As it’s that kick in the pills that serves as a reminder that the weekend is over that’s also known as Monday, it feels like a fitting moment to come down from tripping the cosmos collate some of those tunes that I’ve been enjoying of late in the hope that others dig them too.
Top Drawer – Song of a Sinner
I’ve been listening to a lot of Vietnam-era tunes lately (more on which to follow) and I guess the algorithm overlords of Spotify decided I’d enjoy this. They were right. Top drawer (pun intended) garage / psych rock from 1969 of which I know nothing about other than I dig it, man.
Pink Floyd – The Gold It’s In The… (2016 remix)
On a very similar vibe – and bypassing the fact that Roger Waters has travelled so far up his arsehole he’s come out as a Russian apologist for a moment – I’ve been enjoying some of the Early Years takes from Pink Floyd lately and Obscured By Clouds being one of those albums often overlooked it’s always worth revisiting a tune where Gilmour gets to break loose for a few bars.
Blondshell – Sepsis
This is one of those examples of not judging books etc etc…. I saw the name ‘Blondshell’ in one of those ‘artists to look for in 2023’ lists at the end of last year and scrolled on as it was sandwiched between some of those rappers with ‘Lil’ or ‘Big’ and numbers in their names and I figured it was more of the same. However, I went back to the list and read ‘brutally frank, distorted guitar-driven’ and started listening. Sabrina Teitelbaum – who performs as Blondshell – was en route to becoming a pro pop music writer before dropping out and writing her own stuff on a more alt leaning which means there’s a clear songwriting sensibility stapled to that aforementioned ‘distorted guitar-driven’ vibe that makes for great listening.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – The Trip to Pirates Cove
I’ve been listening to a lot of later-period Tom Petty on the road lately. The inbuilt chill to his voice serves as a perfect counterpoint to the throb of the Ferrari’s V12* that helps take the edge off the cocaine. For reasons unknown it took me a long time to get to Mojo (well, I guess the reason was the disappointment of The Last DJ) but it’s a real resurgence of a record and I love both the overall vibe of this one but especially the lyric “she was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line in my face.”
Gretel Hänlyn – Wiggy
I’m determined not to be one of those guys that once the mid-40s arrive they adopt the ‘no music worth listening to has been made since 199X’ and I’m constantly keeping an ear out for stuff that has a vibe I can plunge into. I can’t tell you anything about Gretel Hänlyn – who I caught on the radio – other than she’s a 20 year old singer / songwriter / guitar player from London. Obviously there’s a big 90’s guitar element to this that’s probably why it caught my ear and I’ve come to terms with the fact that, given the age of a lot of current new bands I’m digging, it’s likely that they’ve been taking inspiration from their parents’ record collections.
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
The cub has some very specific requests when it comes to music to listen to and when he recently requested we pick up a 3-disc ‘Classic Blues’ comp I didn’t have any objections and this tune is always a stone-cold killer.
From the PR:“Fear blisters through this town like a fever…
When Teddy Colne arrives in the small town of Rye, he believes he will be able to settle down and leave his past behind him. Little does he know that fear blisters through the streets like a fever. The locals tell him to stay away from an establishment known only as Berry & Vincent, that those who rub too closely to its proprietor risk a bad end.
Despite their warnings, Teddy is desperate to understand why Rye has come to fear this one man, and to see what really hides behind the doors of his shop.
Ada moved to Rye with her young son to escape a damaged childhood and years of never fitting in, but she’s lonely, and ostracised by the community. Ada is ripe for affection and friendship, and everyone knows it.
As old secrets bleed out into this town, so too will a mystery about a family who vanished fifty years earlier, and a community living on a knife edge.
Teddy looks for answers, thinking he is safe, but some truths are better left undisturbed, and his past will find him here, just as it has always found him before. And before long, it will find Ada too.”
Two things drew me to this book. First – it’s published by Orenda Books and there’s not a book on my shelves with their logo on the spine that I haven’t enjoyed. Secondly, it’s set in Rye. Rye is a small, picturesque town that’s not too far from where I sit and type and, once upon a time, was once. coastal port. It’s one I’ve visited often and happened to have done so just before my copy of So Pretty arrived – massive thanks to Karen at Orenda for sending this one over. It’s certainly changed the way I’m going to be looking at the town next time.
So Pretty is one hell of good book. I cannot think of the last time I was so gripped by a story, or swore under my breath quite so often while reading, or wondered how many more times the hairs on the back of my neck were going to stand up before I reached the end of this novel.
