entry, Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers – the final choice will be decided by a vote among readers of the book and listeners to the radio series. I’m going for Half Man Half Biscuit’s A Country Practice.

Half Man Half Biscuit, Cambridge Junction, 4/7/2013

HMHB2

Half Man Half Biscuit’s set at The Junction last night was just cracking, a robust (and at times veering surprisingly close to nimble) run through some of the highlights of one of the finest back catalogues in modern pop music. On record the Biccies’ unique selling point is Nigel Blackwell’s unrivalled genius for lyrics, with seemingly every song containing at least one hilarious and immortal couplet of a quality that ought to make Cohen, Dylan et al think about chucking it in and getting a job in Safeways. In a live environment however, the emphasis is more on the pithy and catchy chunkiness of the tunes and the pleasing unfussiness of their approach that in some ways makes the band come over like a Birkenhead version of The Ramones: they just crank ’em out, one after the other. I counted at least 23 songs in the hour and three-quarters they were on, which is surely consummate value for money. The only pauses are for a few of Nigel’s deadpan comedy observations on aspects of the local geography. This show is the second leg of a rare East Anglian foray for the group and follows an appearance at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, and a clue to how they fill their downtime between gigs is given by Nigel’s very first comment to the audience: “Anglesey Abbey: not bad.” This is in time followed up by references to local villages Great and Little Wilbraham and Swaffhams Prior and Bulbeck – my guess is that Nigel is a man who likes his OS maps.

The band’s straight-ahead, high-speed delivery is responded to favourably by a boisterous crowd which pleasingly doesn’t consist entirely of middle-aged men. A full-on moshpit has developed by the fourth number, occasioning your intrepid reporter’s partial retreat to somewhere nearer the back of the hall, but the pushing and shoving is conducted with high spirits and never becomes threatening and it’s actually nice to see a crowd engaging with the music rather than just standing there solemnly recording everything on camera-phones. Everyone seems to know the words and sings along lustily – it’s kind of delightful to be part of a room of people all yelling Fuckin’ ‘Ell, It’s Fred Titmus* or You’re Going On After Crispy Ambulance** or, most poignantly, For What Is Chatteris*** Without You In It. The material HMHB play tonight covers all but one or two of their dozen or so albums and EPs and it’s particularly nice to hear Time Flies By When You’re The Driver Of A Train from their debut Back In The DHSS, an album which had me literally rolling on the floor with laughter when I first heard it in 1986. The most recent songs aired are Joy In Leeuwarden and Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools from 2011’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond) and there’s room also for the relatively obscure Whit Week Malarkey and Bogus Official as well as the inevitable, and rapturously received, Joy Division Oven Gloves and a stonking take on Holiday In Cambodia for the encore.

The Rolling Stones headlined at Glastonbury last weekend and by all accounts it was a pretty jim-dandy gig…but some of us know who the real greatest rock’n’roll group in the country are.

HMHB1

* Stalwart English cricket player of the 50s, 60s and 70s

** One of Factory Records’ not so celebrated signings

*** Sleepy and somewhat isolated Fenland town. I played in a band who came second in the 1991 Chatteris Rock Competition, you know.