Hmmmm... Someone asked me how many music recordings, live performances, and music related DVDs we'd reviewed last year. I hadn't a bloody fucking clue so I asked the music editorial staff. No bleedin' luck there either as they were too busy drinking bloody big pints of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout while listening to the Neverending Session play all of tunes in John Playford's The English Dancing Master, something they've only done thrice in three centuries.
(Jack Merry 'ere. You should have been 'ere one rather warm summer night on the tenth anniversary of Jerry's passing over when The Endless Jam played the entire oeuvre of The Dead. The list of musicians involved in this Endless Jam was truly spooky... Why I believe that I even saw Nicky Hopkins there!)
They guessed about a thousand recordings total based on their besotted recollections and pleaded, errr, lack of bookkeeping for everything else. Suffice it to say that only maybe a tenth of what comes in gets reviewed as the staff here has indeed gotten more fussy over the past few decades. So this special edition looks at what they and invited guests consider the best music they first heard in 2007. In addition, we have a few goodies from the musically inclined mystery writer Deborah Grabien as well. But first, a Green Man Pub story involving some legendary musicians. So let's get a pint each of that properly served Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout and listen in to the story...
The Boys in the Barroom
You know, I'm not much for pubs, usually. Comes from not liking alcohol without bubbles in it, the kind you find on labels with the word 'brut' in fancy gold letters. But there are times when nothing but a certain pub will do.
There's Duke of Cornwall's Own in St. Ives, for instance, where the local mead keeps the patrons happy upstairs in the music room as the Tin Miners play 'Little Eyes' and 'Lamorna'. There's Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco, where you can hear sea shanties sung on the third Sunday of every month and they do you up fish and chips the old-school way, wrapped in newspaper and with a good malt vinegar to hand.
And of course there's my favourite, when the weather is chancy and the world's bearing down and I just want a quiet corner where I can listen and talk and sit by a crackling fire, and just be. That's the Green Man.
It's not a pub I tell too many people about; after all, you let enough people in on a secret and it's not a secret for long. But I did let two people very dear to me know about this place. They're both guitarists, and I thought it was high time they met. This was the obvious place for that meeting, on a misty night where everything seemed muffled and without edges.
Ringan Laine, known to some of you as the founder, vocalist and guitarist for Broomfield Hill, got there first. No surprise there - he's a youngish bloke, not yet forty, and he comes from Edinburgh. He doesn't mind hurrying, especially when he's been told there's a good cider at the finish line.
By the time JP Kinkaid wandered in, Ringan was already settled in a corner booth just far enough from the fire for warmth and comfort, one hand round a glass of Blackthorn. JP stopped in the doorway, having a word with someone on the way out. It looked like Farris 'Bulldog' Moody, that fine old session player from the days of Trumpet Records and Chess. JP saw me waving, and headed over.
'Right.' He settled in. 'Nice pub. What have they got for a bloke who can't touch liquor? Oh, Volvic...?'
Now, I hadn't forgotten that JP quit boozing back in 1982. And for most ex-drinkers, I'd never suggest a pub. But his band, Blacklight, is right up there with the Stones and U2, and have been for thirty years. I've been backstage at their shows, and the dressing room and craft services table always have plenty of drink for those who want.
So I'd counted on this not being a problem, and I'd been right. JP was fine around the liquor, he just wasn't having any.
'Glad you both made it -- it's very chancy out there, in the mist.' I was drinking hot tea, and the fire was making me warm and a bit drowsy. 'I know you both so well, and love you both -- it seemed ridiculous that you hadn't met. So, JP Kinkaid, this is Ringan Laine. Ringan Laine, JP Kinkaid. JP, was that Bulldog Moody you were talking to, at the door?'
'Yeah, it was. He said Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson might come by later -- he's coming back after he takes a nap. He's nearly ninety, you know? Gets knackered easily.' JP was looking really relaxed. That was a good thing, since he's not in very good health; multiple sclerosis and a few other things. 'Ringan Laine -- cheers, mate, pleasure to meet you. I've got a couple of your CDs. Which album's got that fantastic cover of The Mermaid? Was that 'Frost on the Vine'?'
Ringan nodded. 'Second CD, that's the one. It's very weird -- The Mermaid is the one song off that one that only gets noticed by musicians.'
I leaned back, trying for invisibility. This was what I'd come for -- get two of my favourite guitarists acquainted and talking, while I got to listen. Nice.
They were well into the conversation now, and I decided to make an exception to my usual drinking rules. I caught the barmaid's eye and mouthed my order at her -- pint of Guinness, please. Might as well do it right...