Just as “there is something malignant” about Berry & Vincent, the curio shop that haunts the heart of this novel from which a sense of unease seeps, there’s a deliciously chilling sense of foreboding that seeps out of the pages of So Pretty. And then… well… it dials up the chills with a literal “say Daddy” shudder of a shocker and changes gear as foreboding breaks into full on sinister thrill ride.
It’s a challenge not to give away too much of So Pretty‘s plot away here because this is a ride every reader should take. It’s like a literary roller coaster – that long, drawn out pull up to the peak where you feel the tension rising in as you teeter at the top, realising that Teddy might not be all there, before the sheer, heart-pumping acceleration, twists, turns and terrifying moments that follow. You want to close your eyes and not look but you can’t; it’s just too damn gripping and thrilling as So Pretty races through heart-in-mouth moment after another until it reaches the end and you put the book down, realise you haven’t been breathing for a few moments and almost immediately want to read it again.
Ronnie Turner is a fantastic writer. That’s why this book is so bloody good – it takes real skill to tackle the subjects handled in So Pretty as well as she does all the while creating characters that you care about, painting a detailed and real sense of place and managing to slyly but surely ratchet up that tension – she certainly knows how to keep the book firmly gripped in a reader’s fingers. From multiple narratives – of varying reliability – to gut-check reveals, disturbing vignette after another, real emotional pull and moments of genuine ‘I need to put this down for a second and say “fuuuuuuucking hell” a few times’, So Pretty delivers everything you want in a thriller and more.
Sneaking in a quick ‘extra’ and the reason behind the selection of Ohio’s The National – my local record shop highlighted the upcoming release of the band’s ninth album at pretty much the same moment as I caught ears on their latest, ‘Tropic Morning News’:
Aside from tapping my foot and digging the tune, it got me thinking. See, The National are one of those bands with which I have a strange relationship. Though I can’t recall how I first heard of them, I was really into Alligator when it came out back in 2005 (and since I recently added it to the collection on vinyl it’s had plenty of spins) and jumped on Boxer and High Violet as they followed but somehow that interest slipped.
Whether it was perceived over-exposure as critics rushed to heap praise or was the fact there was so much to listen to and so little time? Who knows but the end result was that for the next few albums I didn’t jump on them straight away BUT did end up hearing enough to get hold of them and fall in love with them and wonder why the fuck I didn’t get hold of them sooner – what was stopping me? Both Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast are bloody brilliant and while I Am Easy To Find is perhaps a tad bloated (3 lps) the augmenting of vocalist Matt Berninger’s voice with an array of guest female singers is brilliant way to keep an evolution in sound. They plough the occasionally-anthemic indie rock terrain with a more thoughtful, literate approach with lyrics that are often at odds with the upbeat charge of the music delivered through one of genre’s more distinctive voices while managing to adjust their formula at the right moments to prevent it becoming stale.
So this time I’ve decided to stop the weird cycle and have pre-ordered First To Pages of Frankenstein* and thought this a good opportunity to highlight five of my preferred cuts from the band’s back catalogue.
This is where I came in, on album number three: Alligator. I haven’t ventured further back really but it’s oft-mentioned that this is where the band really found ‘their’ style / sound. It’s a brilliant album without a track I skip but I like the sharp short hit of ‘Lit Up.’
Mistaken For Strangers
Boxer took everything from Alligator and dialled it up a notch. While ‘Fake Empire’ is probably the most well-known thanks to Obama’s use of the tune, ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ has that brooding urgency that always gets my attention.
Whether it was down to new label 4AD’s promotion, the band’s continued up tick with the music press or riding the attention use in a successful Presidential campaign… but High Violet did big numbers for the band and seemed to be their break-out moment.
Don’t Swallow The Cap
I feel like Trouble Will Find Me gets somewhat overlooked – following on from the attention of High Violet perhaps something more immediate and ‘hit stacked’ was expected but the album is one that rewards repeated listens, is a more studied and stately affair than previous but is well worth the time.
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
A shift in sound accompanied Sleep Well Beast. The band’s trademark sonic atmosphere augmented with new elements, faster beats and squalls of noise that add texture and momentum and make it one of their finest.
*not the last two which contain the postscript where the monster says “It’s ok if people call me ‘Frankenstein’ I really don’t mind, ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ is a tad demeaning anyway”
Here we are on week eighteen of January and it feels like a suitable moment to take stock on what – in between sunning myself on tropical shores and spending my money on fast women and slow horses – I’ve been punishing my ears with this last week or so.
