Okay, end of year and nothing planned between now and January, so it’s time for a bit of reflection. Let’s start with music which, I’m sure you have gathered, is like food and drink to me.
Best concerts? Well, of course, Mayra Andrade at Ronnie Scott’s would win the top five places in my top five list, but that’s a bit unfair on the others. Seeing one of the world’s great new stars in such an intimate setting and with such a fabulous band was a highlight of this or any year. Along with Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” tour at the SECC in 1991 – a very different proposition – it’s definitely an all time favourite.
So if I am giving other places out, second goes to Ane Brun at King Tut’s, one of my discoveries of the year. A fantastic night of gorgeous songs and transcendent sounds, it was gob-smacking in its emotional power. Third is Love and Money at the Queen’s Hall, purely for nostalgic reasons. Impeccable funk and charisma personified from James Grant, it was a wonderful reminder of a band I constantly return to on the CD player. Fourth – Yasmin Levy at the GRCH in January: a fantastic voice, beautiful Sephardic songs and a warmth of spirit that was captivating.
So many others: Lau’s set at the O2 ABC in January; Grethcen Parlato’s cool at the Tron; Imelda May’s raucous sexiness at the O2 Academy. But fifth spot in the top five goes to Catfish Keith at The Ferry in October. A brilliant, brilliant guitarist, a growling voice and a genuinely nice guy; a perfect blues night.
As for the albums that I’ve been playing a lot, I’ve been part of the so-called “vinyl revival” that never really went away. On a good deck LPs still sound as good as any digital source, and on top of that, there’s the aesthetic of watching a record spin. I’ve always felt turntables are as much musical instruments as anything else. Mine, a thirty year old Alphason Sonata with MC-100s pure copper rewired tonearm, Atlas power supply, Dynavector Karat cartridge and Trichord Dino and Dino+ headamp, is my pride and joy.
So what’s been spinning? Ane Brun’s “It All Starts With One” has been almost worn out. “Undertow” fills the room, the flat, the whole fucking building with its huge sound (really, it does – ask my neighbours), and the last three “bonus” tracks – “One Last Try”, “Du gråter så store tåra”, “I Would Hurt a Fly” – are astonishing. Album of the year for me…
Except I love Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What”. Simon’s inventiveness at 70 is incredible. He’s always reinvented himself, done something new, refused to trade on past glories. His latest is a huge return to form (I wasn’t too impressed with “Surprise” or “You’re The One” when compared with his legendary albums like “Graceland” or “Still Crazy…”) and is outstandingly produced. His voice sounds just as gorgeous as it did when he was twenty. Incredible.
Bought late in 2010 but worked hard this year was James McMurtry’s “Live in Europe”, an artist who may well be, after Simon, the greatest living US songwriter. Recorded on the tour I saw him on, it contains some classic protest songs of blue collar America, including “Hurricane Party”. It also contains one of the saddest, angriest, most beautiful love stories ever recorded: “Ruby and Carlos”. If it doesn’t make you weep, you’re a robot.
Sevara Nazarkhan’s “Tortadur” is only available digitally, unfortunately, but it’s beautiful. Her 2007 album “Sen” was phenomenal in it’s cool, Uzbek take on trip-hop – I heartily recommend the cool, cool, cool live recording of “Erkalab” on You Tube – and she then diverted into cheesy pop for a while. “Tortadur” is a return to Uzbek folk roots, and its slow-burning gorgeousness is fantastic. I’m hoping for a tour on the back of the album, though it’ll probably mean a trip to London. Damn…
The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow” made a big impression too. Grounded in folk rock of the Sixties and a traditional bluegrass aesthetic, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White produce some of the most convincing harmonies since Simon and Garfunkel. It may be gentle music – perhaps even at times twee – but it’s never less than utterly listenable because of the perfection of its pitch.
Other ear-grabbers included Vintage Trouble’s “The Bomb Shelter Sessions”, the seriously deranged My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Will Unwind” and, a personal favourite and a lovely discovery from Poland, Mikromusic’s “Sova”.
I’ve missed out so much, but next year starts in just a fortnight. Six gigs booked in January – methinks I’ll be busy!
Okay, I’m a bloke, so it’s time for an end of year lists. I know, really dull, but it’s my blog!
