Holliedelayz

They’’re coming your way, so you’’d better get ready. I’’m talking about a new band from Southampton, UK called the Delays. Melodic pop-rock from a band with perfect hairstyles is always in with a chance of crossing over, and the Delays have a better chance than most. But what is most shocking about them is that they cite their main musical influence as the Hollies.
It’’s fair enough. Like the Hollies did when they started out (and much like recent Amplifier cover stars the Cooper Temple Clause), the Delays pay massive attention to their hair and how it looks. Most importantly, though, they specialise in harmonies and high-pitched lead vocals from singer Greg Gilbert. Not Muse-style falsetto, but a Graham Nash high harmony. They sound lovely.
The Hollies are out on a fortieth anniversary tour right now. It takes them all over the world, including the US where, lest we forget, they once enjoyed a number one chart hit with “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”. Graham Nash, no longer with them but stull on great terms, has a travelling exhibition of his brilliant black and white photos doing the rounds, very well worth a visit if you get a chance. Nash and his various projects have always been considered cool, but the Hollies never achieved this cachet. If it’’s okay for the Thrills to be proud of sounding like the Beach Boys, then well done to the Delays for rehabilitating the Hollies. And congratulations to Amplifier for never having been afraid to include the Hollies in their musical orbit.
Well, the other day, I got to meet one of my childhood heroes, namely Bobby Elliott, the Hollies’ drummer. Bobby it was who was indirectly responsible for my receiving a beating from my Latin teacher, who cought me thwacking out the drum part to “Stay” with my fingers on the school desk. Bobby had heard about this injustice and wanted to make it up to me. It was amazing how many of my friends were insanley jealous, I guess because Bobby is quietly acknowledged as one of the great rock drummers, certainly head and shoulders above most Sixties’ tub-thumpers. But what they all wanted to know above all was “Is he really bald?”
Listen, of course Bobby Elliott is bald. He was bald from the very beginning, which was always a problem for Hollies photo sessions. Currently, he sports a baseball cap, but previous attempts at disguise have included a straw hat, a fedora and, during the seventies, a very obvious blonde wig. Nowadays, with image at a premium, it would present an even bigger problem, Could you see the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand or the Delays with a bald member? I don’’t think so.
The Hollies put on a tremendous show, featuring brain-scrambling psychedelic back-projections, a slight anomaly from this most undruggy of bands. The music is intact but nowadays increasingly incongruous. Last year, singer Allan Clarke retired to nurse his ill wife (retirement from a band being another previously unknown concept) and was replaced by Carl Wayne from The Move. Despite his excruciating cabaret patter, he does provide the opportunity for a selection of Move songs, reminding us what a fine band they were. Unfortunately, the bassist from Mud is also present, and we don’’t really need a selection from them as well.
With the obvious exception of Bobby, hairstyles, playing skills and above all, the harmonies, are reassuringly intact. Not many of us will be around to see it, but here’’s hoping the Delays will make it to their 40th anniversary tour. And that none of them will be bald.

From Amplifer magazine

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SXSW 2018

Here’s the full blow-by-blow. I only do it because my memory is going and I want to be able to look back in years to come.
Paul (photographer in chief), picked me up from Austin Bergstrom airport after the flight landed 30 minutes early and I’d been standing in the stifling heat in my UK winter gear. As usual, the airport was packed with cool-looking people unloading enormous flight cases filled with instruments and gear.
The music festival has been starting earlier each year and now they even list Tuesday in the official booklet, despite the dates actually being Wednesday to Saturday. I picked up my badge from the Convention Center, where it was noticeable that the traditional queues were completely absent. The general “quieter than usual” feel continued throughout the festival. What has happened is that the big names have almost completely disappeared (the biggest stars were Keith Urban and a secret show by ZZ Top). The result is a return to the original ethos of sxsw as a showcase for new talent.
We tried to find a parking space to start checking out the music early but failed, opting instead to pay a first visit to legendary Tex-Mex joint Gueros before having an early night. Planning sxsw in detail is essential and I’d done my homework in advance, ready to leap straight in. Remember that, although the official programme only starts at 8 pm daily, shows actually happen at hundreds of venues across town all day. All bands play multiple shows (I spotted one that played twelve but that is probably by no means a record). You see them pitch up in their vans, lug all their own gear on stage, set everything up, do a cursory sound check, play an energetic set and instantly have to vacate the stage with all their gear as the next band is already setting up. It’s an object lesson in professionalism.
We aimed to start at around 1pm each day, which left time for breakfast in Star Seeds Café. This was normally the only meal of the day, further nutrition being taken in the form of beers and margaritas.
Wednesday was largely spent at South By San Jose, an always reliable line-up in the sweltering car park of the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. An early highlight was Josh T Pearson, about whom I’d read a huge article in Uncut on the way over. Josh was on rollicking form with his new crowd-pleasing image. Despite his popularity in Europe, he’s almost unknown in his home town, with the audience at Hotel San Jose being sparse. I’d last seen him at the Mean Eyed Cat in 2011, when he was in his “meaningful bearded singer-songwriter” phase. The contrast could hardly be greater, as he is totally transformed into a smart, sophisticated white-jacketed all-round entertainer, introducing his “straight hits”. It was great fun and he finished off with a cover of a Neil Halstead song, before complimenting me on my John Murry t-shirt. If you look into their respective life stories, it’s no surprise that these two should like each other.
Straight after Josh came Jesse Dayton. Despite having the aura of a Texas road warrior, Jesse is in fact a sensitive, deep thinking individual as well as a spectacular guitar player with an unimpeachable band. Josh T Pearson was soon two-stepping to Jesse’s music with a very stylish lady. Soon, a circle formed round the golden couple to cheer them on. It was an utterly charming scene.
Next door, Gueros’ garden was overflowing with adoring fans awaiting the arrival of UK troubadour Frank Turner. I’m on record as not being a fan of his “shouty-strummy-preachy” style, but you’ve got to hand it to him. Everyone in the rammed venue knew all the lyrics and sang along enthusiastically, even when he was exhorting them to “Make America Great Again”. He had another eight shows to go, so disappeared quickly afterwards.
Antone’s is a much more intimate venue since its move, but an improved one too, with good sound and sightlines. I was excited because Joshua Hedley, a man who has played in my garden, has been signed to Jack White’s Third Man label and was showcasing here. It was a trifle embarrassing because it was so “straight country” that Paul hated it. Myself, I was in awe of the incredible collection of Nashville musos (in uniforms) that Joshua had brought with him, and loved the smooth professionalism of it all.
I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that my free tickets are dependant upon doing a number of reviews for different publications – fair enough. But it does mean that I have to check out Hampshire artists, of whom there were several. So off I went to the relaxing confines of the Central Presbyterian Church for Portsmouth singer Jerry Williams, who’d crowdfunded her trip. It’s probably rude to say that I can’t remember any of her songs, but it’s also true. Next up was Winchester’s Flyte, the brother of one of whose members went to school with my daughter (hope you’re following this). They feature CSNY style harmonies and are normally an electric band, but on this occasion they went acoustic with a grand piano and it all sounded impressively ecclesiastical.
Having loved Low Cut Connie at last year’s festival and then at the Borderline in London, it was vital to go and see them at least once. This was a show in the bedlam of 6th Street at a long-established venue called The Parish. The sound was too loud, the lights too flashy and somehow the vibe wasn’t quite right, but nevertheless we were knocked out by a crazy band from Oklahoma called Broncho. More of both these two later. Bed was at 2.30 am.
Thursday started with a visit to the Day Stage in the Convention Centre, a pleasing oasis of calm and comfort. Not many people seem to actually find it, which is surprising in view of the fact that the sound and the sightlines are the best of any sxsw venues. Considering that Courtney Marie Andrews is a very fast-rising star, the number of people there was tiny. The environment suited her, though, and she performed a short but effective set. Some reviews have pointed out that there’s little variation in her strong-lunged approach to each song, and it’s true but it’s fine by me. Still miss Caitlin Rose, though – anyone know what she’s up to?
One of the best places for music at sxsw is the Day Stage at the legendary Waterloo Records, and that’s where the afternoon was spent. A Place To Bury Strangers made the most wonderful racket and finished their set by playing with something like an air hostess’s trolley out in the middle of the crowd – very exciting stuff. Apparently, on other occasions, they start out in the audience before heading to the stage later. Then came the most unlikely ever signing to the country-focused New West label, a feisty pop band led by Caroline Rose. Dressed in sports gear and medical scrubs, they entertained the crowd cheerfully. The Weather Station, who played numerous shows over the weekend, were less memorable, but not as dire as the turgidly dated (although very popular) sub-Coldplay anthems of Dashboard Confessional. Ugh. Time for some much-needed healthy food at the adjacent branch of Whole Foods.
A long walk back downtown took me to an Irish showcase in the tiny Velveeta Room on Sixth Street. Here is a good point to mention something that has been increasingly clear in recent years, namely a sort of involuntary segregation that has been developing. Sixth Street has become the hub for urban and rap music, while the traditional venues featuring more white music have largely dispersed themselves along Rainey Street and East Fourth Street, both endowed with scores of bars with music facilities.
The Irish showcase was extremely enjoyable and a good advert for tolerance, taste and good behaviour in a music venue. First up was a spiky punk trio from Derry with Undertones undertones, called Touts. I could have been their grandfather, and would have been proud to be. One of their songs was called “Go Fuck Yourself”. Next up was the acoustic harmony duo The Lost Brothers. I was fearful they’d die a death but no, the audience listened respectfully and appreciatively to their music. Finally, The Strypes generally laid waste to the place with their attitude-laden Feelgood-ish chunky, melodic two-minuters. They’ve invested in some great threads and look perfect. I was convinced when I first saw them here four years ago that they’d be huge, but they aren’t. Maybe it’s just true that there is no market for guitar bands any more.
A long and bracing walk took me to Rainey Street and a Tulsa showcase at The Bungalow. I feared the worst as a pop act called Branjae was playing and was worried for John Fullbright, who was following and I’d only ever seen solo before. No need to worry though, as he was playing with a bunch of friends and it was a very cheerful gathering. It was noticeable, however, that the momentum dipped whenever a friend came up to play and re-gathered pace whenever Fullbright took the lead, with his vocal and instrumental power. And what’s this? Yes, it’s Broncho again. You could hardly imagine a greater musical contrast. In my search for a way to describe them, I came up with “a mash-up of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Hawkwind”. Add in a bit of The Cure (singer Ryan Lindsey is a dead ringer for Robert Smith) and you have a potent and very atmospheric cocktail, as Lindsey jiggles as if flea-ridden, sings lyrics which may or may not be actual words and merges each song into the next with no breaks for applause or even a greeting. Anyway, I found them so irresistible that I went to see them three times in total.
Friday saw me wending my way again to Rainey Street for a showcase at Blackheart that I hoped would end up with Ezra Furman. What a pig’s ear the organisers had made of this. There was a spacious yard outside with a stage, yet they had programmed Ezra Furman and Frank Turner in the minuscule and very claustrophobic inside room. Luckily, that meant I was unhindered while watching Aaron Lee Tasjan outside. The previous year, I had been baffled by a low-key and – dare I say it – boring show from Aaron, and confused by the adulation. Then, at the End of The Road Festival in September, he appeared solo acoustic on the Garden Stage and went down a storm with a charming and funny performance. Here at Blackheart, he was in his electric guitar-shredding guise and the performance was thrilling. Clearly a man of many and diverse talents.
Amy Shark and a couple of other forgettable artists played outside but I ventured in to try and get a spot to at least catch a glimpse of Ezra Furman, but it was not to be. His band and crew dutifully set up all the gear but the frantic phone calls gave a clue as to what would happen: He simply didn’t turn up. An announcement gave mixed messages: He’s not well, but do come and see him (in a bigger venue) tomorrow. Who knows the explanation but I’d guess the overcrowding must have been an intimidatory factor. Never mind, normally sxsw throws up many of these situations (indeed, for many, it later did with cancellations relating to security issues).
We had a date with Lee Bains III And The Glory Fires (who played, I think, eleven times over the four days). This was at the Side Bar, next to Stubbs, and turned out to be a classic sxsw occasion. Inside the dingy venue was a set-up for bands that offered neither stage nor lights, so it was only possible to see the silhouettes of Cold Fronts, a great Pavement-esque outfit from Philadelphia. Outside on the sun-drenched patio, Lee Bains was on paint-stripping form. For me, he took the title of Best Band I Saw At SXSW (a rather subjective category, admittedly). Hurling himself round the tiny stage and challenging the audience with incredibly articulate political speeches and lyrics, Lee eventually ended up in the audience being mobbed by the ecstatic crowd. Wonderful in-yer-face stuff that made you feel glad to be alive and able to feel positive in a difficult world.
What a contrast the evening was. A friend of my daughter’s was organising a showcase in St David’s Historic Sanctuary, so of course I attended. The artist I saw was Lucy Rose. Fair play to her. She’s been through the industry mill, having been hyped by a major label to little avail. The current angle is that she’s now independent and succeeding against the odds, but boy, was her performance bland and inconclusive. But pay no attention to me, the audience lapped it up.
Next was a hike all the way to the wonderful Scoot Inn, where the musical quality was outstanding. I’d fallen in love with Austin’s Bright Light Social Hour on the Tropical Heatwave Cruise (see a different “note”) and it was lovely to see them wowing their home town. I feared for Hiss Golden Messenger when I saw that it was an acoustic duo set-up, but no, yet again they were treated with respect and attention by a well-oiled party audience. You don’t get that everywhere. Last on were Okkervill River. Yes, they exist again, nowadays in a completely different and much more quirky (but appealing) five-piece format.
The plan for Saturday was to take things a bit more easy. First up was Lucy’s Fried Chicken, a venue that always has an entertaining line-up. The problem is that it is what it says: If you don’t like fried chicken you’re going to starve. They don’t even do tea or coffee. Also, the sightlines are bad, so it’s not the best place to see a band. But I wanted to be there because of the Rublilators, the new band of Jon Notarthomas, who was Ian McLagan’s musical partner over the last years of Ian’s life. Jon did me the most enormous kindness this time last year and I was glad we made the effort, as the Rubilators are a bunch of enthusiastic Austin veterans who rock out with infectious style. After them came John Doe (of X), who has now made Austin his home and has a new acoustic trio.
Chickengate meant that we did the ultimate in sinfulness, namely having beer and margaritas for breakfast, back in Gueros. Just up the road is the Yard Dog. Normally we’d spend a lot of time in there but the crowds made it impossible even to see local act Li’l Cap’n Travis, although they sounded good. So instead it was off to the other side of town to the traditional Saturday Country Cantina at Licho’s. The line-up was less inspiring than in recent years but we saw Billy Strings, Dead Horses and Australia’s Ruby Boots in quick succession.
Back in town we entered a rather smart bar to see Christopher Rees, who’d been having a trying time on account of a banister-related ankle incident. Nevertheless, he was in fine voice. He’s one of the very few UK Americana artists who sounds really authentic.
The last evening was shaping up to develop into a disappointment. For years we’d been going to showcases organised by Canadian label Six Shooter, but the bigger they’ve become, the less fun the events are. This one contained many irritating factors: A cliquey atmosphere, people annoyingly smoking everywhere, sound leakage from next door, massively over-priced drinks (more than anywhere else in Austin), terrible sound plus a self-consciously quirky and not very good band (The Wet Secrets). Tempting though it was to stay on for Whitney Rose (simply so I could call this article The Wars Of The Roses on account of the many so-named singers), the temptation of another dose of Broncho and Low Cut Connie in the adjacent Clive Bar was too great.
And what a wise decision that proved to be. The vibe, with free St Patrick’s Day light sabres and flashing necklaces, was incredibly convivial and Broncho were even more mind-boggling than before. Low Cut Connie, meanwhile, were back at their sparkling best. The extraordinary Adam Weiner of LCC took the showmanship honours with his piano acrobatics and gradual disrobement, backed by a grittily committed bunch of highly supportive musicians. They all certainly know how to work an audience and the audience succumbs willingly, wreathed in smiles. I saw Rolling Stone’s David Fricke (who really has seen everything) being clearly overcome. In print, he declared the band and their classic new single Beverley to be ready for world domination. I can only agree.
That was it. Bed and the long trek to a snowy home via Amsterdam presented a climate challenge, but that’s another story.

