Thursday, 28 July 2011

Young At Hart

Published in the August issue of Rhythms Magazine, 2011

Alvin Youngblood Hart

I first discovered modern US bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart, about six years ago when I first began working for Rhythms, kicking shit behind the scenes, raiding Brian Wise’s immense stash of promo records in lieu of payment.  One of the absolute gems I found in there was an album called Motivational Speaker, and because the cover appealed to me, I bagged it and took it home.  It was later on then, once I threw it on the CD player, that I found Hart, and I became an instant fan.

Motivational Speaker was a departure of sorts for Hart, being as it was quite a rock ‘n’ roll influenced work, which isn’t far off his radar, but was certainly something different to what he’d released in the past: the acoustic blues of Big Mama’s Door in 1996; the grab-bag of American-influenced tunes that made up Territory in ’98 (an album which netted Hart the Downbeat Magazine critics award for Best Blues Album and a WC Handy Award for Best Newcomer); Start With The Soul, which he recorded with Jim Dickinson in 2000, plus a host of blues-influenced side-projects with various other musical luminaries.  So Motivational Speaker was a departure, but it was one which grabbed me just right.

It’s also an album which stands as Hart’s last recorded work under his own name.  Six years without a record is a long time by anyone’s standards, although as Hart attests, it’s not like there hasn’t been a valid reason.  “Are you familiar with the Ford Motor Company product called the Edsel?” he asks, resignation evident in his voice.  “It was this car they released in the late ‘50s and they had this big publicity push for it, and it was a disaster.  So I kinda equate Motivational Speaker with the Edsel.  Except there was no big publicity push, that was the problem.”

Hart goes on to say how his record company at the time told him they didn’t have the money to properly promote the record (whilst simultaneously trying to sign other, in their eyes, more lucrative acts), and so the record became somewhat of a failure as a result.  “That took a lot out of me, I guess,” Hart muses.  I imagine it would have – the record was as solid as a rock, and for me at least, it formed the basis of my love of his music.  “Well, that’s one [who likes it],” he laughs.

As a result, coupled with the fact the industry is changing so rapidly making it tricky indeed to release in the traditional sense, Hart hasn’t dropped anything of his own since, whether it be solo or with his band, Muscle Theory.  What he has been doing though, in addition to his rigorous touring regime (which sees him playing regularly around his hometown of Memphis, and also New Orleans, as well as the rest of the States and Europe) is banding together with other like-minded souls, and there have been some interesting results.

Firstly, The South Memphis String Band, a jug band of sorts comprising Hart, legendary guitarist Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) and North Mississippi Allstar, Luther Dickinson.  “Yeah, we started officially about two years ago,” he drawls.  “Unofficially, we’d been talking about it for a couple of years prior to that.  For me, it was something that I had planned for a few years, I just didn’t know who with.  I guess for the three of us, the timing was just right where none of the three of us were really doing anything, so we were like, ‘Hey, lets give this a shot’.

“We didn’t even have a set or anything and we already had gigs booked,” he goes on with a laugh.  “I recall our first gig was in Dallas, I think, so we’re driving across Arkansas trying to rehearse songs in the van.  But we’ve got a fair amount of stuff together now.”  The union quickly yielded results with the low-key release of Home Sweet Home.  “Yeah, that was towards the end of 2009,” Hart says.  It should also be noted that these three musical layabouts also have an electric incarnation of the String Band, Loose Shoes.  “Oh yeah, I don’t really remember how that came about,” says Hart.

“We were just messing around in Jimbo’s studio one day and he had a couple of songs and he asked if we minded playing on then,” he goes on.  “So we switched instruments and played these tracks… and we recorded a few of ‘em.”  Whether or not these will eventually get released is in the lap of the gods, but you can live in hope.  In the meantime, Hart will grace Australian shores with his presence later this month, in solo mode, and he is actually working on some new material, as he tells.
“Maybe next year I’ll be able to put something together,” he muses.  “Most of them [the songs] are kinda rock tunes, you know?  There are a couple already that I’m trying to write for both formats (solo and band), try and play them different ways.”

We also live in hope of another Alvin Youngblood Hart record, although holding your breath wouldn’t be recommended.  That’s no drama though, because what’s the hurry?  For this modern bluesman, it’s about the music and where it takes you, time be damned.

