Sunday, June 30, 2019

Danny Vaughn - Myths, Legends & Lies

A change is as good as a rest, the old folks say.  And on that basis I’m rather nicely refreshed by this effort from Danny Vaughn.
Got to be honest, I know not the Danny Vaughn fellow.  Nor Tyketto, the melodic rock outfit for which he’s apparently well known as front man. Well shit, I never said my knowledge of all things rock was encyclopaedic, did I?  Check the small print on the left!
Whatever, Vaughn touches quite a few bases on Myths, Legends & Lies, and to good effect too.  Right out of the gate there’s a swarm of acoustic instrumentation on ‘The
Shadow Of King John’, with fiddle, accordion and acoustic guitar combining over a rattling Celtic rhythm from Rhys Morgan, leading to a boisterous stomp of a chorus as paints a picture of modern day – Limerick?  Now, I’m quite partial to a bit of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ style jiggery-pokery, but lest you’re worried this sounds like an over folk-ified Aran sweater jamboree, rest easy that this opener, like the rest of the album, sounds fresh and modern.
Danny Vaughn checks out the recipe for Irish Stew
There’s more of this ilk with the brief and to the point ‘Man Or Machine’, which welds some contemporary subject matter about sodium skylines and the blind watchmaker to mandolin, acoustic strumming, and paradiddles.  ‘Last Ride Of The Sunset Men’ mines a similar seam, but with an electric guitar lick at its core and wafts of harmonica for variation, and is good enough to overcome a rather corny spoken interlude.  This stuff peaks with the maritime storytelling of ‘Seven Bells’, which runs to seven minutes, and is worth it.  Announced by the ubiquitous acoustic guitar, it grows by way of a swaying melody and lush, impressively arranged strings, into something with an epic sweep that reminds me happily of Jethro Tull circa The Broadsword And The Beast.  Well, a bit at least.
At this point it’s worth saying that across the fourteen tracks on offer, Vaughn’s vocals are top notch – clear-toned, with an excellent range and clever variations, but always capturing the mood and never going over the top.  The man is the real McDeal.
There’s some jazzy bluesiness too – or should that be bluesy jazziness – in the form of ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Something I Picked Up Along The Way’.  The former is a dynamic affair that builds from a subdued opening until a rousing chorus hoves into view, underpinned by blasts of horns.  The latter is even better, in a very ‘New Coat Of Paint’ kinda fashion, with smoochy horns curling over Nigel Hopkins’ piano like cigarette smoke in some late night basement bar.
The other big highlight is ‘Monkeys With Money And Guns’, a much funkier affair founded on warm electric piano, organ, and electric guitar, while Vaughn weighs in with an appealing vocal, neatly double-tracked at times, laying out some caustic lyrics.  And for good-measure there’s a nimble guitar solo, and a smile-inducing bridge full of soulful harmonies and handclaps.
Sure, there are a few songs on here that are of a modern country oeuvre that might ordinarily make me wince.  But Vaughn and co even deliver these in such a fashion that I can’t bring myself to dislike them.  Honest. Whether it’s the bright and breezy ‘The Good Life’, swingingly celebrating simple pleasures with an organ solo and a squelchy electric guitar break, or ‘Kelly’s Gone’ with its fiddle filigrees and rippling piano as the lady in question packs up with “Whatever the Toyota could hold”, Vaughn and chums put some fizz into what could have been dull vin de table in other hands.
I liked Myths, Legends & Lies.  I’ll listen to it again.  I might even go so far as to find out what this Tyketto mob sound like.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Out Of The Darkness - Felix Bechtolsheimer of Curse Of Lono talks the talk

If it’s Thursday, it must be Amsterdam, which means Samantha Fish’s tour of Britain and Europe is entering its last week.  Having reviewed three earlier gigs on the tour, I’ve decided to indulge myself with a quick trip to the Netherlands to catch another.  And as an added bonus, I’ve managed to arrange a chat with Felix Bechtolsheimer, the front man of support band Curse Of Lono, who have received warm receptions for their blend of at each of the shows I’ve seen.  And so here we are, settling in outside the café of tonight’s venue, Q-Factory, to shoot the breeze for a bit before the soundcheck.
