Gigs

Jesse Malin – blowing the roof of Stockholm

imagesJesse Malin’s gig in Stockholm last night was the best gig I have seen in a very long time. It was brilliant. Unfortunately there were only about 150 people there to witness it. But those of us who did bother to come out to Nalen’s small basement venue on a Tuesday night, got a thrilling, exciting, unpredictable, raucous, intense and fucking loud show.

Jesse Malin is pretty much unheard of in the mainstream. But he has been around for over 20 years and had much critical acclaim. He has well known friends too. Bruce Springsteen, one of the many clear influences on Malin, sang on his third solo album and Malin has also worked with members of Green Day, Foo Fighters and Ryan Adams.

In the 90s he was a member of critically acclaimed New York glam punk band D Generation, before changing sound radically with his first solo album, released in 2002. Produced by Ryan Adams and featuring a distinct Americana sound, The Fine Art of Self Destruction is a great album, with a pre Born to Run, lyric heavy and New York image laden Springsteen sound.

A decade later and the Americana sound it seems has gone. Malin is back to punk rock, delivered last night with an incredible energy bellying his 47 years and experience on the road. There aren’t many people who have been doing something so long but still muster so much enthusiasm (Springsteen comparisons again spring to mind). But Malin was on fire last night, darting around the tiny stage, pumping himself, his band and the audience up into a frenzy. He was clearly not going to allow anyone out of that room last night unless they had a dam good time.

images (1)The music was a guitar driven, punk rock riot. It was loud, and unfortunately the lyrics were often lost in the sheer wall of volume. But there was plenty of melody, guitar licks, bass grooves and varied drumming to be heard from the classic drums, bass and two-guitar line up. And an on-off horn duo, added a wonderful, sparingly used brass section that really added to the sound.

The sheet fact that Malin brings this size of an entourage with him on a presumably appallingly low paid tour deserves respect in itself. But the man seemed to be having the time of his life up their with his band mates.

He was almost as much off the stage than on it though, jumping down into the audience on several occasions. And as the night wore on he started running right through the middle of the small crowd and standing in the middle of the room singing emphatically into his microphone while leaning into an audience member.

This was a man who knew how to work a crowd like a true pro and his incredible efforts in doing so were massively admirable. Malin may well be the hardest working rocker around.

A true “tofu eating vegan raised by lesbians” Malin oozes New York. He looks like a real hipster, but with no pretension. He is hip. But also nostalgic. Talking about vinyl, when “that’s all we listened too,” record stores in weird streets, “are there any weird streets left anymore,” and berating ”facebox” and the use of ipads and iphones and the general information overload of the modern world.

Very talkative, he at times crossed the line into soap-box preaching, admonishing himself for doing so on one occasion. Though his message was valid. Put down your phone and talk to people and get out the house, come to shows, live your life!

This message was constantly backed up by the punk rock music which exuded teenage rebellion, being yourself, being loud, having fun and going crazy every now and then. After one of these sermons, as he launched into The Ramones’ Do You Remember Rock n Roll Radio,  someone threw beer at him, to which Malin looked delighted and roared “yeah”!

The set list included a handful of other covers including thePogues’ If I should Fall From Grace, and featured many songs from Malin’s latest release, New York Before the War, including the brilliant Oh Sheena.

It is perhaps one of the many quirks of success that Malin has not “made it”, while others that are no more talented have. Yet he is probably the better man and performer for it. His studio work is perhaps patchy. And he doesn’t offer anything new. But his live show last night and the sheer effort the man put into it was up there with the greatest things I have seen in rock n roll. It sent you back to another time when passion was all that counted.

a7series-cbgbfest-10Oct13-emilytan_6The highlight came towards the end during a bombastic Bar Life, from the latest album. During this soul tinged rock n roll number Malin came down onto the floor amid the audience and made everyone sit down around him as the lights came up. Malin sat there, one of us, singing in the middle of the room, making eye contact with each of us. It was a little cheesy, but it was also very magical. And like nothing I have seen at a show of this sort.

As the song started to wind back up from the mellow toned down middle section, some audience members couldn’t contain themselves and started standing up and shouting the chorus, arms swaying, while the band prowling quietly around on stage started to explode, the trumpet player climbing on a stool and blowing his lungs out.

The encore was a cover of Lou Reed’s party song Sally Can’t Dance with Malin literally running around the venue and climbing up on a stool at the back of the room to sing us out. He then jumped straight down off the stool to the merchandise desk, to carry on working, selling and meeting his fans long after the show had ended.

They don’t make em like this anymore. And I felt very fortunate to have been there. If Malin is coming to your town, put down your ipad and get to his show. It is umissable.

Gigs, Movies

Ryan Adams – something good

imagesAt Cirkus, Stockholm 10 March 2015.

Ryan Adams is a hugely talented musician, songwriter and performer. He is perhaps one of the best artists, in the very broad alternative country genre at least, around today.

