June 1994, The Garage, Highbury,London. At last the chance to see The Walkabouts play live. They’re in the unusual position of having two albums to promote: Satisfied Mind — a predominantly acoustic collection of covers of songs by everyone from The Carter Family to Patti Smith via Charlie Rich and Mary Margaret O’Hara; and Setting The Woods On Fire a powerful, rocking album that comes on like The Band doing Exile On Main Street (Early descriptions of The Walkabouts called them ‘The Velvets at Big Pink’ but I’d throw Love in as an equally valid reference point.) So there’s no support act, but two sets, semi-acoustic and `something more juvenile’ as Chris puts it. See the live CD and Video To Hell & Back for selected highlights of this show — I’m just in front of Chris for most of the second set, if you’re looking. I’m the guy dancing madly to ‘Good Luck Morning’ and especially to Terri’s thumping drumming on `Jack Candy.’
I read a lot of reviews. It’s one way of keeping up with what’s new from hands I already know about. And after a while, via a few gambles maybe, you learn to know which reviewers you trust. A band I really like are Violent Femmes, the band that should have played a prestigious support show at Alton Towers a few years ago, but apparently the name upset the park’s management who felt it wasn’t in keeping with their family image. That in itself would have been reason for me to enquire about them, perhaps, but I’d already run across them through an excellent book about being music fan: Paul Williams’ Map:Rediscovering Rock’n’Roll, which I picked up after meeting Paul at a convention a few years back.
I couldn’t get a shot of Terri at all inBirmingham, the stage was so small her kit was set up behind the amps! I didn’t have the right film anyway, but it wasn’t a total waste. Friday night in Glasgow I used better film, got some decent shots of The Dear Janes, one of Barbara looking like the sexiest woman in the known universe (it’s in her lips, and her eyes) and one of Ginny’s red hair flying across her face (she said to get her good side, and later told me I had.) As for The Walkabouts they were a mixed batch, a whole set of Christine, hair, bow and cello flying that I’ve mounted together, and a handful of decent shots of Chris & Carla, but still nothing much of Terri, though I could see her. So Saturday, getting the previous shots printed I take advice and buy the film I couldn’t find inGlasgow–Fuji1600 and went to Black & White too HP4 pushed to 1600. Great colour saturation on theFuji, but I wasn’t so happy with my camera work — a couple of cropped heads, and some just out of focus shots. The B&W were better, despite a couple of bleached out faces but I guess I’m no Herman Leonard. I do set that sort of standard for myself though, and I do have some shots I really do like. One from Manchester that has Chris, Carla & Terri swathed in purples and turquoises from the lights is a favourite, even though I caught Chris flicking sweat from his face.
The Walkabouts were formed by singer/guitarist and principal songwriter Chris Eckmann in the early 80s in Seattle along with his two brothers Kurt and Grant and his partner Carla Torgerson and bassist Michael Wells. By the time I got to hear them Terri Moeller was drumming and Glenn Slater played keyboards. On the 84 tour singer/songwriter Larry Barrett guested on steel guitar, this time around the live shows are augmented by Christine Gunn’s Cello.
All I knew of The Dear Janes was one track on a sampler CD somebody gave me a couple of years ago. I liked it, but their presence here meant about 73 minutes of The Walkabouts instead of nearly twice that. Two years ago Chris told me they’d had to leave certain songs out of the set forEnglandbecause venues wouldn’t allow the three hour plus shows they did inEurope, presumably for licensing reasons. So I’m disappointed in advance.
I don’t know if Guy ever followed up on The Walkabouts, I haven’t seen so much of him since I left ET. I almost didn’t myself. It took a piece by Everett True in Melody Maker extolling the virtues of an epic track on a new 1p, Scavenger, the 9-minute lament that is ‘Train To Mercy.’ I pulled out that older tape, played it again, and called my dealer.
When I was about 8 years old I knew all the words to Rhinestone Cowboy, and probably still do. (Stops, hums a few bars, yeah, it’s still there.) Until recently I never owned a copy in any form, but from the radio I had heard and learned this song. I didn’t know what a ‘rind stone’ Was, but the song had hooked me, caught my imagination.
