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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.

 

Bingley Music Live 2014

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Bingley Music Live 2014
Myrtle Park, Bingley
29th – 31st August 2014

One of the best weekends of the year, family atmosphere, great music, warm beer – it’s Bingley time!

Bingley always seems like an unlikely place to hold a music festival. For those scrabbling for their atlases it’s on the River Aire, just north of Bradford, with a skyline that bears witness to both its roots as a mill town and its status as the home of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society whose epic brutalist head office squats like a brown concrete toad in the town centre. It also boasts a curious tower with a pergola on top which looks like it could have been the inspiration for the hiding places in Assassin’s Creed.

Bingley Music Live, sponsored by Bradford Council and held annually at Myrtle Park is a proper old fashioned pop festival which since 2008 has offered three days (originally two) of quality music at ridiculously good value prices. There are no pretensions to high art here. It isn’t full of bearded hipsters or street performers reciting fragments of Shakespeare at bemused passers by or aging hippies or crazy retro people with staring eyes, it’s just families looking for a great day out listening to music in the company of their children and some warm beer.

Image gallery

QRO review and images

R’n’B

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This year’s line up was a little more chart orientated then previously which meant doing a bit of research in advance (no bad thing for us aging photographers desperately trying to be down with the kids) but the crowds loved it all, or almost all anyway.

My previous experiences with contemporary R’n’B had led me to think that it chiefly consisted of a man pretending to be working some sort of sound desk while another man (or woman) shouted “Come on now (insert name of venue here) make some noise” and then jumping up and down in a very silly way and clapping. For extra emphasis the phrase could be varied by the addition of adjectives, for example “Come on now (insert name of venue here) make some fucking noise”. For even more emphasis the jumping and clapping could be made very silly indeed.

Excellent sets from MNEK, Jess Glynne and Chloe Howl went some way towards dispelling that view although there were outbreaks of clappy, shouty dancey stuff at other times through the weekend, but I won’t dwell on them. There was a lot of great music on offer and I’ll concentrate on that instead.

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Discoveries of the weekend

The Strypes have been blazing a trail through the music scene for the past couple of years and gathering reviews so good that I’d started getting a bit suspicious and thinking that they couldn’t possibly be that wonderful, but of course they are that wonderful. I had intended to listen for ten minutes and then go take some photos on the other stage but I didn’t because their reinvented 60s rock pop just grabs you. Judging by the squeals in the crowd it works on girls too. It doesn’t matter who you say they remind you of because they’ve clearly done their homework and they sound like a whole generation but it’s between The Who and the Beatles and Bo Diddley and The Yardbirds and all the rest. Hailing from Cavan in Northern Ireland they are simply ridiculously good and they’re all younger than my car.

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Less well known as yet but equally good was Emma Garrett and her band on the top stage. In a fortnight when I have spent hours listening to my Kate Bush albums and seen St Vincent live at Leeds the last thing I expected on the small stage at Bingley was a female vocal that threatened to make them other two seem just a little bit ordinary. Emma has been compared to both the aforementioned singers and to Florence Welch and lots of others and she can mix rock, soul, jazz and folk into one song with just a hint of musical theatre showmanship and it sounds just perfect. Check out her SoundCloud immediately.

And an outside pick. It’s not often anyone gets booed at Bingley but Etta Bond appeared to misjudge what was required from her at a family festival and delivered a set loaded with sexual detail and other varieties of bad language and the crowd hated her and let her know about it. That’s Yorkshire for ya. Her performance and on stage demeanour didn’t do her any favours either – whether it was the fault of the sound system or whatever she sounded as flat as a pancake. Since getting home I’ve spent a couple of hours listening to her stuff and she’s a talented writer and performer who I’ve no doubt we’ll hear more of in future and in fairness to her the booking people might have figured out that a woman who tweets as C.U.N.T. is probably not going to go down well with the mums and dads.

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Old friends of the weekend

Not friends in the sense that I’ve been round their house for tea or anything but among the bands that I was already familiar with there were two standouts.

Firstly The Selecter who, legal difficulties with rivals having been dealt with are now entitled to use that name. They have original vocalists Pauline Black and Arthur Gaps Hendrickson and they delivered a set that sounded as streetwise and energetic as if it was a teenage tribute band and not the real thing at all, finishing with On My Radio and Too Much Pressure/Pressure Drop – one of the major highlights of the weekend.

As were the opening songs of the set by The South. It’s no secret that I have a fondness for elegantly witty pop and at their best The Beautiful South could deliver that in spades. They are now fronted by Alison Wheeler and Dave Hemingway and I had everything planned so I could catch the whole of their set but difficulties with the sound meant that I only got the first few songs, (which sounded wonderful). They’re on tour this autumn however so watch this space.

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Headliners

Friday night saw Shed Seven make the journey all the way from York for a set of their greatest hits that served to remind us that even if the whole Britpop thing is now seen as a cultural disaster on an epic scale there were good bands around at the time who never quite got the recognition they deserved. Shed Seven were a lot smarter than some of their more illustrious contemporaries and the dry wit of frontman Rick Witters was much in evidence during their set. They also played the most energetic set of the weekend and no sooner had they taken the stage than Witter’s natural exuberance saw him almost disappear into the crowd over the barriers. Their set featured classics like Dolphin, Disco Down and Rainbows as well as a storming cover of Born To Run, a song by former rock god and now Butlin’s redcoat Bruce Springsteen.

It was the turn of rnb to take centre stage on Saturday with Example heading the bill. There’s not much point in me pretending to comment on his set except to say that the multitude loved it, there was lots of audience participation – “Come on now Bingley make some noise, jump, clap – and it culminated in a spectacular light show.

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Rounding off the weekend were Sunday night’s headliners The Pet Shop Boys who brought their Electric World Tour show to the Bingley stage complete with spectacular lights, a whole stage projection screen, dancing orange minotaurs (my favourite flavour of minotaur as it happens), massive feathered power shoulders, projection beds (really), and pzazz and razzamatazz than you can shake the z key on your keyboard at. It was a show that walked the finest of lines between superlative showmanship and embarrassing nonsense and always stayed exactly on the right side. If any greatest hits were missing I didn’t notice and nobody seemed to care and the explosion of confetti that accompanied It’s A Sin brought the festival to a fittingly spectacular close.

Same time next year?

Yes please.