The name Joe Boyd is synonymous with the English folk-rock scene in the 1960s/70s, as much as those of any of the musicians with whom he worked.
The American producer set up in Britain during the 1960s and produced legendary singers and bands, such as Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, John Martyn and more.
In 1966 he started London’s UFO Club, which was home to the Pink Floyd’s early psychedelic performances. Boyd produced the band’s first single, “Arnold Layne.”
He later went on to produce others such as Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Maria Muldaur and R.E.M., and found the folk label, Hannibal.
Boyd is the subject of a recent interview on Salon.com. In it, he speaks about his memoir, White Bicycles, as well as his work with Drake, Thompson and R.E.M. Check it out.
A string quintet, a children’s choir, a little fire and brimstone. What more would you expect from Nick Cave?
I’ve wanted to see the guy for about 20 years after I started getting into him around the time The Good Son came out. One of the more theatrical performers around, he nonetheless doesn’t tend to do extensive tours. He and the Bad Seeds play Europe and Australia often, but when they do North America, they typically play about a dozen shows.
He did play Vancouver when I was living there in the mid-1990s for Lollapalooza, but I skipped it because he’s just not someone you want to see in an outdoor festival setting. A dingy club or an old theatre is the place for his dark tales of retribution or occasional redemption.
The closest he came was Seattle a few years back, but by the time I heard about it, both concerts at the Showbox had sold out. Then, near the end of 2011, he brought his Grinderman side project to the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, and I thought seriously about flying back for it. Apparently it was an amazing show, and I regretted not going, though I was holding out for a chance to see the Bad Seeds.
It finally happened. With an airline credit to use, I decided to book a flight back to Toronto where I hadn’t been in six years and catch last week’s show at the legendary Massey Hall. (Also caught a fine show by the dour troubadour Ron Sexsmith the night before at the Randolph Theatre, formerly the Bathurst Street Theatre.)
Cave did not disappoint. The night started quietly, but a few songs in the band tackled the new song, “Jubilee Street” and punched up the ending, which had the theatre crowd on its feet, heads bobbing near the stage front.
While he played much from his latest Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, one of his mellower releases, he included a good cross section from his career: “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song,” “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry,” “God Is In the House,” “From Her to Eternity,” “The Mercy Seat” and so on. He was joined by five string players and backup singers, including opener Sharon Van Etten. (This, itself, was a treat as her album Tramp was one of my favourites from 2012.)
He had a children’s choir from a local school join him for several songs before waving them off. When I first saw the kids, I thought he probably won’t do his X-rated cover of “Stagger Lee.” It’s funny for a songwriter that plumbs the dark depths of the human soul, that unleashes as much fury in music as anyone, Cave does not lean heavily on expletives. His sodomy and murder-filled take on the old blues song stands out as an exception in raunch, and being Nick Cave, he doesn’t go halfway on anything.
When the Seeds launched into “Stagger” to close the main part of the set, I was thrilled and assumed the kids had safely left the building. (Turns out they were just backstage waiting to come out for the encore of the new album’s titular track. Hmmm, wonder if their parents had anything to say about the strange man with the dirty mouth.) The song was perhaps one of the best things I’ve seen on a stage, so I’ve included a YouTube link of “Stagger” from a New York show a few days later.
Dressed in black silk suit and white dress shirt, the dapper Cave comes across a bluesy, punky, long and lean version of Elvis, or maybe bizarro crooner Scott Walker. There’s no one like him. For close to two hours, he and his Bad Seeds put on an energetic set that was by turns quiet and poignant, then blaring, bluesy, ecstatic, full of moments of rapture.
If his music has mellowed some in recent years, the man himself has not, as Nick Cave continues to present a dark, dense take on love and life in a way that only Nick Cave can. Definitely worth the wait.
I didn’t watch the Oscars; I almost never do. Still, I’m glad Canadian composer Mychael Danna, who scored Life of Pi, upset the legendary John Williams in the original score category.
Confession: I don’t like Williams. I find him syrupy, obvious. Yeah, sure, I know he’s the most famous movie composer of all time who’s worked on blockbuster after blockbuster, but for me he represents a trend common in Hollywood movies of over-scoring. By this I mean the use of music throughout the film, almost without pause. It’s sort of the musical equivalent in movies of the laugh track in sit-coms. I find it irritating when TV and movie people don’t think I come up with some appropriate emotional response on my own. It’s one of the things I appreciate about movies made outside the Hollywood system. They’re just so much quieter.