Now, Felix Bechtolsheimer isn’t yer common-or-garden monicker.  And if you Google him, as I did by way of some research before this chat, you’ll find that his biography isn’t common-or-garden either.  You’re liable to trip over references to drink, drugs, minor royals, Paula Yates and, er, dressage horses.  But if that kind of gossip is what floats your boat then you’d better drop anchor somewhere else, because we’re here to talk about the music - well, mostly. And it has to be said that Bechtolsheimer makes for a genial interviewee, ready to give considered answers, but often with a twinkle in his eye.

Raising the curtain
This isn’t the first support slot Curse Of Lono have occupied this year, having hit the road with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes back in March.  So what have they got out of these outings with headliners who are both stylistically different from the Southern-Gothic-out-of-London offered up by the Lonos?
Felix Bechtolsheimer - under the spotlight
“I think we’re picking up fans in lots of different genres,” says Bechtolsheimer.  “And we need to capitalise on that.  We’ve been pigeonholed a little bit in this Americana genre, mainly through getting this award from Bob Harris at the beginning of the year, the Emerging Artist Award from the UK Americana Association.”
He recalls though that recently they’ve also done a lengthy stint opening for Chuck Prophet, who he suggests “is much more of a rock’n’roll sort of thing.  I don’t think he’s Americana – although I think Exile On Main Street would be Americana if it came out now, probably.  So we’re testing the water with different audiences.  With Southside Johnny it was great to play Shepherds Bush Empire, it was great to play some of these bigger venues.  We got a really, really good reaction out of his crowd, and a lot of people who saw us in March with Southside have come back to see us with Samantha now.
“And stagecraft on a bigger stage – we got some extra practice with that with Southside Johnny. It’s different to a festival thing, you have an engaged crowd – if you play a big festival at our level you probably play in the middle of the afternoon, when people are trying to come down off whatever drugs they were taking, trying to figure out what’s in their sandwich. They’re not that bothered about the music.  Whereas with Southside we did get that.
“With Samantha Fish – it’s a very long tour.  It’s 21 dates in 23 days.  For her that’s nothing, they do over 200 shows a year. So I think with Samantha, to go and do this every night, with no real days off, gets you in a real groove, and gets you to the point where you’re very comfortable with your material, and you can just work on – how are you going to perform the song tonight?  Is it going to be a bit louder, a bit quieter?
“It’s also a very quiet audience in many places,” he says, much to my surprise.  “In Edinburgh and Glasgow that wasn’t the case, they went for it. But a lot of the gigs we’ve had, they stand there and they look at you, and they don’t really do much! And we’ve come off stage at a few of the shows going, ‘I’m not sure how that went’.  And then we get mobbed at the merch table, and stuff flies out, and we get e-mails, and messages, and Facebook requests the next day, so we’ve obviously connected to some degree! And we need to pick up as many fans as we can now – we’ve got a headline tour in October, so we need to convert as many of these fans as we can, and drag them out again in October.”
From what I’ve seen though, at some of these shows they’ve had their own posse of fans who have come particularly to see them – which must be encouraging.
“Yeah, it is,” he laughs.  “We just need them to multiply!”

Stripped back in the studio
Before then though, they’ve got a new album coming out in July, 4am And Counting - Live At Toe Rag Studios.  I say new, but it’s actually a selection of songs from their first two albums, reworked in a more stripped back mode and recorded live.  How come, I ask?  From Felix’s description, it was a bit of an organic process.
“I saw a video of The Cordovas, who we toured with, recording at Toe Rag Studios, and they did it all live in an afternoon, did a couple of tracks.  So I went down to see the place, and saw the set-up, and I just thought it would be interesting to see what we come up with if we spend 3 days in the studio, and give the songs a reworking.
