Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Ben Keith Obituary

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

On Tuesday the music world mourned the loss of one of the greatest hired guns we ever knew. Ben Keith, long time collaborator with (amongst others, but most famously) Neil Young passed away at the age of 73. Neil paid a touching tribute to him at last night’s tour show, with a version of Old Man. You may not all know Ben, but you all should know his work. Anyone who’s ever heard Harvest (and there can’t be that many left that haven’t) will have been entranced by his beautiful pedal steel playing the odd drop of backing vocal. The pedal steel, in my humble opinion, had two great exponents: “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Ben Keith. In his honour, I have compiled for you the five best bits of Ben that exist on Neil Young records, where he will be longest remembered. I therefore invite you to crack open a can, kick back and just enjoy that magical sound that only the pedal steel can bring to a record. In no particular order then:

See The Sky About to Rain from On The Beach – The ethereal drift of the steel throughout this song is one of the finest examples of the craft you’ll ever find. Just have a listen to the way it soars behind Neil’s voice and then provides the beautiful focal point of the 90-second coda.

Heart of Gold from Harvest – Neil’s only number one that you’ve heard a million times. But listen again, and listen for the steel on the chorus.

Mellow My Mind from Tonight’s The Night – The recording of this album was a mad, crazy mess and most of the record sounds as though it’s about to fall in on itself. But the slide guitar on this track is guaranteed to make you feel as though you’ve inhaled in that way politicians never do.

Four Strong Winds
 from Comes a Time – The closer of this record (produced largely by Ben) became something of a hippy anthem for a while, with its nature-centric lyrics and powerful imagery, and the slide guitar lends the track an air that perfectly frames Neil’s words. Emmylou Harris on backing vocals makes this something of a supergroup session.

Cowgirl in the Sand from Road Rock Vol. 1 – A slight change of tack for the last one, this live track sees Ben on rhythm guitar as Neil takes this already epic song to a mammoth 18-minutes. Ben keeps the song together, letting Neil do his thing.

So there you have it. I’ve not put this list together on Spotify, because I can’t bear the idea that your reverie might be interrupted by adverts, but you can do this yourself if you like. If not, you can always pop round mine. Bring beer, and we’ll get the hi-fi fired up. Rest in peace Ben.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Arcade Fire @ Hackney Empire - 7th July 2010

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

It is a generally accepted fact that Arcade Fire are the best band in the world. Last decade, Radiohead were the muso’s band of choice, but now Win Butler et al. are firmly in charge. The option to see them in this tiny venue (capacity 1,300) was one that should be seized. Tickets were available for the truly dedicated who pre-ordered the album and were lucky enough to be drawn out of the hat. And when I say lucky, I mean really fucking lucky.

Hackney Empire is an amazing venue, a turn of the century music hall with all the gilt edges and cherubs that go therewith. It seems to be the perfect venue for tonight’s comeback. Arcade Fire have been away for three years since their pair of gigs at Alexander Palace in 2007. Now, with a new album on the way, this is a warm-up gig for the round of festival appearances that lies ahead. The sense of anticipation is tangible.

When they take the stage, it is instantly as though they have never been away. This effect is enhanced by the fact that they launch in with two new songs, literally picking up where they left off. Ready to Start and Modern Man bode incredibly well for the new album. By the end of the second song, the previously presentable Butler is already drenched in sweat. This is a pattern that does not let up. How every member of the band don’t need medical re-hydration by the end of the gig remains a mystery to me.

From then on, the classic anthems and new songs blend seamlessly together, suggesting that the new album will be the equal of what came before. “This song is called Yes Boats Yes” says Win before launching into No Cars Go. A few songs later, during the end of Rococo, Win climbs into the audience and finishes the song lying on his back, carried aloft by the wave of adoration.

Although the public address system in the venue is not quite up to Arcade Fire’s complex yet loud sound, they manage to render all their anthems in their full glory. During Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out), the audience pogos as though lives are at stake, and when this segues into Rebellion (Lies) and on into the hefty new track Month of May, I begin to think that I might not make it out alive, so drained am I by the encore break. Before that though, we are treated to a rare outing for Crown of Love, one of Funeral’s greatest hidden gems.