'...memory playing tricks, or did you once play a solo gig at the Hope & Anchor?' Ringan sounded mellow. 'Because I swear I saw an old poster on the wall in the public there, with your name on it.'
'What, in Islington? Yeah, I did.' JP was grinning at the memory. '1977 that was, right after New Years. I was still drinking in those days, and Blacklight was taking a break between tours. I booked a gig there, and turned up pissed as a rat's nightmare. Worked out perfectly -- the pub was full of Sex Pistol-style yobbos, me onstage ducking flying bottles and all that. Brilliant show, sort of solo anarchic-blues fusion.'
I opened my mouth, and closed it again. I hadn't known about that. What else didn't I know about these people?
'You know Luke Hedley, Blacklight's other guitarist?' JP was sticking with his favourite mineral water. I'd had the sense to let them know he was coming, and what he drinks. JP's no diva -- in his head, he's a session bloke, and always will be, superstar or not. He'd never make a fuss. But I like making sure both he and Ringan get what they need. 'Luke's got a farm at Draycote, down in Kent. I caught a gig you did down there, at Timber Batts, in Bodsham. You've got a fantastic touch on that Martin. I've got one of those -- a couple of different models, actually. Yours is, what, a D45? And your flautist is brilliant. Smashing vocalist, too.'
'My God, you saw the Timber Batts show?' The barmaid came by and swapped out Ringan's empty glass for a fresh one. He was so animated, he barely noticed. I did, though, and I noticed something else -- both he and JP had guitar cases under the table. Funny, they hadn't been carrying anything when they got here... 'How did I miss recognising you, mate? There couldn't have been more than forty people in there that night! But you'll have to tell Jane Castle you think she's brilliant. She'll like that.'
I had a good pull at my Guinness, and let myself relax. They were well into it, swapping stories, talking music, getting technical about guitars. I was drinking it in faster than I could drink the Guinness.
'...pub in Edinburgh, on the Royal Mile, called the Ladder and Maiden. I know what you mean, about never playing what's right under your nose - you could walk to the Ladder from my mam's house, and do you know, I've never yet played there? Maybe someday...'
A thin draft of chilly air woke me all the way up again. Someone had come in out of the dark. He looked familiar, someone I knew, even though I knew in my blood that I'd never seen him before. He was holding a harmonica.
There was someone at his back, a small, pretty blonde woman. The door swung shut behind her, cutting off the cold wind, and I found myself smiling. Sonny Boy Williamson, greatest blues harmonica player who ever lived, and Jane Castle, superb traditional flautist. This ought to be a nice confused jam session, especially since right behind them was Bulldog Moody...
It came together quickly and easily, that jam. It was completely organic. I don't know why I expected confusion; hell, I've found myself in the middle of jams with jazz bassists, and thrash metal guitarists playing Flying Vs, and concertina players who specialise in ballads. And it always works out, in the end. You find the line that runs through the music, you grab on and hold tight, you tune up whatever your instrument is, and you ride it.
That's just what happened that night. We had JP and Ringan, JP with a beautiful Martin, playing the kind of slide that made him famous in the first place -- full of those weird rhythmic chucks that distilled down from clave, the Cuban style that came from Yoruban bata drumming. JP learned his from listening to those old sessions Bulldog had recorded. Bulldog didn't play, not that night. He was watching JP, and listening to Ringan, who was playing his grand guitar, Lord Randall.
Sonny Boy wasn't playing, not yet -- just waiting.
And then Jane lifted her flute and found a perfect talkative plaintive little melody. It was trad, it was American, it was universal -- the perfect run. Sonny Boy gave her a look, pure appreciation, and came in high and hard and sweet, on the harmonica.
And the core of the jam, what they were playing, it all became blues -- from Galway to Graceland, as another brilliant guitarist might put it. Blues across the water. Perfect.
I don't know how long that jam went on. Time suspended itself, turned itself off, put itself away for a while that night. Maybe Time just wanted to groove to the music; who knows?
Sometime later, much later, there was that chilly wind from the outside world again, pulling me back. There were two women in the doorway, a few years apart in age -- a tall fading redhead and a slightly younger woman with a cloud of dark hair, spangled with droplets of mist.
'Right -- here's my ride. Bree, love, with you in a moment.' JP set the Martin down in its case, and tucked the slide in his shirt pocket. 'Ringan, mate, it's been a pleasure. See you again?'
'Absolutely.' Ringan waved toward the two women, and the brunette waved back. 'My ride's here, as well. Jane, love, try and remember that line you played -- we can use that on the next CD. I was thinking we might go for an American spiritual or something...'
