christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: Music

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.


Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.  

Harvesting gold: Boo Hewerdine and Dan Whitehouse at Cambridge Junction 2 (25/10/16)

To Cambridge’s Junction 2 for a spellbinding evening with Boo Hewerdine and musical accomplice, West Midlander, Dan Whitehouse. Dan opened proceedings with a pared back set of emotive love songs, carried home on a succession of glistening electric guitar lines played on his battered Telecaster, (which, he tells us ‘was rescued from a pub loo in Camden’). Imagine a Brummie Jeff Buckley and you’re nearly there, with a warmth and grit in his vocal which transcended his flat Birmingham vowels. As modest as he is accomplished, there was a strong strand of Americana combined with an attractive English understatement. His songs demanded attention and his stage craft was superb.

Boo and Dan.jpg

Dan stayed on stage to add musical weight and heft to the songs of long-time troubadour, Boo Hewerdine. In something of a homecoming gig (The Bible played their early gigs at the Junction, next door), he was on assured form, leading off with comeback single Born, a litany of events from the year of his birth. This was swiftly followed by The Man That I Am, (already sounding like a classic) about the controversial child migration programmes to former Empire outposts. Village Bell rang out on Boo’s sky blue guitar filling the beautifully lit auditorium.

There were numerous highlights, not least a clutch of new songs, performed solo. Cinderella is a smoky, complex jaunt in the old style complete with Boo’s impersonation of an orchestra at the halfway point. Its cross-dressing theme (it’s from forthcoming musical Fancy Pants, written with Chris Difford) only added to the intrigue. Possibly his finest moment came in ‘Old Songs,’ an authentically ancient sounding tune (it could have been written in the 1930s) about the power of song in stirring lost memories. If Boo hasn’t shared this with those working with dementia, he probably should. With strange lost chords, unusual and affecting subject matter it’s another fine example of Boo’s quest for the perfect song.

Boo’s deadpan delivery (‘My record company is planning to turn me into a star – I’ve had plenty of practice’) is undoubtedly part of the attraction, but it’s the songs that constantly amaze. Sweet Honey in the Rock, originally from his State of the Union project is beefed up into a glorious stomp, augmented by a natty country solo from Dan. Their metronomic timing created a seemingly hypnotic effect on performers and audience alike. More recent songs, like Harvest Gypsies, sound every bit as strong as perennials like The Patience of Angels and Honey Be Good, the great lost classic from eighties. Boo’s voice was particularly strong this evening, nowhere more so than on an ambitious take on the Bee Gee’s ‘I Started a Joke,’ which soared to majestic heights.  

While light on tunes from his Brooks Williams collaborations (no Hellzapoppin!) Boo has songs to spare and is adept at varying his set to provide enough interest for long-time fans, as well as to keep himself engaged.

As with many Boo gigs, there is the spectre of a parallel universe where the Bible became as big as U2, and Boo became a superstar. As things stand, there were not many who would have traded the opportunity to listen to such fine songs in such an intimate setting. It was life affirming, inspiring stuff from two uniquely blessed musicians dedicated to their song craft, respectful of their musical forebears and still digging for musical gold.

Anyone for tennis?

A brand new song for all you lovers of barley water and white flannel trousers! Anyone for Tennis? 


Review: Born EP by Boo Hewerdine

The Born EP finds Boo Hewerdine in reflective, but never less than tuneful mood. The lead track, The Year That I was Born is a gently ironic meditation on the momentous events of the year 1961. From the publication of Catch 22 and the death of Hemingway to the ‘cracking of the genetic code’, he succeeds in producing a more measured, and quintessentially English, version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

Boo Born

To stately piano and understated bass and percussion, he contrasts these seismic events with his own lethargy ‘(‘I let today just drift away’) and ultimately the admission that he was nothing more than a blip in history and just ‘another mouth to feed.’ However you cannot help but feel he was quite pleased to have made his own minor ripple in this eventful year. The major chords and gently ascending melody capture the optimism of the new decade, before being tempered by minor key diversions, suggestive of the looming threats of Cold War; he celebrates the: ‘post war girls and boys in a world that might explode.’ His voice, as always has a doleful clarity which seems to evoke pathos, resignation and humour in equal measure. It’s all quite beautiful. Further listening: That’s Me, by Paul Simon and That Was Me, by Paul Simon.