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Glastonbury 2003

There are three things I’’d expected never to do in 2003. Number One was to experience Richard Thompson playing “Shoot Out The Lights” in full majestic electric flight. Number two was to experience Yes playing “Seen All Good People” live on a Sunday afternoon. And Number Three was to hear The Damned playing “Neat Neat Neat” in a full-on adrenaline rush at midnight. And guess what, I did all three within twenty-four hours at this year’’s Glastonbury Festival.
I’’ll be frank. I wasn’t really looking forward to the 2003 event, mainly because all the headliners had already played Glastonbury in recent years, some several times: David Gray, Manic Street Preachers, REM, Doves, etc., etc. It seems that the organisers, in the knowledge that they sell all 120,000 tickets within hours anyway, have become complacent about their booking policy. Either that or there aren’’t any superstars around any more. What? Radiohead? Yes, they were there too, but I don’t go to festivals to get depressed.
So strolling round the smaller stages was a deliberate policy this year, and how rewarding it turned out to be. On Sunday, the Acoustic Stage saw not only the return of Cerys Matthews, but also the birth of a new one in the form of Welsh chanteuse Amy Wadge. Neither of them are a patch on the the old Catatonia, unfortunately. Brilliant New York ex-punk Jesse Malin rocked himself a UK profile in the “New Tent” with a wild and wonderful performance which included a real Glastonbury Moment in the form of  “What’s So Funny ‘’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”. I nearly cried. On the “Other Stage”, The excellently funky The Rapture were joined onstage by the Happy Mondays’’ Bez, looking disturbingly like Roger Daltrey. Shortly before, Arthur Lee with Love, all looking suitably baffled, had played the whole of  “Forever Changes”. Chuck Prophet, on the “One World” stage, wowed his devotees in the pouring rain, while remaining sprightly and dapper in a dogtooth jacket. He splattered mean and dirty guitar lines around like shrapnel and climaxed with a singalong version of the Clash’’s “Bank Robber”. This was just one of hundreds of Strummer tributes which movingly punctuated the weekend, this having been Joe’’s favourite stamping ground. The New Stage also featured a real tip for big future things in the form of intelligent Mancunian Gallagher lookalikes I Am Kloot. Up at the Acoustic Stage, I finally got the reason why Kathleen Edwards has so impressed North America. First, it’’s the upfront sexual chemistry between her and guitarist boyfriend Colin Cripps, and second, everyone likes a nice spot of Neil Young.
Meanwhile, on the bigger stages, we found all those American bands which play a variation on prog-rock with high-pitched vocals, multiple time signature changes, sumptuous keyboards and soaring melodies. Well, that’’s Yes, isn’t it? It’’s also the Polyphonic Spree (whose impact was diminished in direct relation to their desire to please), the Flaming Lips (who grabbed all this year’’s festival headlines on account of being themselves, but now more people have belatedly discovered their beauty and charm) and, of course, California’’s Grandaddy. This last band, having so comprehensively failed at SxSW, had pulled themselves together to the extent that their performance was rated by them, and the audience, as their best ever. Emotion hung heavily in the air as even that awkward old sod Jason Lytle allowed himself a few smiles. And Christ, were they loud. To think that this band used to be famous for their quietness. Main stage next year, beyond a doubt, and deservedly so.
REM were REM, David Gray was David Gray and Radiohead (so I understand) were Radiohead.
Really bad things: Do you know, there weren’’t any really bad things about Glastonbury 2003. Apart from Alison Moyet, who has completely lost it.
Really good things: The charming inability of any Americans to pronounce “Glastonbury”. To a person (Wayne Coyne, Michael Stipe, even Macy Gray), they invented a new form of fruit called a “Glastonberry”; Mogwai, genuinely playing “Happy Songs For Happy People” – who would have thought that?; David Gray’’s magnificent observation that, “It doesn’’t matter where you are, it always makes you feel better if you say ‘Fuck Tony Blair’”; Captain Sensible’’s equally magnificent observation: “Fuck Radiohead”; The Waterboys‘ “Whole Of The Moon”, live in all its glory on a sunny afternoon; and the fact that, when Yes’’s bassist John Squire brought out his triple-headed guitar, the entire audience, instead of whispering “far out, man”, simply screamed with laughter.
See you next year, 6 pm at the Cider Bus.

From Amplifier magazine

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sxsw 2017

(ALL PHOTOS BY PAUL DOMINY)
SXSW has got its mojo back after overcrowding and over corporatism had changed the vibe in recent years. I also got my own mojo back this year with the help of better selection of artists, familiarity with great and cheap eating places and a week of uninterrupted sunshine.
I’ll be clear: I had decided this would be my last sxsw. After fifteen consecutive years and with a bad ankle that made the traditional lengthy hikes impossible, this was to be the end. Now I’m not quite sure but on balance I’m thinking it’s a good idea to go out on a high. We’ll see.
A new policy sought to avoid the endless walking. It entailed selecting events in advance to go to and simply stay put. This was possible thanks to my friend Paul, who not only is a great photographer but also is conveniently a non drinker and therefore was willing and able to drive us around. The only issue was parking, but even in this we managed to get lucky most of the time.
The first morning saw us heading to Waterloo Records, a super music emporium that stages large scale daytime outdoor events to coincide with sxsw. It is luckily situated opposite a branch of Wholefoods that has a giant car park. At Waterloo you can see artists who will play showcases later in the day in places that are less accessible and more crowded, such as Stubbs. The whole thing is organised by Jessie, wife of Will Johnson of Centro-Matic.
The sun blazed on our necks as Hooray For The Riff Raff played one of their eight shows, Beach Slang came up with some very entertaining lighthearted grunge, Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift demonstrated their mutual devotion and Modern English, on a “comeback” tour, were hysterically pompous and dreadful. A quick visit to the atmospheric Ginger Man pub downtown for a nice encounter with Tom Heyman was followed by a very rewarding evening at Easy Tiger.
This event was the twentieth anniversary of Bella Union, in my opinion easily the best record label in the world. How exciting it was to experience BNQT, which is Midlake joined by Jason Lytle and Travis’s Fran Healey for a joyful run through of their various hits plus some new songs too. Other artists playing included Oklahoma’s excellent Horse Thief, and it was intriguing to observe label boss Simon Raymonde and his wife bopping along to every single act with endless enthusiasm. Their dedication to music is all too clear.
The next day saw a visit to Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress, which has a yard at the back that is covered by a gazebo during sxsw. It is really worth spending a whole afternoon there, because the music is invariably top notch and the audience respectful and very much “up for it”. A common characteristic of all the places I shall describe is the superhuman amount of alcohol consumed. I’m by no means teetotal but I tell you, the amount these guys put away is mind-boggling. Nursing a three dollar local IPA, I was hugely entertained by a highly-wired Austin Lucas (whose Alone In Memphis always brings a lump to the throat), who also duetted with Mara Connor. After that, the place was trashed by an incredible band from Philadelphia called Low Cut Connie, whose singer Adam Weiner spent most of his time leaping on and off his piano and into the audience, while his band crouched and prowled around him. Not since the Jim Jones Revue at the Mean Eyed Cat has such a seedy and dangerous boogie groove been heard in Austin. Could that be topped? Oh yes, with the supercharged political punk of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, music at its most primal and at the same time its most intelligent.
There’s much anguish in Austin as the quaint out of town venues are gradually being knocked down to make way for condos. Such is the fate of Maria’s Taco Express, so we made a final pilgrimage to sip a frozen Margarita, chomp some chips with salsa and enjoy the Mastersons, a duo that keeps getting better and better. Prior to that, Waterloo had hosted a slightly hungover Grandaddy and later, Austin’s own Spoon, who caused consternation as the surrounding roads were blocked by the crowds swarming to see them. We had to listen from the car park, as sxsw badges cut no ice here.
That evening saw one of the few Americana showcases taking place in a central venue. It was that of New West records, a label with an enviable roster of talent. Laying out their wares were the Secret Sisters (how must they feel now that sweet-voiced duos have become such an overcrowded market?) and Sara Watkins (slightly troubled by intermittent power cuts). Andrew Combs caused confusion – at least to me – by performing with Cale Tyson’s backing band (see below). Some members of the Deslondes used to be in Hurray For The Riff Raff and continue to pursue that rootsy direction with skill and energy. HFRR, meanwhile, have long since moved on from Americana showcases and were displaying their new political indie-rock direction at bigger events all over the city. The much-anticipated Aaron Lee Tasjan started on a tremendous high but rapidly declined into a set of bafflingly bland material that belied his flamboyant image.
The Americana highlight of my sxsw is undoubtedly Saturday’s annual Brooklyn Country Cantina extravaganza at Licha’s, curated by “Bug” Jenkins of the Defibulators. This exhausting succession of 25 artists (count them) lasts from 11 am to 11 pm over two stages and always throws up surprises and exciting moments. Cale Tyson and his (other) band brought things to a rousing climax (apparently he has different bands for different regions) but for me the highlight of the day, and indeed the whole festival, was a highly-emotional and deeply affecting twenty-minute set from Nashville’s Langhorne Slim. They don’t come better.
During that evening, I was gripped by a desire to nip to the nearby Hotel Vegas to see The Sloths , an ancient band of shock-rockers who’d reunited for sxsw. This was because we’d recently become sloth enthusiasts on a family visit to Costa Rica. The Sloths were hilarious (and I also bumped into the multi-talented Rusty Miller, from California). At one stage, I found a place to perch and try to make sense of the surrounding madness. Four deafeningly loud bands were blasting out from four stages all around, the sound melding into the craziest cacophony imaginable. Everyone in the crowd was drunk, drugged up and chaotically, blissfully happy. To most people, it would have been hell on earth. To me, with my unstoppable music addiction, it was classic sxsw and the purest bliss. 