This is evidenced by a prolificacy in album releases over the last 15 years which resembles days of old, when artists released albums yearly as opposed to the one new release every few years that we see from most contemporary acts.

Adams releases on average one new album every year, some of which are doubles, and though never breaking new ground, all are packed with solid well crafted and performed songs. His latest album, titled Ryan Adams, is not one of his best. But even a lesser Ryan Adams album is a solid listen.

His performing talent is also impressive as was evidenced at last night’s concert in Stockholm, which opened with the brilliant opener from the new album, Gimme Something Good, a catchy rocky number with swirling organ and crunchy guitars that set the tone of much of last night’s gig.

Touring this latest album, the setlist featured five tracks from it, but this was also very much a “greatest hits” collection. The 21 tracks played featured songs from across his healthy back-catalogue, albeit played for the most part in his current 1970s Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) style, with a four piece backing band of drums, bass, guitar and organ.

This current style is perhaps best compared to early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with third track in last night, Stay With Me, sounding even more Petty like than the studio version, with a clipped vocal delivery, high guitar riffs, plodding bass and organ back up.

An early highlight was Dirty Rain from Ashes and Fire, a great song that showcased Adam’s versatile vocals with a deep slow verse breaking out into a soaring high pitched and uplifting chorus. And like many of his songs, conjuring up images of lonely small town American nights.

This was followed by one of Adam’s greatest songs, Dear Chicago, though while it’s light, almost reggae band backed groove last night offered something a bit different, this was perhaps to the song’s detriment. However who can resist lines like “I been thinking some of suicide, but there’s bars out here for miles.”

Other great familiar Adams’ songs also suffered a little bit from slightly new, which is to bedownload applauded, but detrimental arrangements. New York, New York, still retained its compulsive rhythmic acoustic guitar foundation but was a little too restrained musically. And La Cienga Just Smiled, which I once heard the legendary British radio DJ Bob Harris say was his second favourite song of all time (after Stand By Me), suffered from slightly intrusive drumming.

Magnolia Mountain however, from the ridiculously listenable alt-country Cold Roses album, broke out from its swirling spidery guitar riffs into a Doors like bluesy rock middle part jam, before returning again to the familiar arrangement with an added hint of early 70s Topanga Canyon singer-songwriter harmonies and Crosby Stills Nash and Young electric groove. The song’s lyrics, “there ain’t nothing but the truth up on the Magnolia Mountain,” also evoke the sentiments of the late 60s early 70s LA generation and offer a change from Adam’s usual lovelorn heavy content.

Adam’s competence in the genres he works in is immense. His songs, though never sounding like rip-offs, sound steeped in Americana musical knowledge.

And as well an impressive voice, Adams can really play guitar, with his musical talents seeming to get better and better with age. Be it with superb guitar playing on country soaked acoustic ballads, grungy AOR electric rhythm or high note riffs and solos. Or on his expressive harmonica playing which featured on the ever popular closer Come Pick Me Up and Winding Wheel, one of just two songs delivered solo, the other being a cover of his support act Natalie Prass’s song My Baby don’t Understand Me, which could almost have been one of Adam’s own songs.

He also looks like he is managing all this great playing and singing with little effort. Hunched over his guitars, which he holds quite high, dressed in denims, his leg occasionally bends and now and then the guitar is held aloft, but he looks in total control. He even indicated with his hands level changes to the sound guys while playing and singing at the same time.

As he has aged, he has also become a highly professional performer. Gone are the nervous shuffles, fiddling with instruments, complaints about the sound, and often quite highly charged audience berating from his earlier concerts. Or the wild abandon of his Rock n Roll tour which saw him swigging from wine bottles on stage and culminating in a tumbling of a stage and breaking his wrist.

While this is probably much better for him, it is a bit of a shame for the audience. Adams’ gigs used to be thrillingly exciting, with a raw but unstable talent baring his all with a wild recklessness. With concerts in general long having become fairly predictable, rehearsed events, you always felt with Adams anything could happen. He is also extremely funny and in a nervy way very chatty with the audience, telling funny stories and introducing songs with hilariously surreal explanations as to their meaning.

Last night, and at the last Adams concert I saw two years ago, he barely spoke to the crowd and whizzed through the setlist with total professionalism, packing in a very decent amount of songs in just under two hours. On paper, everything was great, including the playing, song selection and incredibly good sound levels, where every note could be heard and every phrase, no matter how softy sung understood.

But it was almost too good. Too perfect, too rehearsed (the setlist has barely changed over this tour which didn’t used to be the case) and too slick and professional.

The most playful aspect was the stage set-up, with a couple of old video arcade games flashing away and Neil Young Live Rust style giant decorative amplifiers that surely went up to 11.