Hometown is an equally reflective piece and is delivered in a quietly dramatic performance. To the accompaniment of well mannered, front parlour piano, and with pastoral images of drifting clouds and passing bees, the narrative is pleasingly oblique. The theme, right across this EP, is the passing of time, and here, memory in particular is a place of sanctuary and retreat. It has a heartbreakingly beautiful bridge too.

Swimming in Mercury is a playful waltz with a bittersweet theme, namely that old television sets contained mercury, a deadly toxin that sat happily in the corner of the room beneath the plant pot and the school photo. It has the carefree resignation that is thoroughly charming.

If we are to skip past Tim Rice’s thoughts on the subject, Chess is hardly obvious territory for songwriters. However Boo hits a rich seam with Bobby Fischer, an elegiac two minute bio-pic of the 11th World Chess Champion, who placed himself into self-imposed exile in Iceland. The central tragedy is a genius who for reasons of his own turned his back on his talent, seeking ‘sanctuary in the land of ice and snow.’ The wordplay with ‘openings’ and ‘sacrifices’ is skilfully done and the chorus is strangely uplifting; the ironic counterpoint of the major key melody and downbeat sentiment is once again Boo’s trump card.

Finally, ‘Farewell’ is an elegant, doomed waltz that provides a fitting coda to an exquisite EP that is a love letter to Boo’s past. But far from being a pall bearer for the 20th century, with these songs you get the sense of Boo exploring his cultural influences, the landscapes of the past, drifting back to unlock his own identity and find the source of the river. 

Album review: Dredging by The Levels: Live Recordings and Home Demos

Nothing will quite prepare you for the sound of The Levels. From the opening commotion of birds in flight and what appears to be the Dr Who theme thrashed out on a slack tuned guitar, this is an expedition into the unknown. Notes for Explorers: be prepared!

This instrumental outfit, led by the twangular guitar and singular vision of polymath Darren Giddings, has pioneered its own brand of west country surf. That said, they are not afraid to stray into jazz, alt-rock and Pavement-style rock and roll.

Levels image

Due to the somewhat haphazard track listing (the song titles are buried within a poetic steam of conscious) I am uncertain where one song ends and another starts, but it hardly matters. The album effectively operates as a suite with ecology, nature and localism at its heart.

References to Giddings’ previous musical adventures are apparent in the dogmatic, asymmetric guitar lines, but this band is not afraid of breaking new ground too. Bursts of jazz-infused sax, complex bass lines, rumbustious drums and spoken word sound loops are proof enough that The Levels operate far from the mundane. And they are not adverse to rocking out, with complex signatures bursting out of their introspection into foot on the floor 4/4.

Local concerns, not least the recent floods that so badly affected the Somerset Levels (hence the band’s name) inform many of the pieces. A sound collage made up of media reports cut together is particularly striking and some bad tempered riffing that bookends it hints at their displeasure that the area was somewhat neglected by government.

When all’s said and done, The Levels first recorded outing is a vital, strident, eclectic musical statement driven by a pulsing, hypnotic rhythms. It takes the listener on a journey deep into a mist filled landscape where the ghosts of musical figures past emerge then disappear across the flood plains.  It is as if the Magnificent Seven have been magically transported to Somerset and coerced into musical action by Duane Eddy.  And surely that’s no bad thing.

Find out more on their Facebook page.