Still, music can sometimes tie everything in a film together. There is no shortage of composers and scores that I love, so I thought that as everyone still has movies on the brain, I’d put together a short list. These aren’t in any particular order:
Anatomy of a Murder – This Otto Preminger 1959 classic is part courtroom drama, part dark comedy. The edgy film was well ahead of its time, but having Duke Ellington compose the music didn’t hurt either.
Michael Nyman – The modern British composer has come up with some incredible movie music, most notably for the films of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; A Zed and Two Noughts). He is probably best known for composing the score to Jane Campion’s The Piano. But wait – the envelope, please – the Oscar goes to John Williams for Schindler’s List. Williams’ score won over The Firm, The Age of Innocence, The Fugitive and The Remains of the Day. That’s right, The Piano wasn’t even nominated. I worked in a music warehouse at the time and remember pulling orders for the Nyman disk often. As for the others, including Schindler’s List, not so much. Bullshit isn’t a strong enough curse word to describe how I feel about this Oscar outcome.
Angelo Badalamenti – David Lynch’s musical interpreter always comes up with a surreal mix of weird pop and lounge lizard jazz that manages to capture what’s going on inside the director’s brain – whatever that may be. Maybe we don’t want to know.
Thomas Newman – He’s scored plenty, but I best know and love his work with Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty, probably my favourite film, and created Six Feet Under, probably my favourite TV show. Newman’s music plays a strong role in establishing a quirky yet emotional undercurrent in these works. He comes by scoring honestly, as the Newmans are a film score dynasty. Cousin Randy (yes, the one and only) is among the many Newmans and has been know to score a film or two himself. (Not that this matters, but American Beauty is the only film in recent years to win best picture that I would’ve picked as my favourite film of that year, though it had some stiff competition from Magnolia – see below.)
Hal Hartley – Hal was probably my favourite indie director in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s still out there, but outside of Henry Fool and Fay Grim, I’ve lost track of his more recent work. As well as writing and directing his films, he composes the original scores. I’ve downloaded a couple of collections of his film music via my eMusic account and love listening to them when I write.
Koyaanisqatsi – Philip Glass has scored numerous films. While his music sometimes grates my nerves, other times I’m moved as was the case with his work for this visual poem from Godfrey Reggio about the modern world and life out of balance.
Jon Brion – He’s produced albums by Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. His trademark quirky scores, noted for using old keyboard and analog sampling instruments, have left their mark on films such as Magnolia (another favourite film), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. By the way, if you’re ever in L.A. on Friday night and Brion is doing his stint at Largo, go, just go.
Mark Mothersbaugh – Another quirky composer in the Brion mould, he would still be a fixture in modern music for his work with Devo. These days, he’s Wes Anderson’s go-to guy but has also composed for countless TV shows and movies.
Bernard Hermann – The gold standard. Reason one: Citizen Kane. Welles even described him as an intimate member of the family. Then there’s many scores Hermann wrote for Hitchcock, including Psycho, whose screeching strings must be among the most famous few bars of music in cinematic history. He worked with many other directors such as Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise and Francois Truffault. His last work, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, is in my view one of the greatest film scores ever. Hermann’s music captured the psychotic noir world of an America ready to be ripped apart in the 1970s, right at its New York underbelly. There’s an amazing montage of Travis Bickle driving the streets of the city, and all we hear is Robert Deniro’s monologue about the netherworld he’s taking us into and Hermann’s unsettling score. Clearly, Scorcese knew what he had here and didn’t want to wake us from this nightmare with any background noise.
Hermann was nominated for an Oscar and even had a second nod the same year for the film Obsession but lost out to The Omen, scored by Jerry Goldsmith (himself, a noted film composer). The only Oscar that Hermann ever won was back in 1941 for The Devil and Daniel Webster. It’s hard to believe. All those years working with Hitch and not even a nomination from the Academy. This fact alone should explain why I rarely watch awards shows.
One of the joys of being a music snob is when you encounter some reminder that you don’t know everything.
Such was the case recently when I saw the Oscar-nominated documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. I’m guessing many other music snobs reacted the same way. (*Spoiler alert – If you haven’t heard the story and want to experience something almost too stunning to be believed, don’t read on. Just watch the movie.)
