John Prine: The Tree Of Forgiveness

Some albums arrive bearing the threat of disappointment heavy in their saddlebags, particularly if they’re by someone you’ve loved for years, someone who matters. A Cohen or a Mitchell, Springsteen or Dylan. Tom Waits and Elvis Costello and John Darnielle too. They’ve all delivered their share of late period disappointments. For every ‘Love And Theft’ there’s a Together Through Life and from the moment The Tree Of Forgiveness hits the doormat I’m on tenterhooks.

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It’s thirteen years since Prine’s last album of original material was released and in that time he has undergone surgery for both neck and lung cancer and I’ve undertaken a major reassessment of my list of the best singer songwriters of the last fifty years and Prine, by virtue of his sly dry humour and self deprecating mid-western surrealism has reached the upper tier of the pile.

So it’s a just slightly nervous moment when I set the thing playing but as soon as the first track gets underway, with a slight rush, as if we were walking into a gig in progress, it’s pretty clear that Prine is a man on form. He’s always had a knack for making records that sound like he’s conversing with you personally and the album maintains that feeling of intimacy throughout its length. No attempt is made (as far as we can tell at least) to hide the cracks in the 71 year old Prine’s voice, but they aren’t accentuated for effect either. Think Rubin era Johnny Cash but with less artifice. No sympathy cards being played here.

With a slightly echoey production and intermittent whispers from an unseen audience, most of the time it sounds like your favourite slightly eccentric uncle, the one that smokes and drinks too much now and then and teaches you magic tricks and tells smutty stories to embarrass your mum, sitting in a back room somewhere, or a barn maybe on hay bales, with his buddies and his guitar, chewing the fat and smoking a big one and singing a few tunes, mostly smiling but occasionally getting just a little bit sad.

It’s an altogether sparer collection that 2005’s Grammy winner Fair And Square with Dave Cobb on minimalist production duties and vocal assists from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, but it’s all the better for it, full of sly jokes and homespun wisdom and irony.

There are plenty of changes of mood with a pair of excellent love songs – I Have Met My Love Today and Boundless Love – and two pieces of Prine’s distinctive homespun irony in Egg & Daughter Night and Lonesome Friends Of Science which manages to spin a poetic melancholy out of the decision by the astronomical world to downgrade Pluto to minor planet status leaving the former hero to spend his evenings hangin’ out in Hollywood In some ol’ funky sushi bar rather than with the big guys at the interplanetary dance as he did in his heyday.

When I Get To Heaven is a sort of a sequel to the wonderful irreverence of Jesus The Missing Years, a promise of posthumous debauchery with a honky tonk piano and a room full of people singing along (sounds like it anyway).

“I’m gonna get a cocktail | vodka and ginger ale | I’m gonna smoke a cigarette | that’s nine miles long,”

he promises and the album title reveals itself to be the name of the nightclub that he plans to open up in paradise, (if God lets him, and I think he will). It must get dull up there sometimes. There’s a baby gurgling away in the background and a giggling child and anybody who has ever walked across a supermarket forecourt in the dead of night and heard the strange laughter from the deserted children’s rides will understand how eery that can sound. Nobody delivers a memento mori like John Prine and a room full of children.

Album highlight for my money is the glorious No Ordinary Blue, which should be a staple of live shows for many years to come. It’s a song that shows Prine’s ability to work authentic sounding conversations into songs without straining the language or the metre –

She said, “Well what’re you thinkin’?”
“I’m just a-wonderin’”
“Is it somethin’ that I did?”
I said “It’s nothin’ | Just somethin’ | I picked up as a kid”

and also has my favourite moment of the album –

Last night | For a split sec | I was a train-wreck | I was a complicated guy
I hope we don’t find | This’s the last time | We ever say “Goodbye”

Prine is over in the UK this summer, including a stop at the Cambridge Folk Festival and if the press for the US leg of his current tour is anything to go by these should be the highlight gigs of the year, definitely not to be missed.

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The Quireboys: Yardbirds Grimsby – live review

The Quireboys don’t do subtle. What they do is full on in your face rock and roll and they do it bloody well. Their reputation as a live band is second to none but they’ve also released a couple of well received albums in the last couple of years with White Trash Blues, a collection of standards from the repertoire of the likes of Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker being a particular favourite in our house.

They’re regular visitors to Grimsby and their set at The Yardbirds opens with one of my personal favourites – Too Much Of A Good Thing, from 2013’s Beautiful Curse which sets the scene for the evening, plenty of classics, a few new ones and surprisingly few from White Trash, considering that this is listed as the album’s European Tour. It doesn’t matter too much though because the truth is that The Quireboys haven’t changed their sound a whole lot over the past thirty or so years and songs from their 1990 debut A Bit Of What You Fancy sit seamlessly alongside more recent material and it all sounds like it was ripped by main force from the 1970s heyday of British rock.

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This is timeless music. If you were determined to be mardy about it you could say that they’re a band who haven’t developed much in three decades but you could also say that if you’re that good at what you do why change things around?

Spike is on fine form, the celebrated soft rock rasp is as good as ever and we are reminded early on that we are in the presence of one of the all time great microphone stand jugglers but what’s a little bit of false ceiling damage among friends? It’ll fix easy enough. He’s a force of nature, roaming the stage, playing the crowd, dancing on his own or with the band, bandannaed as always, the piratical effect accentuated by a long scarf and one velcro sea boot. Curiously enough the last time I photographed The Quireboys he had a broken leg as well, on that occasion caused by a heavy tackle in a game of football (that’s soccer to some of you) against giants of British metal, Saxon.

