Friday 30 June 2017

The hidden world of R.E.M. #13

I know that R.E.M. had a torrid time making 'Fables Of The Reconstruction', and many fans rate it quite low among the band's IRS material, but I've always loved it. I'm particularly taken by Stipe's lyrics which take on a real southern storytelling theme. Some of the harmonies on the record rate among the finest they ever recorded too.

The band undertook a massive touring schedule broken down into four segments known as Preconstruction, Reconstruction I, Reconstruction II and Reconstruction III. The first of these included summer festivals in Europe, which were among the biggest they'd ever played. For instance, in June 1985, they were on the bill for The Longest Day, a one-day festival headlined by U2. Billy Bragg, Spear of Destiny and The Ramones were also present. Sadly, R.E.M. failed to get the crowd going. As Tony Fletcher wrote in Remarks - The Story of R.E.M.:  "The 50,000-strong crowd was in no mood for a band opening a set with as downbeat a song as Feeling Gravity's Pull, and the group spent the entire set dodging missiles, the most common of which were plastic bottles full of urine."

A couple of weeks later, however, they were at Belgium's famous Rock Werchter festival where they were much better received. Half of their 12-song set featured tracks from 'Fables...', including Can't Get There From Here. They also threw in a decent cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Have You Ever Seen The Rain? Some of the set was broadcast on Belgian radio and I believe this is the source of the recordings I have.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Reggae Wednesday

I'm not going to apologise for posting so many classics in this series. It's fine being all clever and obscure, but I'll never fail to acknowledge the brilliance of some of the best known reggae tunes out there. Today's pick is one of the best known of all - one of the great reggae songs of all time.

Night Nurse catapulted Gregory Isaacs headlong into worldwide stardom in 1982. The fame led to him developing a serious cocaine and crack habit which in turn resulted in the loss of his teeth, a deterioration of his voice and a spell in prison. However, he never stopped writing, recording and performing. More than 60 studio albums bear his name and he remains a legend of his genre. Isaacs died of lung cancer in London in 2010. The Jamaican government posthumously awarded him the Order Of Distinction (Officer Class) in 2016. But his lasting legacy will be his music.

I love Night Nurse so much, I'm giving it to you twice! The first is the original 12" mix which combines the album version with the obligatory dub version. The other is a fantastic live version from 1987's 'Encore', recorded at Brixton Academy in London. The (mainly female) crowd is exuberant throughout, singing loudly and chanting "We want Greg'ry" as he leaves the stage at the end.

Monday 26 June 2017

The Genius of Nick Cave

#23: No Pussy Blues

One thing Nick Cave has long been renowned for is his lyrics. His knack for storytelling rates him among the greats like Dylan and Cash. He's a folk singer, first and foremost. Often, beneath the surface text there are deeper, underlying meanings, all kinds of connotations and contexts; metaphors and subtexts. So, what are we to make of No Pussy Blues from the first Grinderman album? What wisdom lies behind the words? Well, according to Nick himself: "It's just about not getting any pussy when I grew my moustache." I'm guessing cats are not involved here... So there we are then. Sometimes we shouldn't think to hard about these things...

Here's an explosive live version from Jools Holland. I feel sorry for whoever had to follow this...

Friday 23 June 2017

The hidden world of R.E.M. #12

The noughties. Not exactly R.E.M.'s best decade. In fact, it sadly marked the end. In 2001, 'Reveal' was released. I remember MrsRobster being quite shocked at my reaction having played it for the first time. "Well, that was shit!" I remarked. I was disappointed and angry that my favourite band could make such a terrible record. Little did I realise it was going to get worse before it got better...

'Reveal' did have a couple of  decent tracks tucked away on it though, but they were swamped by average songs and a production so brightly polished you needed shades. I've Been High was a lovely tune, featuring one of Stipe's most delicate vocals. I'll Take The Rain wasn't half bad either, while The Lifting could have been one of the album's standouts had an earlier version (that featured on the b-side of the awful lead single Imitation Of Life) been used instead.