The Day Johnny Cash Went Into Space

Johnny Cash

A few years back I heard a great story about one of the Apollo missions to the moon. Apparently they were allowed to take one album each. When they were well on their way, they got their tapes out to compare notes. All three of them had the same Johnny Cash album. Here’s the song and my tribute to the Man in Black… 

10 reasons why George Martin deserves to be called the fifth Beatle

As well as being a man of taste, kindness and immense musical talent, George Martin also had an impeccable sense of humour. This was essential if he was going to get anything done with the Fab Four. But most importantly, in the words of Alan Parsons, ‘he had great ears.’ He listened to the band, nurtured their ideas and collaborated rather than competed with them. It’s impossible to know what The Beatles would have achieved without George Martin, but thankfully, we’ll never have to contemplate that particular fate.

George Martin

His contributions always served the song and not himself. While we mourn the passing of the gentleman whose accent was that of an Air Vice-Marshal and whose hair resembled the floppy mop of a wizard from Middle Earth (at least later on), it’s worth reminding ourselves of ten stunning contributions he made to The Beatles’ music.

1) His rock and roll piano

Before Paul and John could play proficiently themselves (Paul was still having lessons in 1965) George Martin provided the rock and roll piano on early tracks like Rock and Roll Music, Misery, Money, Slow Down, Long Tall Sally and A Hard Day’s Night. In plenty of other bands, these contributions alone would be enough to make him a fully paid up member.

2) His rule breaking

Often portrayed as the disapproving headmaster to The Beatles errant schoolboys, George Martin showed he was as anarchic as the rest them, allowing such studio tomfoolery as the sound distortions on She’s a Woman, the super-compressed drum and bass on Ticket to Ride (said to be the invention of heavy metal!) and famously, the feedback that begins I Feel Fine. Most other producers at the time would have called a halt when the needle slipped into the red.

3) The production on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

Responding to John’s request to make a record that ‘sounded like a fairground’ Martin pulled out all the stops for this song from Sergeant Pepper. The kaleidoscopic production is full of whizzes and whistles, steam organs, sound effects, crescendos and tumbling scales. You can taste the toffee apples.

4) The electric piano solo in In My Life

Out of nowhere, this astonishing, feather light and giddily melodic solo appears in the middle of John’s otherwise elegiac song, somehow capturing the nostalgia, colour and energy of the Beatle’s childhood. He had to sneak in and overdub it on, fearful the Beatles would disapprove of his suggestion.

5) The string quartet on Yesterday

Paul was initially skeptical about adding strings to his song; afraid it would become mawkish or treacly. To overcome this, George Martin astutely invited him to work with him on the arrangement. By playing the chords on the piano and with McCartney singing phrases that came to him, they collaborated to produce a beautifully restrained setting for an already sublime song.

6) The whole of Tomorrow Never Knows

To move from She Loves You to Tomorrow Never Knows in three years is the pop equivalent of inventing the wheel to designing the Apollo XI moon rocket in a similar space of time. Responding to another Lennon request to ‘sound like the Dalai Lama and a thousand Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top’ George Martin supervised a recording like no other. It is the sound of east and west colliding like the buckling of tectonic plates.

7) Achieving the impossible in Strawberry Fields Forever

Again it was John who was responsible for another extraordinary challenge for George Martin. He asked for two different versions of his song, each in a different key and tempo to be spliced together. Pushing the studio (and engineer Geoff Emerick to the limit) you can hardly see the join.

8) The brass on Martha My Dear

This has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs, although actually it is the work of just McCartney and George Martin, who provides the sympathetic brass orchestration. It is the perfect accompaniment to a perfectly formed song.

9) The orchestra crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life

Persuading classical musicians to abandon their charts and climb up the scale to provide the totemic finale to this extraordinary song (before ending on that thunderous E Major piano chord) George pulled out every stop, and presumably every ounce of his considerable charm. This surely ranks as one of the most memorable sounds of the 20th century.

10) Side two of Abbey Road

When The Beatles came back to George Martin cap in hand after the Let it Be fiasco, he agreed to produce their next album – but only if they allowed him to do it properly. The final medley was a showcase for everything The Beatles could do: the lush harmonies, the unorthodox chord progressions stitched together by gossamer melodies, sweeping orchestration and witty interplay of voices and instruments. It was also a showcase of everything they had learnt from George Martin. Think of the pedestrian plod of Love Me Do next to euphoric conclusion to The End. It’s the sound of a band that went to the moon.

