christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: original songs

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.

clive

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.  

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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… 

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

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!

What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

Well, it’s the old question isn’t it? But in all likelihood it would stop you doing all the things you like doing.

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You’d be on the phone to your accountant, or out shopping for cars and holidays … when in fact all you really want to do is read books, write poems and play the ukulele all day, which costs nothing at all… Here’s a little song about the high rollers of this world. “On a whim we had some Pimms until we couldn’t feel out limbs…’

Double acts

So what’s your favourite double act? Is it Morecambe and Wise, Watson and Holmes, Palin and Cleese, Fry and Laurie, Vic and Bob, French and Saunders or Frost and Pegg? Personally, I always liked Smith and Jones myself. Anyway, here’s a little tribute to them all! Plus a nice picture of my son and I up a tree.

With These Hands – A Tribute to Eric Roche, Haverhill Arts Centre, 13 November 2015

A spotlight on a solitary acoustic guitar set the tone for a moving tribute to the life and music of fingerstyle guitar legend, Eric Roche. Ten years on from his untimely death, the great and the good of the acoustic guitar world assembled to pay their respects. With his family among the crowd in a packed Haverhill Arts Centre, it was set to be an emotionally charged evening.

Eric

Any suggestion that this would be a sedate affair however, was banished immediately as the show began with an explosion rendition of Roundabout from the man himself up on the big screen. With his acrobatic percussion techniques and distinctive sway, it was a reminder of the extraordinary physicality of Eric’s talent and stage presence.

Nick Keeble, resplendent in a t-shirt showing six guitars, introduced the proceedings in fine style, before Stuart Ryan opened the batting. His flowing melodic lines evoked a quiet pastoral beauty, and brought an elegiac tone to the hushed Victorian building, while also showcasing the venue’s fantastic sound. The gritty attack of his rendition of All Along the Watchtower showed that he wasn’t all about lyrical ballads.

Ravi was next up, barefoot and in beanie hat, wielding both a guitar and a kora (an African harp that resembles a sitar, played upright). His rendition of We Are, a deeply spiritual song about the links between generations was spell-biding, his rich voice occupying a space somewhere between Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Guitar maker Nick Benjamin made an excellent unscripted speech about Eric, strolling about the stage, quite unable to resist the temptation to pick up Eric’s guitar. You got the sense that he remembered not only the hours making it, but the extraordinary transformation it underwent once in Eric’s hands. He replaced it with great care back in the spot light.

Another video of Eric’s great friend and fellow acoustic guitar innovator, Thomas Leeb was greeted with warm applause, which Thomas may well have been able to hear all the way from America, where he was unavoidably engaged.

Clive Carroll delivered a master-class with his strident, precise playing, the notes ringing high up into the rafters. He is a tremendously nice chat to boot and the audience loved his smiles and mugging while also enjoying his fiendishly difficult waltzes. Clive told us that he had spent every morning that week learning one of Eric’s pieces, especially for the show, only to discover that Higher Ground was in fact written by Stevie Wonder. The funky turbulence he generated from the six strings belied the short practice time.

David Mead gave a funny, charming and self deprecating performance, making a brilliant connection with the audience, who appreciated his own accomplished playing as much as his stories about Eric. David shared how Eric was often ‘relaxed’ about delivering his copy for the guitar magazine David edits. We learned how, on one deadline day, in a world before email, it was handed over ‘like a wad of used bank notes in a jiffy bag in a pub car park.’

Martyn Taylor was simply sublime, his effortless jazz lines lulling the crowd into a reverie. His reading of another majestic Stevie Wonder composition, If It’s Magic, prompted Nick Keeble to wonder whether in fact he had inadvertently organised a Stevie Wonder tribute night instead.

Taylor was also responsible for the anecdote of the night, remembering a famous mishap when he and Eric were recording up in the islands of Scotland. He recalled the intense pressure Eric put himself under while making the album. Suggesting they take a break for a drink, they caught a ferry to the pub. On the return journey however, they were so engrossed in discussing the music, they ended up back where they started, sheepishly having to ask the captain if he wouldn’t mind making one last crossing.

The young, bearded and ridiculously talented Declan Zapala provided a late highlight with his version of Angel, dedicated to Eric’s sister before essaying his own astonishing Philomena, dedicated to his own mum. He spoke movingly of the influence Eric had on his style and it was inspiring to see Eric’s legacy passed so impressively onto the next generation. The stretches Declan made with his hands to reach the notes made them look like spiders doing Pilates.

An all star version of With These Hands, one of Eric most beautiful compositions, led by Stuart Ryan, providing a fitting coda to the evening. The other guitarists crowded endearingly around their sheet music in an effort to keep up. A final song from Ravi, Time Capsule, finally ended the night on an optimistic note, with the image of Eric watching over us.

And if he was watching, Eric could not have failed to be impressed by the virtuosity, affection and joy so evident in the room. Cheers guys for an incredibly performance and thank you Eric, too!

The Wedding of the Year

We appear to be having some sort of seasonal confusion at the moment. On 1 November here in the UK it was 22 degrees centigrade and we were lounging about in the sun.

As we kicked through the autumn leaves in our t-shirts, this got me thinking about what would happen if one season got married to another. Naturally it would result in The Wedding of the Year. Enjoy!

The Hot Club of Bohemia

I discovered the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli in the most roundabout way, through his collaboration with Paul Simon on Hobo’s Blues, which appeared on Paul’s first solo album. It’s well worth checking out for its springy rhythm and stylish exuberance. I’ve written my own homage to the golden era on of the Paris nightclub with my song: ‘The Hot Club of Bohemia.’ Enjoy both tunes!Henri-Crolla-Grappelli1-400x208

Rainy Days

singin-in-the-rain-10

What do you do when it’s raining? For me it was always the perfect excuse to stay inside, watch old black and white films, read a book, drink wine, sing songs. Bliss. Here’s my new song that tries to capture all of that. It’s not quite Singin’ in the Rain, but then you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?