I wasn’t particularly interested in pop music at that time. My schoolmates argued about The Bay City Rollers and Marc Bolan, whilst I quite liked The Wombles. Dad played Jim Reeves and The Carpenters in the car, at home there were a handful of Irish records played on Sunday lunchtime, some of those songs stuck.
I got my own first record one Christmas in the late 70s, it was The Manhattan Transfer Live requested because I’d been hooked again, by their hit single ‘Chanson D’Amour’ (and even now I mentally follow that title with the subsequent line “rat-a-tat-a-tat, play encore.”) That was a present, the first record I bought myself was not, as I like to tell people, the infinitely cool ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie, but probably The Charlie Daniels Band record ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ a novelty hit from 1979 with a tune and a story I liked. Glen Campbell — Jim Reeves — Charlie Daniels, there’s that country connection coming through.
My first gig was The Dubliners, with my parents. Checking with dad reveals that this was inWaterford(not Wexford as I’d thought) and probably 1977. The Dubliners influence was subtle, perhaps even subliminal. Take one song, ‘Weile Waile’, which I only have the vaguest of memories of from those Sundays, but one Saturday night in Leeds I got very, very drunk and walked down the street with Steve Glover and Tara Dowling-Hussey singing all the words to that most vicious song, It’s in my blood.
But I digress. I do that when I’m in a record shop, skip from section to section, see something I might like, then something in the 2’s reminds me of something that might be in the R’s, and I have to go look right away. (I refer the reader to Paul DiFilippo’s neat and perceptive SF Eye article on bookstore customers at this point.) Violent Femmes were mentioned in Paul Williams’ book. He’d also expressed his admiration for Green On Red, Lone Justice, Husker Du and R.E.M. so I went looking for Violent Femmes. I think it was The Blind Leading The Naked that I found, and it was weird. I wasn’t sure of it. I didn’t hate it, but I put it to one side for a while. When I did try it again I found a song that felt right for me, at the start of the second side. ‘I held her in my arms’ and so I listened closer. Now, several years on, it’s not my favourite Femmes album — most often I’ll pull out the compilation Add It Up — but they’re a group I do like a lot.
So that’s a connection. I can take it loads further. Into Dream Syndicate, Opal, Mazzy Star, and hundreds more. The cowpunk thing,Glasgowband Thrum because the singer sounds like Maria McKee (almost) and because Thrum is a great name for a band, and onwards, ever onwards.
And people say to me, ‘Where do they come from, these bands?’ The flippant answer is ‘Toronto’ usually, sometimes `Boston’ — it’s a stupid question, really, I like artists fromMontreal,North Dakota, Preston andBrazil. To the best of my knowledge I don’t like anybody fromTamworth, but time will tell there. So I have a core of favourites fromToronto: Cowboy Junkies, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Courage Of Lassie. I used to listen to Rush too. It’s a fluke, Leonard Cohen is a Montrealer, Jale are fromNova Scotia– and I met them at The Garage, hanging out with their labelmates on Sub Pop.
About an hour ago I was listening to the radio (I fixed that aerial) and Radio One’s Evening Session featured a record so good that midway through I phoned Alison Freebairn and told her to tune in. I want that song! Okay put this one down to sheer perversity, likeFatimaMansionsversion of ‘Shiny Happy People’, this is a massively popular song that I dislike for its triteness, but rendered in a palatable form not by a spoonful of sugar but a bucketful of raw energy and, perhaps, bile. Babybird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ in a driving punk stylee a la Stiff Little Fingers and credited to Oizone. Hell yeah.
In a song I’ve only heard the once, and whose title I didn’t get, Willie Nelson sings a great opening line:
“She’s gone… but she was here,” His weary voice offers optimism in that line. Great music is like that, frequently it’s long gone but its fleeting existence was what counted, and still counts. That is what makes it romantic, and we who follow are, in a multitude of ways, romantic.