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South By South West Festival 2016

I started sxsw 2016 with a nasty throat infection, which I blamed on the vicious ventilation on the plane. Was that why I found the music less interesting this year? I don’t think so, because it’s a brilliant event and I had a huge amount of fun, but somehow things didn’t click for me musically as much as usual.

First, all the good stuff. There were a couple of unique events that I’ll never forget. One was a “Song And Tell” session with Mercury Rev at the Ginger Man Pub. This took the form of Jonathan Donahue interviewing Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde and the band performing – sublimely – three songs: Holes, All Is Dream and Opus 40. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to be close up with a band that more usually has to be approached through a mass of smoke and strobes. Indeed, that was the case just 24 hours later, as they performed a panoramic 90 minute greatest hits set at the Hotel San Jose. The bass was so loud that the ground quaked beneath us, which must have frightened off the assembled Texans, because at the end, I turned round to see that two thirds of the audience had left. Lightweights.

The other extraordinary experience came courtesy of Timmy Thomas. At the age of seventy, and having spent the last 20 years teaching music, Timmy’s career has experienced a sudden revival on account of “Why Can’t We Live Together” being sampled by Drake. Things got off to a strange start at Austin’s iconic Saxon Pub with Timmy lecturing us about world peace for ten minutes, not realising his mic hadn’t been switched on. But before long, his sublime band kicked in and hit a groove that had the place in ecstasy for an hour. It was such a privilege to be there.

Anyway, the whole point of sxsw is to check out new music and up and coming bands, so that is what I decided to do. It turned out to be less rewarding than I’d hoped, and I came home wondering whether music is in need of another punk-style shake-up. First, some official showcases. The much touted Hinds were a bit of a laugh, a cross between the Bangles and the Slits but without the chops of either. Talk about ephemeral. On electronica, Poliça was a bit pompous and Chvrches had better jokes than music. It was time to go off-piste.

First I went to Maria’s Taco Express, where the margaritas are cold and the salsa is red hot. Like other such venues in Austin, sxsw is used as an opportunity for band after band to play 30 minute sets with cursory sound checks. Performing here was Brian Whelan from LA, playing very infectious bar room rock, greatly entertaining but not really going anywhere. Following on from him was veteran Canadian Corb Lund and his band. Again, the sardonic country songs were enjoyable but generic and you had the feeling of having heard it all before. Is it unreasonable to want to be thrilled and amazed?

The search continued by way of two sessions at the Ginger Man Pub in central Austin. This is a great venue but it’s marred by a silly layout of extremely hard benches that run at right angles to the band, a sure recipe for a stiff neck. Here also, the format is an endless succession of bands that tune up, smash out six or seven three-minute guitar songs and disappear again. You only actually remember trivial things about them, such as that Blackfoot Gypsies had filthy trousers, Yoko And The Oh-Nos were a cross between ZZ Top and Boy George and that Soul Asylum should not try to perform their stadium anthems with acoustic guitars. You’d never consider buying a record by any of them and you wonder what exactly the point of them is. One band that stuck in the mind were called Dash Rip Rock. They came from Alabama and their songs included “Let’s Go Fuck In My Truck” and “Spank Your Panties”. It was alarming to be told that these weren’t ironic titles. The Bluebonnets stood out on account of being women, but that was really the only difference.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of these bands were bad as such. In fact, they could all play, they could all sing and rock out and they all had catchy songs and riffs. I went so far as to seek out the manager of the Ginger Man and congratulate him on the organisation. We didn’t see a single bad band there, but of real spark, innovation and brilliance there was little sign. A vicious thunderstorm that closed down many outdoor venues didn’t bother the Ginger Man, as, after a brief pause, they simply played on with yet another set of musos, this time some blisteringly loud, middle-aged rockers called The Sidewinders, who had forgotten they weren’t punks any more. I couldn’t bear to stay for the Waco Brothers, for fear it might be more of the same.

A lovely Saturday tradition is the Brooklyn Country Cantina, which showcases at least thirty roots / “Americana” bands over two stages. This is usually a great place to trawl for new talents, but not this year. David Wax Museum presented us with mock Mariachi, The Wild Reeds specialised in Coldplay-style soaring climaxes, Christian Lee Hutson was trying to be Andrew Combs and failing, Banditos were more banjo-thrashing and throaty vocals and as for Sam Outlaw, oh dear. Bland, good-looking young country singers, I’m so fed up with them. Whatever else this may be (and it may be commercially successful), it isn’t “outlaw country”. That I could handle. Things were redeemed a little by Daddy Long Legs and Daniel Romano, but they had both played the year before and so weren’t really “new”.

Well, okay, as I said, I started sxsw with flu but I don’t believe it tainted my experience and turned me into a grump. There definitely were positives to be found in the form of ubiquitous New Zealander Marlon Williams, whose songs actually sounded – phew – “different” and Canada’s Strumbellas, and “unique” is certainly a term you could apply to the brilliant BP Fallon, whose band currently includes Joe King Carrasco. The band to watch out of all this is Saskatchewan’s Kacy And Clayton, whose Fairport fixation permits them to write beautiful tunes, and Kacy Anderson had the voice of the week. In amongst all the rasping growls and yells of the other bands, her sweet, innocent tones stood out a mile.

 

 

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PJ Harvey – A Personal Gigography