Camp Cope – Caroline
I’d seen Camp Cope’s 2022 album Running With The Hurricane crop up on a few ‘best of year’ lists recently and have spent this week hooked on it. It’s absolute cracker.
Alexi Murdoch – Through The Dark
Occasionally I’ll flick on an episode of something while I’m chewing down my lunch (usually in between the second and third meat courses while the servants are refilling the wine). I recently flicked on an episode of ‘House’ in which this song featured and I found myself captivated by it – in a way it recalls those moody acoustic bruisers that Pearl Jam would drop in their middle period.
Laura Cox – So Long
‘Half English – half French, 100% Rock n Roll’ is how Laura Cox describes herself. All I know is I’ve been digging her new album of late – she fits into that blues rock vibe with a nice meaty tone.
Tori Amos – Pretty Good Year
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Tori Amos’ first couple of albums since 1357’s appraisal of Little Earthquakes and they’ve both been rereleased in pretty coloured vinyl packages recently too. My cassette versions of them are holding up ok so I’m not about to drop coin on replacing them but there’s genuine gold in those albums. Related question: does anyone burn cds anymore?
Russian Circles – Ethel
The whole Memorials album is strong but there’s something so transportive about ‘Ethel’ that it’s a regular player on my Post-Rock playlist. I know, even as a lover of the genre, some post-rock tunes can hang around longer than an unwanted politician but this one is in, out, done in just four minutes of brilliance.
Slowdive – Slomo
Speaking of transportive…. I’v played Slowdive’s Slowdive more times than I can count since it joined my collection at the tail end of 2021 and it was only a week or so ago that, when slipping the lp back into the sleeve, I realised it had a download code in there. Since then it’s been on the regular in the car too – there’s something immediately soothing about ‘Slomo’ in particular that makes it as an ideal to cue up for the drive home as it does chilling out at home after a hard day’s drinking and hitting the pipe.
With January dragging its heels and with my usual sense of procrastination spreading posts out ever thinner, the time is probably past to look back at that music of 2022 that tickled my fancy. And yet…
In music terms, at least that which sits within this blog’s wheelhouse, 2022 was a bit of an outlier in as much as there’s not one specific album that stands out as ‘album of the year’ for me.
I listened to a shed load and, I’d like to think, broadened my musical palette somewhat if only geographically. Holding off on the ‘new’ stuff for a moment, it was 2022 that I took a deeper diver into Neil Young’s back catalogue. Having had my curiosity piqued by a compilation cd included with a magazine (one that wasn’t hits heavy) I also picked up his book ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ -typically I embarked on this journey as Mr Young pulled his music from Spotify and so I’ve been exploring his albums (from This Note’s For You thru to Mirrorball thus far) on cassette – this feels somehow appropriate to me. So Neil Young and, in particular, Ragged Glory was a pretty regular sound in 2022.
While it was released in 2021, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram’s 662 was ‘new to me’ last year and got a shit load of plays from me in 2022 as both my son and I get a real kick out of his guitar tone. On a similar note, 2022 was the year I discovered Larkin Poe thanks to a random flick over to a different DAB station. Their 2022 album Blood Harmony is a cracking listen.
Thinking back there were a number of songs that stand out. A good chunk of these came from spending two weeks listening to the radio over in France – which is probably the longest I’ve consistently done so and stayed with the one station. The down side to that being that you hear a lot of Maneskin’s bloody ‘Supermodel’. The upside was hearing songs like Sting’s ‘Rushing Water’ and tracks like Adé’s ‘Tout Savoir’ and Marie-Flore’s ‘Mal barré’. Tracks that wouldn’t normally sit within my wheelhouse but their connection to a great memory means they’re in the mix for 2022’s favourites.
On the subject of individual songs, there were a couple of albums that I expected to like a lot more than I did which were home to some good tunes even if the rest weren’t quite up to muster. I’m thinking here of Eddie Vedder’s Earthling and songs like ‘Invincible’, ‘Long Way’ and Brother The Cloud’ which definitely sit up with his finest. I’d hoped for more from Regina Spektor’s first album in six years but Home, before and after wasn’t quite there. It’s home to a good few tracks though, amongst which ‘Up the Mountain’ got a lot of plays this year.