Samuel J. Fell

Keys To The City

Published in the August issue of Rhythms Magazine, 2011

Eilen Jewell

With her fifth studio record, Queen Of The Minor Key, American chanteuse Eilen Jewell has produced one of the records of the year.  A heady mix of country rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf-inspired guitar and folky balladry, Queen Of The Minor Key leaps from the stereo, pulls on its ratty old cowboy boots and struts down the street, a hip-flask in its back pocket, a spring in its step.  From instrumental opener, ‘Radio City’ (this is where the surf guitar makes its first showing) to closer, ‘Kalimotxo’ (also surf-drenched, with a hefty dose of honky tonk pump), this is a record which is all in the right place, without a doubt.

“Thank you,” Jewell smiles when I get the chance to chat to her on the phone, telling her straight up how I feel about this record, one which she and the band are very excited about sharing.  And well might they be excited, as this is an album which has been some time in coming.  Not so much as far as time goes (Jewell’s last record under her name was 2009’s Sea Of Tears, plus the Loretta Lynn tribute record, Butcher Holler in 2010), but as far as the writing process goes.  Word has it that Jewell had to overcome a fairly serious case of writer’s block before Queen… got off and running.

“Well to be honest, it’s possible it wasn’t even writer’s block,” she muses, “because writer’s block kind of implies that I was trying to write but couldn’t; I was so blocked, that I wasn’t even able to try to write.  So I had to isolate myself in the mountains in order to write anything… I mean, there had been a lot of distraction on the road, fatigue, and it was hard to just get in the right mind frame to create.”

To counteract this frustrating time then, Jewell relocated, as she alluded, to a cabin (with no electricity or running water) up in the mountains of Idaho, where she’s originally from, to really get into the writing of this record.  “That was amazing,” she tells.  “And because it was a place in Idaho that I was familiar with, it wasn’t distracting; it was beautiful enough to be inspirational, but I felt at home there, so I didn’t feel like I had to be out exploring.  I think everyone needs a place like that in their lives, whether they’re writing or not.

“And I started writing right away, as soon as I put my bags down I was writing,” she goes on.  “It’s almost like I had the songs stored away in some part of my brain and I just needed to go up there in order to let them out of my head.”  So the songs that went to make up Queen Of The Minor Key began to pour out, songs like the slow rolling, ‘I Remember You’, the country inflected ballad, ‘Santa Fe’ and the foot tapping road-tripper, ‘Home To Me’.

What else came out, lyrically, was humour, a tongue-in-cheek aspect which as long-time listeners of Jewell’s will attest, hasn’t been that prevalent in her writing before.  Songs like ‘Bang Bang Bang’, describing Cupid as, “about two years of age, a really freaky thing to see, he was bragging about his sawed-off six gauge, hidden right up his tattered sleeve.”  Not to mention the title of the record itself.  “Yeah, that is a new thing for me for sure,” Jewell concurs with a smile.

“I usually shy away from humour in songs because to me, songs with humour in them can be kind of dorky or clichéd,” she goes on with a laugh.  “So the title is definitely tongue-in-cheek, in my opinion, and ‘Kalimotxo’ is one of the silliest songs I could ever imagine myself singing.  So with every record that comes out, I try to expand my horizons just a little bit more, and so this was new territory for me that I really wanted to urge myself into, it is possible to do a little bit of that.”

Weaved as it is in amongst the more serious writing and the music itself, the humour Jewell has injected into this record stands as an important part, a part which helps lift this record as high as it is.  With this in mind then, I’m interested to know what Jewell’s overall MO was here, what she wanted to come out with at the end of this record process.  “Well I wanted an album of all original material, that’s pretty much all that I knew, because we’d just done Butcher Holler last year and that was really fun, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a cover artist,” she explains.

“I want to be known as a songwriter, so I felt I had to get right back on track with the songwriting,” she adds.  “And I also knew I wanted to get a couple of guest vocalists, because I’d never tried that before.  So I wrote a couple of songs with a couple of friends of mine in mind and luckily they agreed to sing them with me.  They were Big Sandy (of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) and Zoe Muth, so that was pretty much all that I knew I wanted out of the experience and other than that, everything kinda just fell into place.”  One listen to Queen Of The Minor Key proves that, a masterful record from an artist with only more to give.