I just found this article I wrote in late 2010, which I don’t believe was ever published. I have added a couple of more recent shows at the bottom. Coincidentally, we are now about to receive another new PJ Harvey album (due in April 2016).
Early in 2011, the new PJ Harvey album will be released. The title hasn’t yet been revealed but we are warned to look out for teaser ads to appear in the next few weeks. To coincide with that event, the band will do a warm-up gig somewhere just outside Bridport. They always do this, but if you really wanted to go to it, you’d pretty well have to move to Bridport. The only way these shows are ever advertised is by a small poster which appears the day before the show in Bucky-Doo Square, in the town centre.
I’m not a PJ Harvey obsessive, but I am a gig-going obsessive. There are plenty of artists I’ve seen fifteen times or more, and PJH is one of them. So when I was asked to write a piece about a favourite woman artist, my response wasn’t to delve into speculative analysis of PJ Harvey’s lyrics, relationships or preoccupations, but to try and remember every time I’ve seen her perform. For some reason, every occasion has been eventful in some mad way or other. Delving through the archives, I have found a few reviews from over the years, which I have also included.
14 December 1989
Railway Inn, Winchester
The first time I ever saw her was at a gig I promoted myself, at the Railway in Winchester. Back then, the venue was a skittle alley at the rear of the venue and you had to bring in the PA. The band was Automatic Dlamini, previously a three-piece from Yeovil. Now they had suddenly become a quintet and one of the band was a skinny girl with a big semi-acoustic guitar. She mainly lurked at the back of the stage but twice came forward to sing lead on her own songs. There were only about twenty people there but I remember my friend Paul nudged me and asked, “What is it about that girl?” “I don’t know”, I replied, “but if I wasn’t otherwise occupied, I’d ask her if she’d like a manager.” The only conclusion was that she had that “something” which marks out a star, and that it was noticeable even then.
11 January 1990
Joiners Arms, Southampton
A couple of weeks later, the band was back, this time at the Joiners in Southampton. I took along my newly-acquired second-hand video camera. This was a mind-bogglingly good performance and was as eventful as usual. Walking backwards to try and get a wider angle, I inadvertently leant against the bar of the emergency exit, which burst open, leaving me lying on my back like a beached whale in the alley beside the pub. The promoter, mindful of the noise and the neighbours, sprang across and slammed the door shut, unaware of my predicament. If it hadn’t been for the felt-tip mark on my hand, I’d have had to pay again in order to get back in.
21 December 1991
Joiners Arms, Southampton
The next time I heard of Polly Harvey was in a routine phone call to the Joiners, to arrange tickets for a gig by the West Country band the Family Cat.
“As you know, PJ Harvey is supporting.”
“Who?”
“You know, the girl from Automatic Dlamini. She’s got her own band now.”
I didn’t know. Things had moved on so fast. The industry frenzy was already beginning, the first single was already out, and most people in attendance that evening were there for the support band. Again, I had good reason to remember that night, not just because of the breathtakingly good performance by the tiny, leather jacketed, black-bunned figure fronting the power trio on stage, but also because I was very nearly killed. The Joiners was being renovated and there was a scaffolding tower rigged up in the hall to enable the builders to reach the ceiling. As the dancing reached a crescendo during “Sheela-Na-Gig”, one of the heavy iron bolts which hold bits of scaffolding together rolled off the platform and missed my cranium by a millimetre. After the show, my wife engaged drummer Rob Ellis in conversation about his newly-born baby, and we cooed over some photos. Very rock and roll. One thing was certain, though: we were dealing with a truly unique and amazing artist.
27 May 1991
Portsmouth Pyramids
28 May 1991
Bristol Bierkeller
Two gigs on successive nights? Here’s the story:
Having been at the Portsmouth concert, I was desperate to go to the Bristol show, not least because I wanted to hand out flyers advertising the new Automatic Dlamini album, which featured Polly. Family responsibility, however, really did mean that it wasn’t fair to go out two nights running. We planned to spend the day at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, but it rained so heavily that we were about to head for home.
“Of course,” I said to Birgit, “we could go and see PJ Harvey in Bristol.”
“Hmm … How far away is Bristol?”
“Oh, it’s er, quite near.”
Three hours later, I had to pacify them all by agreeing to put them up in a posh hotel while I headed to the Bier Keller. Luckily, the Holiday Inn was being renovated and did us a cheap deal.
FROM “SOUND INFO” MAGAZINE:
A balmy evening on the sea front at Southsea, and many, many people have come to see whether it’s true what they say about PJ Harvey.
Unceremoniously, they are on stage. Robert Ellis, a drummer who is in the process of redefining the art, is singing in an odd sort of falsetto in counterpoint to the instantly riveting Polly. It’s a song that represents the band well: It’s challenging but not intimidating, unconventional but not inaccessible. Straight on into “O Stella” and a particular note is the crispness and clarity of the sound in this most difficult of halls. Three or four songs into the set, the ice is broken in the simplest of ways: Polly, not given to conventional forms of Rock & Roll com­munication, gets drawn into a conversation with someone in the front row, who asks her how she’s feeling. In the most natural way possible, Polly finds herself actually talking, off mike, about how her day has gone. The audience melts, the tension snaps, both band and audience are just able to roll with this most meticulously organised but scrupulously honest music.
Polly is a real person. The band are real people. This isn’t show business and there’s nothing on display which isn’t utterly genuine. This, in the media’s rush to fit this unquestionably square peg into its required round hole, is what has been missed. in praising Polly’s achievements, there’s a definite implication that it’s all a bit surprising considering she’s not a bloke. The constant emphasis on the feminist aspect of her work is itself an act of sexism. Nobody has come near to describing the real magic, which is that, in a business which is all about performing, Polly is not putting on an act. Nobody’s taught her the notion of eye contact or the importance of a stage show. Nobody’s taught her or the others in the band what to write about or how to do it. The intense interest in PJ Harvey is there precisely because the idea of interest creation has never entered their heads.
This is the band in the best of health and, above all, only just beginning. Already there are at least four new top quality songs in the set that aren’t on the album. For a moment, it seems they won’t be doing the demanded encore. That would be wholly appropriate, for what they do is say: Here we are, this is what we do. Show busi­ness conventions have no relevance. In the event, they come back to perform the satisfyingly symmetrical “Water” but decline to milk the applause. Tomorrow is another night.
And what a night! Bristol is home ground and friends and family abound in the wringing wet and hopelessly overcrowded Bierkeller. The almost graspable love in the air produces a performance of even greater intensity. Polly’s old band Automatic Dlamini are also playing this time and there’s much emotional embracing going on. The feeling from the audience is one of total commitment, total support and above all, excitement that PJ Harvey are taking over the world and doing it on their own terms.
Intelligence. Integrity. Charm. Humanity. Emotion. Inventiveness. Courage. Optimism. Honesty. And this is pop music. I’ve seldom experienced anything so uplifting.
27 June 1991
Glastonbury Festival
The trio was on early in the afternoon on what was then called the NME stage. I remember that it was my children’s first exposure to the phenomenon of crowd surfing and their little eyes stood out on stalks.
22 May 1992
Southampton Guildhall
FROM “SOUND INFO” MAGAZINE:
Pure excitement coursing through the veins. grinning dippily at complete strangers. Hugging people you’d normally only shake hands with. Screaming for encores and only feeling embar­rassed afterwards. These are elements of that rare phenomenon, the truly magic gig. And this was one.
From the start it was clear that this marathon of an evening was going to be a challenging affair. There is a good reason for the rarity of rock events at the Guildhall, and the reason is its untamed acoustic qualities. Yeovil three-­piece Gutless, being given the break of a life­time, had brought along Dick Bullivant, producer of the first P.J. Harvey album, to sort out their sound. Unwisely and uncharacteristically, he chose to approach the problem by whacking everything up to brain-frying volume. In a masochistic way, it was sort of impressive. The band’s gimmick is to roar very loudly at various points in each song. The effect was of being trampled by a herd of raging bull elephants. The total absence of any light or shade made it impossi­ble to appreciate Gutless; nevertheless, their record may well be worth checking out. Meanwhile, even the most hardened gig-goers were to be seen reaching for the cotton wool.
Gallon Drunk also suffered from a (different) power-crazy soundman. The night before, they had played a blinder on Jools Holland’s TV show and expectations were soaring. Their new album, too, sees them moving on fast from their rockabilly roots into an eclectic area of true sophistication, full of atmosphere. The place to see them would be as headliners in a nightclub, because here the muzzy volume merely made every song sound the same. A pity, because they ooze character and have, in James Johnson, a true star in their midst.
The explanation for all this must have been good old rock and roll politics, because the headliners immediately had a perfect sound mix. Down went the volume, up went the clarity and definition, snap, crackle and pop went the mix and P.J. Harvey were in a perfect position to ful­fil everyone’s wildest dreams.
It’s been a pleasure indeed to see such enor­mous success coming to a bunch of people who so richly deserve it simply for being good. P.J. Harvey have created their own audience and have thus given the good hypers of Island Records the perfect subject on which to get to work. Nobody resents seeing the papers burst­ing with grovelling articles about this band because the press has come to the band rather than the other way round. Success has been achieved on their own terms and is based on sheer excellence and intelligence.
Fans of old were thrilled that the set still started with “Rid Of Me” (one of the most original songs this generation is likely to hear) and includes “Water”, and “Sheela-na-Gig”, show stoppers both. Of the newer songs, “Yuri G” stands out by virtue of its catchiness, while “50 Foot Queenie” is over before you can blink. While nothing could rival the Fall’s brilliant cover of “Lost In Music” (heard in Portsmouth earlier in the week) PJH do a good line in reconstituted cover versions· too: “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Wang Dang Doodle”.
The trio format of P.J. Harvey is not long for this world, but in the meantime, the musicianship is inspiring. Polly’s guitar playing, seemingly so casual, is actually a work of highly-crafted precision, and Robert Ellis makes all drummer jokes redundant. His crucially unique approach to backing vocals has also rewritten the book on such matters. Bassist Steven Vaughan, looking more and more like something out of Spy Vs. Spy, is the perfect foil for Polly’s increasingly deranged jumble-sale chic. We wanted Polly to take over the world and she’s done it. Now see what she does for an encore.
11 March 1995
Shepherds Bush Empire
Tricky supported at this show but I had a horrible experience. At the after-show reception, I approached some members of a band called Breed, whom I had seen, and liked, at the Joiners Arms, but the drummer was incredibly obnoxious, taking the piss out of me because of my age. This hateful person later joined Placebo, a band so terrible that he fitted in perfectly.
11 May 1995
Forum, London
My friend David was driving, but, having heard about road works on the M3, he decided to take an alternative route. In a moment of absent-mindedness, we got ourselves onto the M4, heading towards Bristol rather than London, with thirty-odd miles before the next exit. We only just made the show, and afterwards I was completely star struck by finding myself standing next to Jarvis Cocker.
24 June 1995
Glastonbury Festival
This was where the band, promoting To Bring You My Love, were on the main stage in the afternoon and Polly caused a sensation by wearing a pink catsuit and thumping the stage with a stick during Goodnight Irene. I think this may be the best PJH show I have ever seen. I’ve found a video clip, so see what you think:
5 October 1996
The Cavity, Bridport
Polly and John Parish made an album together called “Dance Hall At Louse Point”. They did a few shows to promote it, for which they warmed up in a tiny wine bar called The Cavity (wittily situated below a dentist’s surgery) in Bridport. We decided to make this a family day out, and booked ourselves into Fawlty Towers-style hotel called The Bull (now a “boutique hotel”) directly opposite the Cavity. First, we went for a walk at Eype, a secret, mystical pebbly beach nearby, and then, tired from the fresh air, all four of us fell asleep in the hotel room. We were woken from our slumbers in late afternoon by the strains of “Jesus, save me … “, wafting across the road from the sound check at enormous volume, stopping the shoppers on the market in their tracks. Magical.
Thousands of people would have given anything to have been there, and we were. What a gift for John to have given us. In the band were Jeremy Hogg, Rob Ellis, John, Polly and the brilliant Eric Drew Feldman from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. They took up more than half the room. We were crammed right up against the band, people were climbing in through the windows, and afterwards, all we had to do was stagger back across the road to bed. That evening had absolutely everything: It was a world debut, it was the best music I had heard in my life, it summed up what John and Polly had attained. And Polly, defying the industry rumours about her alleged state of health, sang like an angel. It couldn’t have been better.
8 October 1996
Fleece and Firkin, Bristol
You couldn’t miss the industry “buzz” here, with record company people swanning around everywhere. The band hated the T-shirts so much that they disowned them! The support band was dEUS, so it was quite an evening of quality.
6 February 1997
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
“Dance Hall At Louse Point” was being performed to accompany a dance production. The rather stuffy atmosphere was enlivened when a friend turned up with someone who wasn’t his wife. It caused us a brief worry but turned out to be innocuous.
3 August 1998
Bridport Arts Centre
We took along Hugh Coltman, at the time the singer with The Hoax, and had a lovely time in The George before and after the show. It was fun to watch the logistical aspects of getting an artic’s worth of gear into and out of a little chapel.
11 December 1998
Colston Hall, Bristol
This was a Winchester outing. Four of us drove down to Bristol and, as we emerged from the car park, someone threw an empty beer bottle at us from a passing bus. It smashed on the pavement, spraying us with glass. What a welcome, and truth to tell, the plushy environs made for rather a stiff show.
18 December 1998
Olympia, Dublin
I took along my Irish pal Brendan, a man so full of good-natured bullshit that he must have shagged the Blarney Stone rather than kissing it. Half way through the show, Brendan tugged at my sleeve:
“Look, up there on the balcony, there’s yer man.”
Crikey! Brendan was right. Sitting in one of the gilded boxes was none other than Bono, accompanied by his manager (and Polly Harvey’s) Paul McGuinness. This gave Brendan a characteristic idea, as, after the show, he tried to blag himself and me into an exclusive nightclub on the grounds that “Mr McGuinness is inside waiting for us”, Needless to say, this cut little ice with the security staff.
1 April 1999
Improv Theatre, London
John and Polly did a special duo show to celebrate John Peel’s 60th birthday. I have a recording of this show, which went out on Radio 1, but one unpleasant memory was the woeful performance by Echo and the Bunnymen. Ian McCullough was so out of tune, we had to be restrained from shouting abuse.
17 September 2000
Hope and Anchor, Bridport
18 September 2000
Bridport Arts Centre
I was working down in Bridport and my local of choice was the delightfully scruffy Hope and Anchor, so this was an ideal opportunity to further my pathetic journalistic career. I sent the review to the Independent on Sunday, who duly printed it, and I noted with pride that the yellowing clip remained on the wall of the pub for several years afterwards.
FROM THE “INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY”
It was Sunday lunchtime in Brid­port. In a room above the down­-at-heel but truly rock’n’roll Hope and Anchor pub, Polly Harvey and her new band have been rehearsing for the imminent promotion of their new America-friendly album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
This gig was the first time the five-piece band had played in public, and they were squeezed into the public bar of the back street pub, a space so small they were in danger of injuring each other with their guitar necks.
“What’s she loike?” enquired one red-faced cider monster from the back of the crammed room. “She’s a sweetie, a real sweetie,” replied his mate, from his viewpoint atop a table. In front of me, a gay couple cuddled; to my left a young reporter scribbled. Between the bar and the band, two white-haired elderly gentlemen were enjoying being pressed up against a group of attractive young ladies. A young lad threatened the drummer’s concentration by lean­ing in through the window from the street and interrogating him, mid­song, about his kit. A man with a spi­der tattoo on his neck was asleep on the bar. Polly asked for a round of ap­plause for the landlady Val, who had been making cups of tea for the band.
Soon they will be on the David Letterman show and playing the Viper Lounge, but at the end of this show a bucket went round, “to pay the band”; two-thirds of the audi­ence pretended not to notice it.
As the show finished, a man en­tered and asked: “Which is your strongest ale? I want something that’s going to put me on the floor inside two pints.” I’d already com­mitted a faux pas by asking for a half of the local Palmers Bitter. “Palmers? Don’t you bloody swear in here, young man.” Maybe the crime was only asking for a half.
The next morning a queue formed at the Arts Centre ticket office. “I’ll have 12 please,” said a woman who looked so little like a potential PJH fan that I was sure she would add “not for me, of course”. “Sorry,” was the reply, “it’s a maximum of six.” “Oh. Well, I’ll have six for me and six for my husband.” “All right then.”
A member of staff took a photo of the queue. “We’ve never seen one of these before,” he explained.
At that evening’s show the band were able to move about and looked less nervous, and Polly had changed from jeans into a psychedelic miniskirt. Soon, it will be rock venues and TV studios, not pubs and arts centres. But just for this weekend, for Polly Jean Har­vey, her band and her Dorset fans, the stories were all from the sea.
11 February 2001
Shepherds Bush Empire
Two friends, whose views I hold in great respect, walked out and went to the pub. The reason? The band had changed dramatically since the glory days (albeit this album was her most commercial and best selling). Two irritating grunge guitarists, one male and one female, ruined the band and also – heavens – tried to steal the visual limelight from Polly. The show started on a tremendous high with a solo Polly performing “Rid Of Me” and then went downhill.
24 August 2001
Reading Festival
I was there to review the festival for an American magazine and took the family along. John Parish was in Eels by this time and joined PJH on stage, being introduced by Polly as “less of a man, more of a God”! Unfortunately, Green Day were on immediately after PJH, so we were jostled by their impatient fans making lewd comments about Polly’s little gold dress.
15 August 2003
Eden Project, Cornwall
FROM “LOGO” MAGAZINE:
This must surely be the most stunning concert environment anywhere in the world, and the ticket price included admission to the sub-tropical domes which are already the UK’s top visitor attraction. Add in the lack of queues, the fresh air, the Cornish pasties and two great bands, and you have the sort of bargain that the average gig-goer never experiences.
After Elbow had played such a quietly honest, reflective and generally inspiring set that a good half off the audience will certainly go out and buy their new album, the stage was set for PJ Harvey’s first UK appearance in two years (apart from the traditional warm-up in Bridport the night before). In situations like this, expectations and hopes are so high that it almost hurts.
Elbow, with their brass and backing singers, had proved that more can sometimes indeed be more, but with P J Harvey, less has always been more. The return to the trio format has been dreamed of by fans for years, and with Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis being so unobtrusively spot on, this was the Polly Show in a big way. Within a few songs, it was obvious that this was to be her first-ever “greatest hits” set, which brought the already warm-hearted audience to a state of ecstasy. Opening with a quadruple whammy of “To Bring You My Love”, “Dress”, “Good Fortune” and “Oh My Lover”, Polly demonstrated a willingness to present her fans with exactly what they so crave to hear. In a performance spanning every album she has made (plus two enticing new songs – “Who the Fuck” and “Shame” in the middle of the set), she demonstrated how the stripped down format can actually benefit the songs, rather than detracting from them.
There were so many facets to this show that it’s very hard for a reviewer to convey them adequately. Who else could sing decade-old songs with such freshness and conviction? Who else could have musos drooling over her beautiful guitars and vintage amplification? Who else could ever carry off an outfit which makes your average tennis pro look like a Victorian prude, yet still not lose a hint of dignity?
I guess everyone present had particular favourites they were waiting for. Mine were “Water” and, oh joy, a first encore of “Angeline”. But not one second of this event (and that included the lengthy between-song tuning-up sessions) was anything less than totally compelling.
A uniquely brilliant artist has returned to bring light into everyone’s lives. Welcome back.
26. May 2004
Zodiac, Oxford
FROM: THE MID-HANTS OBSERVER
What would it be like? No one had any idea. Last time around, touring “Stories From The City”, Polly had assembled a pretty motley band which alienated many of her followers. Then, in Summer 2003, she hit the road with a classic 3-piece which really did the business. But now she’s gone and recorded an album all by herself. Could she come on like John Shuttleworth and do a solo show? Not as daft as it sounds, because nothing is beyond PJ Harvey.
There are scores of concerts planned for PJH this summer. Warm-ups are usually conducted in her home town of Bridport, but this time there has been a minor dispute with the locals on account of noisy rehearsals, so the faithful with their ears to the ground have congregated on Cowley Road, Oxford for the world debut of this new line-up. It’s nine o’clock and the mood is teetering on the edge of ugliness, as the crowd has been here since seven and there’s no support act and still no sign of any music. Frantic activity takes place around the rebellious keyboard stack in an attempt to coax it into life. “Sod the keyboards”, shouts someone, “Gerronwithit!”
And so they did. The new band turns out to be a quartet, with faithful (and brilliant) Rob Ellis on drums, a new guitarist called Josh Klinghoffer and the Fall’s bassist Dingo. They love their nicknames round these parts. Rob Ellis used to be called Rabid and long-term sound engineer Dick Bullivant rejoices in the soubriquet of Head.
Head is crucial to the success of this show. “Uh Huh Her” is quite a thin-sounding record and the band’s recent appearance on “Later” was almost tinny, but in the confines of this small venue, the huge volume and the outstanding echo effects make for a gigantic, deep sound which more than does justice to a long trawl through the best new songs and classics from the past, such as the evergreen “Dress” and a nicely lugubrious “Down By The Water”. Of the new songs, the single “The Letter” is a stunner, and “Who The Fuck” makes a lot more sense than on record. Polly herself (continuing her habit of singing without a guitar more often than with) is on ace form, and Klinghoffer is the best sideperson she has found since the much-missed Jeremy Hogg, despite the prevalent habit of continually swopping guitars with little noticeable effect on the sound.
For Polly Harvey and her band, it’s going to be a very long, hot summer, but the start could hardly have been better.
20 June 2004
Stadio Olimpico de Tennis, Rome
Quite a night. We had just got off a flight and took a taxi to this obscure part of Rome. Without any dinner, my wife drank three glasses of prosecco (the only drink available) and started bumming cigarettes off strangers (always a bad sign, as she doesn’t smoke). She finally ended up yelling “Badger” at the stage (a tradition at PJH Dorset shows but probably a bit of a puzzle to the assembled Romans). Afterwards, we talked to Rob Ellis, Dingo and Josh Klinghoffer. I can’t explain why this particular grungy, stage-rolling guitarist didn’t offend me at all, whereas the previous ones had. Now he’s in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
14 July 2004
Somerset House, London
A nice one to catch the train to, as it’s just by Waterloo. I remember being underwhelmed by support Morris Teper.
28 July 2007
Bristol
This was someone’s birthday party. Polly diplomatically altered the expletive-strewn lyrics of “A Woman A Man Walked By” and turned it into a sweet story about a hamster, much to the delight of the many small children present.
March 12 2009
Bridport Arts Centre
The second PJ Harvey and John Parish album was about to be released, and this was the warm-up show.
FROM: “RECORD COLLECTOR” MAGAZINE:
Among family and friends in this quaint converted chapel is the traditional point of departure for all PJ Harvey world tours. Addressing the wardrobe issues caused by her belted shroud with good humour, Polly was on sparkling form, safely surrounded by some outstanding musicians. Sporting more trilbies and mafia suits than a Leonard Cohen convention, John Parish and his colleagues helped Polly to take flight on almost all of the new album and, pleasingly, a good chunk of 1996’s Dance Hall At Louse Point. Extraordinary variety was the keynote, from the gentle falsetto of Leaving California, to the expletive-laden lunacy of A Woman A Man Walked By, and the genuinely barking Pig Will Not (yes, she barks). Particularly exciting was the revival of fantastic older songs, like the lugubrious Rope Bridge Crossing (one of the duo’s finest hours) and Circles Around The Sun. But most thrilling of all was the confirmation that music of this outstanding quality can still command a large, enthusiastic audience. A triumph all round.
March 18 2009
Stubbs Barbecue, Austin, Texas
An incredibly intense South By South West show. I think this was the last appearance of the “shroud”, which was restricting Polly’s movement, and the shows from then on were performed more naturally, barefoot in a black dress. I was in the middle of the crowd with Chris T-T and in just half an hour, they destroyed the ultra muso Texan audience. Next to us, there was a commotion and we worried something unpleasant was happening in the crowd, but actually it was an over-enthusiastic fan hyper-ventilating. I am hesitant about posting the video link, as the recording on my cheap camera is so poor, but I want to give you an idea of what it felt like to be in the crowd, so here it is:
April 21 2009
Shepherds Bush Empire, London
We were excited to get balcony seats for this one, with a great bird’s eye view.
July 9 2009
Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth
This was the only time I ever saw a PJ Harvey show which went less than well. She was warming up for Camp Bestival and the performance was the completely solo White Chalk show. Astoundingly, a large chunk of the audience rudely talked all the way through. Polly was visibly shaken and afterwards, the promoter told me she said she was thinking of quitting live performance. Of course this is unthinkable and isn’t true, as she is even now gearing up to tour the new album with a band consisting of herself, Mick Harvey, John Parish and drummer Jean-Marc Butty. Can’t wait!
October 31 2011
Royal Albert Hall
I went with daughter Lucy and we did that strange Albert Hall thing of sitting behind the band. I was in a minority of one in the entire world in thinking Let England Shake wasn’t the best PJ Harvey album.
February 4 2015
Somerset House, London
Even more peculiar: This was the one where you got to be part of an art installation by watching the band recording in a box. It was very funny, because John accused the band of sounding like Bad Manners!
Meanwhile, researching this article has finally allowed me to tot up how many PJH shows I have attended, and it comes out at thirty-two (so far). I’m not sure whether this is admirable or sad – probably a bit of both. Anyway, I don’t care!