Anywho, if there wasn’t one particular ‘album of the year’ for me in 2022, there were a good few that stood out and got plenty of spins:
Placebo – Never Let Me Go
This was a surprise for me – I hadn’t bought a new Placebo album since Meds in 2006 but after hearing the lead of singles (including plenty of plays of ‘Beautiful James’ on French radio), streaming the album more times than I could count I actually bought the album toward the end of year and it’s a real solid, consistent return to form for the band that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Emotional Eternal
Apparently the aim of this album is for the listener to find their bliss while Melody Prochet searches for hers. This was another discovery via the radio and the album has had many a play over 2022 – there’s a lot to love on this melodic, psych/dream-pop record with hints of baroque, gallic and shoegaze sounds melding together and gliding along on a trippy vibe from start to finish.
Built to Spill – When The Wind Forgets Your Name
A new Built to Spill album is always worth checking in for – they seem to come along so infrequently these days – and this tight, taut and guitar-tastic offering from Doug Martsch (this time working with Brazilian band Oruã’s rhythm section) is a late-career stunner.
Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
The idea that a band could consistently release such brilliant albums as Big Thief have done is bonkers – but then they did call their debut Masterpiece. Seemingly not content with two fucking great albums in 2019, Big Thief hunkered down at the tail-end of 2020 and spent five months recording songs in five different locations. The result, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is that rarest of things – a double album that’s essential throughout: spanning, as it does, the full range of Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting range while still highlighting the strength of the band as a unit.
Soccer Mommy – Sometimes Forever
All signs that Soccer Mommy’s new album was going to be a cracker were in place – the progression evident on Sophie Allison’s previous albums and EPs was evident and Sometimes Forever didn’t disappoint. Appropriately sitting next to last year’s album from Snail Mail in my collection, Sometimes Forever uses those guitar-driven, often slow-build / reveal, mood setters to offset intense and sometimes confessional lyrics to great affect. The pop-minded melodies, big choruses and electronic production touches make this her fullest sound and best yet.
Am Fost La Munte Și Mi-a Plăcut– La Vale
There were a lot of great post-rock albums in 2022 and while it’s a close call with Exxassen’s Le Voyage, Am Fost La Munte Și Mi-a Plăcut’s La Vale has easily had the most plays from me in 2022.
Hailing from Bucharest, their riff-driven take on post-rock has been a favourite of mine for some years now and La Vale is a fantastic slab of the good stuff.
I’ve even put together a playlist of those tunes that stand out as highlights from 2022 – some mentioned here, some not – in no particular order so probably best enjoyed on shuffle, should you be so inclined.
Very shocked to read this morning that Jeff Beck has passed away after suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis. I don’t often do these memorial type posts but Jeff Beck was simply one of the greatest players to pick up a guitar.
As another such great, David Gilmour said: “I am devastated to hear the news of the death of my friend and hero Jeff Beck, whose music has thrilled and inspired me and countless others for so many years … He will be forever in our hearts.”
As I mentioned back in my 20 Guitarists List: it’s impossible to think of a player that’s dabbled in so many different genres and had such a long successful career. While I’m not a fan of all of it – most recent outings included – the constant throughout is just how astoundingly great a guitarist Beck was. From stepping into Clapton’s shoes in the Yardbirds and transforming that band, a brief silver-lined foray into playing ‘pop’, the Jeff Beck Group and Truth to mountains of solo work that changed genre more often than Madonna changes her face – Beck remained one of the best players out there.
Oddly, despite finding pictures of him throughout the biogs of musicians various (whether running down a riff backstage with Joe Perry, debating with Jimmy Page or sharing a laugh with David Gilmour it was clear the ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ tag was applicable) his massively varied and world-travelling career, I always thought of Jeff as the ‘local guitar god’ as, despite being born in South London he’d lived not too far from where I sit and type these words and, later, only a (admittedly pretty impressive) stone’s throw from my office having moved to Wadhurst in East Sussex.
According to search results various, the bluebird has been a ‘harbinger of happiness’ for thousands of years. Said bird reminds us not to lose hope in the face of an adversary and not to let go of the joy even in the direst times. Lovely stuff.
For me, Mojave 3’s ‘Bluebird of Happiness’ is one of those magic songs. You know; one of those songs that connects on a different level to other tunes, automatically fires of an emotional response for reasons you may never fully understand and, frankly, probably don’t need to.
“Who are Mojave 3?” I hear imagine you asking. After the critical spin and uppercut that felled the shoegaze scene* the ridiculously wonderful Slowdive were dropped by Creation just a week after the release of their fifth album, Pygmalion** -also ridiculously wonderful. Members Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon switched direction a little, following the more ambient leanings Halstead’s writing was already taking and throwing dream pop with a bit of folk and country rock into the mix. By the time of the band’s fourth album Spoon and Rafter in 2003 they’d added keyboard player Alan Forrester and ex-Chapterhouse guitarist Simon Rowe and were leaning more into dream pop/alt-country elements with a sound not a million miles away from Mercury Rev.
