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!
Oops, she’s done it again…
Once more, Mayra Andrade turns in a wonderful performance that steals my heart, even though I’m sure she has absolutely no use for it.
I’ve run out of superlatives for this young musician. This a set which epitomises the rule that less is more: with the subtlest of accompaniment led by musical director Zé Luís do Nascimento on percussion, Stéphane Castry on bass and the excellent Munir Hossn on guitars, Andrade’s gorgeous, velvety voice suits the intimate atmosphere perfectly. Everything works beautifully, giving her room to improvise vocally on “Lapidu Na Bo” and “Seu”. ”Comme S’il en pleauvait” becomes a lovely singalong with the audience, while she pours her heart into “Dispidida” and lets rip with the swingiest “Odjus fitchádu” I’ve heard so far. She inhabits her music completely, even when she’s standing six feet away from the microphone. Eighteen songs, and every one of them all you could ever ask for.
I’m sitting at a table right at the front, and of course make a complete arse of myself by grinning like a loon for two hours. ”I think you are a fan,” she says to me half way through the set. When I tell her I’m still thinking about it, she says, “Well, you smile a lot for a normal person.”
Whether in jazz or world music – or any genre you want to name – this girl is one of the finest singers on the planet. Seeing her live just gets better and better.
I began 2010 seeing Mayra Andrade in Glasgow supporting Salsa Celtica as part of Celtic Connections, and promised myself then I’d try to see her in her own show as soon as possible. So I treated myself – and my sister – to two front row seats to see her at the Casino de Paris as my birthday present to myself. And my goodness, was it a treat: easily the best concert I’ve been to this year, and absolute confirmation of my belief that Andrade is one of the most talented young women in world music today.
Her base metal is the latin beat – salsa, tango, rumba – but she is more than enough of a musician to do dazzling things with it, breaking up rhythms and flipping the music into codas and variations that sound almost like free form jazz. The first part of the concert is more of an acoustic set, based largely on the arrangements showcased in her new live album and DVD, Studio 105. Chief among the treats are a louche and sexy interpretation of “Michelle”; a version of one of her biggest hits, “Tunuca”, in which the accompaniment is provided by a bit of angle iron and a table knife; and a hip-swaying duet on “Odjus fitchádu” with Hugh Coltman. This is a tight band that have clearly worked together on reinventing music they love, and the result is absolutely impeccable.
The second half of the show adds more percussion and another guitarist for a more straightforward rendering of her songs. Best of all is my favourite, “Comme s’il en pleauvait”, a hot salsa that even the Wee Free would have to dance to. I’ve always liked the hook, a cheeky “Ayalaya” that zips the melody back into the groove like a spinning top.
This is a concert full of highlights, though. There are so many other songs I love, like “Stória, stória”, “Lua” or “Dispidida” – and “Tunuca”, which she uses in its more conventional guise as an encore. This is class stuff, and I feel spoiled by it all. Of course, I’ll never see her again unless I get a seat as good as this, close enough to watch the joy she takes in singing her considerable heart out.
An amazing, brilliant, unforgettable concert. The girl is 150% quality, and the perfect antidote to the jumped-up karaoke that is stuffed down our throats in this country. And she’s heart-breakingly beautiful too: what more could anyone ask for in a star?
Mayra Andrade produced one of my favourite albums of the last decade, “Navega”, in 2006, and I’ve been desperate to see her ever since. I bought it in France while I was on a two-month writing sabbatical, and it evokes some very happy memories. It’s a beautiful album, cool and tuneful and effortlessly elegant, yet with a social and political edge that’s evidence of real intelligence: the opening track, “Dimokransa”, is the grooviest of protest songs.
She opens tonight, which suggests that she hasn’t made the impact in Scotland necessary to headline a Celtic Connections show. That will surely change. She has a voice like chocolate-flavoured cigar smoke, and an engaging cool that counterpoints complex melodies over the top of her fantastic band’s equally complex rhythms. Revelling in the wonkiness of a minor chord or odd harmonics tossed in to the mix, her performance is getting on for flawless.
It’s too short a set, and I’m sat too far back to bask in her loveliness, but it’s more than a privilege; along with Brazil’s CéU and France’s Soha, she’s one of the young women destined for world music super-stardom. Hopefully she’ll be back soon heading up her own show, and I’ll get tickets close enough to fool my arthritic heart into believing that’s she’s singing “Comme S’Il En Pleuvait” just for me…
Salsa Celtica’s 15th anniversary performance is a much more conservative affair: I guess that once you’ve had the brilliant idea of bringing together Celtic and Salsa music, there’s nowhere to go, a bit like using up all the fun to be had the first time you weld a squirrel to a toaster.
Like watching a band of a raggedy-arsed, Plockton-based Mariachi, the whole set, perfectly rehearsed as it is, has the feel of a lock-in at a folk pub. Huge numbers of guests wander on and off to do their bit – “Here’s my pal from Ireland to sing you a song…”; “We met this next guy at a huge party we had…” – and this is the biggest problem with the set; the cursed ceilidh rule of everyone gets their shot at the limelight. Set up a belting rhythm and then make sure you all hear just how fucking good Sean on the fiddle and Duncan on the fiddle and Hamish on the banjo and Jose on the chanter really are. This unfortunately keels into self indulgence on occasion, most especially during the obligatory battle of the pipers, or a couple of teeth-achingly miserablist dirges from that guy from Hothouse Flowers.
I find the salsa bits much more effective, vanilla in conception though they are. Being serenaded by Vic Mackey’s wee Glesga uncle and what I am sure is one of the Baldwin brothers is great fun, let me tell you. And there’s no doubt that these are brilliant musicians whose sole aim in life is to enjoy themselves by making tight, exciting, danceable music for an audience that rightly loves them. Hell, I buy their latest CD after the show, so I had a good time with them too.
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!