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The History Of Corey Zander

Corey Zander, born Alexander Cruz, was the only son of Pino Cruz and his wife Aileen, delivered in their small house in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in January 1958. Corey’s great grandfather was a Choctaw Indian who had arrived in Oklahoma on the Trail Of Tears, the popular term for the forced relocation of Native American nations from the south east of the US in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The expression “Trail Of Tears” refers to the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831 from their native homelands in Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. Many of the relocated Native Americans, including Cherokee, Choctaw and Muskogee, died of starvation, exposure or disease on the cold and chaotic trail to Oklahoma. The Choctaw were the first to be removed and seventeen thousand families made the move to Oklahoma, originally called Indian Territory. Having effectively been ethnically cleansed, they eventually became known as the Choctaw Nation Of Oklahoma.

By the time Pino Cruz was born in 1938, the dustbowl existence of his family had become bearable, if hard. Pino himself was able, as an adult, to earn a tolerable living as a general handyman in and around Tahlequah, while Aileen looked after young Alexander. It was when Alexander was seven that Pino was accused of stealing from one of his clients. As it happened, it was a bottle of bourbon that went missing from a house where he was repairing the roof while the owner was out. He couldn’t deny it, as the bottle, now a couple of fingers lighter, was found at the bottom of his tool bag the next day, when the angry homeowner called in the police. Dissatisfied with the quality of Pino’s work, and probably looking for an excuse not to pay, the owner pressed charges on what was, on the face of it, a trivial case, and Pino was fined, but what was worse, disgraced within the local community, where the word spread that anyone who employed him was likely to get burgled.

There was another unfortunate result of his foolishness, as those few slugs of deadly liquid re-awoke an interest in liquor which had long lain dormant. Financial necessity and the strong disapproval of his wife, who was frightened of the effect of whisky on Pino’s temperament, had ensured many years of sobriety up to that point. It wasn’t quite on the level of Shakespearian tragedy, perhaps, but that light-fingered moment represented a significant turning point in Pino’s life. If he’d rationalized it, which he surely didn’t, he’d have said something like “What the hell, if I work hard and a small transgression can pretty much ruin my life, what exactly is the point?” Unable to find work, and finding the stress of responsibility for a young son tough to cope with, Pino took to thieving on a regular basis, using the proceeds to fund visits of varying success to a nearby Indian Casino. When he won, he would celebrate with whiskey. To his credit, he purposely didn’t drink in front of Alexander, keeping his binges until after the lad was in bed. It did mean that he was normally ill-tempered in the morning, but he wasn’t the kind of drunk who’d lay his hands on his wife or son. He just felt unhappy most of the time, and the atmosphere would surely have been bad enough to encourage Aileen to leave, if she’d had the choice. But she had nowhere to go.

It would have been advantageous from the point of view of creating a myth about the upbringing of the future rock star Alexander if his father Pino had died a violent death in a car crash or a bar fight, but the reality was more mundane. In 1968, when Alexander was just 10, Pino’s liver gave out and Aileen was left alone to look after the boy. By that time, the family had long since been forced to leave their small house in Tahlequah and now resided in a quite scruffy trailer in the woods near the Illinois River, just off Highway 62. But, as so often seems to be the case, the cliché applied that they were poor, but they were happy.

Aileen, who worked as many hours as she could get in a hair salon in Wagoner, not far from Tahlequah, had long harboured a wish to be a teacher. This was a wish that could never officially be fulfilled because of the lack of requisite qualifications, but it did come in useful when, almost inevitably, the teenage Alexander began to be an unreliable attender at school. It was a pain to get there, especially in winter, when a lengthy walk to the nearest road to pick up the school bus could be an unwelcome prospect in the early mornings. Aileen certainly didn’t sanction these absences, which were followed up half-heartedly by the school authorities, but she did believe Alexander’s pleas that he often felt unwell, with stomach pains and headaches. Please could he stay at home, just for today? Okay, just this once, dear, she would accept, realizing she would have to beg for extra shifts if she was to purchase more heating oil for the mobile home, which was isolated and could be bone-crackingly cold.