“And then we thought it would be cool to get a few guests in, so BJ Cole came down for a day to play with us [adding pedal steel to 'I'd Start A War For You'], Nick Reynolds [from Alabama 3] was meant to come for half a day to play some harmonica, I think he was there for an hour and a half – turned up late and had to go early! And we just had a bit of a jam, and wanted to see what we could come out with.  And I thought if we can get a video out of it, or an EP, I’ll be happy. We ended up doing fifteen tracks in 3 days.”
The thought naturally arose to create an album out of the material, but Bechtolsheimer was wary of negative press reaction to an album of re-recorded tracks.
“So we said right, Record Store Day only.  Limited edition, translucent red vinyl, we’ll make very little money on it, but it’ll be fun.”  But the positive response to the limited release suggested a genuine demand for a CD. “And then the few reviews that came out weren’t that damning about the fact that it wasn’t new material – we made it very clear that wasn’t what it was – so we decided to put it out properly.”
The album is released on July 12, and reviews are evidently lined up in a host of publications.
“I haven’t seen what the reviews are going to say yet,” he laughs.  “They might say exactly what I feared!  But so far it’s going alright.”
Given that these were re-recordings, I wondered how much thought had been given to the arrangements before they went into the studio.  Bechtolsheimer indicates that although some thinking was done in advance, it wasn’t the usual pre-recording boot camp with their producer.
“Here we didn’t want anyone else in the room, it wasn’t about that. It was meant to feel loose and how we do it.  So it was really nice for the band, just everyone tried some ideas out, we did it ourselves, and we put some thought in but there wasn’t any pressure on it, because it wasn’t meant to be ‘This is the big album,’ or whatever.  It was just some fun.  We just did two or three takes, and then said which was the best one, and that was it.”

Quiet desperation is the English way
It’s been a long and winding road for Bechtolsheimer to get to where he is now with Curse Of Lono. Although he’s London-based, he and his siblings were born in Frankfurt, into a very well-off family, and came to Britain because their parents wanted them to go to English boarding schools.  But by his late teens Bechtolshiemer had thrown himself headlong into the dark underbelly of the music world.  Never mind the associated drink and drugs, music was “definitely not the plan,” he confirms.  So what happened?
Pink Floyd - not really "Ooh baby baby" music
“Well, I went to a boarding school and I absolutely fucking hated it,” he explains, and it’s clear he’s not kidding.  “I went to state school in Germany, everyone in Germany goes to state school, and I was really happy there.  And my parents worked very hard to come over here, and they put me in this school, and I found it incredibly elitist.  And there was a bad timing issue – Germany had just won the World Cup, knocking England out in the semis, and for the first term at secondary school I had the living shit kicked out of me every day. So I started drinking, and I bought a guitar. I had a room-mate who was bullied very badly as well, and he bought a bass and I bought a guitar, and we told them all to bugger off.”
Okay, so this was the start of a downward spiral, but what was he listening to that turned him onto music?
“I remember there was a senior,” he recalls, “and he was quite an eccentric guy, and he saw that I was upset - I’d just been beaten up.  And he took me to his room and he said, ‘Right, listen to this’.  And he had a quart of vodka, so he gave me a shot of vodka, and he put on Never Mind The Bollocks.  And we listened to it from start to finish, and then when it was done he put on The Final Cut by Pink Floyd.  And he said, “It’s the other side of the same coin.” And it was the first time in my life that music wasn’t just about melody, and ‘ooh baby baby, you’re so pretty’, or ‘oh dear, you dumped me’.  These people were actually saying stuff.  And he used to come into my room with this nylon-strung guitar, and play ‘Pigs On The Wing’ by Pink Floyd, and stuff.  And I thought, “That’s what I wanna do. That’s really cool!”  

Down and out in London and Miami
You couldn’t find bands much more English than Pink Floyd and the Pistols, but it’s bleedin’ obvious that there are also American influences on the Curse Of Lono sound.  So I start to explore whether Bechtolsheimer feels a particular affinity for America.  Yes, he agrees, he does.  There’s more than one dimension to this though, it emerges.  For one thing, there was his sojourn in a Florida rehab clinic to kick his various addictions.
