There’s a programme on Radio 4 that I hear sometimes when I’m driving in the car. Called Recycled Radio, it chops up old BBC programmes and recycles the snippets into something new. That made me think of all the recycled music I listen to, with album tracks often reassembled into new playlists. As I get older, I listen to a lot of recycled music – but not all the time. Every year brings exciting new sounds. In this post (the first of three) I want to round up some of the music – recycled and new – that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about.
Sometimes long-forgotten music swims back into view in a serendipitous moment – a track heard on the radio, a friend’s mention and so on. A few weeks back, for example, for the first time in years I listened again to Michelle Shocked’s 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked. Still a great album, I was drawn back to it after our Uttoxeter friends Maureen and Barrie took us one of the regular Friday night sessions at Doveridge Village Club just outside the town. Excellent guitar-led rock and blues was served up by local regulars The Vice-Bishops, while Big Stone Gap, a five-piece band featuring Karen Jillard on lead vocals and acoustic guitar played a mix of country and Americana, including songs by the likes of Allison Krauss, Robert Johnson, The Dixie-Chicks – and Michelle Shocked.
Seeing musicians as good as this in a village hall caused me to wonder: in how many more such venues on this Friday evening were people being entertained with good music played by locals?
In a similar manner, the TV and Ulster Radio coverage of Van Morrison’s 70th birthday concert on Cyprus Avenue in Belfast meant that I spent a good part of September listening to Van (though there’s rarely a week when I don’t play something by him). The highlight of Ralph McLean’s countdown of Radio Ulster listeners’ best seventy Morrison songs was ‘These Are the Days’, but it delved deep into Van’s back catalogue, recycling many half-forgotten wonders.
Two Bob Dylan anniversaries this year had me listening again to the two Dylan albums that have remained my favourites. In May, it was 50 years since the release of Bringing It All Back Home while October marked the 50th anniversary of Highway 61 Revisited. A good excuse to listen once again to classics such as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘It’s Alright Ma’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’, ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’.
But it’s not all music of yesteryear here: there’s always new stuff to listen to, and these are some of the albums that I’ve spent some time with in 2015.
American roots and rock
First up, though, is something that really sounds as if it’s from yesteryear. A fellow member of the morning dog-walking fraternity recommended Tuba Skinny to me. Though they’ve been around for a while, I’d never come across them before. Starting out as a loose collection of street musicians in 2009, they have evolved into an ensemble dedicated to bringing traditional New Orleans music to listeners’ ears, revitalising early 20th century sounds from spirituals to Depression-era blues, ragtime and traditional jazz. I enjoyed their newest album, Owl Call Blues.
The Grateful Dead are never far from the earbuds, and this year a superb new release to mark the 50th anniversary of their getting together kept me entertained for hours. Sunshine Daydream was recorded at a legendary open-air concert at Veneta, Oregon in 1972, a benefit for their old friend Ken Kesey. I wrote about it at length here.
Not quite so old was another great archive recording, a new official release from Bruce Springsteen of a concert he gave at the Schottenstein Centre in Columbus, Ohio, during his ‘Devils and Dust’ solo acoustic tour in 2005. The setlist consisted of material from that album plus rarities and long-unperformed live songs from throughout Springsteen’s career. The highlights for me are the opener – the only performance of ‘Lift Me Up’, a song he wrote for the closing moments of John Sayles’ film Limbo – and the two closing tracks – spine tingling solo readings of ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Dream Baby Dream’.
More recycled music will likely be the result of hearing tracks from Panhandle Rambler, the new album by Joe Ely – his first for quite a while. Hearing him sing ‘When the Nights are Cold’ brought back fond memories from thirty years ago when every car journey would be accompanied by music from The Flatlanders and solo albums by that great country-rock group’s members – Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. ‘When the Nights are Cold’ was written by Butch Hancock and sung on Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s first album. Panhandle Rambler looks like it will turn out to be one of Joe Ely’s best.
‘Wonderin’ Where’, perhaps the album’s most beautiful melody, pays tribute to the radio towers that beamed the music from the country music stations into his childhood home in Texas: ‘the music in the kitchen seemed to come from out of nowhere’, he sings. ‘Here’s to the Weary’ is a tribute to all the musical greats that those radio towers beamed across the plains: Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, and the ones who ‘sang to a brand-new beat’, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and all the rest who ‘soothed our weary and restless souls’.
One of the best albums of American music this year came from the daughter of another old-timer, now sadly-deceased, Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band. With her debut album, Didn’t It Rain, Amy Helm seemed to burst fully-formed onto the music scene. Not so: though the CD is her solo debut, Amy Helm is hardly a newcomer. She recorded three albums with alt-country quartet Ollabelle (which I’ve not heard) and spent 10 years in the house band at Levon’s legendary Midnight Rambles.
Levon played on three tracks on Amy’s record, his last recordings before he died in 2012. Although three of the tracks are covers – including Sam Cooke’s ‘Good News’, and a gorgeous rendering of ‘Gentling Me’ co-written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mary Gauthtier – the rest are all Amy Helm originals. The whole thing is a great blend of Southern soul, gospel and R&B that had me recalling those great early albums by Bonnie Raitt (must recycle).
Speaking of Southern soul: in March we watched Songs of the South, Reginald D Hunter’s great series on BBC 2 about Southern music in all its forms. If you feel like whiling away five hours or so, he’s put a superb playlist of music from the American South on the BBC website. But he’s omitted one band that I investigated after they were featured in the series – Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. I found their recent album, Give The People What They Want, a rousing retro soul collection set alight by Sharon Jones’ powerhouse vocals that sounds like a party album from 1968. Fun.
There’s not a lot of fun on Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems, a late 2014 release whose slow-paced tempo, growled vocals and deeply serious lyrics permeated the early months of 2015, not least because the producers of True Detective season 2 chose ‘Nevermind’ as its theme song. It certainly set the mood:
The war was lost
The treaty signed
I was not caught
I crossed the line
I was not caught
Though many tried
I live among you
The ‘lazy bastard in a suit’ (his own self-deprecating assessment) has always dropped heavy hints that the world is going to the dogs, and ‘the second track in, Almost Like the Blues’, lays it on thick:
I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues
Nevertheless, there’s always a crack somewhere on a Cohen album where the light gets in, as with the final song here:
You got me singing
Even though the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even though it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn
I’ll return to the American South for one last recommendation. I only got to hear Valerie June’s album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, because my old friend Barrie absent-mindedly bought it twice and kindly gave me the copy that was surplus to requirements. June is from Tennessee and, like Amy Helm, has been singing for awhile. This album, though, is her first official release. Her music is steeped in various musical traditions of the South – blues, black and country gospel, soul, and Appalachian folk. Her voice, when you first hear it, is quite startling – raw, raspy and youthful. For some, it may be an acquired taste. But the collection grew on me – not least for the unusual yet compelling arrangements. ‘The Hour’ sounds like the recreation of some long-forgotten sixties soul or girl-group classic, while elsewhere great playing and arrangements provide echoes of every kind of Southern blues, soul and jazz.
There’s been so much more music – from West Africa and beyond, jazz from ECM, and contemporary music on the ECM New Series label – that I’ll leave it here for now and discuss those in two further posts.
To be continued.