Neil Halstead – as borne out by his solo work as well as Slowdive and Mojave 3 – is a songwriter who places emphasis on arrangements and layers. Spoon and Rafter is full of examples of just this approach but no song more so than the 9:15 opus ‘Bluebird of Happiness’ with its multiple parts gently transitioning into each other, Halstead’s vocals remaining calm and measured against a mesmerising backdrop that at turns rises to guitar-driven chorus and falls back to piano lead reflective chill.
Anyway, back to that magic stuff… From the second I hear those opening ambient sounds (there are some birds in there, some whispered vocals) and piano notes I feel a sense of calm wash over me and when those nine minutes and fifteen seconds are up I feel lighter and at peace, if only for a little while. I don’t think you could ask for more from a song, really.
Mojave 3 would release one further album – 2006’s Puzzles Like You – before dropping into hiatus for a couple of years ahead of a touring comeback in 2011 though any music they may have recorded after that has yet to see the light of day. Halstead and Goswell both kept busy with solo work until Slowdive reunited in 2014 with a new album following in 2017*** and another currently in the works.
Where does the time go? While I work up a few longer-form posts I thought the time was right to drop a quick summary of those aural delights I’ve been enjoying of late.
Larkin Poe – Deep Stays Down
Having only recently been turned on to Larkin Poe it was pretty damn decent of them to release a new album – Blood Harmony – so soon for me to enjoy. Gotta love how ‘Deep Stays Down’ builds up before unleashing, the whole album is a blast.
Luna Amară – Om
Luna Amară are a Romanian band – hailing from Cluj-Napoca. My wife picked up their album Nord for me when she had to pop over recently. There’s some really decent stuff on there and ‘Om’ is a favourite. He’s really giving it some on the chorus – Liber respiră, Fii tu fii om, Totul inspiră, Fii tu fii om / Breathe freely, be you – be human, everything inspires, be you – be human
Wolf Alice – Smile
I was late to the party with Wolf Alice’s 2021 album Blue Weekend. I bought it for my wife – as she wasn’t – but after hearing it each time I use her car (I don’t agree with her radio presets) I’ve really been enjoying it and, having drifted away after their first album, realise I’ve missed a lot.
Hum – Stars
Just because it’s great
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Live at the Fillmore, 1997)
It’s no secret around these parts that the 1994 thru 1999 / Wildflowers thru Echo is my favourite Tom Petty & Heartbreaker’s period – they were mining such a rich seam as borne out by recent re-releases and the newly released Live at the Fillmore, 1997 is just fucking amazing. They were never better than this – they were great before and carried on being brilliant live (as the equally wonderful Live Anthology proves) but this captures PEAK Petty and Heartbreakers and I’ve been gorging on this since it dropped.
Bruce Springsteen – Galveston Bay
As time goes on I enjoy The Ghost of Tom Joad more and more – not that I didn’t already. A song like ‘Galveston Bay’ is so ridiculously good, it feels like the simplest of songs but what Bruce gets across with a bare, simple guitar line and five minutes is immense. I was gifted this one on wax for my birthday a few weeks back and have been soaking up the gorgeous atmosphere these tracks evoke once again on a pretty regular basis.
I’ll admit that I wonder now – five years plus on – whether my Least to Most Springsteen list would look the same and where recent additions Western Stars and Letter To You would fit but with the exciting news that Bruce is prepping a box of five unreleased post-1988 albums I think I’ll wait before reevaluating as, based on what I’ve heard from those likely inclusions, there’s to be some real gold there.
Soccer Mommy – I’m On Fire
Keeping it Bruce… at some point recently my son heard ‘I’m On Fire’ in the car and wanted to hear the rest when we got in the house. Cueing up the track on Spotify meant that, following on from Springsteen’s own we got the covers – the first of which was from Soccer Mommy whose own Sometimes, Forever has been a massive spinner this year. ‘Im On Fire’ seems a popular cover choice for female artists – I wouldn’t want to suggest any reasons why – and Sophie Allison does a cracking take on it here.
In what feels like a fitting post to follow my take on Springsteen’s The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, I’ve been thinking about live albums of late.