For some reason, someone had the idea that this should be the album that deserved the full remix treatment. A bunch of remixers were asked to contribute to the project and the best results were compiled by the band. The result, titled 'r.e.m.IX', was released as a free download from the band's website in 2002. Thank god it was free because had I paid for it, I might well have hunted Stipe, Buck and Mills down and put them out of their misery once and for all. A bunch of insipid and uninspired versions of songs from 'Reveal' did not make me feel any better about the band I once adored. In fact it convinced me to move on. The album wasn't particularly well-received by the critics either, so whatever the initial aims for the project were, it was clear they had failed.

'r.e.m.IX' was soon forgotten by fans, written off as something of a folly. However, just in case you were wondering what it sounded like, I'm presenting the two least-bad tracks here. In fact, Mark Bianchi (aka Her Space Holiday) actually came up with something quite nice. Not that 'nice' is necessarily a complimentary word, especially for music. But his instrumental mix of I've Been High is more than bearable. The version of The Lifting was done by Andy Lemaster of Athens, G.A. band Now It's Overhead and is just about passable. With interest in this series already on the wane, I hope I'm not killing it stone dead with this week's offering, I'm not exactly selling it to you, am I? Still, it's out of the way now. It does get better...

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Reggae Wednesday #9

The Rhythmites formed in Bath (nr. Bristol) in the mid-80s and quickly forged themselves a reputation as a brilliant live band on the free festival circuit. I saw them a few times in various places around the west country during the early 90s. One gig in particular sticks with me as I got phenomenally drunk and had to be carried out. It was over a girl, of course.

After a couple of cassette-only releases, they released their debut album 'Integration' in 1989. No further records followed before the band split in 2000. However, they reformed in 2007 and, in 2010, put out the long-awaited (21 years!) follow-up 'Stand Strong'. That vinyl-only debut remained elusive however. That is until Bristol Archive Records re-released it on CD and digitally in 2015 with two bonus dubs.

Here's the opening kind-of title track ripped from the original vinyl. It still sounds good.

Monday 19 June 2017

Memories of 2017 gigs #6

The Wedding Present
O2 Academy, Bristol - 15 June 2017
Support: Young Romance

Not really sure what to write about this one. I know some of you have seen the Wedding Present on their 'George Best' 30th Anniversary Tour already, a couple of you have even written about your experiences. The sets have barely changed from date-to-date either. And even if you haven't caught them this time around, most of my readers will be more than familiar with Gedge and his cohorts.

So perhaps I'll start by mentioning the support band Young Romance. They're a boy/girl duo. He plays guitar, has very long hair and wore a shirt Bobby Gillespie would have been proud of circa 1986. She sings, plays drums standing up and wears glitter on her face. Sometimes they sounded like early Kills. I also thought there was a bit of mid-period Gossip in there too. The songs were OK, but the sound let them down a bit. Well worth checking out.

We've never been to Bristol's 02 Academy before, although I have a feeling it was at one point known as The Studio. I did see one gig at The Studio. It was in 1991 and it was... The Wedding Present. I may have remembered this incorrectly, but it was 26 years ago so cut me some slack...

It seems every time I see the Wedding Present nowadays, Gedge has decided to freshen things up once again. This time we get a new guitarist (from Australia) and another new female bass player who, rather brilliantly, also plays keyboards, sometimes while she's playing bass at the same time. She's from Devon though, so obviously naturally talented.

Another observation really came to light about half way through the set. There was a short set of new songs and lesser-known tracks from the band's back catalogue before they began playing 'George Best'. After What Did Your Last Servant Die Of?, Gedge noted: "We're into the 'George Best' part of the set. The songs sound quite similar now." And that's when I realised that, compared to their recent output, they do. No slow songs, lots of furiously strummed trebly semi-acoustic guitar and nothing longer than four minutes. Compare that to last year's ambitious 'Going, Going...' set and it's clear how Gedge has developed over the past 30 years. Yet he remains the inimitable David Gedge, indie legend.

A rousing rendition of Kennedy tacked on as a sort-of non-encore produced a massive mosh and singalong. There may not have been many people under the age of 45 present, but there were still plenty of exuberant voices hollering about apple pie and loving TV shows.