Favourite concert 1: James McMurtry, Oran Mor, January.
McMurtry is one of the great chroniclers of the blue collar Midwest. Steeped in rage against heartless capitalism and the vicious slaughter of the dirt poor in war, his songs are heartbreaking. I defy anyone to listen to “Hurricane Party”, “Ruby and Carlos” or “Holiday” and not burn for the disadvantaged who suffer the carnage caused by corporate America. Scathing poetry of destitution, wrapped up in beautiful music. McMurtry has a few of his backing band with him: it’s ironic that they are called “The Heartless Bastards”, because you’ll never hear music with more heart anywhere.
Favourite concert 2: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba at Queen’s Hall, April.
The ngoni looks like a beaten up cricket bat with two bits of fishing line tied along its length, but in the hands of these guys, it produces the most exciting music I’ve ever heard. Breathtaking virtuosity and energy in abundance, along with the delights of Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko on lead vocals. The finest desert blues available.
Favourite one-off song: Joan as Police Woman, “Keeper of the Flame”, Oran Mor, October.
See my earlier blog review. The final song of the night was the most beautifully sung eight minutes I’ve ever heard. I walked out into the night in a daze.
Best vocal performance: Mor Karbasi, The Voodoo Rooms, June.
Karbasi is a 23-year old Israeli singer with a 2000-year old soul. Accompanied by her partner Joe Taylor, percussionist Andres Ticino and fantastic guitarist Jorge Bravo, her renditions of Sephardic and Ladino songs are gorgeous. Who cares if (a) you don’t understand them and (b) you know they’re all about menfolk going fishing anyway?
Most eccentric concert: Richard Thompson, 1000 years of popular music, Concert Hall, January.
Trust Thompson to take an invitation from Playboy in 1999 to nominate his favourite ten songs of the “past millennium” literally. Of course, they weren’t interested at all in the last 1000 years, and wanted the predictable re-run of The Beatles and Michael Jackson numbers: so when Thompson’s list of Olde English and Victorian music hall masterpieces was rejected, he beefed up the repertoire and has been taking it on intermittent tour for the last few years. Accompanied by the excellent Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin, it’s great to hear catchy old numbers like “Summer is a-cumin in” again, as well as the grizzled old git doing Britney’s “Oops, I did it again”. Great fun. Good for him.
Most sickeningly youthful performance: The Whispertown 2000, The Captain’s Rest, October.
This young LA foursome’s latest album, “Swim”, is a fantastic, scuzzy, swing-hop-skiffle clatter, and the performance is similarly and joyfully shambolic. Songs don’t finish: they rattle to a hirple before picking up and bashing off into another tune. Even at my age, I’m afraid I have to be very rude about Morgan Nagler, the lead singer. She’s the kind of girl you imagine drinking lemonade on her front stoop, and if she invites you into the secret places in her cool dark house, you just know you’re going to come out an hour later happy, dazed and much, much wiser. A smashing wee band.
“Storia, Storia” by Mayra Andrade. Anything following up “Navega” was going to be welcome, but “Storia, Storia” is fantastic. Cool and elegant Cape Verdean grooves from possibly the most beautiful young woman in music today.
“Here Come the Vikings” by Astrid Williamson.
Again, a long awaited follow up, this time to “Day of the Lone Wolf”. Williamson, from Shetland, is at her best with slow, lust-laden trip-hop, and “How You Take My Breath Away” and “Slake” are among her best. Just gorgeous. The music is too.
“The Hollow Way” by Genevieve Maynard and the Tallboys.
A huge surprise, downloaded on the off-chance from e-music. Great lyrics and cracking tunes, every one memorable: the bookends of the album, “Ripped” and “Take Me Home”, are stunning. Aussie Maynard has a brilliant voice, and I’ll be looking out for more.
“Written in Chalk” by Buddy and Julie Miller
Americana at its finest. Rattling good tunes and a great contrast between the guttural Buddy and the more ethereal Julie. On vinyl, this is a cracking production, as good as “Raising Sands” by Robert Plant (who guests on this album) and Alison Krauss, one of my favourite albums of the decade.
Oh, and I think Lady Gaga’s the saviour of pop music too!