“I moved to America when I was . . . pretty sure I wouldn’t be alive for much longer.  I went out there to clean off heroin – I was on heroin, methadone and crack at the time – and it was so bad that the rehabs in the UK wouldn’t even take me any more.
“So I went out there, and I got clean out there.  And I shared a bungalow with a guy – they called them bungalows, but it was like a shed - who was a lot older than me, and he played the guitar.  And he was telling me all these stories, how’d he played with Little Feat, and he’d played with Gram Parsons, and all these amazing people.  And he introduced me to the real country stuff, the John Prine, the Kris Kristofferson, the Jerry Jeff Walker, all that stuff.  And I fell in love with that form of – not the music so much – but the form of songwriting, the lyricism in it.  And when that guy relapsed, and disappeared into the sunset, I realised he was far too young to have actually played with any of these people – it was all bullshit!”  He laughs. “So I fell in love with it then, and when we toured in America with Hey Negrita it was like being in the movies, you know?”
The influence is more subliminal than that though, I suggest.
“It’s . . . “ he reflects for a moment.  “I love slide guitars, and it’s a very cinematic genre, the Americana genre. It just lends itself very well to building the soundscapes to the words that I write.”
Not Steve Earle's autobiography - read it!
Which brings us to the subject of books.  A lot of Curse Of Lono’s lyrics explore very personal themes, but Bechtolsheimer is also a big reader – hell, Curse Of Lono are actually named after a book by Hunter S. Thompson.  Currently on his reading list is a collection of Steve Earle’s short stories, and I mention having read Earle’s novel I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, a great story about a bunch of losers, set in San Antonio in the early 60s.  I bought it, I say, thinking it was Earle’s autobiography.
“So did I!” he says, bursting out laughing.  “It’s almost like Steinbeck.  It’s like a couple of his books I love, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.  It’s that portrait of people who are really - not doing great, you know?  They’re sort of skid row, but the goodness in them comes out.  You’ve got this lovable heroin dealer, and these lovable pimps and stuff running around, and I just love that.  And I wish I’d read that before we played with Steve Earle, before I met him.  Because I just wish I’d had that extra appreciation – I love his music, but I’ve attempted to write a book, and it’s really hard.”
And again, it strikes me that we were talking about America earlier, and here’s Bechtolsheimer describing a particular penchant for American fiction.
“Yeah.  I love Bukowski,” he says.
Given that Charles Bukowski (actually a German-American) was once dubbed “a laureate of American lowlife”, this scarcely surprises me. But I wonder whether the appeal of this strand of American writing is also that it’s got more – distance, imaginatively speaking?
“Well, your imagination’s got more room,” he says.  “I made this film in 2008, called We Dreamed America, and it was about the British roots scene and my band Hey Negrita was in it.  And there was something that Matt Ord our guitarist said – he said, ‘Look at The Band. They were Canadian.  They had a really great dream of what this Americana thing was.’  And he said sometimes someone who’s not American can have a better dream of it, because we’ve got more room in our imagination to picture that stuff, you know?
“So yeah, I suppose I am drawn to that.  And it’s just the voices that they use – I love the lyrics of Tom Waits.  And for me Bukowski is the literary version of Tom Waits – it’s gritty, and I like that.”
That “attempt to write a book” that Bechtolsheimer mentions came before the advent of Curse Of Lono. What was that about?
“That was a memoir. And I got shortlisted for the National Biography Awards for best unpublished biography.  And they said now you’ve got to start talking to agents – and the book just wasn’t good enough.  That’s what I thought.  And I’d rather never do another album, than put out some crap.
“But I needed to do it,” he goes on, “because . . . it defined me, until that point.  I spent a couple of years on it, and I wasn’t hanging out, and occasionally doing a bit of writing.  I was writing 7 or 8 hours a day.  I was miserable doing it, I went through a horrible depression, my band was gone, I didn’t want it back but I didn’t know what I wanted. And it was re-living the worst parts of your life over and over again.  But afterwards I was like, “Well that’s done, let’s start another band!”  And I was ready to have a good time.  But I needed to get it out.  But it still comes in.  When you’re trying to visit a dark place in a song, that’s my dark place.” 