It was many years before the concept of home schooling became commonplace and monitored by education authorities, but in a way, Aileen and Alexander were pioneers in the field. Mathematics and particularly, literature were on the agenda, as Aileen made sure that the many absences from school were not to hinder Alexander’s education. He never told her, but in later life he realized that the stomach cramps were most probably caused by the sneering comments of his classmates about his poor home and his ostracized father. Yes, his therapist in the eighties would confirm, you were suffering from stress.

This was the pattern for much of Alexander’s teens. Most afternoons, Aileen would be collected by a work colleague for shifts at the salon, which would be the opportunity for her son to pick away at the various decrepit musical instruments his dad had left behind. Pino had claimed there was a rich musical tradition in his Native American background, but had shown little skill himself. Occasionally, as the alcholism took hold, he had deluded himself with the hope that he might be able to make some cash by performing in the bars of north east Oklahoma, but the bitter reality was that he could hardly play and he certainly couldn’t sing. Listening to Alexander, Aileen was surprised and gratified that maybe there was indeed a talent there, and that it had simply skipped a generation. It certainly wasn’t from her side of the family – white middle class with no musical instruments anywhere near their home – and Aileen was pleased to give Alexander every encouragement.

The teenaged Alexander tried out the banjo but found it displeasingly harsh and unyielding, at least in his hands. But armed with his dad’s ancient acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a holster he crafted himself from an old metal coat hanger, he could really fancy himself as a Bob Dylan figure, as he droned out folksy classics like “Down By The Riverside”, “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Oh Susanna”. He struggled with finger picking, so his style ended up pretty much as the kind of strumming beyond which most people’s guitar skills don’t develop. He even tried his hand at writing a few songs of his own, using his limited arsenal of chords, but really, he didn’t have much in the way of subject matter to work with. Aileen was impressed by these works of art and proud of her boy when he would play them to her on her return from work.

It was inevitable that Aileen would eventually meet a new man, and it brought a welcome change in circumstances to the small family. Lance Wilson was a friend of Aileen’s boss and ran a small diner in the centre of Tahlequah, aimed at the motorists and tourists plying the historic road Route 66, which ran right through the town. Lance, not long divorced, was an astute businessman and all-round good guy, and before long, life in the apartment above the restaurant was a good deal more comfortable and convenient than it had been in the trailer in the woods. The trailer was sold to a dodgy-looking couple who would doubtless use it as a drug den, but then that wasn’t the Cruz’s problem any more.

Aileen was now in a position to do more shifts and Alexander, recently turned sixteen, was able to earn some cash as well, by means of the traditional rite-of-passage of burger-flipping. He was no longer required to attend high school but he had survived that long on account of being unobtrusive and co-operative on the occasions he’d been there. He certainly never caused any trouble and in the main, teachers had been impressed by how he had dealt with his unconventional upbringing. Half-hearted attempts to persuade him to stay on for further education after high school failed, because, having moved into town, Alex (as he was now, more coolly, known) was in the process of developing a social life.

Alex hadn’t exactly been a loner, but living in the woods had made it hard to get out and about. Two other friends who had quit school at the same time as Alex were Jesse Allen and Mark Houghton. With a mutual interest in music, it was inevitable that they would form their first band together. Mark played fiddle, while both the others fancied themselves as guitarists. In the end, Alex conceded the more prominent rôle and agreed to teach himself double bass, on an ancient instrument that Lance Wilson bought for him from a second hand music shop in Tulsa.

Using the hours when the restaurant was closed, the trio christened themselves the Woodsmen in honour of Alex’s old home and rehearsed enough folk songs to be able to get some (unpaid) gigs in a couple of the local bars. Using their dubious carpentry skills, they even constructed a makeshift stage in Lance’s restaurant (which he predictably called Sir Lance-A Lot). They built up quite a following as passing truckers and local drinkers chomped their Lanceburgers and swigged their Route 66 beer.

And then … punk. Well, it happened to many bands around 1978. Not only were the Woodsmen planning to “go electric” and add drums, they were about to turn into a kind of band for which their particular corner of Oklahoma was unprepared. The way it came about was pretty fateful. A regular customer at Sir Lance-A-Lot, and indeed an occasional solo player there, was David Blue, drummer of a respected local soft-rock band called Bliss. It was David who told Alex about a show that Bliss had been booked for at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, opening for an English touring band. Would he like to come along for the ride? It promised to be something really special.

Alex was doubtful. Cain’s Ballrom, while a legendary venue, was known for Western Swing, a type of music that the Woodsmen were trying to get away from. But the idea of being an honorary roadie for the night, carrying in David’s drums and helping to set them up, was tempting. The date was January 11th 1978, the admission fee (from which Alex was excused on account of being “crew”) was three dollars fifty, and the headlining band, “all the way from London, England” was the Sex Pistols. The following night, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was to be the Pistols’ last-ever gig, but no one knew that at the time.

Presumably, some of the people in attendance had known roughly what awaited them. Certainly, Alex and the band were well aware of punk. He’d read interviews with the Ramones in Rolling Stone and had already booked tickets to see them, due to play at Cain’s a month later. The cool, high-energy rush of bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls was appealing to the teenage Woodsmen, feeling pretty isolated in their geographical and cultural backwater. Without the offer of a lift and a free ticket, Alex probably wouldn’t have bothered with the Sex Pistols, as their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t appeal to the musician in him, even though this was their first (and, as it turned out, only) American tour.

The band’s reputation had preceded them, and outside the quaint ballroom, quite a large crowd of banner-waving, bible-punching protesters had gathered in the road. Rural Oklahoma was a conservative and deeply Christian environment. One of the banners read, “Life is ‘Rotten’ Without God’s Only Begotten Jesus.”

The audience was an uneasy mix of punk followers, the normal Cain’s audience and the merely curious, some seeking trouble. There were also a number of journalists from national music magazines, and a smattering of undercover police, on the alert for any potentially lewd behaviour onstage. Alex was unaware of any of this, armed with a backstage pass and dutifully carrying in the drums in the freezing conditions; Bliss had barely made it to Tulsa though the snow.

The Pistols had arrived early. They’d driven overnight from Dallas, partly to combat the bad weather and partly because Johnny Rotten had allegedly smashed a Texan reporter’s camera and they were concerned about his wrath and the police’s. Bliss weren’t granted access to the Pistols’ dressing room, but they could hear them living up to their reputation, swearing and being contemptuous of any questions they were asked. Bliss performed a short and largely ignored set, and Alex was out front when the Pistols came onstage and blasted into their show. It was loud, it was rough and ready, but it certainly wasn’t chaotic in any unintended way. Like millions of other youths the world over, Alex had his life changed that evening, as Johnny Rotten leered into the microphone, Sid Vicious snarled and sneered, and Steve Jones studiously ignored an entire pitcher of beer that was thrown over him. This wasn’t just hype, it was pure excitement.

Afterwards, Alex witnessed Vicious and Rotten stubbing out cigarettes on their arms as their fee was counted out to them by venue manager Scott Munz, who was later quoted in the local press as considering them “blasphemous, provocative and irreverent”. These were all attributes which appealed to young Alex, and when he described his evening out to the other Woodsmen, the band’s change of direction became a matter of course. Within weeks, Alex had switched to electric bass, amps had been bought (Mark built his own cabinet), a drummer had been recruited, Jesse had switched from fiddle to electric guitar and the band name had been changed.

Was it arrogance, provocation or youthful idiocy which led them to christen themselves The Chocs? Jesse, too had a Choctaw family background and the name sounded to them both snappy and memorable. From a publicity point of view in the era of punk, they couldn’t have done better, but as soon as the first gig posters appeared (their slogan was “Chocs Away!”), there was outrage in the community. The Oklahoma Choctaw Historical Society declared it a slur on their traditions, while the Tahlequah Daily Press called for the group to be banned. In music business terms, it was a PR triumph: scandal and notoriety before the first gig had been played.

Checking out a rehearsal, in which he discovered that the cheery folk tunes had been replaced by aggressive, three-minute shoutalongs, Lance politely made clear that his restaurant would not be a suitable place for them to make their début. Business was tough at the best of times, and he certainly couldn’t afford a potential boycott. Although keen to support her son’s efforts, Aileen agreed, so the Chocs’ first gig took place at a local college (where the principal insisted they were billed merely as “special guests”, to avoid the posters causing further offence). Apart from a few scuffles and some derogatory comments from some of the male students, who didn’t like their girlfriends checking out the guys’ newly-purchased skinny jeans, it went well enough to generate the beginnings of a following. There was certainly no competition in the way of other punk bands in town.

Modelling themselves vaguely on the Ramones, the Chocs died their hair black and, doing their own bookings, played anywhere they could in the area. Playing various local roadhouses, they were generally received with hostility, but this merely helped to enhance their anti-establishment reputation). There were a few higher-profile gigs in places like Eureka Springs, over the border in Arkansas, and the Crystal Pistol, the newly-established punk venue in Tulsa. They even pitched for the Patti Smith Band support slot back at Cain’s Ballroom, but it was already taken. It was at one of their Crystal Pistol shows that they met Larry Goldberg, who was to become their manager and sign them to his Stud record label.

Larry fancied himself as in the same mould as Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records. Respected for his maverick personality and ability to find quirky and original new wave acts, Stein had built up a successful empire and Larry Goldberg planned to emulate him. He was actually a New Yorker but was visiting friends in Tulsa that night, and had read a news item in the local paper about the Chocs being pulled over on the highway on suspicion of dope possession. Nothing had been found, but the cops had allegedly pushed them around a bit and spoken to them demeaningly. Alex’s mum Aileen, by now becoming quite enthused about the following the Chocs were building, had written to a journalist under a pseudonym, complaining of victimization. This led to a nice piece of publicity for the band.

The police were probably a bit out of date in what they were searching for. Most of the hippie groups they were used to would undoubtedly have had a stash of weed somewhere in their van, but the Chocs were a high-energy band and needed to do a lot of late-night driving, so speed was their chosen stimulant. There were almost certainly some little pills flicked out of the window onto the grass verge as they were being pulled over. No matter, they got their piece in the paper and Larry Goldberg came to their gig.

It wasn’t particularly Larry’s style of music, but he was an astute impresario and could see which way the wind was blowing musically. The Chocs fitted the mould nicely and the next morning, over coffee in Lance’s bar, he offered the band a deal.

“Listen, boys, I can take you out of here and make you into stars.”

It was such a cliché that it was almost laughable, but the Chocs were willing, and – let’s face it – naïve victims.

“You mean we’ll be able to travel all over the world?”

“Sure thing. You guys are the future of the music business.”

A few days later, the contract arrived in the post. Cautiously, Aileen asked a lawyer friend to look it over. The friend was actually a real estate expert and found it hard to work his way through the dense music business legal terminology such as “points” and “redeemable but not recoupable”, but nevertheless declared that it seemed “all right”. All the song publishing was assigned to Larry. With local friends as witnesses, all four members signed the contract. Cue joy. It hardly seemed possible.

Larry had a record producer friend who had a studio in Oklahoma City, and, after a few weeks working on arrangements and rehearsing, the Chocs came up with ten songs which they considered representative, almost all of them three-minute rants with few chords, and therefore relatively easy to record. The line-up was now the classic rock group configuration: Two guitars, bass and drums. For the album title, “Rock With The Chocs” was rejected by consensus as naff and replaced by the hardly less naff “Don’t Knock The Chocs” – seen as having echoes of “Never Mind The Bollocks”. The song chosen for a single was the one which least represented their style – a stadium-style rock anthem called “Mad And Bad”, written by Alex, with a singalong chorus inaccurately plagiarized from John Lydon. The day after Alex had seen the Sex Pistols, they had played their last ever show, in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten famously signed off with the question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” In Alex’s song, it came out like this:

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had? Baby baby, I’m mad and I’m bad.”

