Thursday, 24 February 2011

Townes Van Zandt

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that"
Steve Earle.

"It's goodbye to all my friends

It's time to go again

Think on all the poetry
And the pickin' down the line
I'll miss the system here
The bottom's low and the treble's clear
But it don't pay to think too much
On things you leave behind
I may be gone
But it won't be long
I will be a-bringin' back the melody
And the rhythm that I find"

Townes Van Zandt was born into a wealthy oil family from the South and  moved around for much of his youth. His guitar playing was heavily influenced by blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins and he honed his skills in the Houston folk clubs of the mid-60's. He released his first studio album in 1968, the beautiful 'For The Sake of the Song', where his elegant lyricism is somewhat drowned out by saccharine production. He had a productive next decade releasing 7 albums before taking a 10 year break from recording in 1978. He returned in 1987 with 'At My Window' and continued to release albums from then till his untimely drink-related death in 1997.

It's hard when just describing his output to fully convey the immense respect that Townes commands. His music is often stark, and introspective, and usually quite sad and haunting. His voice is not technically amazing in the conventional sense, but it is beautiful and bitter-sweet and affecting, and it can relate more raw emotion than most trained vocalists could manage.

He is revered among other musicians, and his songs have been covered by artists including Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Mudhoney, Willie Nelson, Cowboy Junkies, Manfred Mann, Lylle Lovett, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Jackson Browne, Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Gillian Welch, Sufjan Stevens, Evan Dando, Alison Krauss, Mark Lanegan and Isobell Campbell, the list goes on......

'To Live Is To Fly' Gorgeous lyrics

Wow. This gets me every time. 'Nothin''

'Rake'- I'd welcome the stars with wine and guitars.........

'Pancho and Lefty'

'Mr Gold and Mr Mudd' Live at the Old Quarter. Classic opening joke.

QI: His manager was John Lomax III, grandson and son of the famous musicologists and folklorists John A Lomax and Alan Lomax.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Ike and Tina Turner

Sometimes its hard to separate the art from the artists.

As most people are now aware, much of Tina's life with Ike was a misery, putting up with his cruelty, manipulation and both verbal and physical abuse.When you know the stories behind the recordings and performances, some of their work makes for uncomfortable listening (her forced suggestive performance of 'I've Been Loving You' for one), but that doesn't take away from the fact that they were an amazing live and recording act, and that Tina is a legend. 
Ike was a great guitarist too, but I don't really like complimenting him.

By the mid 1950's Ike Turner was a huge local star and renown playboy in St Louis, Missouri, with his band The Rhythm Kings. A 16 year old Annie May Bullock used to go along to his gigs, and one night managed to take the mike and sing a little with the band, a regular feature of the show. 'Little Ann' impressed Ike so much that he took her on as a backing singer, once he had convinced her mother of her safety. In the studio one day, she filled in for an absent lead vocalist on 'Fool In Love', Ike was blown away and changed her name, and the name of his band to the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, installing 'The Ikettes' as new backing vocalists.
What made such an impression on Ike, and no doubt everyone who hears her, is that Tina was one of the first women to sing with that much grit and feeling. Influenced by gospel and blues, she had a wild yet husky rasp that set her apart.

The revue had a set of hits in the early sixties with 'Fool In Love' and 'Work Out Fine', but then survived through their impressive live show reputation until their second spell of success occured in the late sixties. In between, Tina (and specifically not Ike, though he is credited- Spector paid him £20,000 to not be involved, on the basis that Tina could be) recorded the epic 'River Deep Mountain High', a huge hit in the UK but a relative flop in the US. Spector considers it his best work. 

At the end of the decade they came back with their  hit covers 'Proud Mary', 'Come Together', and the Tina penned 'Nutbush City Limits'. They supported The Rolling Stones and were very highly regarded among the new rock royalty, especially the British bands who had grown up on American R&B records. In 1976, one night before a show after one particularly vicious beating, Tina escaped Ike. In the divorce he got all their monetary assets, all she had asked for was the rights to the stage name he had pushed upon her.
After all her hardships she went on to forge a happy, successful career in the 1980's and 1990's, but ironically the recordings that I think are really mind blowing are the ones from her days with Ike.

She is a wild, wailing powerhouse of a vocalist, with unbelievable presence. Her song introductions are soft and familiar yet in seconds she transforms into something completely primal.

Everyone has heard the hits, so I want to recommend some songs or performances that might be a little less familiar..............

Ok, apart from this one. Classic, 'Proud Mary':

'A Fool In Love' and 'Work Out Fine', an unusual performance for a woman at that time, so strong and tough, awesome.

'If I Knew Then' from the Feel Good album in 1972

This is wonderful older footage from Tina Turner and an exceptionally smooth Marvin Gaye.

Skip to 1.00 if you want to avoid random talking, but a glorious funky performance here, Tina channelling James Brown.