In a nutshell, the movie chronicles the story of Detroit songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. The line in the film is that he sold about six records in the U.S., and you might say he disappeared in the intervening decades, although he never really appeared in the first place. His 1970 and 1971 records on Sussex attracted virtually no attention.
It’s tempting to draw some Nick Drake parallels. Brilliant folkie singer-songwriter that’s stuck in the shadows of popular culture, even at a time when singer-songwriters were finding success. Drake, however, at least was a known commodity among musicians and a small cult of fans, enough so that when his music finally garnered attention (thanks to a certain Volkswagen commercial), there was that accompanying sense of what took you so long.
Rodriguez was different. I don’t think anyone – me included – had even heard of this guy until the documentary premiered at Sundance – anyone outside of South Africa, that is. There he was huge and provided kind of soundtrack for white liberals in the anti-Apartheid movement. The fact South Africa was so cut off culturally from the rest of the world probably added another factor in why no one had heard of him. (Note: the film doesn’t get into this fact, but he apparently did a couple of tours of Australia, including one opening for Midnight Oil.)
Back in America, he was never promoted and was dropped from his label after the two records, despite his immense talent. Yes, his music is excellent. The Dylan comparisons aren’t that far off. There certainly was no reason he shouldn’t have been running in the same circles as Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, etc. The fact he lived in Detroit though was likely one factor for his anonymity. At the time, the Motor City was Motown and shit-heel proto-punk like the Stooges and the MC5 and hard rock like Bob Seger. While you can hear some of these influences, his music is still in the folk rock mould. I’m guessing if he’d lived in Laurel Canyon or Greenwich Village, he would have gained a much bigger following, even with the raw deal he got from the record business.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the movie comes courtesy of Clarence Avant of Sussex Records. It’s tempting to dismiss him as another greasy record exec, but Avant knows what a talent he had in Rodriquez. It’s also safe to assume that whatever royalties the South African record pressers sent to Avant are long gone, as is Sussex Records, which disappeared only a few years after Rodriguez last recorded.
Throughout the documentary, we’re treated to a bizarre story about a man unknown in his own country but a star in an isolated one on the other side of the world. Along the way, we hear wild rumours of his death and what he did to survive in Detroit after his unceremonious exit from the recording business. Actually, I should say “what he does,” as Rodriquez is alive and well, living a modest life and working in building demolition/reconstruction in Detroit, a city that needs a reconstruction more than any other. Thanks to the publicity from the film, Rodriguez’s career is getting a bit of a reconstruction.
Searching for Sugar Man is a story with a happy ending, but it is a happy ending that is earned, not forced. Rodriguez is a brilliant songwriter that has earned every dollar he’s made from the music world (or is making now) and many, like myself, are only finding him for the first time. Spend a couple of hours on this search, and you will feel all the sweeter for it.
It’s between Christmas and New Year’s, and, try as I might, I just can’t get it together to post a proper blog. I’ve actually got one ready to go but don’t have access to it.
I’ve been listening to my usual holiday favourites for the last month or so: Sufjan Stevens’ first seasonal box set of EPs, Low’s holiday EP, the Roches, a great concert recording from Toronto in the 1990s with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Holly Cole, Victoria Williams, Jane Siberry and Rebecca Jenkins. There’s more and more Christmas music all the time, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Low’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” is enough to hold me. Thanks.
I did listen to the new Sufjan Stevens box set, Silver & Gold, on NPR’s First Listen. It’s been up the whole month and was still there the last I looked. I’m guessing it’ll be down come January. It’s pretty good, though it has a bit more of an electronic feel than the first set of Christmas EPs.
Anyway, here’s to the holidays and to a brighter 2013. Cheers.
Some things just aren’t meant to be. Back in 2007, after I’d moved back from Toronto to the West Coast, I was supposed to fly to Toronto in March for the farewell show of my favourite band, the Rheostatics, at the famed Massey Hall.
Instead, I was stuck in a hospital bed in my hometown recuperating from a serious gastrointestinal disorder (Too much info, I know). I was despondent and couldn’t listen to the band for more than a year. I have still yet to bring myself to check out any video clips on YouTube from the show.
You can imagine my excitement then when I learned via the band’s Facebook page that the original group was reforming for two nights, Dec. 5 and 6, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Toronto’s famed Horseshoe Tavern.
At first, I hedged, then I told myself I had to at least try to go. Within an hour or so after the tickets went on sale, I bought a ticket online for the second night, found a relatively cheap flight and booked a hostel room.