With acknowledgements to Ian McDonald’s superb book on The Beatles’ music ‘Revolution in the Head.’


Run Away to the Circus

Ever  feel like running off to the circus? I had one of those days recently, but let’s face it, it’s not always a practical option. So I had to make do with a song. And that got it out of my system. I can’t juggle either.

How Bright the Moon

I set myself a little challenge to write a big band number. The trouble is, I’m missing a big band. So with four strings and a little enthusiasm, I’ve done my best. Your imagination can do the rest. Hit it!

Ashes to Ashes – saying goodbye to David Bowie

It still seems impossible to be living in a world without David Bowie. He was so intensely alive, so vivacious in his performance and personality that the whole idea of his death still seems slightly absurd. It’s taken me a week to collect my thoughts; every night I’ve been out running in the dark with his songs as the soundtrack.

Bowie photo

My Bowie adventure began when I borrowed his Changesbowie collection from Rugby library along with a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. At 14, this felt like a big cultural step up from The Beatles and Tintin, and I wasn’t really expecting to like either of them. I took the tape on my French exchange and listened to it incessantly in the run-down chateaux near Nantes. It was astonishing. I couldn’t get over the thrilling swagger of Suffragette City, the lush Changes and epic posturing of Heroes. Even Blue Jean sounded pretty exciting.  Every song was like the best song I’d ever heard, which to be fair, happens all the time when you’re 14 and just discovering rock and roll.

I continued to pick up his records here and there, only getting up to speed with that incredible run of seventies albums when I arrived at Newcastle University in 1993. Sunday morning trips to Tynemouth Record fair became a bit of a ritual. One week I returned with Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and Low, with change from a fiver. They spun continually, their covers stuck with blu tac to the walls of my room.

Fellow Newcastle student, Darren Giddings, poet, musician and cultural provocateur, helped fill crucial gaps – switching me onto Lodger and Station to Station. In a pre YouTube age, he was also able to show me the man in the flesh, with a pile of ancient VHS tapes; Boys Keep Swinging from 1979 was particularly brilliant, with Bowie essaying his trade mark peacock strut inter-cut with him in drag, looking alternately like Jerry Hall, Joan Collins and bizarrely an ancient Greta Garbo. It was utter genius. Seeing that I liked this, Darren also spun TVC 15, an addictive slab of stylish funk n’ roll, which became a massive favourite (he did a great, supercharged performance of this at Live Aid).

I’ve loved Bowie ever since, including his later work in the 90s and 2000s, which I felt was unjustly neglected in favour of the Ziggy and Let’s Dance eras in the recent career round-ups. So I’m going to attempt to redress this, attempt the impossible and come up with a top five from each decade of his output:

The 1960s

Slim pickings, but here is the best of the crop. With one notable exception, these are generally curiosity value only.

Can’t Help Thinking About Me – revived for his VH1 Storytellers performance, this is a great, Who flavoured track, showcasing his higher register. Maybe a little too derivative to be an unqualified success.

Space Oddity – tapping into the zeitgeist of the moon landings, Bowie delivers his eerie lullaby come opera and his first truly brilliant song. When it blast off at the line, ‘This is Ground Control to Major Tom …’ a new star is born …

Love you Til Tuesday – Pure Austin Powers but a jaunty little song, marred only by a slightly dodgy branch/romance rhyme.

Let me Sleep Beside You – More recognisably Bowie, mellow but ultimately forgettable. ‘Lock away your childhood and throw away the key’.

Ching a Ling – Proving that any parody of the Sixties doesn’t match up to the trippy reality. Sung with an astonishing earnestness and ending with a splendidly emphatic hand clap.

The 1970s

The quality goes up to maximum; a choice of five seems perverse. If you were asked to choose thirty songs, you would still be hard pressed.