Rarely did the band get up to 11 though. The intensity of earlier Adams’ gigs was most evident on the solo acoustic numbers. With total silence in the hall and every move on the guitar string heard.

images (1)The one time Adams’ actually got animated was during the solo delivery of Winding Wheel. He stopped playing after the first verse to shout at the crowd, in scenes reminiscent of the old Adams, for using flash photography, which he said, aggravates his Meniere’s disease by making him feel sick and dizzy. Apparently requests to not use flash photography had been widely made, though I hadn’t noticed myself. Cleary it is understandable for Adams to get annoyed by this. And his annoyance is not something to enjoy. It was enjoyable however to hear his rant move on to phone usage at concerts generally. “You are at a concert, put your fucking phone down and engage! Get a life!” he hollered. He then restarted the intimate softly song sung as if nothing had happened.

The final song of the main set, I See Monsters, was introduced as “a real slow jam.” Half way through it burst into life in an explosion of punk rock frenzied guitar solos. Brilliant. And a wild change of pace that was a real surprise.

Despite the polishing up of the edges, Adams is still brilliant. Last night’s gig was evidence of a musician on top of his game. While not as wild as days of old, his professionalism is to be admired and he remains a formidable live act.

Gigs

Bang Bang – The Felice Brothers

images3At Bryggarsalen, Stockholm 6 November 2014.

Bang bang bang went the Felice Brothers last night as they shot Stockholm down with their customary ramshackle, raucous, rocking hoedown of a show. Even the usually reserved Swedes got excited last night but it is hard not to with this band on stage.

The Felice Brothers fall into that rather nebulous category of Americana. They flit between barn dance like country with washboards at the fore to outlaw ballads to booze soaked piano bar band to indie rock, with on their last but one album a heavy dose of electronica thrown in.

But their songs and lyrics and style, with a loose but natural and timeless quality, steeped in American culture, old and new, mostly conjure up the idea of a modern day The Band. And this is an accolade that they are worthy of. And geographically associated with too, with the two actual brothers of the band coming from the Catskill mountains, home of Woodstock and The Band’s legendary Big Pink house.

The Felice Brothers also seem to be made up of a cast of characters that are as misfit and diverse as their songs.

Lead singer and guitar player Ian Felice is a Dylanesque presence. Short and scrawny with a long fringe covering his eyes, he looks an enigmatic and slightly troubled soul and someone who is not at home in the limelight. He asked for the lights last night to be turned down as he felt like he was “in a dentist’s chair”. But he is also an intense presence, and sings with bursts of energy and jagged movements as words are spat into the microphone, which he often doesn’t reach quite in time.

His brother James Felice couldn’t be more opposite. The pianist and accordion player, a big guy, he oozes warmth, fun and big heartedness and you are sure he is at the centre of every family get together, encouraging everyone to sing along. He sings some of the more old time songs in the band’s repertoire too, with a deep wonderful whiskey soaked voice. Fitting especially for the early airing last night of the sing along Whiskey In My Whiskey!images2

A third brother, Simone Felice, used to be the band’s drummer and third vocalist but he left some years ago to go solo. The current drummer is David Estabrook, who with side burns and cap looks like a trucker.

Long term member Greg Farley plays fiddle and washboard. He looks fresh faced and like James oozes enthusiasm, hopping and dancing around non stop and urging the audience to clap and sing. Clad in a hoody he also presents a wonderful visual contradiction of what a violin player “should” look like.

The last member is bass player Christmas Clapton. He falls more into Ian’s side of the band, both literally where he stands on stage and in his demeanour. The brothers came across Christmas when he was a travelling dice player, so the story goes, and while his appearance is that of a pretty regular denim clad guy, he has a far out look in his face that suggests he has seen some things.

And so at the beautifully grande but perhaps overly lit and miscast venue of the Bryggarsalen in Stockholm last night this achingly hip band performed to the achingly hip Stockholm set for the first ever time. Though as my American friend rightly pointed out to me the guys on stage look hip but they really live the life that they sing about. The crowd couldn’t be more opposite. And for sure, the Felice Brothers ooze authenticity.

Whether singing about “Trailer McDonald’s rest stops” and seeing “a man hit my mom one time, really, I hurt him so damn bad I had to hide in Jersey” in their utterly brilliant Frankie’s Gun or hearing “Thelma and Louise making love under the poplar trees, we could hear some screaming, sounded like a slaughterhouse,” in Wonderful Life, you believe them.

imagesBoth these songs are from their second and still best 2008 album the Felice Brothers. In fact these two songs are alone probably worth investing in the band for.

A wonderful Life is an intense ballad with imagery from the civil war “the night Richmond burned” also reminding us of The Band, but sung by Ian with an intense deliberate phrasing that is heartbreaking “now all I do is sing sad songs with red eyes.”

Frankie’s Gun meanwhile is a raucous catchy blast of hot American road dust with an infectious chorus of “bang bang went Frakie’s Gun” being blown out by the whole band.

