Friday, 23 November 2012

Feature - Jordie Lane

Published in the EG section of The Age, November 23.
For online version, click here.

This Year of our Lord, 2012, has been the year of Jordie Lane.  The success of Blood Thinner, his second full-length album released last year, has seen him come into his own as a songwriter and artist, and so this year he’s run with it.  He’s no longer a wanna-be muso hanging around the Northcote Social club, he’s the real deal.

The past six months alone have been solid.  In late July, Lane played his musical hero, Gram Parsons, in the acclaimed stage show Grievous Angel: The Legend Of Gram Parsons. Not long afterwards, he was invited to Nashville for the Americana Festival & Conference where he played with country legend Jim Lauderdale, and then back home where he played an extensive support slot to English political folkie Billy Bragg. 

In amongst all this have been his own solo tours as well, and so you could forgive him for wanting to rest for a while, to come to terms with his rising star.  Not so.

During the Bragg tour, Lane released ‘Fool For Love’, a bigger, bolder more electric musical statement than he’s released previously, a song which sees him embracing a new take on his Americana-tinged sounds.  “Well, on the merits of the song itself, that’s just where it wanted to go,” he says on this change.  “It’s just how we wanted it to sound, a nice bit of summer fun.”

The single, a precursor to the follow-up to Blood Thinner (“I am working on the next album, yes,” he confirms), was recorded in the US in May this year, and it’s back to the States that Lane will head in January to, as he says, “smash it out”, looking to have a finished product in April. 

Given his growth over the past year or so though, it’s a fair bet that this one will be different from a songwriting perspective.  Where Blood Thinner was almost a diary of his time following the ‘ghost’ of Gram Parsons, this new one sees Lane in a different place, albeit one he’s not sure of as yet.

“I don’t know where it’s at,” he says of his current motivation, with no small amount of frustration.  “It’s not as clear cut as the [last one]… I feel like it’s going to go more towards those ‘songs on the road’, because I’ve been on the road so much, meeting these fanciful characters… and psychedelics, we’re trying to creep that into the sound as well.”

“[So] we’ve probably tracked five songs, about half [the album], but I really want to record 20 songs, to see which way the album will go,” he goes on.  “There’s stuff with string sections, then there’s stuff that’s a bit more Neil Young Crazy Horse, so it’s all over the place right now.”

It’ll be a hard album for Lane, hard for him to live up to his own expectation (“Yeah, it’s my difficult third album,” he jokes).  But given how much he’s grown, you can bet he’ll pull through.  He’s no longer a wanna-be, after all.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Live Review - Ben Harper

Published in Time Off magazine (Brisbane), November 14.

Ben Harper
Convention Centre, Brisbane
November 9th, 2012

At this point in his career, Ben Harper can afford to be a little indulgent.  It’s a touch over twenty years since he released the seminal Pleasure And Pain album, and in the ensuing time, he’s become an icon in modern roots music – an interpreter, an innovator, an inspiration to many, both musicians and fans of same.

AP FIle Photo
And so he tours this time around in solo mode, a guise he’s not before undertaken to such an extent, his live solo output to date limited to the odd song during Innocent Criminal sets, or Relentless7.  And this brings us back to Harper being indulgent, for that’s what a solo tour is, particularly at this point in an artist’s career – three hours of you.  Nothing else, no one else, just you, and that’s how it goes down at the Convention Centre, in front of a near-capacity audience.

Now, Harper can pull this off – the man tonight is in ebullient form, his repartee with the audience is genuine and affectionate (perhaps a little too genuine in places), his passion for what he does is truly real, and so he cruises, shuffles, bumps through a set which finally comes to an end some three hours after it began, a deep and meaningful look at a great many of the songs which have made him great, recreated in the form they doubtlessly began as – solo acoustic.

For me however, the appeal of Harper’s music lies in his sonic interactions with his band, whether that be the all-conquering Innocent Criminals or the more stoner rock influenced Relentless7, and so to be brutally honest, tonight has me losing focus on many occasions, slipping into my own head where things are more interesting.

He begins with ‘Diamonds On The Inside’, which has people in raptures.  He gives us ‘Burn One Down’, which at that point (around two and a half hours in), I really, really wish I could have.  He plays a few new, unheard songs, which are solid.  He plays ‘With My Own Two Hands’, he plays a freaked out slide version of Leonard Cohen’s extremely seminal and extremely overplayed ‘Halleluiah’.  He plays a Pearl Jam cover on the marimba, which is great, and, in the set highlight, he belts and buckles and bullies the lone piano into a crescendo of thundering, booming vocal-infused sonic sludge which raises hairs and quickens the heart.

But despite the fact the show is fine, great in parts, its impact, for me, is lessened because it’s a three hour set which was an hour and a half too long, an at times rambling over-indulgent monster, which really could have benefitted from the interactions with a band Harper does so well.  It left me wanting really, I felt it needed more.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 9 November 2012

Feature - Emmylou Harris

Published in the Metro section of the Sydney Morning Herald, and the EG section of The Age, November 9.
For online version, click here

When Emmylou Harris began her musical journey, back in the early ‘70s, country music couldn’t have been further from her mind.  Moving from North Carolina to New York’s Greenwich Village, Harris frequented the myriad coffee houses armed with only her acoustic guitar and a swag of songs, looking for nothing more than a foot in the door of the then burgeoning folk scene.