No one had jobs they were committed to, so when Larry recommended relocating en masse to New York, the Chocs were up for it in a big way. The loft apartment they were installed in seemed to be mysteriously rent-free. It was a long time before they realized that this was just one of the many items being put down by Larry as recoupable expenses, but for the time being, life was sweet. Larry’s contacts book was strong enough to secure them a residency at the legendary CBGBs and regular shows at other significant New York venues. When he sent them on a coast-to-coast tour, all meals and motels were paid for even though the fees at the murky fleapit venues they played were tiny. The euphoria when “Mad And Bad”, on the Stud label, peaked at number 42 in the Billboard charts on the back of an interview in Rolling Stone and a healthy amount of radio airplay, was enough to make the Chocs feel they had truly arrived. Back in Tahlequah, the Daily Press suddenly had a new attitude to them: “Chocs Away! Local band storms US charts.”

Alex expressed quiet satisfaction to his mother.

“I thought I could write songs, Mom, and now I’ve proved it.”

Although he normally co-wrote the band’s songs with Jesse, “Mad And Bad” had been a solo effort, a throw-away idea, really. Alex was confident that the songwriting royalties would soon start to flow.

“I’ll share it with the other guys, Larry, they deserve a cut too.”

“Yep, it won’t be long before the cheques will start to arrive.”

In the meantime, however, all four Chocs were busy being very stupid and above all, in the tradition of young, naive rock groups, boringly predictable. Cocaine was de rigeur for almost all rock bands at the time, but not everyone went further. Alex was foolish, but, in his defence, many young musicians of that era really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. He first tried freebasing crack in the Château Marmont Hotel in LA after a gig at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The singer of the headline band told him he just had to give it a go, and wouldn’t believe the high that could be achieved. Everybody was doing it, even venerable elder statesmen of rock like David Crosby, so it didn’t seem much more significant than slamming down a Tequila. The band members’ consequent mood swings and volatile behaviour (all the Chocs indulged to varying degrees apart from Mark, and even he developed an alcohol problem) meant that further fame or fortune were doomed never to materialize. Their live performances became unreliable, their second single made no ripples and “Don’t Knock the Chocs” was a sitting duck for the barbed-pen music critics, who gave it a royal trouncing as naïve and derivative.

An inability to deal with drugs wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll feature of Alex’s personality. He indulged enthusiastically in the delights of the flesh too. The groupie scene offered itself to him and he certainly wasn’t going to decline. But sometimes, he would take liberties which went beyond casual sex. On one occasion, in Detroit, he had to get out of town fast when a furious father with a gun was after him for allegedly going too far with an under-age girl who had resisted his advances. He’d misunderstood her flirtatious behaviour as being an invitation for sex, and didn’t like it when she was reluctant. “I thought she was asking for it,” he told the other Chocs.

The cool intelligentsia of the New York music scene had no place for these literal hicks from the sticks, so it wasn’t really a surprise when, in March 1981, they were called to Larry Goldberg’s Manhattan office.

That was the day when the Chocs realized that they really should have looked into their contract in more detail. The second album which they had been looking forward to recording turned out merely to be an “option”, that Larry could have taken up if he’d wanted to. The publishing rights for their songs rested with Larry too, with only a tiny percentage due to the writers, and in any case, any royalties due from record sales or publishing had long since been eaten up by their day-to-day expenses.

“Boys, you have no idea how much I’ve invested in this project.”

“But we’re the ones who’ve done all the work.”

“Without me, you’d never have had the work in the first place. You’ve had a great time, you’ve travelled all over the States, you’ve been on the radio, you’ve even had a hit record. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be doing dead-end jobs in Tahlequah. But the time has come where I’ve got to cut my losses. I’m sorry, boys.”

The way Larry presented it, he’d been doing the band a massive favour by enabling them to pursue their brief career.

For the three other Chocs, it was the end of an adventure they’d never really planned in the first place. Mark, Jesse and drummer Brian returned to their families in Oklahoma, got jobs and continued to play local venues in amateur bands. Alex however, decided to stay in New York.

It had been while attending an acoustic show in the Bottom Line Club in Greenwich Village that Alex had got chatting with the girl doing the door. Molly was a pretty art student and also a part-time musician who was aware that Alex had been a member of a “signed” band. Before long, they were partners in life (Alex moved into Molly’s tiny apartment in the Bowery), in music (they started writing and performing together) and yes, in crime (they bonded over a shared interest in hard drugs, specifically heroin, onto which Alex had moved in the wake of the band’s split-up.). The couple eked out an existence doing poorly paid support slots as an acoustic duo, but that wasn’t enough to live on. Their reputation around town became that of a surrogate Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, as they eventually ended up emulating the likes of Peter Perrett and Johnny Thunders in a sordid lifestyle funded by their own dealing. That old cliché about how you have to hit rock bottom before starting to climb back held true for the pair, who were struggling to cope when their baby daughter, Lucy, was born in October 1983.

Keen to meet her granddaughter, and unaware of the lifestyle change that had affected her son, Aileen drove all the way to New York to bring the young family home to Tahlequah for Christmas. That something was wrong soon became obvious. Unmistakable clues were a lethargic baby, a mother who kept dozing off, and a father who had to make regular trips to visit unidentified “friends”, usually late at night. All those fears about what might befall her son in the Big City seemed to have been justified.

Things had been looking up for Aileen and Lance. They’d gone into business together and their Sir Lance-A-Lot brand had expanded into a small chain of outlets; the concept of burgers and live music had caught on. Shocked and ashamed at what had befallen Alex, Lance was at least in a financial position to offer his adopted son and his new family a spell in a local rehab facility. Feeling less anxious back in his childhood environment, Alex was in a good position to summon up the willpower required, but Molly’s attempts at withdrawal soon petered out. The lure of heroin was so strong that, after a few weeks, she opted to return to New York and the oblivion it offered.

Against all advice, and contrary to Alex’s wishes, Molly took the infant Lucy with her, but it wasn’t long before Lance again had to head up to the Big Apple to retrieve the child. After a couple of months, poor Molly was dead, found slumped in the rest-room of the Max’s Kansas City after taking an overdose. Nobody knew whether it was intentional or not.

With Alex away in rehab, Aileen unexpectedly found herself being a mother again – this time to her granddaughter. Little Lucy, often parked in a buggy in the office from where Aileen administered the Lance-A-Lot empire, gradually regained health. Alex took months to get over the death of Molly, but in a way the pointlessness of it galvanized him, until he was eventually able to resume fatherly duties and effectively start his “solo career”, touring the Lance-A-Lot chain with an acoustic guitar, doing a set of originals and a few covers by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. The climax of each show was, inevitably, a singalong version of “Mad And Bad”, the nearest thing Oklahoma had to a state anthem until, many years later, the Flaming Lips released “Do You Realize?” Predictably, the lyrical preoccupations of Alex’s songs tended to centre around the torment of withdrawal, the cruel vagaries of the music business, the agony of lost love and the joys of fatherhood.

A second try at stardom wasn’t on the agenda at all until Green On Red hit Oklahoma City in mid-1985. Country rock and its indie branch-offs had attracted Alex’s interest and his set already contained Byrds and REM covers, so he drove over to see the pioneering Los Angeles band, unattractively classified by the press as “cowpunk”, or more coolly as the “Paisley Underground”, having been joined in 1985 by Chuck Prophet for the “Gas Food Lodging” album. In a corridor after the gig, Alex bumped into Green On Red’s front man Dan Stuart and their brief conversation about music was enough to convince Alex that his next step would be to form a psychedelic country rock band back in Tahlequah.

From the original Chocs, both Jesse and Mark were interested. Alex purchased a 12-string Rickenbacker and switched from bass to lead guitar. A drummer called Will Sharp was recruited via a notice in the local music store, and once again, the search was on for a name. This time, it was easier and less controversial. Gram Parsons was the acknowledged king of country rock and “gram” was a drug measurement, so The Grams was a cool name with all the requisite rock and roll connotations.

Things moved fast. The country rock that the Grams were playing chimed exactly with what the music industry required at that moment, and by mid-1986, they had completed tours supporting REM and the Dream Syndicate and also been signed by a proper label, a subsidiary of A & M. Their first album, “Desert Grave”, largely written by Alex, while not charting, hit all the right notes with publications such as Melody Maker and NME in the UK. They even made the front cover of “Sounds”, although not with a photo, just a flash heralding an interview on page 6. Ironically, despite being recognized far more in Europe than in the US, they never got to tour over there, partly for financial reasons and partly due to managerial incompetence.

The Grams were dropped in 1990, having only got as far as demoing their second album but not recording it. They hadn’t hit major headlining status, but they had certainly achieved respectability. Sales, however, were more important to the record company than the much-coveted kudos of a “cult following”. But without that cult following, Corey Zander would never have reached Wikipedia. Alex’s friends had called him Zander for years, and Corey Zander was his idea of a cool country rock name. He adopted it when the Grams were signed, partly to avoid unwelcome comparisons with the Chocs, and partly to draw a line under his previous espousal of the darker side of rock and roll. The Grams were a band that was entirely free of hard drugs, although none of them were averse to the odd slug of bourbon to help out with onstage confidence, and calming joints were a familiar feature of the dressing room.

The Grams had spent time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but their base had always been in North East Oklahoma. Thus, Corey (as he was forever henceforth to be known) remained close to his daughter Lucy, with Aileen helping out when the band was on tour. But many of the musicians Corey was meeting on the road hailed either from Nashville or Austin, Texas. Corey felt that Nashville was probably a bit “straight country” for him, but Austin, the self-appointed “live music capital of the world”, was an alluring prospect. Still not comfortable with the prevalent right-leaning, church-orientated ethos of Tahlequah, Corey was intrigued by tales of this liberal-minded University city where music was king. Austin, so he was told, was home to hundreds of music venues and like-minded blues and roots musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan (the most famous), along with the likes of Joe Ely, Doug Sahm, of course, Willie Nelson. It sounded very much like the kind of place he’d like Lucy to grow up in. Corey relocated to Austin in 1991, never to return and has resided there as a minor luminary of the Austin scene ever since. He lives there quietly with Lucy, who grew up in a laid-back atmosphere near the bohemian South Congress area, filled with music bars, where Corey plays to this day.