QI: Members of The Ikettes will look very familiar from time to time. Among their ranks were Claudia Lennear (of Joe Cocker fame), a young and partially disguised Bonnie Bramlett (of 'and Delaney' fame) and Venetta Fields (of The Blackberries fame).

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Booker 'Bukka' White

Booker T Washington White, in the tradition of bluesmen, had a varied and interesting life. Thankfully his story is one of the happier ones. Born in Mississippi in 1909, his railroad worker father taught him to play guitar at the age of nine, and he spent much of his youth riding the rails and playing wherever he could.

His earliest known recordings are some gospel tracks cut with Memphis Minnie in 1930, although they did not bring him success and he continued to odd-job around, gaining some success as a boxer. In 1937 Big Bill Broonzy asked him to come to Chicago, however on the way he got in some trouble, ending up shooting a man and going to Parchman Farm Prison.... (it wouldn't be a proper blues story without some mysterious criminal activity, right?)
In prison he recorded some tracks for musicologists John and Alan Lomax, and by the time he was released in 1940 he had a full set of 12 songs to record. He went into facotry work during the war and somewhat off the radar, but when Dylan covered 'Fixin to Die Blues' blues enthusiasts John Fahey and Ed Denson went on the search for him and he was discovered in Memphis and brought to play in the coffee shops of the New York folk circuit.

He gained notoriety as an exciting performer and influenced generations of musicians, playing and recording until his death in 1977.

You can see from the videos below, especially Aberdeen Mississippi Blues how he must have blown away the other guitarists at the time. Strong, powerful and adventurous in his playing, it doesn't sound like just one  man and a National guitar. To me he is the perfect combination, all the rough masculinity of Howlin Wolf, with the presence of Son House and the playful humour of Sonny Boy Williamson. And that voice.....


Awesome percussive style on Aberdeen Missippi Blues

Amazing Lomax video of Bukka and Chester Burnett AKA Howlin Wolf, sharing a laugh and a song

'Jelly Roll Blues', classic scene and Booker in good humour.... 'Take it easy now Booker' at 0.22 seconds :)

'Fixin' To Die Blues'

QI- He gave a guitar as a gift to a young cousin of his, later to be blues legend, BB King

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Ze mad dogs, and ze Englishmen, and Joe Cock-air!

 The story goes that in 1970, Joe Cocker had just finished a long and tiring promotional tour, and he ends up in LA with the aim of a little r&r, only to be told by his record company that he is expected to be on another tour in 8 days. Enter Cockers's friend Leon Russell, who hastily assembles a group of musicians (largely from Delaney and Bonnie's touring band) and organises some intense rehearsals. The tour now consists of Cocker, Russell, Don Preston now sharing guitar duties with Russell, Chris Stainton sharing keyboard duties with Russell, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Sandy Kornikoff and Chuck Blackwell all on drums and percussion, Bobby Keys on sax and Jim Price on trumpet. Rita Coolidge, Donna Washburn, Claudia Lennear, Pamela Polland, Denny Cordell, Matthew Moore, Daniel Moore, Bobby Jones and Nicole Barclay make up the wonderful Space Choir. Plus, joining the tour more often and not was Miss Emily, children, wives, husbands and pets (you can see Canina the dog, below on Leon's piano at rehearsals).

This big party travelled all over the states on a plane called 'Cocker Power' and, luckily for us, a crew filmed them as they went. The set mostly consisted of Cocker's staple covers or Russell songs, like 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window', 'Honky Tonk Woman', 'The Weight', 'Feelin' Alright', 'Girl From The North Country', 'Delta Lady', 'Hummingbird', the list goes on. For many,me included, this is a perfect example of the brilliance of the sound from that classic musical era. Rock, soul and funk all tied together with an epic wailing gospel choir.

The atmosphere was exciting and infectious as you can see in the videos, probably because it was all fairly new for the musicians and they hadn't played the material to death. Plus, they were a group of friends and musicians, partying and playing music together, what could be more fun?!

Cocker is at the absolute height of his powers, each cover is a classic interpretation, but especially 'Honky Tonk Woman', 'Feelin' Alright' and 'The Letter' . But then he could sing you the phonebook....

Now onto the fun bit.........

'Hony Tonk Woman', check out Miss Emily grooving away at 2.00

My favourite 'Space Captain', written by Matthew Moore from the Space Choir, who you can see at 2.12 with the smile and the curls

'The Letter', with Bobby Keys on saxophone and Leon as the ultimate in nonchalence

'Feelin' Alright' (written by Dave Mason of Traffic)

For general having-fun-on-the-road tour footage and an awesome song, here's 'Sticks and Stones'

The band hanging out at a bar after a show, singing 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' and drinking

These pictures were taken by the official tour photographer, who you can check out on

QI- Space choir member Claudia Lennear is rumoured to be the inspiration for both 'Brown Sugar' and 'Lady Grinning Soul'.