Both songs were performed with complete commitment last night along with other stand out tracks from that 2008 album including Take this Bread, whose “I’m alright if you’re alright” refrain seems to sum up the band’s spirit of camaraderie and is also an infectious chorus.

Other highlights last night included Penn Station and Chicken Wire from 2009’s Yonder is the Clock album. Both in the rousing clattering ramshackle vein of Frankie’s Gun and along with the traditional cover Cumberland Gap made you just wanna take your partner by the hand and run around the room yee haaing.

Ponzi from their more contemporary sounding Celebration, Florida album, though on record drenched in snyth sounds, last night brought out the band’s wonderfully raw harmonies. All but the drummer took turns on lead vocals at some point during the night.

The few songs form their recent album Favorite Waitress, were also a joy to hear and wonderfully representative of the band’s diversity. Last night’s opener, Meadow of a Dream, from the current album, is a bar room bluesy indie sounding song with a lilting guitar and fiddle riff and crashing drums that has a cowboy chorus about wanting to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

While the opening of the encore, Saturday Night, also from the new album, starts as a sort of end of night drunken Nick Cave cabaret, with strange sounds and a lead vocal delivered, just about, by Christmas, who sings of insurance fraud, David Letterman and valium. The chorus breaks out into a more rootsy energetic cry by the whole band of “off with his head”. Intense, weird, soaked in old and new imagery, brilliant.images4

The final song was Jimmy Cliff cover Too Many Rivers to Cross. A rather somber ending though Ian looked like he might burst a blood vessel as each chorus became louder and more intense.

A big fan of this band, I only by chance saw that they were playing in Stockholm the night before the gig. But what good fortune I did. It is hard to believe that they will probably just break even from this tour and emerged after the show to pack up their own equipment with no road crew in site. They might just be one of the best live bands I have seen in many years.

Gigs

The Magic Numbers – Wake Up

imagesAt Debaser Medis Stockholm 30 October 2014.

Why don’t more people like the Magic Numbers? They are one of the greatest bands around today and proved this again last night in Stockholm.

For the uninitiated, the band burst onto the scene 10 years ago with a critically acclaimed and UK platinum selling debut album. Consisting of two sets of siblings this English band formed in the London suburbs are mis famed for performing a sort of Mammas and Pappas sunny, harmony driven, guitar led pop.

Ten years ago this earned them considerable success. But since then they seem to have lost their allure and now play much smaller gigs.

Apparently they are pretty successful in Sweden too, describing it last night as their second home. Their second album reached number 3 on the Swedish charts. But the smallish club was hardly packed last night.

Perhaps their dwindling popularity is because the poppy sixties ish style that they are associated with is just not cool anymore. But this reading of their music is a gross misconception. And for the the unconvinced it is time to Wake Up, which as the title of the opening song of their set last night and their latest album Alias, the band seem to be asking us to do too.

OK their sound is not new. But it is steeped in music history, from pop yes, but also soul (a Curtis Mayfield number crept in last night), folk, country and most notably rock. And the arrangements of their songs are deceptively simple but extremely sophisticated, particularly their 3 part harmonies, which are simply wonderful.

But the musicianship is also, again subtle, but brilliant. Notably the bass playing of Michelle Stodart who plays the instrument in a very melodic way full of great running lines and fills and her brother and leader of the group Romeo’s guitar playing. Using one guitar all night when many others would choose several, he is a quiet virtuoso, whether it is pop, rock, soul, rhythm or lead he is at ease with it all. In fact Romeo and Michelle are among the best guitar and bass players around in contemporary music.images2

This was in evidence on the second track last night, You Know. In fact the whole of the band’s strengths are at the fore in this early highlight of the evening, which like many of their best songs grows into quite an intense work out in the best rock traditions. It has breaks, shifts in tempo, wonderful harmony singing, subtle undulating guitar riffs and then a sudden explosion of jazz tinged rock guitar, thumping bass and primal drumming. Incredibly exciting and almost Doors like!

In fact Michelle wields her bass these days like a seventies rock god and drummer Sean Gannon with his long blonde locks and beard would look at home in a seventies rock outfit too.

Last night’s set was predictably heavy on songs from recent fourth album Alias. But this was no bad thing. It is their best album since their debut with a more rocky style and simpler songs than the overladen third album The Runaway.

The songs from Alias were also even better live, with the singing last night at its best. I have seen the Magic Numbers a few times now and maybe the smaller venues suit them better, as in the past they have sometimes seemed nervous which has seemed to affect their voices.

Not so last night, with keyboardist and percussionist Angela Gannon’s voice in particular sounding very strong. The harmonies of Michelle and Angela at times are reminiscent of sixties soul bands. Romeo, who has a pretty dam good soft country lilted voice himself, referred to the women last night as the “soul sisters”.