Let’s start another band!
Bechtolsheimer and drummer Neil Findlay were both in the aforementioned Hey Negrita.  But how did Curse Of Lono as a whole come together?
“We finished with Hey Negrita – everyone drifted, but we were all still on really good terms so we decided to call it quits while we were still mates.  And I had an album’s worth of stuff, and nowhere to put it. So I got very depressed - I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  And then
Curse Of Lono get all hocus-pocus-out-of-focus
I bumped into an old friend of mine called Oli Bayston, who was just starting to produce bands.”  He and Bayston, a multi-instrumentalist, then came up with a batch of demos, and between them went on put together most of the first Curse Of Lono album, Severed, with some minor contributions from Findlay on drums and another guitarist.
“And when we finished it was, like, ‘Well, now we need to do this live.’  So Neil was in straight away, and then I put some online ads out – it’s almost like dating!  I’ve never done online dating, but it’s like that – “Hey man, I like the Stones.” “Yeah, me too.  Can I hear your demo?”  It’s that kind of thing.
“So, I got Charis [Anderson, on bass] in first, and Joe Hazell auditioned on piano originally, and he’s an amazing piano player.  And that was great, but then I couldn’t find the right guitar player.  So then Joe put the guitar on, and I was ‘Jesus Christ, he can play!’  And then, we looked for a keyboard player, and Dani [Ruiz Hernandez] came in, and straight after the first jam I went, ‘Right, you’re in.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got one problem – I’ve got a job.  I’m a journalist, and I can’t go on tour.’  And I said well let’s see, and then when the first tour came along he said, ‘I’m in!’  And it’s worked really well.”
One thing I’ve noticed from the band’s live shows is that they have a liking for ending songs on a solo from Joe Hazell, rather than coming back to the song for a chorus or a coda.
“Yeah, you mentioned that before in a review,” says Felix, “and to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it!”
I’ve counted at least three songs where he does a nice solo – and he is a good guitarist, with great tone - and then you’re done.
“Yeah,” he agrees, nodding and counting the tracks on his fingers, “There’s ‘And It Shows’, there’s ‘No Trouble’, ‘Send For The Whisky’ . . . ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ . . . .”  He’s laughing now.
So what gives?  Are they deliberately denying the audience a bit of easy gratification?
“Yeah - I don’t know!” he says.  “Larry Love from Alabama 3 always said to me, ‘You’re doing it wrong, man.  You need to get the chorus, and at the end you need to milk it – do it five times!’  And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I want ‘em to want to hear it again.’  But maybe he’s got a point.”

Noir and noodling
When we met I was in the middle of reading the autobiography by Mike Scott of The Waterboys, who half the time seemed to be grasping for some fresh soundscape in his head, then the other half puzzling over how to realise it.  I wondered whether Bechtolsheimer had some kind of grand vision for the Curse Of Lono sound.
“Definitely.  I do think about that stuff much more.  I think the rest of the band . . . wait for me to make the first move.  And then they’re very instrumental in things.  Although to be honest the next album we’re working on we’ve agreed that we’re going to go about it the other way round.  The band gets to do it first, and then the producer gets to come in. And I’ve already had demos from Joe of riff ideas and song ideas, on piano and on guitar, and some of them are really, really good.
“I want to create something new and interesting,” he goes on, “otherwise I don’t really see
Charis Anderson - a better guitarist than Felix Bechtolsheimer?
the point. I’ve got an idea of a sound that I’m working on at the moment, that won’t be the whole of the next album, but there’ll be elements of it, which I’m calling ‘Surf Noir’,” he grins.  “If you imagine you lock Nick Cave in the room with Dick Dale, and then you get some harmonies on top of that . . . I’ve got some ideas for that!
“I’m always grasping for a new sound, and new ideas,” he continues.  “But a lot of that comes from playing around.  I sit down – I always say, in our touring party of six, I’m probably the second worst guitarist!”  Cue more chuckling.  “Danny the keyboard player can play the guitar better than me.  I only recently learnt the names of the strings – but I can write.  I then need help to get the song from here,” he says, indicating a spot on the table in front of us, “to here,” pointing at another.