The encore, comprising Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels), Keep The Car Running and Wake Up leaves the audience gasping for breath, and the band leave the stage grinning like maniacs. They deserve to. When you’re the best band in the world, it must be amazing to be up there on that stage.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Songs From The Canyons

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

In a change to the usual process (all articles reproduced as originally found) I would like to point out that I completely retract the first four lines of this article. I bloody love Spotify now.

I’ll expand on this in a further article sometime, but it’s worth flinging this in right at the start: I am fundamentally opposed to Spotify as a concept. I realise this makes me sound like old beyond my years, but I feel it makes the whole concept of discovering music too easy, takes all the dedication out of it. And also, who the fuck wants adverts in the middle of albums? This is a rant for another time though, children, so be seated and let us get to the meat of the matter.

For my playlist I have chosen to attempt to represent my all time favourite musical era: the Los Angeles Canyonscene of the late 60s and early 70s. To my mind, this time and place was a musical hotbed rivalled by nothing else, not even the London scene of the early sixties that spawned the “British Invasion” of the American music charts. Just why this is will hopefully become clear in this article.

The canyon scene is one that grew up a round a clutch of musicians and artists who emigrated from the then-vibrant and loud Los Angeles scene in search of more peaceful climes. What they found were the expanses of the Canyons that surround LA, principally Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon. Clubs on the Sunset Strip such as the Whiskey A Go-Go and The Trubadour played host to an unrivalled selection of the greatest music ever made: The Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, The Mamas and the Papas… I could go on. Doused in sunshine and good quality marijuana (David Crosby always knew where the best smoke was to be found, according to a number of accounts), the musicians of the Canyons made some of the most diverse and evocative music ever set to record. Truly, this is not a time or a situation that could ever again be replicated.

My list begins with The Byrds, which is fitting as this band perhaps best came to embody the ethic of the scene. A much more “pop” offering here with a cut from their debut LP: I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, which to my mind offers the best possible reason why they should be considered the US’s answer to The Beatles. This list having been thoroughly thought through, starting with The Byrds makes it easy to stroll down (in the manner of Pete Frame) through the various members of this band, linking the list together. The most obvious next step is Gram Parsons, who recorded the excellent album Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the band, before his record company threatened to sue and most of his vocal tracks were removed and re-recorded by Byrds leader Roger McGuinn. Following a tour of England, Parsons quit The Byrds in protest at plans to tour apartheid South Africa. Returning to the Canyons, Parsons formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, whose classic Dark End of the Street is my second selection. Gram’s solo work should also not be ignored in this list, as it was so tied to the Canyons where it was written and recorded. I’ve chosen Return of the Grievous Angel, as it is one of the best pieces of music ever made.

Other members of The Byrds were not idle either. Gene Clark recorded two records with Doug Dillard and Bernie Leadon (later of The Eagles), and my third choice is Out on the Side, the first track from the first of these albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark.

During one of their residences at The Whiskey, The Byrds’ Chris Hillman persuaded the manager to give a support slot to a little known band called Buffalo Springfield. This band, featuring a young Stephen Stills and an even-younger Neil Young, are one of music’s greatest should-have-been stories. The Stone Roses of their day, the Springfield lasted just 25 months, during which time they put out two records (a third was released after their split, but it was largely pieced together) and dissolved in ignominy, infighting and drugs. During their brief lifespan, they suffered from poor management and outrageously poor production. Their eponymous debut album should have been a serious contender for the best record ever made (seriously) but is so poorly produced it sounds flat. No release-quality live recordings of them exist, and those lucky enough to see them speak of the experience in hushed tones. It’s one of Young’s tunes I’ve chosen: Flying on the Ground is Wrong, a song that Neil later disclosed was written after having to explain to a young lady that they couldn’t be together because she didn’t understand what was so great about smoking pot.

Anyone who knows anything about this era knows what happened to Neil Young after Buffalo Springfield dissolved. His first Archives boxset contains no less than three full discs of material recorded after a disappointing reception for his self-titled debut caused him to move up to Topanga Canyon in search of a new perspective. Here he would meet Crazy Horse and, later, The Stray Gators. Choosing a single track from this period is utterly impossible, so I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and see what it chucked out. It chucked out a live version of Down by the River. This, as they say, will do nicely: especially as it shows Neil at his roaring best with three solos in twelve minutes.