Samuel J. Fell

Queen Of The Minor Key is available now through Signature Sounds Recordings and Fuse.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Out The Corner Of Your Eye

Published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 27th July 2011

Periphery (short excerpt below)

Bringing to mind the brutal precision of Fear Factory or Strapping Young Lad, Periphery precipitate a new dawn in metal.  And yet they don’t, for much of what they do has been done before and much of what they strive to do is too much of a new tonic which raises the hackles of the old faithful who continue to pine for something new that truly represents the old, and with the exception, to my mind, of Lamb Of God, Job For A Cowboy and perhaps The Haunted, this has been slow in coming.

The behemoths of the old age are dead and buried, for the most part, and the new guard insist upon watering down their offerings – singing vocals and soaring, melodic interludes? – failing once again to sate the appetite which for so long has churned and pained and plagued the collective metal stomach.  And so one must turn to their trusty record collection, or delve deeper into the underground (and even this is becoming a harder task; there is, after all, only so deep you can go before needing to surface for air) or suck it up and dig what’s being offered up as metal in this day and age, at least in some small part.

Dinosaur metal junkies though, well, they don’t call ‘em dinosaurs for nothing and there’s a new guard of rabid hard music fans and this is their staple, this is what they’ll look back on in 20 years and lament the loss of (at the same time, looking back even further and wondering what that fuss was all about) – so Periphery are at the forefront of that, and for the old guard, at least there are elements of those earlier industrial strength bands in here and take that if you will and ignore it if not.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Record Review - Old Gray Mule

40 Nickels For A Bag Of Chips
Stobie Sounds (Aust)

If guitar/drum combos are your thing, then listen up and listen good.  Straight outta Lockhart, Texas (allegedly the BBQ capital of the world) come Old Gray Mule, a couple of cats with the blues running thick through their veins and a penchant to electrify and get it on down, as low and dirty as it’s possible to be.

Now, you may be thinking combos like these are a dime a dozen, and that’s a fair call, but OGM are a different breed.  Where the likes of the White Stripes, the Black Keys and Australia’s own Mess Hall are wont to press more toward the rock ‘n’ roll side of things here, OGM keep it tight within the blues tradition, keeping to that blueprint that’s proven itself over and over again and will keep doing so until the end of time. 

Where OGM differ again though, and where they show they have something new to offer, is in the delivery, and it’s showcased to perfection on 40 Nickels For A Bag Of Chips, the duo’s second record.  All instrumental, this is a dance record, this is charged and ready to roll, this is subtle skill set to speed and the results will singe the eyebrows off your face and warm your winter blues.  Guitarist, C.R Humphrey teams up this time with Junior Kimbrough’s son, Kinney, on drums and I defy you not to put this on at your next party and have the place heaving to these finely crafted trancey blues grooves.  Word on the street is these cats are heading our way later this year too, so I suggest you educate yourself with 40 Nickels…, find their debut, Sound Like Somethin’ Fell Off The House, and get ready to dance.

Samuel J. Fell

(published in August issue of Rhythms Magazine, alternate version to run in Australian Guitar)

Record Review - Geoff Achison

Live At Burrinja Café
Jupiter 2 Records

What is perhaps most surprising about Live At Burrinja Café, the latest from Melbourne blues-based guitar slinger Geoff Achison, is that it stands as his first ever live acoustic release.  Over the past two decades he’s released a number of live cuts, as well as a couple of all acoustic records, but never a combination of the two – this makes Live At Burrinja Café a welcome addition to the Achison canon then, not least of all because of the quality of playing contained within.

Solo acoustic is as naked as a musician can get, but this is where Achison excels.  Showcasing a wide variety of originals and covers (JJ Cale’s ‘The End Of The Line’ and the Allman Brothers’ ‘Whipping Post’ amongst them), all to a tee soaked in the subtle six-string trickery/mastery Achison is famous for, this is a set which reeks of realism and honesty, it’s like you’re right there.

Samuel J. Fell


An Old Way Of Doing Things

Published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 20th July 2011


For the past 14 years, British indie rockers Gomez have weaved their infectious tunes into the tapestry of the global music scene, garnering along the way an adoring, and ever growing, fanbase.  They’ve filled a niche occupied by very few, and as time has gone by, their canon has grown, their music has expanded and they’ve matured as musicians and people, and yet they’ve never lost that gleeful edge to their music that is so evident after even a cursory listen to either their records or their live shows.