“But I get the sound and the ideas from noodling around on the guitar.  Because the instrument is so – I don’t understand it properly, I have no mastery of it.  So playing around with it, and the different sounds, for me is really exciting – I’m like a kid, ‘Ooh, that sounds really cool!’  And the band will go ‘What key are you in?’  And I go ‘I’ve no idea!  You tell me – I don’t even know what that chord’s called!’”  His animated manner underlines his enthusiastic naivety.
“But that’s how I write, you know?  Put a capo here and see what happens.  Yeah, sometimes I need someone to throw in a different chord or something, to polish it, but that’s how I get the initial sound.  And it’s fun!  I love nothing more than sitting down with my guitars, and just playing.  I feel like my daughter when she’s playing with her toys – I’m just playing, I can’t control the thing!”

Time’s up. Bechtolsheimer needs to go and soundcheck.  He’s an interesting character.  Curse Of Lono are an intriguing band.  If you’re intrigued, go forth and multiply, and go see ‘em in October.

The new Curse Of Lono album 4am And Counting - Live At Toe Rag Studios, is released on 12 July.

Details of their October tour dates can be found here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars

I really wasn’t sure what I was going to think of Western Stars.  Not, I imagine, that many fellow Springsteen fans will give a shit what I think.  But for myself, y’know – when an artist you admire releases a new album, and you’ve got your fingers crossed that you’re going to find it worthy of at least a few plays, it still matters.  And the things I’d been hearing before it came out – chat about a Californian vibe, orchestral arrangements, and some YouTube tracks that seemed distinctly laid back – didn’t exactly give me high hopes.
Like, as Cilla Black might have sung, what’s it all about Brucie?
Well, having given the album a damn good listening to, here’s a few thoughts.
Numero uno.  Western Stars is one of the more thematically coherent Springsteen albums of this millennium.
"Damn - think I've locked myself out."
Numero due.  (I’m writing this in Italy, so humour me eh?) Bruce is up to his old tricks again, easing the listener into some pretty bleak stories by way of disarming music. Not his patented rock’n’roll sound to be sure, as with the likes of ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Dancing In the Dark’ in days gone by.  But still, the mix of words and music here is bitter-sweet.
Numero tre.  Bruce is acting his age.  The guy is 70 years old this September.  Do we really expect him to be making love in the dirt with Crazy Janey? It would be a bit – undignified, wouldn’t it?
So what we have here, in various guises, are songs about some old geezers with regrets.  A couple of them, like ‘Western Stars’ and ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’, seem to present characters from the movie world – marginal guys whose heyday is long gone.  The former is the tale of a one-time horse opera actor, with a narrative and a melody that sound like they’ve escaped from Nebraska– but with a very different, less claustrophobic arrangement.  The latter sounds like the guy from ‘Racing In The Street’, older and even more care-worn, reflecting on where he started from – “At nineteen I was the king of the dirt down at the Remington draw” - and where he’s ended up, after a long past fling with a girl in a B-Movie, “trying to get the pieces to fit”.
The opening couple of tracks sound innocent enough though, don’t they?  ‘Hitch Hikin’’ starts off with dreamy acoustic strumming before developing a gorgeous string theme, to accompany the perspective of a guy who seems happy to drift mentally as well as physically, chilled out as the landscape and miles wash over him.  Where’s he coming from though – and why?  And ‘The Wayfarer’ follows in a similar lyrical vein, with an orchestral arrangement that suggests wide open spaces in a dialled down Aaron Copland style – which then flows over into the following ‘Tucson Train’, which sounds like it’s recycling a melody from, I dunno, ‘Lonesome Day’ maybe, as the backdrop to stronger hints of lyrical bleakness.  Sure, the guy is waiting for his baby to arrive off the train.  But he’s waiting for her after having run out on her in the past, because he had to get his own shit together through the dignity of labour.  And you know what?  We never learn whether she gets off the goddamn train.
"Where did Patti say to pick her up again?"