Over in Laurel Canyon, the one place where all the hipsters hung out was in “Mama” Cass Elliot’s back yard. It was here that Graham Nash would meet David Crosby and Stephen Stills, with whom he would form Crosby, Stills and Nash and would embark on one of the craziest stories rock has to tell. The trio’s debut is debatably their only real masterwork, and I have chosen Long Time Gone, as possibly the ultimate stoner hippy anthem. Another regular in Mama Cass’s garden was a young singer-songwriter with an intriguing approach to tuning guitars. Joni Mitchell would go on to have relationships with both Graham Nash and David Crosby, and it is the song she wrote for the former that makes the list: Willy. Mama Cass was of course no slouch herself. In addition to acting as mother (hence the nickname) for most of Laurel Canyon, she was making music as a solo artist and with The Mamas and The Papas. My personal favourite, Make Your Own Kind of Music, also makes the list in tribute to the role Cass played in holding the whole scene together.

Finally on the list (I’ve tried to stop at ten, although I could go on), a cut from my all-time favourite record: Love’s Forever Changes. A mix of psychedelic madness and perfect pop music, this record represents all that was so great about the Canyon scene. I have chosen the insanely titled Maybe the People Would Be the Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale. The address in the later part of the title refers to the location of the Whiskey A Go-Go, which inspired the song (“And here, they always play my songs”). It is to my mind the best summary of the period in a single song.

So that’s the playlist, but there’s millions more artists on this fertile scene who didn’t make it onto the list: Jackson Browne, The Doors, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Joe Cocker, Carole King… it goes on. Of course, the story does not end well, they never do. The Canyon scene was doomed to dissolve in excess as Gram Parsons and Mama Cass met untimely ends, David Crosby became addicted to heroin, Stephen Stills discovered cocaine and the Manson Family killings (Charles Manson was a resident of Topanga Canyon and sometime friend of Neil Young) and a succession of bad relationships generally took a sword to the whole bohemian vibe of the place. Before long, Don Henley noticed that there was a big pile of cash to be made out of the style and ethic bred in the canyon and formed The Eagles. They went on to have the biggest selling record ever and in the process destroyed so much of what had been great about the place and time. This is just your introduction. For those who want to know more, I can heartily recommend the book Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns. He’s also got a much more expansive playlist tucked away at the back…

1. I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better – The Byrds

2. Dark End of the Street – The Flying Burrito Brothers

3. Return of the Grievous Angel – Gram Parsons

4. Out on the Side – Dillard and Clark

5. Flying on the Ground Is Wrong – Buffalo Springfield

6. Down by the River – Neil Young with Crazy Horse

7. Long Time Gone – Crosby, Stills and Nash

8. Willy – Joni Mitchell

9. Make Your Own Kind of Music – The Mamas and the Papas

10. Maybe the People Would be the Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale – Love

Go Play - Canyon Songs Spotify Playlist

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Glastonbury 2010 - Part Three

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

This is the fin
al part of the trilogy that was my weekend. If anyone has read all three parts, you are a saint and a martyr and you should probably give yourself a round of applause. Here's the first part, and the second part...


I was right, of course, to dread waking this morning. If Saturday’s hangover was a battle, this one might as well be represented visually by a rising mushroom cloud. It takes a full litre of water to assuage the feeling that I am dying of thirst. Why, I ask myself as the haze begins to lift, did I do that? What have I gained? What bonus have I brought to humanity, or what crime have I committed to deserve this? If nothing else it has made it much more difficult to drag my carcass clear across the site to The Park Stage for The Travelling Band. The Travelling Band are the best alternative country rock band ever to come out of Manchester. Their new single Sundial is out now and I strongly urge all of you to go and find it so you can say you were ahead of the game when they’re half-way up the bill on The Other Stage next year. As their set closes, they produce giant balloons from the wings and the general party atmosphere blows away the hangover.

Fuck it, I think, I’m going to have a smoothie.

I have a smoothie. It is terrible. It does contain fruit, and this can only really be a good thing, given the level of abuse I have inflicted upon the temple that is not my body. I watch The Villagers, followed by Avi Buffalo. Neither have survived long enough in my mind to get reviewed.