A friend and I have been debating their merits – his ‘no-thanks’ take on them driven by the fact that ‘you don’t get the same vibe as actually being there.’
I can understand that. But – is that really their purpose? I’ve got a lot of time for live albums – there are a lot of artists that really deliver the goods in concert more than others and more than they do in concert. They’ll throw their all into a show and there are plenty of live albums out there where that’s evident as well as the fact that a song performed live is often a different beast to that which graced a studio album. Not only that but there are many bands out there that I’ll never get a chance to see or shows I could never have been at.
Here I can quickly point to two staples of this blog – Springsteen and Pearl Jam, both of whom are renowned for their live shows with both (Springsteen only more recently) performing a different set list every night. Foo Fighters, by contrast, played an identical set (including the rehearsed ‘banter’) night after night.
Whereas once upon a time the live album was once a staple, if contractually obligatory, of many a rock band’s discography we now find ourselves in an era of Nuggs (or whatever service they chose to use) means that almost every show from a tour and many archival individual shows are available to fill up our iPods. Does the traditional live album, then, still have value?
I reckon there’s still a place for it. At least there is within my shelves – digital and physical. While it’s great to have a document of a specific concert – especially if you were there, say – it’s also great to have a live collection from a band at the peak of their power without, say, the mistake they made in the pre-chorus of a song that forced them to restart or a location-specific anecdote, as well as the mastering (not remixing, mind – I’m looking at you Van Halen) that an official release can give. Without having to pay a fortune for a pint of piss-poor beer, swim to the toilet or wonder if you need to duck out during the encore to get the last tube.
With all this preamble in mind I thought I’d take a butchers at some of those live albums that I would say are definitely worth giving a listen to, old and new.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live 1975-85
Keeping it Boss for another moment… Bruce’s first official live album was a suitably hefty 5LP / 3 CD / 3 Cassette beast that covered Springsteen and the E Street Band’s journey from theatres to stadiums across 40 songs. Springsteen had developed a reputation as a live performer and this set delivers upon that and then some – it’s a great listen even close to forty years on, even hearing his earnest story-telling ahead of ‘The River’ as he works to instil a sense of intimacy to the stadium-sized crowd still works and while he could easily have created another similarly-sized instalment to cover the decades since I don’t think (save a few obvious titles) you could want anything more than what’s here. It remains an unimpeachably great snapshot of Bruce and the E Street Band’s powerful peak and sounds as vital now as it did then.
Nirvana – Live at Reading
Nirvana’s second visit to the Reading festival was the stuff of legend even aside from the actual show itself. This was 1992, mind, when the Kurt ‘n’ Courtney show was dominating press coverage – there were rumours that the band wouldn’t show. That the band were on the verge of breaking up, that Kurt’s heroin addiction was so bad he was close to death (both rumours sadly not that far from true)…
Playing to this, Kurt took to the stage in a wheelchair. Wheeled on and wearing a hospital gown and wig, sang a few lines of ‘The Rose’ and collapsed before getting to his feet and the band delivered one of their most intense and powerful sets to date. Yes, there’s no way to capture being at that show – I hold that for every dozen or so people I’ve met that claimed they were there only two are probably telling the truth – but, fuck me, this is one hell of an amazing live album. The band seem to be giving it everything as a middle finger to the rumours and the setlist is everything you’d want, covering nearly all of Nevermind, plenty from Bleach and a few new songs that would later grace In Utero and is the superior live Nirvana document to From The Muddy Banks of Wiskah.
Johnny Cash – At FolsomPrison
This one’s got to be a given, right? Johnny Cash’s first live album, a career reviving release that starts with the now famous ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ and finds the then relatively-clean Cash singing songs like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Cocaine Blues’ and ’25 Minutes to Go’ to an audience of convicts in a prison canteen that Cash would later describe as “the most enthusiastic audience I ever played” – lapping up every line like ‘I can’t forgot the day I shot that bad bitch down’ like it was written for them. While At San Quentin recorded the following year would have ‘Boy Named Sue,’ this album combines Cash’s strongest points – grit, balladry, the spiritual and humour – into one setlist that while tailor-made for his audience and became the stuff of legend.
Mogwai – Special Moves
As a live band, Mogwai are one of the loudest out there. While they shy away from being branded as post-rock, their predominantly instrumental music takes its cues from a myriad of influences including bands like Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Slint – intricate pieces that build up layers and parts and not play with the quiet-loud-quiet- FUCKING INSANELY LOUD dynamic but own it. I’ve just finished Stuart Braithwaite’s fantastic memoir ‘Spaceships Over Glasgow’ which revealed – amongst other things – the level of nervousness with which he’d play gigs, hoping that the bands head-nodded signals would work when it comes to bringing in the different parts of each song, finding a sound-guy that could sufficiently mix them at the level of noise desired and joy they take in a set when it all clicks.