And that sets the tone for a host of tracks featuring refugees from relationships that somehow, sometime in the past, enigmatically went wrong.  Musically, meanwhile, it’s no surprise to find that Bruce cited Jimmy Webb as an influence – the writer of the likes of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ for Glen Campbell – when you hear stuff like ‘Sundown’ and (funnily enough) ‘Hello Sunshine’, the latter a song about loneliness and a wish that the sunshine wouldn't go.
‘Sundown’ conjures up the first hint of a most un-Boss like crooning vocal, to go with some ultra-sophisticated harmonies and lush strings, and this reaches its apogee on ‘There Goes My Miracle’, on which Bruce produces a full on, and very convincing, Tony Bennett-style vocal performance.  At first blush it sounds utterly romantic, a love song.  But the sting that shouldn’t be ignored is that the object of the narrator’s affections is walking away.  This is not, I think, the celebration of an enduring relationship.  The song ends with the phrase “Sunrise, sundown.” Things come, things go.
The album ends with ‘Moonlight Motel’.  And the veritable horde of string, woodwind and horn players required on other tracks ain’t needed here.  It’s spare and lovely, as another aging loner visits a once-romantic scene that’s now dilapidated and deserted.  He could be the guy who lit out with the girl in ‘Thunder Road’, now feeling like another of the ghosts of the boys she sent away.
What’s it all about, Brucie? The guy has always had a compunction to hit the road, to follow those white lines in his head, like the Wayfarer. And I’d hazard a guess that some of this material reflects his struggle with depression, which he explored at length in his recent autobiography.  But all these songs about mysteriously broken relationships don’t sound like him pondering married life with Patti Scialfa, who gets a pointed credit for her contribution to the vocal arrangements here.  Are there some other ghosts he’s trying to purge?
Whatever, there’s one song that doesn’t fit the template, and it’s the most accessible track on the album. With a skipping rhythm, and cajun-style accordion courtesy of Chuck Giordano, ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’ sounds like the cheerful kinda joint that the couple in ‘The River’ might frequent of a weekend, once the kids are all grown up and have flown the coop. It’s a song you hear and immediately think – tune!
Western Stars isn’t an album I’m likely to play to death. But it sure as hell demonstrates that Bruce Springsteen has an artistic brain that’s still got some mileage in it, down those highways of the American experience.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul - Alcatraz, Milan, 13 June 2019

Whisper it, but while the Boss may still be the Boss, it’s his consigliere Steve Van Zandt who’s delivering the more vibrant musical experience these days.  This is the third time I’ve seen Little Steven and Co over the last couple of years, and each time the result has been the same – an uplifting spiritual victory for Stevie’s patented soul revue extravaganza.
Partly this is a matter of location.  While nowadays Bruce chooses to contend with the compromises born of performing in stadia, Van Zandt is able to play in venues on a human scale, where the music can envelop the audience and more easily create an emotional connection. God knows what the economics are of a 15-piece band playing internationally to crowds of around 2-3,000, but whether the gig is in Glasgow’s O2 Academy or Milan’s Alcatraz, artistically it works like a dream.
Little Steven and the gang - no Monochrome Set here!
This time around of course, the show is based around the Disciples’ new album Summer Of Sorcery, and by that I mean all of it, not just the token couple of tracks your typical heritage act might venture.
Steve Van Zandt, y’see, isn’t just a great assimilator, synthesiser and regurgitator of all that is great in American rock’n’roll.  He is a man with a vision.  And that vision is to reawaken in his audience the cultural memory of the heady, youthful innocence and optimism of classic rock’n’roll, soul, pop - whatever you want to call it - but seasoned with awareness of the real world stuff that still needs to be confronted.  As the lyrics of ‘Summer Of Sorcery’ itself put it, “I want to get lost in your festival of unlimited possibilities, I want to be transformed by your summer of sorcery.” And by the time he’s singing this, near the end of the show, you can bet your sweet ass that the audience want the same thing.