Moonage Daydream – Heart-stopping guitar, imperious crooning = total joy. ‘The church of mad love is such a holy place to be …’

Watch That Man – A glam rock stomp that crushes all competition, kicking off the Aladdin Sane album in wild style. Inexplicably missing from most Bowie compilations.

Suffragette City – Unbeatable, adrenalin fuelled rock and roll

Station to Station – the icy, industrial epic and masterpiece of stately funk

Beauty and the Beast – ‘Someone fetch a doctor, someone fetch a priest, you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast …’ Highlight from the Heroes album, with Robert Fripp’s hypnotic guitar part.

The 1980s

Less to choose from, with a nose dive in quality after 1983, but still plenty of fruit on the branch …

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – clattering kitchen sink production; menacing tone, another winner

Fashion – More mind-blowing guitar transforms a droll song into stratospheric brilliance

Ashes to Ashes – self referential, postmodern defining moment and mind blowing production; like a whole album cut up into one song.

Let’s Dance – invincible sounding, floor filling classic; Emperor Nero meets Chic

China Girl – melodically irresistible, plus the immortal line about Marlon Brando …

The 1990s

A surprisingly busy decade for Bowie, making up for a largely squandered 80s, taking in all styles from metal to drum n’ bass.

You Belong in Rock and Roll – The Tin Machine II album was generally much better than the first effort; along with Goodbye Mr Ed from the same period, this puts forward a good case for reappraisal

Jump They Say – Ultra sophisticated dance tune with expensive production; genuinely better than anything since Let’s Dance

Buddha of Suburbia – truly exceptional song from the soundtrack to the TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi book; coherent, South London, outsider lyric and nostalgic musical quotation from Starman  makes for a compelling coming of age statement

Strangers When We Meet – featured on both the Outside and Buddha of Suburbia albums this is thrilling retread of his epic sound, coming out somewhere between Heroes and Under Pressure – no bad thing. The Outside version is superior.

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson – with a suitably filthy riff, nightmarish feel and deadly focus, this is riveting stuff from the Eno produced Outside album.


Just two albums, both of them corkers …

Slow Burn – with Pete Townsend on guitar, this is a blistering mid pace slow burner (as the title suggests) with a soaring Bowie vocal. From the excellent Heathen album.

Afraid – one of my all time Bowie favourites, this directly follows Slow Burn on Heathen, with a Pixies style guitar sound and a perfectly pitched vocal simultaneously full of menace and vulnerabilit. Moving reference to old mate John Lennon’s song, God (‘I believe in Beatles’).

Everyone Says Hi – Elegiac, reflective, tone, genuinely beautiful melody. He has rarely sounded more better.

New Killer Star – ace, post-glam rocker with crunchy guitar and hypnotic vocal, bursting into a Technicolor chorus (from Reality.)

Pablo Picasso – brilliant Jonathan Richman cover; Bowie had not had this much fun in ages. Also from Reality.


The great resurgence, with two of his career best albums, both stuffed with gold as well as intimations of mortality

(You Will) Set the World on Fire – slashing guitar, thunderous tune, brilliantly bonkers cut up lyrics

Where Are We Now – the comeback single, with memories of Berlin, musical echoes of Space Oddity, wearily beautiful vocal, and gorgeous tune

Atomica – from the Next Day EP –  would have been one of the strongest tracks on the Next Day album; an electro rock monster with great pop sensibilities.  I’ll Take You There from the Deluxe version of Next Day album is equally good, a distant cousin of Fashion. There was clearly an embarrassment of riches from these sessions; personally I think some different track choices and re-sequencing would have made a stronger album. But hey, we’ve got it all anyway.

Blackstar – A dark, complex, brilliant journey into Bowie’s soul. Arabic sounding melody over discordant beats and riveting instrumentation

Lazarus – Riveting parting gift, with harrowing vocal, mournful sax and a heartbreaking lyrics. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven.’

And the rest is silence; thanks David. Hope you’re up there with the bluebirds; the music lives forever.