The fire was down to embers and ash, and the publican was calling time. Sonny Boy and Bulldog had gone, without my seeing them go. Time to call it a night.
Maybe next time, we'd get a couple of the boys from Blacklight in here, and the rest of Broomfield Hill. We'd get Bulldog to play, and maybe Robert Johnson would make it next time.
That's the nice thing about this particular pub -- you just never know who's going to come in out of the evening mist.
Both of our featured reviews for this edition are by Deborah Grabien, mystery writer par excellence and a definite hard core music fan.
You no doubt already know about her Award winning Haunted Ballads series of novels set in England which we've reviewed here, but we'll bet you don't know about her new series, The Kinkaid Chronicles. She describes the new series this way:
Our Editor has read snippets from the novels and is quite impressed with the feel of the series! Rock & Roll Never Forgets: A JP Kinkaid Mystery which will be released July 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur. To give you a flavour of just how good her writing is, a lengthy excerpt from Rock & Roll Never Forgets is up here. Our Editor thinks Grabien may indeed be writing the best Rock & Roll mystery series ever!
This multi-book story arc is narrated by John Peter (JP) Kinkaid -- English ex-pat, legendary session ace guitarist, and rock and roll superstar guitarist for Hall of Fame rock band, Blacklight.
While each book in the Kinkaid Chronicles has a mystery element, each follows the last in a complex arc that takes the reader along with JP and the people in his world, with his multiple sclerosis, heart condition and unusual personal history, as he finally comes of age in his fifties. The Kinkaid Chronicles give the reader an all-access backstage pass to how musicians work, live, and love.'
First, lucky sod that she is, she went to see not one, but three, Richard Thompson concerts which she tells us all about in her review. How lucky? She sums it up this way: 'Three gigs in three months. Does it get better? Not unless it's four gigs, or five.' For all the details, read her Excellence in Writing Award winning commentary thisaway!
Next up for her is amazing piece of writing (which also garnered an Excellence in Writing Award) which she titled 'Talkin' About that Unbroken Circle' and her first lines sums up this piece very nicely -- '2007 - musically and karmically - was the year of past and present looping, and meeting.' Well-worth reading and you can do so here.
Indulge us. Follow us to a place -- not necessarily a physical place, mind you, though any and all actual, genuine physical places are welcome to apply -- follow us to a place where some of the most intriguing creative voices around come together for a brief time, defying place and space to share with the rest of us their thoughts on the best music of 2007.
Imagine, if you'd like, that these voices come together in the cheery, hearth-warmed hall of the Green Man estate. It pleases us to imagine these, our guests, seated about in a comradely, haphazard fashion, each sipping his blackberry tea or her pint of stout, or pouring small demitasse of thick, rich coffee for each other from the polished samovar in the center of the room. Leaning close, we peripherally join a conversation already in progress....
Kim Bates leads off our picks: '2007 was a bit of a quite year on the music front, in my humble opinion. The Celtic diaspora has been strangely uninspiring (with no other tradition charging into the void), the world tires of new forms of folk mixtures, and the scattered successes of the year seemed small and personal to my rather jaded ears. Still, the time to prepare for the next wave of activity is during the lull, and I'd like to call your attention to some small triumphs.' Read her choices here.
Elizabeth Hand says to the group, 'My major listening buzz for 2007 came from my October trip to Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival. 240 bands in four days, and I could only see a handful. I opted for the homegrown music, for the most part, rather than the more-heralded names...' All settle back as she dishes the details.
Some spent their money closer to home.
'2007 is notable,' explains Elizabeth Bear, 'as the year that Emma Bull bankrupted me on music through the more or less simple expedient of sending me mix CDs.' She receives coos of sympathy. Heads nod. 'I do comfort myself that I gave as good as I got,' she continues, 'since I subjected her to Iron & Wine, Chris Smither, and Dar Williams, among other things.'
Others chime in... Judith Joiner, who many of you will remember as the Green Linnet publicist, tells us with great enthusiasm that thanks to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 'Soul music Lives!', while Tim Pratt sings the praises of Chloe Day, 'a Venice Beach musician with a lovely, strange, crooning voice.' We also get to hear why a band called The Mountain Goats is responsible for one of Tim's 'favorite songs in the world.'
Silence settles about the room. One imagines that favorite songs run through the minds and hearts of many present: vocal refrains, snippets of fugue, jazz riffs or blues guitar chords. Spoons clink against china as sugar is stirred into dark coffee. The tap on the keg foams a bit, and is allowed to briefly rest. Several take the moment of stillness to present their 2007 picks in well-ordered lists.