The New York shows captured on Special Moves – in terms of both setlist and the power of the performance – are as ideal an introduction to and one-hit slab of Mogwai you could ask for. It’s perfectly mixed – balancing all the elements of their music with a smattering of crowd noise to let you know they’re there and capturing the extremes of their sound (the pin-drop silence to absolute wall of sound in Mogwai Fear Satan, for example) perfectly.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Weld
Speaking of wall-of-sound…. Neil Young has got quite a few live albums out there – while Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps were made up of entirely new songs and Live Rust felt like a bit of a cash-grab, Weld is the real deal for me and the more I explore Mr Young’s back catalogue the more I enjoy it. A live document of Young and Crazy Horse’s tour to promote Ragged Glory (my current favourite of Neil’s albums), it’s a ridiculously heavy document of the Horse in full gallop and blasting through some of Ragged Glory‘s highlights like ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and ‘Love To Burn’ along with storming takes on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Powderfinger’, the then-recent ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and a blazing cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Gary Clark Jr – Live
This is one of those examples where someone comes across so much better live than on record – to my ears at least and this is my blog, after all. I’d seen the praise heaped upon this enough to be curious and since picking it up it’s been a regular spinner. Having been compared to the mightiest of guitar slingers like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr has both that glorious blues tone and dexterity to make his performances addictive listening while also flowing in a touch of soul and hip hop. On record the combo doesn’t really come across so well with his playing taking a back seat too often to slick production. There’s none of that on 2014’s Live – a mix of originals and covers shed of gimmickry and just highlighting how great and in-focus performance he – and his band – can deliver.
My Morning Jacket – Okonokos
The band captured following the peak of the mighty Z album deliver a brilliant set to a crowd at The Fillmore in San Francisco. While the recent compilation Live Vol. 1 adds newer songs to the mix and further cements how great a live draw the band are, Okonokos captures the band in all their intense power, it’s heavy on Z material with eight of its ten songs gracing the set and showcases the band’s musicianship and a rare ability to both jam out and deliver tight, focused performances.
Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é(Legacy Edition)
Jeff Buckley left us with just the one studio album before he took his fateful swim in 1997. His first release for Colombia, though, wasn’t Grace but the Live at Sin-é EP. The EP was just a four-song set was released to draw attention to the power of Buckley’s voice. The full set, released ten years later, instead gave us a captivating and wonderfully intimate (you can even hear the odd clink of coffee cups) performance of some twenty plus songs interspersed with monologues and jokes – we get works in progress of songs like ‘Grace’, ‘Last Goodbye’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ along with covers of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Nina Simone, Van Morrison and, of course, his take on ‘Hallelujah’ all armed with just his voice and a guitar. For a small coffee house show, Buckley commits fully and for all the myth and mystery that’s build up over the years since his passing, it’s a beautiful document of pure talent and the enjoyment of music.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
First – it wasn’t captured at The Royal Albert Hall, it was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It was mislabelled in the bootlegs that so pervaded before its official release. in 1998. It was so extensively bootlegged because it was both a brilliant show and, secondly, the “Judas!” concert.
All these years later it’s hard to conceive of the upset Dylan’s ‘going electric’ caused his folky faithful. Through his 1965-66 tour Dylan would perform a show of two halves: the first alone and the second with his backing band The Hawks for an electric set. Both the heckle and Dylan’s brilliant response – “I don’t believe you…. you’re a liar” – along with Dylan’s instruction to the band to “play fucking loud!” into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ are captured here along with a fantastic performance of fifteen brilliant Dylan songs that are all worth the price of admission alone and captured with brilliant sound quality.
If you don’t trust my opinion on this, take it from Jimmy Page too – he found the bootleg to be the ultimate album and would buy a whenever he found one.
Some honourable mentions and few additional thoughts in place of a tenth for the list…. I’ve only recently begun listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East but it’s a mighty fine thing…. The Clash’s Live at Shea Stadium is a great listen too but a little stiff in parts, capturing them opening for The Who – who’s Live AT Leeds is pretty decent too though I’m not that big a Who fan. Dire Straits deserved better representation than the too-short Alchemy and too-sterile On The Night while one of the best bands I’ve seen live, Pearl Jam have yet to drop a live album that really captures how arse quaking they can be live though Live On Two Legs tries and the same could be said for Pink Floyd – Pulse is another case of too much gloss and The Delicate Sound of Thunder features both an excess of gloss and an excess of songs from A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident two things happened in the Springsteen universe.