Slash!! The multiple exclamation marks are deliberate. You can’t see me now (I hope) but I’m making devil horns. My Companion wonders off to watch England’s glorious victory over the Germans. I bounce between the silly hat stalls (I do not buy one this year as my drug intake has been considerably lower than in previous) towards the main stage, where a curious new form of democracy is taking place right before my eyes. It goes like this: whenever Slash and his band play a song of their own making, the audience talks to their neighbours, lathers on another layer of suncream and generally looks a bit vacant. When a Guns ‘n’ Roses classic is dusted off, however, the audience sings along in unison and wild abandon. It is a curious thing to watch an act where the namesake stands at the back, silent throughout. But who cares, when the set closes with Sweet Child o’ Mine followed by Paradise City? Slash is awesome, and watching him play those solos live is another personal dream crossed off.

Next up is Ray Davis, who seems to have developed a split personality. When addressing the audience, he is charming and affable: the very picture of a musical elder statesmen. As he turns from the microphone however, the guitar technician or the soundman is invariably subjected to a torrent of invective. Stuart Maconie sites Ray Davis as the most unpleasant man he’s ever interviewed. I think he may have a point. The music though, is flawless, even if Davis’s voice has gone a bit flat as the years roll by. Kinks classics are rolled out to the joy of the assembled masses and sing-alongs have rarely been so sung-along. He pays touching tribute to recently departed Kinks bassist Pete Quaife, and dedicates a mesmeric See My Friends to his former bandmate. The Crouch End Festival Choir do an excellent job of backing him up, and add a new twist to some of the best known songs in the British musical canon. I have almost forgotten about the football by the time it’s over. My Companion has not. We agree not to discuss the beautiful game for the remainder of the weekend. On the way back we catch a few songs from Loudon Wainwright III, who is charming and brilliant and will be worth seeing in more detail at some point. My evening, however, is rushing towards a crescendo.

Back at the tent, I sip idly at a pint of cider and prepare myself for the final push. This moment, I have decided, will be my headline set, as Stevie Wonder holds no interest for me. This, however is a moment that I have been waiting for these ten years past. I have always wanted to see Faithless and I have always wanted to see them at Glastonbury. I gulp the cider as my heart rate quickens. We walk down. I am not afraid to admit that I may have skipped.

The set does not disappoint. As the sun sinks low over Glastonbury, I find myself raving like a possessed man. The girl standing next to me washes a pill down with cider, then hands me the rest of the pint. This evening, I decide, could not get any better. As Maxi moves through God is a DJ, straight into Mass Destruction, my legs start melting and my head goes funny. As the set finishes with Insomnia, I become convinced that I am leaving Earth, bound for Planet Dance. And I am never coming back. Ten years was worth the wait. As the sound fades away I collapse onto the surprised girl who gave me the cider. She clearly wonders about the wisdom of giving me the beverage in the first place.

On a high, I again do a sharp gear change and head over to the Acoustic Tent to catch the tail end of Richard Thompson’s set. This man is one of the world’s finest guitarists and, although my head is still pounding with beats and loops, it is fantastic to hear him and to see him, alone on stage with his acoustic guitar. He is briefly joined by his son Teddy, and the sound is beautiful and simple throughout. It is the perfect contrast to what has gone before.

Then there is wondering towards Arcadia, stopping briefly to enjoy a secret gig from comedian Ed Byrne. When we arrive, we find Gomez in full swing. It staggers me that in the ten years since last I saw them, they appear to have changed not even their shirts. They still, not to put too fine a point on it, look like students. But they still sound awesome. The crowd is small yet unbelievably dedicated, and the atmosphere is amazing to behold.

We rattle off into the night and explore Shangri-La for the remainder of the night / morning. It’s all a little hazy now. I remember there was a brilliant cider called Soap Dodger, and there were people dressed up funny. The rest is a blur of raving and guzzling. Just as the last night at Glastonbury should be. If your journey home is not accompanied by dry heaving and cautiously eyeing the toilets, you have not been trying hard enough.

Now it’s all over, it seems like a million years ago. I’ve never known a Glastonbury without rain, and although the line-up did not instantly grab me by the short and curlies, it has been one of my best ever. You have all been reading long enough now and I suspect you’re nearly as tired as I was on Monday, so I shall sign off with a cliché that I have long avoided: roll on next year.