'These are the songs that have been in my head this past year,' says artist Tom Canty, 'My constant, consistent, companions.'
Chris Fowler matter-of-factly lists his own eclectic choices, and Jennifer Stevenson recites the playlists she uses when writing her various books.
Ellen Datlow explains, 'I mostly listen to the jazz station WBGO so I'm not very aware of 'new music'--however, I did first start listening to a singer and a musical group that I really liked...'
Andrew Wheeler has a similar confession: 'Most years, I'd have to hem and haw, and dig my toe into the dirt, because I've been out of touch with contemporary music for close to a decade now, and just slowly excavating things I'd missed when I was growing up. (The Violent Femmes! Richard Thompson! Nick Cave!...how did I miss them the first time around?).' But he, too, has made some musical discoveries in the past year, which he shares with us now.
Everyone pays close attention to Casey Neill's picks for 2007. Mr. Neill's live performance Brooklyn Bridge CD release party at Portland's Mission Theater is itself a year's 'best of' pick for one of our staffers. His thoughtful and succinctly articulated list of personal favorites does not disappoint.
Kage Baker contributes her own handful of pearls of wisdom. For 2007, she lists everything from 'Elegant, passionate, gracious, reassuring music,' to 'brilliantly silly romps-- imagine if Monty Python got together to write something piratical, suitable for children yet witty enough to make an adult snicker, and then imagine they got hold of Spike Jones to orchestrate it...'
The evening at last begins to wind down. The warmth from the fire, from the tea, from the stout has given our Green Man visitors reason enough to drift off, to drowse, to hum softly while one or two of us idly strum on the instruments which are never very far from willing fingers here at the Green Man. A few of our most prolific regular reviewers round out the evening with gracious thanks to our guests, slipping in 2007 music picks of their own.
Michael Hunter thoughtfully includes YouTube links for a few of his favorite live performances.
Master Reviewers Gary Whitehouse, David Kidney, and Robert Tilendis show just how varied our tastes can be around this old place.
Gary has a lovely explanation for why his picks include 'one by a folk-rock icon and one by a garage band from the Midwest': he says, 'They share honest, from-the-heart songwriting, and a commitment to making music even when it sometimes hurts.'
David says 'The Best of 2007? How do I know...I can only judge what I've heard. And then, how do you assess 'the best' from all that stuff? So, I went back over my reviews of the past year and jotted down all the CDs that I was still listening to. That must be the measure of 'the best' don't you think. If, after a year (or at least a few months) you're still listening to something, after another pile of new material has come across the desk...it MUST be good, better, best!' You'll have to read his musings to see why teh choice wasn't difficult after all!
Robert, on the other hand, veers toward a recording he describes as 'Compelling drama, amazing cast, and firm, clear-sighted direction.' We are intrigued by all his choices, but as he says, with the aforementioned attributes rolled into one piece, 'How can you go wrong?'
We asked the editorial staff to pick, in addition, to their more expansive choices which you've already read, a single best recording and/or concert they reviewed in 2007. Their answers are detailed below...
Kim Bates, our Music Editor of long standing, picked David Francey's Right of Passage -- 'Hands down. He is a master at writing ballads that evoke the human condition and have a memorable melodic hook that enables memory. I liked the songs, which still brought out Canadian material, but also included a nice range of other locales. I love his voice, and thought the accompaniment was less stark than previous albums, while still allowing the vocals to hold the foreground.'
Camille Alexa says ' Best CD reviewed this year at GMR? For me, it would have to be Victor Wooten's Soul Circus. I love the sheer energy, the enthusiasm, diversity, and joy of his music, as well as the unusual inclusion of elements not found in more mainstream offerings. A cell phone as musical instrument? Excellent and amazing, when combined with raw talent and innovative vision. I think I gushed enough about that in my review.
But For me, though, no recording captures the visceral power of a live performance. Far and away, the most exciting music I reviewed for Green Man this year was the indomitable Casey Neill's Brooklyn Bridge release party at the lovely Mission Theater in Portland, Oregon. The immediacy of live music, the energy which flows through a crowd, the synergy between members of a band ... when things come together, there's nothing better. Casey Neill really knows how to make things come together.