The first immediate result was his writing of ‘Roulette’ which, while it would be the first song recorded during The River sessions, would languish in b-side status until appearing later on both Tracks and The Ties That Bind. It’s a belter.
The second was the formation of MUSE – Musicians United for Safe Energy and the organising of five ‘No Nukes’ concerts at Madison Square Garden. Not yet particularly active or even vocal when it came to politics, Bruce wasn’t among the founding members. Nor did he attend press conferences or issue a statement on nuclear energy. He did, though, agree to perform at two of the shows and for those shows to be filmed and recorded.
I’m adding this historical context for a reason. The Bruce Springsteen of 1979 was not the Springsteen today – or even of six years later following Born In The USA – in terms of status but he was very much a rising star with both Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town behind him and live shows that were already becoming the stuff of legend.
This is Springsteen before the stadium era. Before, even, The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ – in fact Bruce and The E Street Band weren’t on the road at the time, they’d spent most of the year working on an album called The Ties That Bind that Springsteen was to throw away in favour of going for the double with The River (though you wouldn’t know it from the performances captured on those evenings). Nonetheless, tickets to Bruce’s headlining nights sold out within an hour.
One final piece of context is that the full The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts recording arrived at the end of 2021. A timely reminder of the power of Springsteen and the E Street Band when any plans for touring had been on hold for two years, forty two years after the event.
Given that it arrives so long after the fact and in an era where so many entire concerts are available from Springsteen – not to mention his already extant six official*- you’d be forgiven for questioning whether this was needed. I’m here to say it is, it’s an essential piece in the canon
This isn’t so much a review because, let’s face it, I’m late in the game here and this one has already hit the high notes with the critics. This is more.. personal reflections after a good month or so of repeated listens.
One of the things that springs to mind when it comes to Springsteen’s shows these days has got to be their marathon length. Granted 1979 Bruce didn’t have quite the staying power but his shows were already clocking pretty long times. The idea, then, of condensing a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show into just ninety minutes can’t have been an easy order – hell, I reckon it must’ve been easier planning the 12 minute half-time show than making the choice for the No Nukes setlist.**
The timing restraints are kinda felt at times. Prove It All Night, for example, is shorn of its then-customary elongated intro and Born To Run particularly feels squeezed for time – it barrels past in less time than the album version*** – and there are moments where the need to keep songs tighter than a duck’s arse and keeping a proverbial eye on the time means Springsteen seems a little out of breath as the shorter-than-usual arrangements give him less opportunity to catch a breather between bars.
But these are more observances than faults because, frankly, there aren’t any to be found after repeated listens because the overall sensation is of a joyous celebration of Bruce Springsteen – and the E Street Band – being captured at full gallop on their early peak. Even a condensed blast of this power-house operating at such peak performance is better than so many others.
And while Born To Run may be sprinted through, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) gets to stretch its legs out over 12 glorious minutes complete with band introductions.
There’s a strange delight in hearing Springsteen – who’d celebrate his birthday the night following these shows – refer to himself as ‘over the fucking hill’ and that, turning the age of 30 meant he could no trust himself anymore (especially as this now reach us with Bruce in his 70s and still delivering) after delivering both the one-two-three punch of Prove It, Badlands, The Promised Land and then-new song The River.
It’s an added delight to hear The River rolled out for the first time and not have the first few blows on the harmonica not greeted by the rapturous applause they’d soon be greeted with forever out.
The setlist is pretty unimpeachable too. While, with an hour and half only to play with you could lean to wanting, say, an Adam Raised A Cain or Candy’s Room or even a 10th Avenue Freeze Out in place of the three covers that end the show but Bruce was already throwing his Detroit Medley and Quarter to Three into his sets and using them to work the crowd up into a final frenzy and in the context of making an impact and bringing the audience to its knees – they do a brilliant job.
The whole album is a blast to listen to. Peak Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will never disappoint and while there are plenty of single-show recordings out there, you’d be hard pushed to match this in terms of quality.
*as in bearing the Colombia logo vs Nuggs or whatever it is these days.
**both nights featured identical setlists save the inclusion of ‘Rave On’
***a chunk of the credited 4:59 is dedicated to applause.