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Me ‘n’ Bob

So many people have asked “How was Bob?” that maybe a full blow-by-blow is in order. Well, I was away when tickets went on sale and so missed out. But as the day grew nearer, my head began to fill with romantic, and probably completely wrong, ideas that maybe it was his first visit down here since the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1969. Something was drawing me to this show, probably all the good reviews from the rest of the tour. I drew the line at the tickets on secondary sites, some costing hundreds of pounds, and approached my trusty friend Pat Muldowney, guru of all things Southampton related. Within hours, he had found someone who had a face value ticket to sell. All I had to do was find this guy and pay him sixty quid. Easy.
And easy it was. You know those days when everything goes right (as opposed to the more common ones, where everything goes wrong)? Well, this was one of the former. I love travelling by bus so wandered down to Shawford to catch the Bluestar Number 1 to Southampton. Birgit can’t understand why I didn’t just drive, but it’s part of the adventure. Besides, it’s free! This journey was a great advert for the UK’s dire transport system, as the double decker was clean, modern, punctual and had both wi-fi and phone charging docks.
As we meandered though Chandlers Ford, the bus got fuller and fuller. These were people returning home after work and none of them had English as their first language. As a linguist and devoted multiculturist, I loved listening to the various languages and trying to work out what they were. The bus deposited me outside Turtle Bay, the bar recently notorious in the press for a violent assault. This was where I was supposed to meet my ticket provider and luckily all was quiet. After rejecting the red carnation option, we had agreed we’d each wear a blue hat, and it worked impeccably as recognition was instant. Pat had charmingly told me he’d rather insert a cactus in his foreskin than listen to Bob Dylan, but my seller’s reason for selling the ticket was more mundane: His girlfriend had a cold. I didn’t really see what difference that would make, so grabbed the ticket quickly before he could change his mind.
Heading over to Burger King for something to sustain me, I was saddened not only by the huge number of very drunk people around at seven o’clock but also by much larger numbers of homeless people on the street than I’ve ever seen in Southampton before. I resolved to increase my annual donation to Crisis, for whom my friends Phil Campbell and Kati Turner work tirelessly each Christmas.
A quick beer was taken in what used to be The Cellar (scene of the infamous Chuck Prophet stolen folder). It’s now a burlesque bar and was doing Carlsberg for £2.50 a pint. How does that work? Outside the Guildhall was Bob’s transport: Three full size artics, one smaller lorry and a coach. The production turned out to be quite low key so it was hard to imagine what these vehicles contained. I arrived at 7.31 and the show had already started. I immediately got into big trouble for not noticing the sign that said no photography as I tried to get a snap on my phone and was immediately berated by a terrifying security guy who looked as if he was about to rip my head off. People all round were sniggering and pointing, so I took my blue hat off in the hope that it would act as a disguise. And on the subject of people, it was the usual motley collection caused by the lottery of who had been quick enough to buy tickets. The majority were male, old and scruffy – just like me. A few had brought their kids and – yes – there was a healthy smattering of people talking throughout the entire set. This really did seem sacrilegious to me, after spending all that money for a one-off experience, so I had to move around a few times to find a quiet spot. Almost everyone seemed uncomfortable in a standing venue, with some looking as if they wouldn’t make it through and the queue for the interval loos (the male ones for the bladderly challenged) about a mile long.
One excellent thing was the sound engineers’ ability to overcome the notoriously dire acoustics of the Guildhall. This they did by keeping the volume right down, and all credit to them for that. The first set was a precise 45 minutes, the interval a precise 20 minutes, the second set a precise 45 minutes and the encore a precise 10 minutes. Bob was heading for his bed by 9.30, something which I guess, at 74, is highly recommended.
I am by no means an expert on Bob Dylan. I did see him once before, in an afternoon show at Glastonbury Festival in 1998. He was going through a country blues phase and played a Telecaster throughout and was great. Tonight, he switched between statuesquely singing without any instrument but a harmonica and walking over to a grand piano between songs. This was done to the accompaniment of tuning-up noises from his band. I was attracted to this tour because normally the critics have complained about his concerts being shambolic, out of tune, his voice shot away, etc., etc., while in this case he’s being praised for subdued musicianship and professionalism. The vibe reminded me of shows I have seen in recent years by Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, with a band of immobile session players in uniforms playing deliciously tightly controlled music with little sense of emotion. The contrast with the previous night, where vintage musicians Dan Baird And Homemade Sin, despite their advancing years, were hurling themselves round the stage like teenage punks, was very clear. That was a lot more exciting, but somehow I love both approaches. There is so much to admire in the mournful sound of a languidly played pedal steel guitar. Being in the presence of a world legend of music felt good too, and I felt quite tearful at some of the beautiful standards from “Shadows In The Night” (“What’ll I Do?” is still in my head 24 hours later). The approach to these songs just exuded honestly and integrity. It was also fun trying to spot the two Dylan classics included in the set (“Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowing In The Wind”), rearranged almost beyond recognition but still brilliant.
And then they were gone, and some of the audience, perhaps less versed in what to expect, were feeling short changed on the hit record front. That was very sweetly sorted out by a Dylan tribute busker playing at the front of the venue behind the artics after the show, attended by probably about a quarter of the audience. I had fifteen minutes before the return bus so hung around as well. The atmosphere was great and all credit to the Guildhall and Bob’s people who could easily have moved him on but didn’t. Unless, of course, he’s on the payroll and it happens every night but that I do not know.
The Number 1 deposited me punctually back at Shawford in time for a quick pint at The Bridge. It had all been fabulous.

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sxsw 2015

In the traditional attempt to find a new approach to reviewing sxsw, here’s an artist-by artist list of everyone we saw, in chronological order.

QUIET LIFE (Patagonia)

This was within 45 minutes of landing at Austin Bergstrom airport. Quiet Life, from Portland, Oregon, entertained a range of families in a clothes shop. Only in Austin …

SONS OF BILL (Red 7)

A typical Red River dive. Over the road, a huge queue was trying to get in to see local hero Gary Clark Jnr – and this was before the festival had even officially started.  SOB’s good songs were slightly blighted by a disinterested audience.

LAURA MARLING (Convention Center)

Major artists do little twenty minute shows for the media during the day in the plush Convention Center. It’s always hard to generate any atmosphere here but even taking that into account, this was a weak performance, characterised by mistakes and fluffs and a piss-poor band. What do people see in her?

AMERICAN AQUARIUM (Dogwood)

A slightly sub Springsteen performance by a hot new band from North Carolina. I spent most of the time trying to find some shade from the blazing sun.

FRANK TURNER (Cedar Street Courtyard)

I have a problem in that I am supposed to worship Frank Turner just like everyone else does. Of course I want to be proud that he allegedly comes from Winchester, but I just loathe his shouty-strummy style and I am ambivalent about his background, especially now I’ve read his autobiography. But in fairness, I thought I should give him another go. A mistake. One of the best venues in Austin, though.

MILKY CHANCE  (Cedar Door)

Not the sort of band I normally would go and see – German hip-hop. But they were great and we benefited from loads of promotional freebies – I walked away with eleven pairs of sunglasses.

THE CRIBS (Clive Bar)

This involved a long walk, but I had a hankering for some nice melodic post-Ash power pop. Why bands like The Cribs bother to come to events like this I’m not sure, but I’m glad they do.

THE LOST BROTHERS (Capital Cruises)

No sxsw would be complete without a river cruise, and this one featured this friendly Irish duo and also Will Sexton (brother of Charlie). Great way to spend breakfast.

SUZY BOGGUSS (Broken Spoke)

Would never miss the annual Twangfest, held in Austin’s most iconic venue. Straight country to two-step to.

AMY SPEACE (Broken Spoke)

She and her band had literally just arrived in Austin and were just getting going.

CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS (Broken Spoke)

They just tore the place apart. This was the beginning of the slippery slope that led to us following Chuck around rather than actually reporting on other acts. They were so ridiculously good, it was impossible to resist.

JOSH SAVAGE (Driskill Hotel)

Now here’s a guy from Winchester I don’t mind bigging up. Young singer Josh acquitted himself admirably in the poshest of venues.

SKINNY LISTER (Lamberts)

I literally stuck a pin in the schedule and spotted a band name I recognised. Hugely impressed by their wildly uninhibited energy. And they’re British!

CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS(Continental Club)

This was actually the least impressive Chuck show, because it was the official showcase and far too loud. However, the unexpected appearance of iconic rapper Bushwick Bill livened up proceedings.

BRONCHO (Hotel San José)

The heavy rain drove us to spend the whole afternoon here. It was a good decision. This was some New Orderish post-punk from Oklahoma.

HOUNDMOUTH (Hotel San José)

Had been hoping to see this stylish band and up they popped. They were on Letterman a week later.

THE ZOMBIES (Hotel San José)

Yes, you read that right. Sixties legends (especially in the States) sparked mass adulation in the drizzle. Who’d have thought that the best voice of sxsw 2015 would be Colin Blunstone? Totally fabulous singalong session.

SONS OF BILL (Lucky Lounge)

Thisis a super cool band but again, they suffered from a rowdy audience. One girl fell unconscious from her stool and crashed into me.

ANDREW COMBS (Lucky Lounge)

How sad that Ian McLagan wasn’t here to do his traditional Lucky Lounge shows. Andrew was fine but it’s a strangely laid-out venue and I was glad to see him properly the next day.

CHUCK PROPHET AND THEMISSION EXPRESS (Brooklyn Cantina)

Absolutely storming. Despite the cold and the rain and even a dud PA, they produced one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. And you know, I’ve seen a lot.

DANIEL ROMANO (Brooklyn Cantina)

Laconic country stylings on the front porch of the same venue. They did cactus tacos and luscious beer there.

THE MASTERSONS (Brooklyn Cantina)

Officially the hardest-working duo of sxsw 2015, they are always cheerful and never flag.

DADDY LONGLEGS (Brooklyn Cantina)

If you have been missing the Legendary Shack*Shakers (I have), these are the guys for you.

ANDREW COMBS (Brooklyn Cantina)

This guy has a big future. I’m going to try and book him.

CHUCK PROPHET AND THEMISSION EXPRESS (Brooklyn Cantina)

I know it’s ridiculous, but we simply hailed an Uber cab and followed them!

ELLIOTT BROOD (Swan Dive)

Always lovely to met up with our friends from the great Canadian label Six Shooter. Although the Brood are strictly speaking now on another label, they were guesting here. Shall we say, a certain amount of alcohol was consumed.

WHITEHORSE (Swan Dive)

Finished this year’s sxsw with the ever-excellent Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland in their new electronic format, which is deservedly making them stars.

Of course, we also saw probably twenty more bands whose names we didn’t catch (for example, several more on the boat trip). The next day was spent on a swing on someone’s front porch in the sunshine. And then I flew home. I always say it, but this REALLY was the best one ever – mainly thanks to Chuck.

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Bob Frank and John Murry

Your blood may run cold but it’’s a heart-warming story. 63 year old Bob Frank’’s first and last album was released by the Vanguard label in 1972. Although he never stopped writing songs, he has spent the entire interim working in Oakland as an “irrigation specialist”. This is not the sort of person who, in an industry obsessed with youth and fashion, could reasonably be expected to sign a record deal in 2007, let alone be taken up as the darling of Rolling Stone and Uncut magazines. Yet this is what has happened.

Catalyst in all this is 27 year old John Murry, on the face of it a fearsome man-mountain, who was introduced to Bob Frank as a potential cure for depression following his move to San Francisco (where both can now be found). Immediately tumbling into a love-hate-love-hate relationship (the old ‘can’’t live with or without you’ syndrome), they first of all grew some poppies and then started to write together. The project was to create a canon of murder ballads which nodded in the direction of tradition, but which were based on their own historical research. Thus, the album contains songs about an unrepentant killer (“Boss Weatherford, 1933), about two contrasting lynchings (“Tupelo, Mississippi, 1936” and “Jesse Washington, 1916”) and a legendary Mexican Robin Hood (“Joaquim Murietta, 1853”).

Bloodthirsty, of course, but with a strangely alluring beauty all of their own, the ballads on “World Without End” are encased in sumptuously inventive arrangements by Murry and producer Tim Mooney (American Music Club), but live, they operate as a duo, with Murry’’s scratchy electric guitar inter-acting with Frank’s more traditionally picked acoustic. “”This guy came up to me after a show and accused me of ruining the songs by turning up my volume and drowning out Bob because I was supposedly in a bad mood”, complains John, in a manner that suggests that the audience member should really have kept his mouth shut. “”He didn’t understand that this violent juxtaposition of sound is exactly what we are trying to create.””

And it undoubtedly works. The combination of the grizzled gentleman with the acoustic and the terrifying grunge-rocker (actually a sensitive intellectual with a strange way of showing it) makes for a stage show like you’’ve never seen. Plus, they both have contrasting but equally mellifluous voices. As they brought their songs to a completely unprepared but soon converted European audience (the pair had never previously stepped outside the US), there were numerous cultural divides to be bridged but, as it should be, the music did the talking and the unique, unstudied nature of the characters triumphed. There’s always the danger with these things that there’’s an element of artifice involved, but talk to these two for a couple of minutes and you realize that they are the real deal, innocents abroad almost, and all the better for it. They certainly don’’t belong in the superficial world of the music industry.

Bob is resolutely laid-back about the project. ““It was John’’s idea to write the songs but we wrote them together. John is the creative impetus, hell, he came up with all the instrumentation, he even did all the design work. If I hadn’’t met this guy, it would never have happened.””

John: “”The original idea was to record old murder ballads, but Bob writes story songs anyway, so it just sort of came together. They are as factually accurate as we could make them, but some have different historical versions and others are legends. ‘Bubba Rose’ actually happened, we know that for sure.””

These guys are on an adventure which is the stuff of dreams but they remain blissfully unaware, taking each day as it comes and trying hard not to make reality out of art by actually murdering each other. How it all pans out is set to be one of the most intriguing episodes in recent musical history.

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