But Angela also sounded Stevie Nicks like husky too last night. The band’s use of three voices, two female one male, have always had a slight Fleetwood Mac feel. But the more rockier direction of the new material really confirmed this last night.

And just as I was thinking to myself this sounds really like the Mac during the excellent new song Shot in the Dark, Angela broke into a mini cover of Rhiannon.

Of course the stand out tracks from the band’s debut album were all there last night with the ever respectful Swedish crowd in total silence during I See You, You See Me, with Romeo and Angela performing a heart breaking duet.

And the main set ended with Love Me Like You, a song for which alone the band should be considered one of the greats.

For all Romeo’s brooding self critical lyrics though he, and the rest of the band, also seem like really nice people. Romeo is the kind of guy I feel I could spend a wonderful evening in the pub talking about the greats with.

indexAnd in what seems to be a tradition and evidence of their friendliness, the band invited the support group up for the encore to sing Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

Mornings Eleven closed the evening. Poppy yes, with sprightly guitar and harmonies, but with great grungy rock guitar fills too and a superb arrangement and oh the bass lines!

If you have never heard the Magic Numbers listen to them now! If you have forgotten about them or dismissed them as simply “pleasant” as many critics seem to have, listen harder. Even better go see them live, they deserve a far bigger audience and I am sure you will have a great night.

Gigs

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Rockin’ in the Free World

hyde-park-london-neil-young-earth-shirt-2014At the Stockholm Music and Arts Festival, 3 August 2014

Neil Young is a man on a mission. His compulsion to confound and even alienate audiences is a longstanding calling that was certainly on display last night. It was almost a full hour of fairly obscure songs driven by wrenching epic guitar work-outs before the festival crowd got their first familiar song. And even that wasn’t one of Neil’s.

But his main mission of the day seems to be to address humanity’s ongoing plundering of the earth through wars and environmental destruction. Almost 90% of last night’s set list contained songs of anger at the current state of the world, and a plea for love to endure and to stand up and help him save the world.

This was a preachy set no doubt. And in terms of message it was reminiscent of some of the more didactic days of his Crosby, Stills and Nash and chums late 1960’s peace and love will conquer all philosophising.

Unfortunately Young’s more modern protest style songs, and two-thirds of the songs last night were from the 1980s onwards, don’t match the brilliance of his counter-culture era state of the nation addresses such as Ohio or Southern Man.

Even a less good Neil Young song though is still a pretty formidable thing and while they may lack musical and lyrical subtlety, last night’s Living with War for example, the title track of Young’s 2006 album attacking the War on Terror, and brand new song Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth with its plea for climate change to be addressed, “for our children,” are still good melodic rock songs.

Their musical lack of sophistication is also offset somewhat by their simple catchiness and surely this is the point. At 68 year’s old Young’s commitment and passion to his message is simply inspiring. He appears to be a man obsessed, perhaps driven by notions that time for him is running out. This idea comes across strongly in fact from his latest album, A letter Home.

An extremely low fi covers album, A Letter Home was released just over three months ago and not a single song from it was performed last night. But the album starts with a spoken message to his Mum in heaven about the state of the weather on Earth. He goes on to tell her that he misses her and will be up there with her soon “but not for a while as I still got a lot of work to do here.”

That work is clearly to make his audience wake up and help him with his environmental activism, in particular, to bring about the changes for a better world that the 1960s generation and he and his superstar pals seemed to give up on long ago.

And so dressed in black jeans, black boots, a black hat and black t’shirt with “Earth” printed across it, Young brought his work to Stockholm last night.index

Opening with an epic guitar fuelled Love and Only Love from the 1990 garage band grunge era Ragged Glory album Neil howled the chorus “Hate is everything you think it is, love and only love with break it down.” The song set the standard for the night. Both lyrically, with its mix of anger and hope, and musically, roaring on for some 15 minutes in a thunderstorm of guitar solos with the three guitarists grouped tightly together in front of the drum kit in true Crazy Horse style.

Although this wasn’t quite a true Crazy Horse line up with bass player Billy Talbot having had a mild stroke and so replaced for this tour by long-term Young collaborator Rick Rosas. This left only drummer Ralph Molina from the original line up. And the presence, almost hidden behind the huge wall of closely packed together amplifiers, of two female backing singers seemed most un Crazy Horse like. However as the night progressed these singers proved a very worthwhile addition to the band, helping to simply emphasis the choruses.

The second track, the wonderful Powderfinger, a long time Crazy Horse concert favourite, though probably not a familiar song for a casual fan, suggested it was business as usual.

But then came the oddly resurrected and not particularly memorable Standing in the Light of Love, an unreleased song played live during a 2001 tour.

This was followed by the much better and rarely played Days That Used to Be, also from Ragged Glory. The song’s lyrics are particularly apt for Young’s seeming return to the ideas that once pervaded the music of his generation; “Ideas that once seem so right, now have gotten hard to say,” he sings. Yet last night, Young’s repetition of the line “Don’t rock the boat” over and over with a sardonic snarl between ironic musings such as “Change is good, but not right now!” felt like a big fuck you to anyone stood in the audience who has opted for “possessions and concessions.” I.e. pretty much all of us there.