These days, little has changed.  The five members of the band no longer share a house, as they once did, but are scattered around the globe – some in the US, some still in the UK – and they are of course, older and wiser, but aside from that, Gomez is still Gomez, and this is something that’ll remain as constant as their music is uplifting and free.  This month the band will release its seventh studio record, Whatever’s On Your Mind, and yes, it reeks of the ethos they’ve spent the past decade and a half adhering to.  But despite the fact little has changed there, there are some key differences, ones which have contributed mightily to how this record has turned out.

Firstly, as mentioned, the five members of Gomez no longer reside in the same city, let along the same country or hemisphere, and as such, Whatever’s On Your Mind came about in quite a different fashion, helped in no small amount by the continuous growth of technology, as guitarist Ian Ball explains.  “Well, this is the best way of us working to be honest,” he says simply, the band writing the entire record remotely, posting ideas, lyrics and music online and via email to each other.  “On the last album [A New Tide, 2009], the song that everybody liked the most was the ‘Airstream Driver’ song, and that was written in this fashion… and we thought, ‘Lets just do a whole album like that’, because it’s really good to work like that.

“And the main reason is, as you can imagine, in any kind of collective and creative environment, I mean, can you imagine five people sitting together in a room?  ‘OK, now we’re going to try this’, ‘No, lets try this’, ‘I don’t like that’, ‘Well fuck you’,” Ball goes on with a laugh.  “So it’s difficult, it’s really difficult, and we’ve never been the kind of band that sits around a campfire writing songs, it’s always been someone will come up with an idea then they’ll go to the pub with someone else and flesh it out.  So this is the same principle, it’s just a lot more effective because you have a lot of time to formulate your idea, a lot of freedom.”

So perhaps not that much has changed then, the addition of writing via the web just an extension of what the band have done in the past whilst living in the same country.  However, as Ball says, the band members found it an extremely effective way of writing, the result of such a decision garnering a collection of around fifty songs – not necessarily full songs, but parts of – ideas flowing in from the five members, slowly but surely forming the base for what would eventually become Whatever’s On Your Mind.

“We put limitations on it though, where we had to get two songs each into this magic bucket in the sky for three months straight,” Ball explains.  “So it was a concerted working period… and if you put something up in the bucket and nobody liked it, who cares, it stays in the bucket.  And the things that people started to work on, started to exchange ideas on, obviously became the album, without anyone saying a word to each other.”  This is perhaps where it gets a bit grey; it seems writing remotely suited the band down to the ground, but the total lack of human contact?  Surely not a good thing when it comes to crafting something as deeply personal as music.

“No, I don’t think so at all,” Ball exclaims.  “I mean, certainly the way we’ve always worked, we’ve always used technology to help us as much as we can, it didn’t take any of the humanity out of it at all.  It was just like, we all had the same ‘tape player’, we were just all sending it to virtual tape.  So I don’t think so, I think the whole idea of the computer as a soulless thing is probably flipped on its head, most people live their entire lives on there, so it was cool, it was a real good way of doing things.”

It certainly worked for the band; they came out of the process with ten solid tracks, the bounce and the fun and the faint commercial edge prevalent all the way through, as is their MO.  However, despite the online format utilised whilst creating the album, they did of course need to convene at some point in order to record, as they did over two ten day stretches in the States, a time when the human element was once again introduced.

“It was really great when we finally got together,” Ball smiles.  “Most of the songs [then] changed quite considerably when we first got together.  The first few days, there was a lot of whittling and narrowing down and combining this song with that song, as you can imagine.  And then when we had chosen the songs we were gonna record, it’d be like, ‘Well lets get into a room and record it and if it works, we’ll go with that’, but most of the time it was getting the map of the song perfect and then recording that, it was full on pre-production so when we got to the actual recording, we didn’t have to think anymore.  It was great, there was a lot of cool interaction between everybody.”

Another core difference in the making of Whatever’s On Your Mind was that it stands as the first record the band have produced themselves since 2001’s, In Our Gun.  Yes, they did recruit long-time friend Sam Farrar to lend a hand, but production duties were almost all down to Gomez.  “Well we’d kinda done all the producing ourselves before we even got to the studio,” Ball says on this decision.  “We didn’t need anybody to come in, a new brain.  We just needed someone there to see if what we had was any good, and Sam was the obvious choice, we’ve known him for so long.”