It really don’t matter which songs you pick, they’re all pulling in the same direction.  Maybe it’s the swoon-worthy Detroit soul melody of ‘Love Again’, one of the highlights of the new album, with which Van Zandt tells the audience they’re “about to be transported to summer”.
(Not a difficult proposition in sun-drenched Italy, it has to be said.)  Maybe it’s the pseudo-harpsichord intro from Lowell “Banana” Levinger, leading to the great slab of a riff that ushers in the horn-heavy ‘I Visit The Blues’, which he introduces with a spiel about there not being any Beach Boys and so no summer (“Gabeesh?”) without the guy who discovered California - said guy, he bizarrely suggests, being Sir Francis Drake.  Maybe it’s his Eighties belter ‘Los Desparicidos’, featuring a scything guitar intro from Marc Ribler, a heap of arm-flailing supplication from the girls on backing vox, and tour de force Latino percussion from Anthony Almonte. Maybe it’s ‘Party Mambo’, with its pointed reference to Puerto Rico being deserted in its hour of need, with its horn contest at stage front and the girls going heavy on maracas.
Sha-la-la - with added arm-flailing supplication
You get the picture? Alcatraz may be little more than a big shed, but the Disciples Of Soul turn it into the house party you always dreamed of.
And you know what? You don’t even really need the visuals. Sure, there’s the day-glo backdrop. There’s ivory tinkler Andy Burton out front soloing on one of those keyboard-pretending-to-be-a-guitar contraptions with freaky all black keys.  There’s the three girls with wild, wild hair taking very, very seriously their contractual responsibility to go certifiably fucking nuts on a regular basis. But none of that matters.  Because you could close your eyes and still be immersed in a mythical soundtrack of mid-Sixties America, on some crappy radio in your bedroom, that in reality you probably never experienced at the time.  This, friends, is indeed a form of musical alchemy.
And by the way, those girls aren’t just eye candy.  You want Motown sha-la-las, Vandellas-like shoop-shoops, or Etta James like solo contributions?  Jessica Wagner, Sara Devine and Tania Jones got ‘em for ya.  Gabeesh??
There’s a great triplet of Van Zandt/Springsteen tunes “to express gratitood to Southside Johnny,” and “to keep the royalties comin’ in for Bruce, ‘cause he needs ‘em”, including the magnificent funky soul of ‘Trapped Again’, with another great solo from Van Zandt’s very own consigliere Ribler.  But ‘Love On The Wrong Side Of Town’ is something else, with the crowd singing along to its Searchers-like riff, and its Ronette-esque backing vocals and sax solo combining to encapsulate all of the Phil Spector soul you ever imagined. And after it finishes
Just how cool is that guitar?
an ongoing crowd singalong prompts Van Zandt to start strumming his guitar again, and lead the band in what might even be an improvised extra turn around the block. (Though I’m betting it takes a lot of rehearsal to look this spontaneous.)
Steve introduces ‘I Am A Patriot’ with commentary about the universal language of politics being bullshit, and about false dichotomies suggesting you can’t be both a patriot and global citizen.  But just as relevant is the wild rock’n’roll of ‘Superfly Terraplane’, with the girls dancing fit to bust as he sings that “you can stick your Second Amendment up your ass”, in addition to getting down big time on lead guitar – something he should do more of, in my view.
By the time they get to the dance-percussion workout of ‘Bitter Fruit’, the Disciples Of Soul have become a demolition crew smashing your inhibitions, and happiness is defined as dancing the night away at a Little Steven gig with your, er, baby.
And so it goes down the stretch, through a wild ‘Soul Power Twist’, the call to arms of ‘Sun City’, and the anthemic ‘Out Of The Darkness’, until they’re gone and we’re all drifting away.
And then, at the risk of over-sharing, I’m washing my hands in the Gents when I hear a cheer, and then a guitar chord.  Meanwhile, back in the hall, my other half is taking a pic of a trio of gleeful guys with their backs to the stage, when she points over their shoulders as she sees the band reappear.  And I’m scurrying back towards the stage along with half the audience, as the Disciples Of Soul break into ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’.  And we all try to reach up and touch the sky . . .