After Living With War, and Young speaking directly to the audience for the first time to say “that’s a song we shouldn’t have to play anymore,” came another Ragged Glory number, Love to Burn. The messages of taking a chance on love and “you gotta take the first step” felt more about making a difference than romantic love, while the “spirit” of the song that speaks to Neil was surely last night the Sioux chief Crazy Horse   riding across the stage on a huge backdrop.

The very obscure and fairly weak Name of Love from the pretty woeful Crosby Stills Nash and Young 1988 album American Dream continued the anti war and rise up “in the name of love” theme.

Iindex2t was then, with the other musicians departing the stage, after well over an hour that the very patient but somewhat muted Swedish audience got their first hit: Bob Dylan’s seminal protest song Blowin’ in the Wind continuing Young’s how many more times message wonderfully.

Young’s solo acoustic guitar and harmonica backed rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind is actually much closer to the original and delivered far more sincerely than any recent Dylan version of the song. In fact a Neil Young concert today is totally unlike a contemporary Dylan show. Young’s voice, guitar playing and energy are almost unchanged from his much younger self and are wonderful to behold. And he seems to care about what he is doing, even if that is frustrating the audience.

The Stockholmer’s were over the moon at the playful conversation between some hecklers and Neil as a guitar tech dealt with an issue. “I love you Neil” yelled a fan. “Well I don’t know you that well,” retorted Neil, bringing to mind his disdain for empty plaudits. But the love was returned with a fine rendition of his biggest hit Heart of Gold, which while performed well, with Neil nodding appreciatingly at the backing singers afterwards, the song’s inclusion felt like a token crowd pleasing gesture.

Much more fun and one of the highlights of the evening was Barstool Blues, a fairly anonymous but raw and brilliant Crazy Horse song from the 1975 Zuma album. With this and the next track, Psychedelic Pill, a newer Crazy Horse song from the 2012 album of the same name, Young and guitar player Frank Poncho Sampedro seemed to start to really enjoy themselves.

Barstool Blues had Young singing the lines “once there was a friend of mine who died a thousand deaths, his life was filled with parasites,” with his arm around Sampedro whose fractured hand caused many European concerts to be cancelled last year. “He trusted in a woman and on her he made his bets,” Young continued, pointing at Sampedro who nodded before kicking Young’s arse as he walked away.

Psychedelic Pill was introduced by Young as for being for “all the beautiful women out there” while carving female curves with his hand. Unsurprisingly in gender progressive Sweden this was met by, apart from a few groans, a very hushed response. A pretty uninspiring rocker about a party girl looking for a good time, had Young and Sampedro laughing away but otherwise was a rather pointless inclusion. Another fuck you perhaps?

Not so for Cortez the Killer though, one of Young’s greatest songs, and performed last night with all the lyrical clarity and hushed delivery building to intense guitar solos that it deserves. The song, about the Spanish conquistadores’ destruction of the paradise of Mexico was, as well as being brilliant, apt to the message of the night too.

The main set concluded with Young offering the audience the choice of Down by the River or Rockin’ in the Free World. To help decide after both got an equally enthusiastic response, Young wandered over to the life-size wooden sculpture of a native American chief to the side of the stage, called Woody, and who he had often walked over to solo with during the evening. Young informed us that Woody wasn’t very interested in either song. “Woody says they are both old songs and have the same chords anyway…” I think we can safely read Young’s own views in Woody’s hereindex3.

By now the crowd were getting excited and calling out for their favourite Young tracks. On hearing a request for Comes a Time, the late 70s mellow acoustic bucolic celebration of settling down, Young seemed incredulous. A seriously rocking Rockin’ in the Free World immediately broke loose. The only appropriate choice for tonight’s thinking, with the chorus repeated endlessly and the audience all fully joining in. Brilliant.

The single song encore was the aforementioned brand new Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth. Young starts the song with a blistering single note spikey guitar riff and despite its simple catchy melody and obvious call for environmental action lyrics, the song sounds like a good un. And even on a first hearing the audience were singing along the infectious chorus, while Sampedro interjected the titular refrain with “You!”

This was not the greatest ever Neil Young concert by any means, and for casual festival going fans hoping for Old Man it must have been rather bewildering. But it was a concert with an important message and the passionate delivery of that message, along with a few fuck yous by a man whose musical prowess is completely undiminished made this Neil Young concert a completely thrilling event. Long may you run.

Gigs

Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses) – Nalen, Stockholm 11th June 2013

Steve Earle Bears Den Niagara Falls, NY 5-4-13 027Here is Steve Earle in the 21st century. It ain’t as cool as he hoped it would be he sings last night in Stockholm.  Luckily for us though Steve Earle provided the Stockholm crowd with a very cool set list that kept them way up past their bedtimes.