My seventh or eighth Wedding Present gig then (I forget exactly). So how was it? Well, I'll let MrsRobster sum it up with what is very probably the best one-line gig review you'll ever read: "I like seeing the Wedding Present. They're like a satisfying sex session after you haven't had it for a while. You're never disappointed." Quite...

Two of my fave songs from 'George Best' - one recorded during the original tour in 1987, the other captured this year:

Friday 16 June 2017

The hidden world of R.E.M. #11

As I mentioned in a previous post, R.E.M.'s fan club releases were rather hit and miss affairs, but more than a few times they'd offer up something intriguing, worthy even. So this week I'm giving you three tracks from the mid-90s fan club singles. First up, 1995's single included a cover of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game which sounds even more laid back than the original. Stipe adopts a higher tone than Isaak did, but it somehow works. I reckon if they'd spent a bit more time on this they could have had a more than passable b-side on their hands.

That's more than can be said for the following year's rendition of I Will Survive. The band I used to be in played this song for a while, and - dare I say it - our version was better than this. Marginally. Stipe doesn't know the words and gives up twice, Mills plays a rather gloomy organ part and Buck's acoustic guitar just tries to keep things going. Like I said, they could be hit and miss affairs...

In 1998, the band teamed up with Radiohead for the fan club single. Two live tracks, side one featured Stipe fronting The 'Head for Lucky, and side two had Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith's part on E-Bow The Letter. I've opted for the latter today. It's not the best performance or recording on the planet, but it is what it is and it's one for the 'intriguing' category. The best bit, surprisingly, is Thom letting rip towards the end.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Reggae Wednesday

Judy Mowatt, along with two other teenage girls formed the Gaylettes in 1967. They released a number of soul-infused rocksteady singles before she joined the I-Three, Bob Marley's backing singers who also included Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths in 1974. The following year her debut solo album hit the shelves.

But it was the follow-up that propelled Judy Mowatt into the annuls of reggae history. 'Black Woman' from 1979 is regarded as not only one of the best reggae albums by a female artist, but one of the best reggae albums period. It was groundbreaking in many ways, not least because it was the first self-produced reggae album by a female artist.

Judy loved soul voices like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers and she proudly wore her influences on her sleeve on 'Black Woman'. In the late 90s, she converted from Rastafari to Christianity and started recording gospel music. However, even in her early records you could hear the strains of gospel breaking through. Today's track, Down In The Valley from that seminal album, is a good example of that.

Monday 12 June 2017

Memories of 2017 gigs #5

Public Service Broadcasting
Ebbw Vale Institute, Ebbw Vale - 9 June 2017

When Public Service Broadcasting first came to my attention, I thought they were a neat idea. A neat idea with some good songs, in fact. But maybe they were a bit of a novelty. How far could they take this concept and remain interesting? They seem to be answering that question with relish.

This was our fourth time seeing PSB, and it was a rather special show. The band is about to release its third album 'Every Valley'. Its theme is the rise and fall of British industry and its effects on our communities. It takes coal mining in South Wales as its main reference point so they based themselves in the valley town of Ebbw Vale to record it, kitting out the main hall of the Ebbw Vale Institute to use as a studio. As the album nears its release next month, PSB returned to that very space to play two exclusive preview gigs. Only 200 tickets were on sale for each night with a proportion reserved only for locals. They were difficult to get hold of but luck was on our side and we nabbed a couple for the second night.

The EVI used to be a working man's club for the mining community. Now it's a community centre whose main hall is ideal as a music venue. The stage is nice and high at one end and it has a bar at the back. It's small and it looked rather cramped onstage - especially when the three-piece brass section stepped up to join in - but that seemed to add to the special, intimate nature of the show. And it was hot. Very hot!

Now, MrsRobster loves Public Service Broadcasting. Like really REALLY loves them. The only other band I've known her have this much love for was R.E.M. So this is a pretty big love we're talking about. That said, what could they do keep her adoration? Well, like previous outings, PSB tried some new things. The biggest surprises of all involved reluctant frontman J. Wilgoose Esq. Not only does he actually speak to the audience now (as opposed to playing pre-programmed computerised messages), but he sings. Yes, sings! His English vocals duet with the beautiful Welsh words of Lisa Jên Brown of 9Bach who joined the band onstage for You + Me.