So with Whatever’s On Your Mind, Gomez have undergone some changes, but they’ve also stayed the same.  No mean feat, but one the band have embraced and made their own, the result being as strong an album as any of their earlier material, and one which will see them continue to go from strength to strength, garnering new fans along the way, continuing to expand and grow.  Just listening to Ball speak about this record is indication enough that the five of them are still enjoying the process, Whatever’s On Your Mind backing that to the hilt, and beyond.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Record Review - Gillian Welch

The Harrow & the Harvest
Acony Records / Shock

David Rawlings, musical partner of country/folk enchantress Gillian Welch, was recently quoted as saying, “When is the new Gillian Welch album going to come out?  On the happiest day of my life!”  Today then, is a very happy day for Rawlings, as it is for the rest of us, as finally after an eight year wait, we have The Harrow & the Harvest, the new record from Welch, and one of the most sublime records you’ll hear all year.

Listening to The Harrow & the Harvest is like looking closely at a desert landscape; it’s so stark and sparse, and yet is so eerily beautiful that you can’t properly comprehend how it came about.  And then, amongst the simplicity, are little pockets of hidden gold which may have been obscured by shadow on the original listen, but after a bit of movement, come to the fore and shine with a lustre not seen in modern music.  For this is an album from a time long gone, made in 2011, and its simple elegance is breathtaking.

The main reasons for this lie in the vocal harmonising of Welch and Rawlings.  The instrumentation – guitar, banjo, harmonica – is merely an accompaniment to the vocalising, two voices wrapping around your brain as one making these uncomplicated songs resonate with a subtle force that belies their seeming simplicity.

Whether via the back-porch Appalachia of ‘Six White Horses’, the steady, lowdown gallop of ‘The Way It Goes’ or the country/folk tear-stained cheek of ‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’, The Harrow & the Harvest takes you to a place you mightn’t have known existed – a place where music is real, played by real people, for real reasons.  This is why this record is so strong.  And so beautiful.

Samuel J. Fell

(published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 13th July 2011)

Record Review - Tiny Ruins

Some Were Meant For Sea

Some Were Meant For Sea is the debut long-player from New Zealand-based Tiny Ruins, otherwise known as Holly Fullbrook.  It’s a soft, non-assuming record, one with a dearth of hidden treasures which you, as the listener, need to search for.  Not in the sense that they’re buried amongst dross, but more that this is a grower of a record, offering first up a clutch of heartfelt songs, but then after more time, little bits and pieces you might have missed before but that now add to the overall effect.

Recorded with J Walker (Machine Translations) in an old school hall in eastern Victoria, Some Were Meant For Sea is as barebones as you can get.  And this adds to the feel of the record, for this isn’t something you’d play loud – it’s something you’d play when you want to listen, when you want to immerse yourself in an album and really get to the core of what the artist in question is trying to get across.  As such, the sparse sound and the simple instrumentation really allow Fullbrook’s songs to come to the fore, as I’m sure she would have hoped.

There’s a risk with this record first up in that it could immediately be put into the ‘wispy vocal, little girl pop/folk’ category, but again, this is a grower and the power in the record is that it quickly transcends that and flowers into what it really is – a simple yet meaningful record from an artist with a lot to say, and a solid idea of how to say it.

Samuel J. Fell

(published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 13th July 2011)

Wonderful Stuff

Published in Inpress Magazine (Melb), 13th July 2011

The Wonder Stuff

To look back over UK group The Wonder Stuff’s history is almost akin to gazing over a newly deserted battlefield.  Hiatus and break-up pockmark the landscape, the rubble of records long forgotten litter the ground whilst more successful albums are lauded and promoted and the smoke obscures things, wafting across the scene, pushed by the winds of time themselves.  26 years since the beginning of this rock n’ roll battle, and while it looks messy, it’s testament to the spirit of the band and its co-founder, Miles Hunt, that it’s still alive today.

“I think my little snotnosed self back then would have been appalled if you’d told him in 1987 that you’re going to be around for a quarter of a century at least,” laughs Hunt.  “I think I’d have slagged my older self off, but secretly gone to a room quietly on my own and gone, ‘Wow, do I really get to make music for all that time and not go and get a job?’”

This is what Hunt has done.  Along with guitarist Malcolm Treece, he’s the only remaining original member of a band which emerged from the Black Country area of England in the late ‘80s and went on to achieve global fame as the scruffy, rule-breaking kid brother of the more mainstream rock bands of the time.  Straight off the bat, they released a couple of records now seen as seminal in The Eight Legged Groove Machine (’87) and Hup (’88), careered along wildly, lost members, members died, they stopped for six years beginning in ’94, they began again in 2000, leaving members by the wayside, they indulged in side-projects, they bickered a bit and they played their brand of English anti-mainstream rock n’ roll. And they’re still here.