Robert Tilendis had a tough call -- 'This is almost a flip of a coin. I'm going with Boiled in Lead's Songs from The Gypsy. Strong lyrics, mostly, as far as I know, by Steven Brust, who can put a lot of punch into a line of text. Adam Stemple's vocals are scary-good, and the rest of the group is right on the mark -- not a hair out of place. More than that, it's the structure of the album. It has a loose narrative built in (no surprise, considering that these songs became a novel) that leads you along and then takes you completely by surprise, sometimes with laughter, mostly with tears. It's a tremendously sad, almost desolate cycle that has its own brand of transcendence built in. Haunting album (I still can't get 'Blackened Page' out of my head sometimes), with a lot of meat to it.'
The very best CD Cat Eldridge heard in 2007 which was new to him was Frifot's Flyt which Donna Bird described this way: 'This music would make a memorable background for a retrospective exhibit of Carl Larsson's paintings, especially for the gala opening, with people standing around nibbling on yummy Swedish pastries and drinking spiced punch. If you can't manage that, how about a winter holiday brunch with friends?' He also singled out Hambo in the Snow which, as Jack Merry noted, 'is not a Nordic traditional recording 'tall, but a Nordic-American traditional recording firmly grounded, like the Prairie Home Companion.
His final pick's a rock 'n' reel album from one of his favourite bands -- 'The Men They Couldn't Hang would be as well known as The Pogues which in some senses they are the English counterpart of. Indeed Demos & Rarities, Vol. 1 shows that this group, even on recorded material that didn't make the final cut, is damn good.' Read his review 'ere for a look at diamonds not very in the rough at all.
For live music, he picked April Verch and her band at One Longfellow Square which he and Donna immensely enjoyed -- 'Ahhhh, the perfect fiddler of Appalachian tunes (and her own compositions which are quite impressive) who also is a lovely singer in one of the finest venues anywhere -- what a pleasant combination on a late summer evening!'
For David Kidney, 'It's not easy to choose the best CD I've reviewed over the past year. How do you judge the best? Is it the best played? The best sung? The best produced? The CD I listened to the most? How do you decide? I'll have to stroll over to Gary's office and ask how he chose. When Cat asked for our choices...he stipulated one CD ...the best! I notice that Gary chose two, and certainly, giving a couple choices makes it somewhat easier.
The album I listened to the most this past year would have to be Ry Cooder's brilliant My Name Is Buddy. It's a folk masterpiece, that presents all the lessons Ry has learned over a career of playing packaged in a nifty book...with pictures and a story. The songs are familiar, because they're all based on folk standards...with enough twists and turns for Cooder to call them his own. And you have to love the politics of it. Woody Guthrie's shadow looms large over the project.
Having said that ...I can't neglect Hamilton's own Steve Strongman, who produced the wonderful Honey album. My wife kept this in the car for a couple of months after I reviewed it, and if I were to write about it again...I'd give it an even higher rating than I did in my original assessment. And then there's... I told you it wasn't easy.'I'd give
Those of us who work here at Green Man spend most of our lives happily amongst the roots and branches of the Tree that is popular culture. In the course of writing reviews, answering readers' questions, and exploring and discussing our own interests, we've found many like-minded others, out in the world and on the Web. Sometimes they've answered a question more thoroughly or in a different way than we've anticipated. Sometimes their perspectives compliment and challenge our own. Sometimes they take us further along a particular branch, or deeper into the roots of something we're interested in. We'd like to share them with you, to enhance your own exploration of the Tree.
RootsWorld, which is run by Cliff Furnald, should be on your reading list as it has some of the coolest reviews to be found anywhere. RootsWorld is primarily a world and roots music magazine which means that Cliff cover everything from the latest Balkan fusion band to the coolest of Nordic groups. In depth articles on groups that are covered nowhere else are another strong feature of this zine.
Fiddlestix, nominally the fanzine of the Australian Friends Of Fairport, was established by Michael Hunter as a paper zine in 1985 but has always had a healthy contingent of non-Antipodean subscribers. Email-based since 2001, the exclusive interviews and reviews add to a long history of fan-club only tapes, official CDs and even the promotion of an Australian Fairport gig. A labour of love for over 22 years; more details can be found here.
Meanwhile David Kidney has been publishing the Rylander (the Ry Cooder Quarterly) for over six years, faithfully printing and mailing out paper copies to subscribers all over the world. That's right... Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, and even upstate New York! The Rylander has never had much of a presence on the World Wide Web, until now. David has dragged himself, and Rylander, into the 21st century with a new blog. It will feature regular discussion of items of interest to Ry Cooder fans, and to anyone just into rootsy music, and good times. I guess it was all the editing for GMR that gave David the will to venture into blogspace! Check it out here.