christopher james

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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.  

The toppermost of the poppermost: ‘New’ by Paul McCartney

It’s not cool, I know, but I couldn’t wait to finish work yesterday to get home and download ‘New.’ I stuck it on the iPod then went for a jog in the moonlight – a great way to get to know Paul’s new album. From irresistible crunchy power pop (Save Us, Queenie Eye, New, Turned Out, I Can Bet) to affecting acoustic ballads in the manner of Johnny Cash’s later albums (Early Days) and more experimental avant-garde groove-based pieces (Road, Looking at Her, Appreciate) it’s pure Macca magic.

Being Paul it’s stuffed full of hooks, often three or four in the same song, and there’s a real honesty and generosity of spirit throughout. The chorus of Looking at Her is wonderfully heartfelt – full of pride and admiration for his new wife, and has a sweet melody to match.

Early Days is a meditation on John and Paul’s early days together: ‘dressed in back from head to toe, two guitars across our backs.’ It’s full of images of the two of them posing on the streets of Liverpool and Hamburg, ‘hair slicked back with Vaseline.’ There’s amazing moment when Paul’s voice is double tracked, singing about memories of friends from the past when we hear the blessing/mantra: ‘Your inspiration, long may it last, may it come to you time and time again.’ It’s hard to resist the idea that’s this is John, egging his old mate on from beyond the grave. Paul responds to the challenge by following up with New – his best single since Coming Up and up there with his greatest Beatles and Wings work.

There are some misfires; I’m not as keen as some on the platitudinous Everybody Out There, but it’s undeniably tuneful and spirited and I’ve yet to fall for Hosanna’s charms. But there’s plenty of time to get to know these songs. Paul’s voice is not the rasping wonder it was during the 70’s when he had that powerful, pure upper chest range (Download Wings Over America if you want some of that) but it has other qualities now – a wonderful deep tone offset by a still bird like falsetto (a la Here There and Everywhere.) Elsewhere, Get Me Out of Here is a bluesy, throw away response, in part to the show of the same name and maybe a remote kissing cousin of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road. But perhaps it should have been left off.

These quibbles aside, New is full of inspiration, originality and invention. It’s more buoyant than Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which although full of good things, was overshadowed by an un-Paul like introspection. This contains the same thoughtful maturity, but with an optimism that album was missing. In that respect, it has more in common with Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (Light From Your Lighthouse from the Fireman side project is my current all time favourite Paul song!)

Here Paul’s new songs are aided and abetted by a great fuzzy electric guitar sound – either in full blow riff-mode (Save Us) or as clever tone and texture (see Alligator). You’ll remember that Taxman solo was by Paul after all. The songs also feature unexpected and delightfully varied arrangements.

On the ELO tribute (and very likable) Turned Out, he proves he would have been a more than capable Roy replacement for Travelling Wilbury (don’t forget to seek out Paul’s fab and Wilbury-like cover of Buddy Holly’s Maybe Baby on YouTube as an added treat).

But to hear him on Queenie Eye is to celebrate the return of a true pop master. From the teasing, Lucy in the Sky-like organ intro, nursery rhyme playfulness (a lyrical nod to John’s Cry Baby Cry perhaps) pop-bounce and soaring double chorus, here we have a reminder why Paul was in the best band there ever was. It is to experience the joy and delirium of pure pop as it was meant to be heard, on sunny mornings in 1966, by the man who invented it.

Chasing the phantoms – Review of Dust Sheet by Luke Heeley (Salt, 2012)

There is a strong sense of absence in Luke Heeley’s mellifluous, beguiling first collection. The Decorator’s dust sheet ‘has severed its ghost.’  In Piero di Cosimo ‘no one knows for sure’ and in the Pink Floyd inspired You’re All Door and I’m All Mirror there is ‘a tremor that wants to be a word.’ Like the absence of Syd Barrett that haunted Pink Floyd’s seminal 70’s work, this emptiness charges the collection with a strange, haunting power – phantoms that refuse to commit to a shape. Like Leonardo in Dragon, he ‘didn’t study this beast, he saw it in the half light.’

But if these ghosts and shadows suggest imprecision, the opposite is true in their rendering. Heeley has a feather-light, pin sharp touch that gives images both delicacy and a vivid clarity. In Second Delivery, the single occupant of an otherwise empty house watches as ‘gas burns with a sapphire flame.’ He feels the acute emptiness of each room as ‘the phone rings, and then the phone is silent.’ Each poem reveals multiple layers and their meaning is often deceptive: ‘squares of grey turn out to be/from a  distance, the face of Abraham Lincoln.’

But if this all sounds rather grey and unsettling, then that is to do Heeley an injustice. His leaning are towards film noir, a sort of south London as drawn by Raymond Chandler, certainly, but like Chandler, his work is leavened with a sly humour.  The Hobbies of Cowboys is already widely known, and is a case in point: ‘One deals himself a hand of patience; the other puffs through the empty chambers of his gun.’ There is a constant, Beckett-like sense of waiting for something to happen, if Beckett in the wild west is not pushing things too far. Fun is certainly permissible while we wait – even if the end destination remains an unsavoury prospect.     

Like all good collections, it’s eminently quotable. The Contrarian is a key poem in the sequence, with its ‘thrifty drifter, clad in biker’s black’. He warns: ‘the contrarian must never be consistent/in his contrariness.’ There is great control here as well as an ambiguous playfulness. It’s difficult to lock down, and yet it’s all done with such conviction and deliberation – a quality that inspires multiple readings and a paradox that seems to define Heeley’s approach. 

Dust SheetLuke HeeleyHardback2012   198 x 129 mm   64pp

There are many lines that demonstrate his finely wrought lyricism. Episodes from the History of Bees feels like major work. The stylish, oxymoronic flair in the address of the first line of Swammerdan’s Prayer is magnificent: ‘Miniscule god, this is my devotion.’ It is the equal of anything in Carol Ann Duffy’s equally enjoyable collection, The Bees. 

Individual metaphors are minor triumphs in themselves: fellow poets (and he is widely respected by his peers) will both admire and envy the ‘storm-drain’ of an eye or how ‘the sun’s yolk trembles in its translucent sac’ and this book is full of them. Heeley’s collection has been a long time coming, but the time has allowed him to finely-tune these small, well- engineered poems. Each feels potent with stored up potential; each narrative feels like a small tear in the world’s fabric, revealing glimpses of light, indicating bright worlds beyond. 

If there are criticisms, they are light and subjective – I could have lost the last three stanzas of Operation, which, for me, veers too close to Fantasia with its ‘row of surgical gloves/pouring spirits.’ Perhaps Cold Call, for all its qualities, is one too many poems about a phone ringing in an empty house. 

But this is a book that will stay with you – lines will announce themselves disconcerting in your inner ear and then challenge your first reading of them. Like something from a grainy Eastern European film there is constant sense that something has just happened of significance that cannot easily be explained.

I hope we will not wait so long for Heeley’s follow up, but regardless of its eta, I feel sure that poems here (posterity: watch out for ‘To a Disused Phone Box’ and ‘Time for an Imaginary Smoke’) have already booked their place in the anthologies of the future, not just for their eulogising subject matter but for their, mercurial otherworldly glow. And they will continue to delight then as they do now.