“Now, we know what we’re doing,” Hunt muses when asked how The Wonder Stuff is different these days with all their collective wisdom and experience on board.  “For example, we know what works live, from an audience point of view.  We’re not trying to pedal half an album’s worth of new material on an audience who essentially just want to come there and shout along to ‘The Size Of A Cow’, ‘Circlesquare’, ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby’, you know?  I guess it’s like Mick and Keith after all these years; the Stones can’t go out and not play ‘Satisfaction’, so at least at one point in the set you know you’re going to go down a storm.  So it’s taken away that element of ‘this could die on its arse’, it’s nice not having that.”

Made up these days of Hunt, Treece, Hunt’s acoustic project partner Erica Nockalls on violin, bassist Mark McCarthy and drummer Fuzz Townsend (who only joined the fold late last year from Pop Will Eat Itself), The Wonder Stuff is at a solid point in its long and varied career.  What helps make it so solid, is the fact that it’s no longer the main focus of its members, and this isn’t to say they don’t care, it’s more like when they are back together as The Wonder Stuff, it’s more of a fresh focus, it’s something the members want to put their all into.

“Yeah, exactly, we’re so pleased we get to spend this time together and play as a band,” Hunt concurs.  “And I’m sure everyone enjoys all the other things that we do, and hopefully the passion and the life that you put into those other projects is equal to the stuff that we put into The Wonder Stuff.”  Speaking of focus as well, you’d think that particularly for Hunt and Treece, one of the highlights of the band these days would be the lack of mainstream pressure, pressure which surrounded the band’s third and fourth releases, Never Loved Elvis (’91) and Construction For The Modern Idiot (’93), something which arguably caused their first split the following year.

“That’s the best thing, to be honest,” Hunt acknowledges.  “I mean, it was nice and we’re very appreciative of what Polydor did for us back then, even though it seemed we were trying to hinder them most of the time.  But the commercial side of things wasn’t something we ever sat with comfortably, I think that was quite obvious to anybody who met us at the time.  And so to have that removed is great, the relationship is now between the members of the band and the audience as it always should have been, rather than the endless trail of promoting the records.

“Being on a major label, you spend more time being a salesman than you do as a creator,” he adds, most likely with a shake of the head.  “We wanted to be creative, I wasn’t really interested in being a salesman.”  These days, The Wonder Stuff are free, they’re loose, and they’re now able to concentrate on the moment, and also perhaps, just every so often, to the future.  “Well, we’ve got a couple of tunes put aside for a Wonder Stuff album,” Hunt reveals.  “And Malc is also working on some new stuff at the moment, so there may be a new Wonder Stuff album next year.”

“And those tracks are sounding great, very, very lively,” he goes on.  “They’re lead by electric guitars rather than acoustic guitars, I tend to do everything with acoustic guitars these days.  So yeah, very lively, up-tempo, amusing lyrics.  So I’ve got very much half of a Wonder Stuff album sketched out in my mind already, but Malc needs to lead the way on this one…and to be honest I’ve had a difficult time motivating Malc into writing new songs.

“But in fairness to him, he’s been raising a very young family, he’s got two young kids and so has probably had his mind on more important things.  So meanwhile, Erica and I are loathe to start work on a Wonder Stuff album, because essentially, it’ll sound like a Miles and Erica record and then we’ll ask Malc to come and do some guitar on it.  And we don’t want to do that as a Wonder Stuff record.  So I’ve just put it in Malc’s court and said, ‘When you find time, record me some stuff’, because he always gives me great stuff when he’s got time to do it.  So when he throws some guitar parts at me, I’ll sit down.  Basically, I need Malc to set the pace of a Wonder Stuff album otherwise it’s gonna sound like a Miles and Erica album with guest guitarist Malc Treece, which is not a Wonder Stuff album.”

It’s been 26 years thus far, and so waiting on Treece to find the time just that little bit longer, isn’t going to hurt anyone.  In the meantime, The Wonder Stuff will make only their second foray Down Under later this month (“Twenty years, it’s ridiculous,” laughs Hunt), and then they’ll keep on doing their thing, interspersed as it is with solo projects, side-projects, kids and families, a veteran of the scene and a survivor to say the least.  The Wonder Stuff are different these days, they’ve been changed because of what’s happened, but it’s not in the least, changed their wont to continue.  Let the battle rage on.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Published in the July issue of Rhythms Magazine

William Elliott Whitmore, for his fifth record, lays down a modern field recording.