The songs from Steve’s very recently released latest album, The Low Highway, feature unsurprisingly heavily on the current tour. So heavily in fact that all 12 songs from the album were played last night.

But Steve was on stage for over 2 hours and at times zipped through songs so fast that there was no time for the audience to clap, enabling him to perform over 30 songs in total from across his significant back catalogue.

Now, for those that don’t know, Steve Earle is quite a character. A country rocker who made his first record in the mid 1980’s, disappeared from view and into prison after a period of heavy drug abuse and re emerged in the mid 90s reformed and rejuvenated.

Since then he hasn’t stopped. Producing album after album of high quality music which goes far beyond the country rock tag and includes heavy rock, bluegrass, blues, roots and folk.

His music contains, as well as haunting and beautiful love songs, many politically charged lyrics. He is a left-wing radical by US standards and amongst many issues he actively supports are the abolition of the death penalty and the occupy movement.

He has also been married seven times (twice to the same woman) although seems to have settled down in recent years with singer Alison Moorer, normally in the band but inexplicably absent last night.IMG_0058

His wild days have clearly left a mark.  He has long but thinning grey hair with a centre bald patch and a huge Buddha like beard which with his glasses make him look like Allen Ginsburg in his latter life. Steve also has a bear like figure with a huge Texan waist and he often seems breathless on stage and fails to finish the odd line. At times it is hard to make out the lyrics as he mumbles or doesn’t quite make the notes.

And while last night’s set straddled the full range of musical styles in Steve’s repertoire it was perhaps the heavier rocker side that got the lion’s share of air time and the loud electric guitars and drums also made it harder to hear the words.

This is a shame as Steve Earle is perhaps the best American songwriter around today.

Steve Spends a lot of time on the road, a fact obvious in Stockholm last night with the tour bus parked right out front of the venue, Nalen, a small concert hall in an old 1880’s dance hall in a small back street in the centre of the city.

IMG_0050And the title track of his latest album, The Low Highway, is a commentary on America, garnered from travels across the country in the bus. This song, full of Steinbeck like imagery tells of hungry people and empty houses.

Another stand out track from the album is Burnin’ it Down, one of many narrative Steve Earle songs about characters on the margins of small town America, this one is contemplating burning the local wall mart down.

And one of the stand out songs from last night, Invisible, sung wonderfully by Steve and bass player and long time Duke Kelley Looney, was introduced by Steve as being inspired by seeing the ever-increasing line at a soup kitchen in his New York neighborhood.

Steve’s story telling between songs is as entertaining as the music itself and is also often very political, be it in an odd throw away remark like “Coming from occupied Mexico as I do….” (Steve is from Texas), to a longer tale about a friend of his who was an investment banker and was once a republican “though he credited me with sorting that problem out.”

This was Warren Hellman, who when San Francisco city workers nearly lost all their pensions stepped in with a huge endowment. Steve dedicated the song Warren Hellman’s Banjo to him adding “just goes to show you folks, you don’t have to be an asshole if you are rich.”

Steve introduced the next song, Little Emperor, about George W Bush, by saying “now this is about someone who is rich and an asshole.”

Amongst the array of musical styles on offer last night was some rootsy New Orleans influenced numbers. This is because Steve has been acting in a drama series about post Katrina New Orleans called Treme (he was also in a few episodes of the Wire).

The New Orleans segment of last night’s set included This City from the last album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive and from the Low Highway came After Mardi Grass, Pocket Full of Rain with Steve taking to piano and guitar player Chris Masterson providing a mid track blast of thunderous electric guitar, and the gypsy like Love’s Gonna Blow My Way, one of many tracks showcasing some great violin playing from Eleanor Whitmore, the wife of guitar player Chris with whom she forms the Mastersons who were tonight’s support act.images

Steve mentioned many times that the current line up of the Dukes is the best band he has ever had and indeed they are an impressive bunch of musicians, the Masterson’s in particular, whose support set was full of pleasant country twinged harmonies, came alive with Steve, providing scintillating guitar solos, either in 1950s tremolo Guitar Town style or on rock numbers such as Taneytown about a black kid who stabs a rich white kid in self defence and features in longer form in Steve’s short story prose collection Doghouse Roses.

As well as great violin playing (which at times suffered from being too loud or too quiet in the mix), Eleanor provided wonderful harmonies on numerous tracks including You’re Still Standing There, originally recorded by Steve with Lucinda Williams on harmony.

Amongst the rockier numbers that included a furious Copperhead Road and The Revolution Starts Now, were some bluegrass numbers from perhaps Steve Earle’s greatest album Train a Comin’ including Mystery Train and the brilliant civil war critique of Ben McCulloch. There was also the Irish folk fuelled Galway Girl.