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He’s not the only one set for a good time – the whole band look like they’re ready for a party. Guy Griffin’s guitar is the perfect foil as always, particularly on Going Down and This Is Rock And Roll which feels like a stadium filler in need of a stadium and sets the walls and furniture buzzing. They’re the just the band for a proper dark and sweaty rock club like the Yardbirds. Highlights include a raucous 7 O’Clock and I Don’t Love You Any More (obviously) but also a gorgeously sleazy cover of Slim Harpo’s King Bee, with Keith Weir’s honky tonk piano a driving force and Sleepy John Estes’ Leavin’ Trunk.

They round things up with Sweet Mary Ann and Sex Party which is about as good a singalong finale as you could wish for and we’ll be keeping an eye on the website to check that they’re making their annual visit again next year.

 

The Vive Le Rock Awards 2018

It’s Wednesday, March 28th and the great and good of the classic era of punk and new wave gather for a night of celebration at the inaugural Vive Le Rock Awards. The O2 Islington is the place – a 1980s brown brick purpose built venue at the back of a shopping centre just to the north of The Angel. (That’s one of the blue ones on the first quarter if the Monopoly board if you’re a traditionalist like me. None of them new fangled localist boards in my house). Tonight there are 300 carefully invited guests and 200 paying punters and the squeeze is on for an evening filled with the sound of working class people getting uppitty, celebrating the old times and getting royally smashed.

It’s one of those nights that makes you pause for a moment for a ponder about the state of the music magazine industry. Looking along the shelves in your local newsagents is not always a pretty sight these days. It’s a case of turning up with your cash and hoping your favourite read is still on the go. Seems like a big name crashes every couple of months or merges to pursue economies of scale or goes 51% up for sale.

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It’s the internet wot dun it of course. The print market is tough, we know that but there’s still a thriving market for niche titles that do just what they say on the tin and among those Vive Le Rock is one of the market leaders.

Founded in 2010 by the good people at Big Cheese and having recently reached its fiftieth issue, Vive is the go to publication for British fans of rebel music, whether from the past or the present day. From Gene Vincent to The Ramones, Motorhead and The Pistols to The Gaslight Anthem or White Lies or Rancid. If it used to get up your grandma’s nose back in the day or if it pisses off your kids now then it’s probably grist to the Vive Le Rock mill.

The design and content of the mag pay homage to the days of the classic fanzine so that despite all the corporate necessities that go with publishing in the twenty first century it still manages to be an outsider magazine for outsiders.

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The main business of the evening is of course the distribution of awards but there’s some fine music as well and after a welcome and a little bit of history from editor Eugene Butcher we kick off with the house band for the night, who go by the soubriquet of The Vive Le Rockers’ but in fact they are most of The Urban Voodoo Machine which is about as good as a house band gets. They fall in perfectly behind each of the solo performers in turn, a masterclass in musical adaptability.

If you’re going to spend an evening celebrating classic British punk then you can’t start off better than a set from living legend T.V. Smith, formerly of The Adverts and nowadays in serious danger of acquiring national treasure status. The current issue of Vive Le Rock has an excellent feature on the music of 1978 and Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and One Chord Wonders, both from that year, still pack a punch.

He’s followed by Master of Ceremonies Ginger Wildheart with a set that includes two from  his newest long player, Ghost In The Tanglewood, to whit Daylight Hotel and Golden Tears and a favourite of mine, Toxins And Tea from 2015’s Year Of The Fanclub.

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The awards themselves are shared among some of the biggest names in punk and roots music with Kirk Brandon picking up the Pioneer Award on behalf of The Cure, Best New Band going to London Oi favourites Booze & Glory and the Roots Award going to The Selecter.

Best Film is presented by Brix Smith-Start and goes to the team from Buttz films, creators of Rebellion, Gary Crowley gets best re-issue and AC/DC drummer Chris Slade picks up the Rock In Peace Award which commemorates Malcolm Young. Perennial favourite street punks Cock Sparrer are best live act.

Album Of The Year, presented by Shakin’ Stevens, goes to The Professionals for What In The World. It’s my first visit with Paul Cook’s gang since Tom Spencer replaced Steve Jones on guitar and they sound just as driven and gloriously rough at the edges as they did at their late 70s prime. Going, Going, Gone – a tribute to messrs Lemmy and Bowie, is a new track that’s definitely worth checking out and although I haven’t got What In The World Yet, on this evidence it’s definitely near the top of the list.

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Best International Performer goes to Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, who manages to overcome his natural shyness to pick up the trofe from Steve Diggle of The Stranglers. He later takes the stage for two songs with the house band during which he manages to climb over most of the stage equipment and perform some remarkable feats of balance on the mojos.

Charlie Harper is up next to get the King Rocker/Icon Award from Captain Sensible and he delivers a couple of songs including CID, as full of raucous energy as you could wish.and then it’s over to England legend Stuart Pearce to present the Band Of The Year Award to The Damned. And it’s up to them to close things down with a set that includes New Rose, Jet Boy Jet Girl and even a brief Wot.

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What have I missed? A great piece of rock and roll from the legend that is Shakin Stevens, Stuart Pearce leading a chorus of Sensible’s a wanker when the cherry bereted one and his bandmates fail to appear to pick up the best band award, an encounter with the luminous choppers of Spizz of Spizzenergi and there are plenty more moments and it’ll have to be enough just to say that it was a great night and if they do it again next year I’d like to be on the list please.