Early last century, along dusty rural roads and deep within cotton fields, on front porches and in juke joints, an oppressed people sang.  They sang of their torment and their tumult, they sang from the heart and the soul and the blues was born and we know this because people like Alan Lomax and his father, John, were there to record these songs, during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.  These field recordings, as they became known, provided an incredibly important part of musical history, still recognised to this very day, still to be recognised in the years to come.

From those dusty roads and scorching cotton fields then, on the wings of the blues, this music has marched ever forward and informs so much of what people listen to today.  Not many acknowledge this, or perhaps are even aware of it, but some are and it’s through them and their take on this music that we’re transported back to those early days, back to where it all began.

Today then, out in the backblocks of Iowa, resides one William Elliott Whitmore.  Only 32 years of age, yes, and born a long time after those oppressed people overcame their plight and their oppression, bringing this music with them, but a man whose music touches so closely on that original sound, it’s almost like he’s flown forward through time, straight from 1929 to 2011.  Whitmore’s latest record, his fifth, is Field Songs, and as the name suggests, this is a record as deeply rooted in that sparse-yet-strong ethos, those early field recordings, as it’s possible to be in an age of modern technology and bells and whistles.

“Well, it was a conscious choice to not really add anything to the songs,” Whitmore tells on the sparse approach he’s taken to Field Songs, his first record played entirely on his own.  “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna add a single thing’, there’s a drum you’ll hear a couple of times but that’s me, I didn’t want to add anything else, so really the idea, hopefully, is it sounds as if you’re right there with me.”

I remark to Whitmore that it does feel like this, and the addition of birds chirping in the background, the crickets and frogs you can hear behind the music, makes it feel like you’re sitting on his front porch on a summer’s evening, just watching him play.  “Yeah, I guess in that way I did use some studio trickery because we went out and recorded those sounds and added them in later,” he admits with a laugh.  “But it just seemed like a good way to put nature’s music with the music of man, you know?  Overall, it was just a fun juxtaposition to use all these modern recording techniques to capture this old music.”

For those not so initiated with the music of Whitmore, allow me to expand.  Armed with just a banjo and a guitar, this is a man who weaves tales of life as he knows it into simple yet complex blues-based patterns, perhaps not something too out of the ordinary, but it’s Whitmore’s voice that sets him apart.  I’m often drawn back to the opening track of his last record, 2009’s Animals In The Dark, an a capella track, ‘Mutiny’, which, with it’s raw power, it’s gravelled sound, was just made for a field recording, and it’s captured again here, on Field Songs to a tee.  This is a man immersed in this music of old, turning it his own way, and taking us back to those dusty rural roads from so long ago.

However, despite Whitmore’s strong links with the musical past, not all is as it seems.  Field Songs, whilst technically a bluegrass record with a more than generous smattering of country blues, carries with it a strong punk ethos; eight tracks, just over half an hour long, simple chords, a strong lyrical message.  For Whitmore though, this is merely an evolution, not something to raise one’s eyebrows over.  “Well I grew up listening to a lot of country and soul music, my folks had a lot of records, but I discovered punk music a bit later, in my teens,” he explains of the punk origins.
“I’ve always related to punk music because it just doesn’t seem that distant from the blues, it’s not a big jump to go from Robert Johnson to Minor Threat,” he adds.  “So it’s the same chords here, the take on the message, so as far as the song structure goes here, I was always intrigued by the punk way of doing it.”  To listen to Field Songs, you’d not automatically think of the Ramones or Black Flag, but the idea is there, the fact Whitmore regularly opens for punk bands the evidence that he’s made the connection and made it well.

Overall though, whatever is informing this music (whether it be the Sex Pistols or old field recordings), the fact it’s pure is what makes it so strong.  Field Songs is huge in its emptiness, one man and a banjo recorded in a small studio shack in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a modern day field recording, true to its roots, but striving to move onward.  “Yeah, it meanders, it’s like a river, you know?  It’s a snapshot in time,” he muses.  It’s a snapshot in time and it’s timeless, music recorded in a small shack that’ll last many a lifetime, just like those field recordings of old.

Samuel J. Fell

Field Songs is available now through Anti.