This was one of a number of new songs played for the first time. Singles Progress and They Gave Me A Lamp will undoubtedly be among the highlights of their autumn tour alongside more established tracks. The thing with these new songs, particularly in this area of the country, is that they will resonate with a lot of people affected by the issues they raise. The South Wales Valleys, along with other big industrial areas of the UK, continue to suffer the effects of successive Conservative governments' attempts to kill British industry, selling it off to the highest bidder and screwing all those left behind. It's still happening now with steel just down the road in Port Talbot.

But it wasn't all about the new stuff; established favourites were also given a fresh airing. Spitfire, Everest, The Other Side, Gagarin and Go! all sounded spectacular, the latter prompting the now familiar crowd sort-of-singalong during the chorus.

So is it safe to say Public Service Broadcasting are no longer a novelty? You could argue they never were. They seem to pull a new rabbit out of the hat whenever they make an appearance and this was no exception. And MrsRobster? Well, she gets a little over-excited sometimes and starts babbling like she's on drugs. She reckons she had a moment of clarity during the show and thinks all of PSB (including their brass section) should be the next Dr Who. Like all of them together. Yeah, it was probably the heat.

"I've never seen them and not loved them," she told me after she had calmed down. She was clutching an unopened bottle of Every Valley ale (on sale at the show) as a souvenir. Stone-cold sober and drug-free yet still on a high. A cold shower and a lie down should sort her out...

Here's a piece about the new album which also includes the video for Progress.

Friday 9 June 2017

The hidden world of R.E.M. #10

It's back to the early years this week and two really interesting versions of songs that would end up on R.E.M.'s debut album. On 2nd July 1982, the band played the Strand Cabaret in Marietta, a city just to the north west of Atlanta. 'Chronic Town' wasn't due for release for another seven weeks, yet R.E.M. were gigging furiously, mainly around the southern States but occasionally further afield.

By now they had an established set featuring the songs on 'Chronic Town' and many from the following year's 'Murmur'. There was still room for new songs and some experimentation though. Sitting Still was the b-side of the debut single from 1981 and would also feature, almost unchanged, on 'Murmur'. However, it seems the band were playing around with it during this interim period, slowing down the first half of the song before kicking into it at full speed.

This show also marked the very first live performance of Perfect Circle. It was clearly at a very embryonic stage. It's guitar-driven, Stipe doesn't appear to have had any proper lyrics at this point, and they use a drum machine! Not sure what Bill was doing, though he might have been playing bass as it sounds like a keyboard or violin might be being played and I'd assume that was Mike Mills doing the honours. The following year, Perfect Circle would close side one of 'Murmur' and it would be a very different animal. One of the sweetest songs of the band's career, in fact. You'd never guess that from hearing this though...

More from this show another time.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Memories of 2017 gigs #4

Saint Etienne
Tramshed, Cardiff - 5 June 2017

This show was supposed to have taken place on Saturday evening, but there was some little football match going on in town apparently and this presented some logistical issues which forced a postponement. Of course, in any sane world the football should have moved to accommodate Saint Etienne, but I understand one or two people were quite interested in the game and one of the players was a local fella...

Anyway, come Monday evening and I wasn't in a good place. I'd had a shit day at work and got home in a foul mood. Add to that the god-awful weather, I just didn't feel like going out. I actually came very close to staying in and moping, in fact. In the end, I saw sense.

Since purchasing the 12" of Only Love Can Break Your Heart waaaay back in 1990, I'd never actually caught Saint Etienne live, though there was a near-miss at Glastonbury Festival in 1994. I'd decided I was going to make it over to the main stage to watch their set. But after a few hours of traipsing around the site in close to 30-degree heat whilst drinking cold beer and warm cider, I dozed off in the sunshine just outside my tent. I only came-to when my mate Higgz returned, gave me a friendly kick and told me Saint Etienne were on. He subsequently collapsed with laughter as he observed my face, now as red as a lobster except for where my sunglasses had been. I was too embarrased to leave the tent for the rest of the afternoon...