Something though was tempering my enthusiasm. I knew deep down not to get excited until this thing actually happened, and sure enough, on Monday, there was a Facebook update via member Dave Bidini that the band, despite sounding great in rehearsals, could not go through with the reunion shows because lead guitarist Martin Tielli was unable to perform. (There is talk online that it is a result of serious performance anxiety, though nothing was confirmed. Bidini said he might talk about it in his National Post column.)
As bummed out as I was, I wasn’t as crushed the second time around. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is missing the show too. Maybe it’s that I feel for Martin, whatever the actual reason is. Maybe it’s the fact that my crazy life recently just got crazier and suddenly missing a concert – even a Rheostatics’ one – does not seem as important as it would under normal circumstances. (For the record, I think the last time I had anything resembling a normal life was around 2003/2004.)
Anyway, I’m still going to plough through my Rheos’ collection and remember why I love this band so much and recall how lucky I was to see them four times, especially the first time at the Town Pump in Vancouver when I barely got in.
On the off chance Martin is reading this, we still love you, even if you “sing like a woman.” (It’s an inside joke from their last album.)
Bobby Previte is a crack drummer, composer and bandleader who’s been at the forefront of modern jazz and the improvised music scene for about 35 years.
All this doesn’t make one a household name though, as he discovered recently. On his Facebook page the other day, I ran across the following development, amusing to say the least.
He’d only just stuck up a link to his Bandcamp page. (Bandcamp is a website independent musicians use to market their wares.) Within five hours, he received a message via Facebook:
“Found you on BandCamp (sic) and love your sound. Reaching out to see if you would be interested in auditioning for America’s Got Talent Season 8. If so, please let me know. We begin auditions in Seattle, Portland, & Los Angeles in November; Virginia Beach, Raleigh, Nashville, Mephis (sic), Birmingham, Savannah, Daytona Beach in December. If you’re interested, I can let you know as soon as we release the dates and audition information. More info can be found at: americasgottalentauditions.com.”
Then he learned some bad news on the FAQ page informing him of the limitations for drummers. In short, the TV show recommends that drummers audition via DVD because of the time it takes to set up a kit; however, if he wanted to audition in person, he could bring a stripped down set, i.e. snare drum and hi-hat. In case he hadn’t gotten the message, the FAQ page continues: NO SET UP TIME WILL BE ALLOWED!
Previte’s tongue-in-cheek take on the lack of respect for drummers? “The best part is, two separate questions for ‘musical instrument’ and for ‘drum set.’ Ah yes, it never ends. My father was right. I should have become a dentist.”
As you can imagine, his Facebook friends peppered the page with comments over the absurdity of Previte appearing on reality TV.
The DVD idea got me thinking about the Robert Altman film Short Cuts and one of the subplots following a faded nightclub singer. The backing band was made up of a stellar cast, such as Terry Adams of NRBQ on piano and a familiar face behind the drum kit.
I posted the following to Previte on Facebook. “Maybe you can send them a copy of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.”
“THAT is genius!” Previte replied.
When I first started listening to Previte, I always got the sense that he was an intense guy, not one you would naturally crack a joke around. About 10 years ago though, he held a clinic at a local college music program prior to a show in Vancouver. I think I was the only person there who wasn’t a student. What impressed me was what an enthusiastic speaker and affable guy he was. Instead of droning on about paradiddles and flams, or showing off his rudiments, he talked about music that inspired him like Sly and the Family Stone or Led Zeppelin. He was also happy to sign my copy of Pushing the Envelope, one of his early recordings as a bandleader. (I highly recommend any of his Gramavision releases, if you can get your digits on them, though there is plenty of other fine music available.)
Besides his drumming talents, he’s a fine composer who’s explored many types of music: Weather Clear, Track Fast was a greasy organ- and horn-heavy band; Empty Suits was more artsy, influenced by contemporary classical music among other things; projects like The Coalition of the Willing or his Groundtruther duo with Charlie Hunter could be described as avant-garde rock. Then there’s his work backing other musicians, from John Zorn to Tom Waits. (If all this doesn’t convince you, maybe the Guggenheim Fellowship he received earlier this year will.)
The odds of an audition are pretty low, I’d say, but America should know that it does have some serious talent in the form of Bobby Previte, and it’s refreshing that popular culture and reality television came so close to waking up to this fact.