22nd Byron Bay Bluesfest - Easter Weekend, 2011

Published in May issue of Rhythms Magazine
All photography by Paul Smith @ Paul Smith Images (pics not published in Rhythms Mag)

The view from above

Bluesfest 2011
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay

There was a moment this year at Bluesfest, where I literally feared for my life.  If I’d known I was walking into a potentially fatal situation, I would never have done so, I’d have run for the hills, via the bar, and gone to find something soothing, like Trombone Shorty or Mavis Staples.  Instead, I sat on the stage in the Rhythms Q&A tent and co-interviewed Michelle Shocked with Brian Wise.

Indeed, I should have read the signs as Shocked walked up onstage and sat down, eating her ice-cream and scowling.  I should have realised when she began giving one-word answers that we were in trouble.  I should have realised, as she stared at me with her cold, dead eyes, that my days were numbered.  Her subsequent rant to the audience, sparked by what I thought was quite an innocent question, about how corporations were raping the world (I think she may have been referring to Rhythms there) certainly brought it home and when she stormed off stage mid-interview, I realised how close to death I had been –methinks, retrospectively, that Michelle Shocked may have missed the point.  Brian and I, on the other hand, were happy to escape with our lives.

George Clinton sees the light
There was another moment at Bluesfest this year where I wondered if perhaps I’d stumbled across another dimension, one so damn funky and hazy, that its mere existence is enough to warp minds and explode brains.  Sitting in a tiny room with George Clinton, he of Parliament Funkadelic, talking about fishing as two of his band members massaged various parts of his body (knees and shoulders folks, get your minds out of the gutter).  Indeed, as I walked out of his dressing room four and a half minutes later, I couldn’t be sure if it had actually happened.

There was another moment at Bluesfest this year where I raised my arms to the heavens and asked (no one in particular) if I could get a witness.  A witness to the slithering, slinky groove being laid down by Robert Randolph and the Family Band who didn’t stop for a single second of their Sunday night set, swapping instruments and laying it on thick – I’d been waiting for this since 2003 and I was not disappointed.  They’ve gotten bigger and better, but have still kept that spark that so endeared them to me, and many others, those eight years ago.

There was yet another moment at Bluesfest this year where we wedged ourselves as deep into the crowd as we could and watched the Blind Boys of Alabama sing their way into the hearts of one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, their age doing little to dampen their enthusiasm, their vocal range, their stamina.  And with Aaron Neville stepping out to lay down a few numbers, this was the vocal-infused set of the festival, hands down.

There were also lots of little moments at Bluesfest that combined to paint a picture of grandeur, because that is of course, what Bluesfest was this year.  Kim Churchill first up on the Thursday night, putting his all into it, he’s come a long way since he began, not that long ago.  Bobby Long, quite nervous, but winning people over with his new school Dylan-esque songs, one to watch for sure.  Louis King kick-starting the festival early on Friday, his Liars Klub backing him up and then some, the resulting fuzzed-out rockabilly blues doing wonders for early morning hangovers.  And Mavis Staples, where did she find those pipes?  Still winning after all these years, watching her was certainly special, particularly when she launched into ‘The Weight’ and invited one Elvis Costello, up to help her out.

Elvis Costello has never left the building
I talked to Tony Joe White about fishing too, then interviewed him on the Rhythms Q&A stage, then went and watched him play and as always, was lured into the swamp on fuzzed-out wings, impressive.  Jeff Lang, always engaging, engaged me yet again, this is a man who in my book can do no wrong, and on the Sunday evening, he did just that.  I saw Bob Dylan too, he was playing this year, he was a lot better than when I saw him last and his band were great.  Having said that, I’m not much of an aficionado, so I’ll leave it at that.

Oh BB King, you goddamn legend, what a sight that was.  But BB is an old man now, his voice is going, his guitar (whilst still sugary-sweet) is fading and even a band of that calibre couldn’t make this a set you’d honestly call mind-blowing.  Still, to have seen the man in concert, to have been within 20 metres of him and Lucille, was good for me, and was almost enough to overcome what was, truly, unfortunately, a lacklustre set.  I surely had the blues after seeing that.
His Bobness 
And so an amazing line-up, odd moments mixed with fantastic, a true Bluesfest in every sense of the word and the meaning.  The question remains though – given the line-up this year, who can they possibly get to top it?  I know not the answer to that question my friends, suffice to say, this year was a winner.

Samuel J. Fell