Not long after this move however, she met one Gram Parsons, and her life, not to mention the lives of fine country music fans the world over, changed forever.  “The whole point of the song ‘The Road’ (from Harris’ latest record, 2011’s Hard Bargain) was inspired by that [meeting],” she explains.  “The whole point of the song was to say, ‘On that road, I’m glad I came to know you’; that sense of wonder at how life turns out, and how people impact your life and change the trajectory.”

“I certainly don’t want to underestimate the influence of people like Baez and Dylan and all the people that were going on when that folk music revival happened, because they really brought me into music,” she goes on, regarding her ‘switch’ to country music.  “But I had to find a place to put my voice, for where it could be all it was supposed to be, and that was through Gram and singing country.”

From there, from that invaluable relationship, the rest is well documented, and so today sees Harris clock in at the four decade mark of an extraordinary career, one which shows no signs of slowing.  Following on from Hard Bargain then, is not a solo record, but a duet record with longtime friend Rodney Crowell, another leading light in country music.

“Yeah, I have just finished a record with my old friend Rodney… my cohort, my comrade,” she smiles.  “We’ve known each other since 1974, and we’ve finally made our duet record – I can now say, ‘Boy, I’m so glad we got that done’.  It’s been 30 years in the making, at least in the dreaming about.”

Old Yellow Moon is the record title, it comprises a number of covers reinterpreted by Harris and Crowell, and will be Crowell’s second duet record this year, following on from Kin, the album he released with author Mary Karr in July.
“It was me saying, ‘We’re gonna do this record, by golly’,” Harris laughs on the catalyst that finally got the pair into the studio, “before we get too old or one of us gets hit by a bus.  I mean, at a certain point, you’ve gotta say, we don’t have all the time in the world, so lets do it.  So we agreed, set aside some time, and did it.”

Preceding the release of Old Yellow Moon, which is slated for release in February next year, Harris will once more grace our fair shores this month, again with crack band The Red Dirt Boys.  “It’s the same folks that were with me last time (Phil Madeira, accordion, guitar, keys; Rickie Simpkins, mandolin, fiddle; Chris Donohoe, bass; Bryan Owings, drums), and also a guitar player called Will Kimbrough, a great electric guitar player.”

“And [I can’t tell you what to expect],” Harris laughs.  “I don’t know, I write up the set the day of the show, and then I might change it in the middle, which drives everybody nuts.”  Forty years in, Emmylou Harris has earned the right to change things whenever she wants.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Feature - Clairy Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes

Published in the November issue of Rhythms.  Excerpt below.

Our story begins in an old coffin factory on the dark edges of Melbourne town, a place where, not that long ago, pine boxes in which to house the dead were crafted, but that now is the spiritual home to a group of hep cats who craft red hot soul tunes, not a sceric of the afterlife within earshot.  Indeed, this is fresh and new, an original take on the sounds of old, pulled together with love and then some – shimmy and shake, rattle and roll, this is where Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes’ story begins.

“I used to be in a band with Jules Pascoe, who’s the bass player in the band now,” recounts Browne herself on the origins of a group which is taking not just Melbourne, but the country as a whole, by swingin’ storm.  “So we met up again, he found me drunk, in some whiskey bar, crying into my drink, singing sorrowful songs.

“So he took me home and we had a massive jam with this bunch of vagrant musos hanging at his house.  We had a seven-day jam, we kinda slowly lost people and the true stayers remained, and so we started making music.”  Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes, as they became known, are a nine-piece – must have been a hell of a lot of vagrant musos at that initial jam.  “Oh yeah, people hanging off the staircase, playing tambourines and triangles.”  Epic stuff – nothing like a seven-day jam to trim the fat, strip it back to a sleek, aerodynamic nine-piece – that’s the business.

“We still hang out at the coffin factory, some of the dudes live there,” Browne says when I bring it up.  “It’s not spooky, it’s got a really homely vibe… really sweet actually, all the walls are painted with our musical heroes… Marilyn’s there, and Elvis, yeah – we look to the wall for inspiration.”

Inspiration comes from other avenues too, as you’d expect – the Bangin’ Rackettes are front and centre in Melbourne’s thriving funk and soul scene, a scene that’s always been bubbling away beneath the surface, but that recently has exploded as bands like the Rackettes, Saskwatch and Cactus Channel have added their collective weight to the likes of Deep Street Soul, The PutBacks, Kylie Auldist and The Bamboos – it’s a happening man, believe it.

“Yeah, it’s good, it’s culty and tribal,” Browne concurs.  “It’s good to have brethren and sistren… there were a lot of DJs on the scene doing that, and they’ve totally supported live music and all our friends and peers, I guess, who are thriving.  It’s really cool to see.”

What else is cool to see, as Browne puts it, is these groups of kids (for wont of a better phrase – The Bangin’ Rackettes range in age from 22 to 33) not only getting into, but reviving almost, these sounds born of a time before theirs.  The sounds of ‘60s and ’70s funk, soul and R&B are rife within the ranks of these bands, something which is not only finger snappin’, foot tappin’ly great, but that is also quite surprising – or perhaps it’s not.

“Well, luckily for me, I’ve always been drawn to sentimental songs that you can get a heart connection with, and I think soul music and R&B is so strong in that regard, all the emotion,” Browne tells.  “And I always used to listen to the big divas and cool, old R&B and gospel music.  And then I guess, ‘80s and ‘90s R&B as well I’m a massive fan of, like The Fugees and Erykah Badu, a bit of ‘80s Prince, stuff like that, that sort of vibe.

“So I think our influences are pretty broad in that sort of sense, it transcends a whole bunch of different eras, but I think that the root of it is that it’s moving music, it gets down to the gritty feel.”

Samuel J. Fell