So a rather warm Tramshed was going to be my first time. MrsRobster has been suffering for a few weeks with sciatica and back pain so was understandably in some discomfort for much of the night. She took her mind of it by engaging in one of her favourite pasttimes - people watching. One key observation was how the average height of male Saint Etienne fans is generally short. True enough, there was a considerable lack of tall people there. No bad thing of course - they usually stand directly in front of me at gigs.

In the live setting, Saint Etienne field a much-expanded line-up. In addition to the trio of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, they were joined by a drummer, keyboardist, the obligatory multi-instrumentalist and, of course, trusty co-singer Debsy. And then there was Cardiff boy Carwyn Ellis (aka Colorama) who guested on guitar for a few tracks. (As Carwyn left the stage, Sarah noted: "So we're back down to a 1-2-3-4-5-6... 7 piece. Oh I can't count tonight, I'm too hot." To which a lone male voice uttered from the crowd: "Yes, you are." Nearly every straight guy in the audience chuckled in secret agreement. Sarah giggled; MrsRobster rolled her eyes...)

The set took a little while to get going. In fact, MrsRobster reckons they could have dumped the first quarter of the set and it would have been an improvement. Things got going for me with the double-whammy of new album highlight Take It All In and the wonderful Sarah-Debsy duet Who Do You Think You Are? which was, quite frankly, gorgeous.

A number of songs from the new record 'Home Counties' were aired. Aside from Take It All In, highlights included Magpie Eyes, Train Drivers In Eyeliner and Dive. But it was the oldies, of course, that delighted the crowd most. You're In A Bad Way, She's On The Phone and Tonight were among those that shone brightest. Perhaps predictably, the biggest cheer was reserved for Only Love Can Break Your Heart which prompted a mass singlaong, rightly described by Sarah as "rousing".

So after a shitty day in shitty weather, Saint Etienne ultimately triumphed in making me warm and happy, and with the state of the world right now, we could all do with feeling like that as often as we can. I'm off to play 'So Tough' loudly...

Monday 5 June 2017

Send Them Kids To War

Last Wednesday's post featured Glasgow singer Soom T. She was a member of the collective of Scottish-Canadian musicians called The Burns Unit who released the really bleddy good album 'Side Show' in 2010. Soom T co-wrote and sang lead vocal on Send Them Kids To War. The title speaks for itself, but the song was a highlight of the year for me.

Here's a live performance on Jools Holland's show from 2011. Can you spot the former Soup Dragon in the line-up?

Friday 2 June 2017

The hidden world of R.E.M. #9

After a massive world tour that took a lot out of them, R.E.M. made the conscious decision not to tour their next album 'Out Of Time'. Instead, they made numerous appearances on radio stations and TV shows, as well as the occasional secret gig under an assumed name (more of that at a later date).

Los Angeles college radio station KCRW FM is one of the best radio stations in the world. End of. It plays host to all kinds of artists of various renown and standing, giving each a chance to shine. In 1991, R.E.M. (augmented by dB's guitarist Peter Holsapple) entered the studio, enjoying the biggest hit of their career, their biggest selling album to date and a whole new audience just waiting to take them to their hearts. Instead of a standard run-through some new album tracks and a couple of old favourites, R.E.M. ran riot, showing everyone that they were just a bunch of guys who had a lot of fun.

The set did include a few new album tracks and some old faves, but it also included some hilarious attempts at covers, a couple of absolute gems - and a lot of laughter. I've picked a bit of everything today. I may revisit this 'show' at a later point, but for now, I'm giving you a file containing three of those attempted covers and another of two originals.

The covers? A quickly aborted take on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, an even more quickly aborted attempt at Johnny Cash & June Carter's Jackson, and Spooky, a song oft covered, but most notably by Dusty Springfield. In case you're wondering - the 'Microwave' who requested Spooky was Mark Mytrowitz, the band's long-time guitar tech.

Bandwagon was a silly song the band wrote and recorded during the 'Fables...' sessions, and can be heard on the 'Dead Letter Office' b-sides comp. They don't make it past the first chorus on this attempt though... Fretless, by contrast, is very possibly R.E.M.'s best ever non-album track. To this day I cannot understand why it didn't make 'Out Of Time' but Shiny fucking Happy fucking People did! One of the biggest mistakes of the band's career. Even this rough live take beats most of what's on that record hands down.