0ee3cc298622a8acad3ca97066a2d9eeIn fact the songs just kept coming and after what seemed a shaky nervous opening (which included a strained but brilliant I Thought You Should Know, in which Steve asks a new lover not to break his heart which, is already broken), it seemed Steve didn’t want to stop. Although with each encore the audience thinned more and more, the Swedes not used to being up past midnight, as it now was, on a weeknight.

Although it was perhaps the first encore that contained the night’s greatest highlights including I Ain’t Ever Satisfied and two sublime love songs. One, My Old Friend the Blues, from Steve’ first album Guitar Town, the other from his latest.

This was Remember Me, made all the more heart-rending as Steve told us before playing it that it is about his three-year old son who has been diagnosed with autism. The song is about Steve, who, 58, knows he won’t be around long in his son’s life.

His fragile vocals may not always suit a loud live performance, but with moments of brilliance, beauty and sadness this was, as ever, a typical up and down evening in the company of a great artist, which I would never want to miss.

Gigs

Richard Thompson – Electric

RT9_2468423bBarbican, London, 26 February 2013

Anyone expecting a pleasant evening of easy listening folk from the back catalogue of one of the founding members of 1960s British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, was in for a shock.

After the second song I turned to my friend and said I feel like I am watching the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And not just because we were watching a three-piece with a bass player who looked from a distance a little like an older version of Jimi’s bassist Noel Redding.

But because Richard Thompson’s set at the Barbican this week was a virtuoso vision of guitar driven prog rock more akin to the great rock bands of the late 60s and 70s, then anything approaching the folk for which Thompson is more associated.

To underline this point the encore saw the band do a cover of 60s supergroup Cream’s White Room.

The setlist featured heavily tracks from Thompson’s latest album Electric, which also features the live outfit of slick drummer Michael Jerome who would look more at home in a jazz band and the extraordinary bassist Taras Prodaniuk, attired in a suit and looking very 70s.

With Thompson looking almost like a skipper from a whaler with his white beard, beret and black jeans , the trio looked completely uncohesive.

But their playing together was, well, electric. Around Jerome’s barrage of artillery on the drum kit Thompson and Prodaniuk traded incredible fire from their guitars.

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They followed each other as tight as can be on the “folk funk” (mostly funk) of opening tracks Stuck on the Treadmill and the thundering Sally B. And went off in worlds of solo exploration on the first old track of the night, For Shame of Doing Wrong, a dark Doorsy blues like number from the 1975 Richard and Linda Thompson album Pour Down Like Silver.

And so the evening went. Prodaniuk must be one of the most impressive bass players I have ever seen. Who is he! His instrument looked like a part of him and the space he found within musical bars was incredible, running up and down the fret board with amazing nimbleness and authority.

During their spars he often had the upper hand, before melting away to let his boss Thompson explode with all manner of licks, chords and sounds. It is no wonder that Thompson has been voted one of the best guitar players ever by Rolling Stone Magazine. His technique and variety seems limitless.

Unfortunately though this was a rather one-dimensional evening, which also suffered from the fact that the Barbican is just not a good place for this type of music.Rock trios don’t play any better than this. They can’t. It’s impossible. Although it has to be said White Room sounded flat and made the band sound inferior to Cream, an impression soon put to rest when they did their own Stony Ground. Why is it that even the greatest bands just can’t do other people’s songs as well as the originals?

The band performed at Shepherds Bush Empire the night before which would have been far more suitable.

The audience also seemed somewhat bemused by this onslaught of guitar. Although there was some gentle bobbing about during another oldie Wall of Death and everyone sang along to the set closer of 1983’s Tear Stained Letter.

The inclusion of murder ballad Sidney Wells and sea shanty Little Sally Rackett might have gone someway to providing a hint of folk, but even these were performed at break neck speed with guitar solos piercing the skin.

In fact everything this evening was about as far away from folk or even folk rock as can be.

20091217-131441-054128Now I am not even close to being a traditionalist, and this was an astonishingly talented and impressive and spirited performance which was at times hugely enjoyable. But a few smatterings from Thompson’s more folkier side would have given the evening a much more varied and welcome mix.

This was made clear when someone shouted out “Beeswing” at the start of the second encore. Thompson hesitated, musing no doubt, how he could do this with the band. He then asked the other musicians to wait, picked up an acoustic guitar and played, as if he’d been practising it all day, an off the cuff rendition of one of his most beautiful songs.

Beeswing is a truly wonderful song, somewhere in the folk spectrum between John Martyn and Nic Jones, about a free-spirited woman and her lover moving about England. Its elegiac like melody is underlined by some wonderful guitar parts and it was one of the highlights of the evening.

Thompson can sing no doubt and by god he can play electric guitar. But his folky down to earth English voice does tend to suit the more folky numbers more which are also beautifully played. More of those would have made a good night into a great one.