In a lecture on John Keats I made an unattributed note, or perhaps the source was my own latent genius? Less than a dozen words, but they’ve stuck with me and seem appropriate: “The tragic essence of Romanticism is the relentless clutching at epiphanies.” On that definition The Walkabouts play Romantic music and I’m a Romantic hero: flawed, perpetually questing, seeking that moment when the spiritual meets the rational, when music and lyrics meet. Ex-Melody Maker writer Jim Arundel encapsulated it in his review of a Buffalo Tom show I attended inManchesterin ’92 “That moment in ‘Taillights Fade’ when your skin turns stripy and your heart inverts.” It’s a line, maybe a half-line, a guitar solo (‘Stargazer’ by Rainbow is rather dated late 70s hard rock now, but Ritchie Blackmore’s solo still makes the hairs stand up;) even just a brief chord progression, like the aforementioned ‘Taillights Fade.’ Sometimes it’s in a voice: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin’s dirty laugh, Jane Siberry’s soaring and swooping, Guy Kyser’s desert howl, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith’s mantras, Max Cavalera’s growl described by one reviewer as “like a dinosaur belching” and some whose names I don’t yet know -the female singer on The Shivers’ ‘Gentle’ whose voice on lines like ‘on a dusty road… in East Tennessee…things ain’t simple… like you think they might be’ drawls and paints a picture of tumbleweed and dust devils and a creaky sign in the wind.
The first thing I did when I hit Glasgow, about 10 a.m., was find a record store, Tower Records where I saw Chuck Prophet play a couple of years ago. I always carry a mental list of wants, ever-changing but always there. I once tried writing it down in an alphabetical notepad, it got too unwieldy real quickly. So I forget things, then I get inspired by new things, and freaks happen — like finding a single by Dymaxion, never heard of them but the label, Hemiola of Leeds, puts out some interesting stuff by The Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and their ilk, so have a closer look: a track called ‘Cognitive Dissonance Penitentiary’? I’ll have to have that. Just for the title!
InGlasgowI was on a mission, inspired by a new band in a live setting like I hadn’t been for a long time. The Dear Janes had more than countered my advance dismay, their show inBirminghamwas simply breathtaking. They are, nominally, a female folk duo, but there is a force behind them, a bittersweet anger, a rejection of their pains, that drives songs about suicide, self-pity, abuse, masturbation and anti-depressants right into you. In The Jug Of Ale stood in a thickening crowd in desperate oppressive heat, seeing Carla Torgerson of The Walkabouts watching too, and I was disappointed that The Dear Janes set ended so soon.
I also got lucky. Melody Maker reviewer Jennifer Nine described The Renderers as a cross between The Walkabouts and Palace Brothers, that was intriguing as I like both :hose acts. Palace Brothers/Music/Songs (the name changes) is bleak, bitter, Faulkneresque Southern Country Blues like Leonard Cohen at his bitterest. That appeals to me, but so do The Spice Girls. Unfortunately all I could find was one single by The Renderers, a wonderfully haunting lament called ‘A Touch Of Evil’ on New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records (and that’s a fair recommendation in itself, by the way.) Nobody could find a listing for any other release by this band. In Tower Records I found a CD whilst looking for something totally different. The excitement was only tempered by the frustration that it would be at least 48 hours before I could actually play the thing — I must have studied the sleeve notes, minimal as they are, a dozen times in that span.
Getting out ofBirminghamwas much harder than getting in, and there’s a prison metaphor lurking in there somewhere that might upset a few Brummies I know, so I’ll by-pass it for now. I walked the three or four miles from Moseley into Digbeth Coach Station and tried to blag a bus ride out to the motorway. No deal, said the supervisor. Ask the driver of theManchestercoach, said another driver. All I wanted was to be dropped ten miles up the road atHiltonParkservices so I had a chance hitching, and I offered to pay as far as the next town, Stoke say. So I asked the driver of theManchestercoach, who said he wasn’t allowed to do it, “but if you get on whilst my back’s turned I won’t know will I?” And so two hours, and around a hundred miles further North I was dropped off at Knutsford Services. Now normally I detest Knutsford, but not today, not so much after a free ride from National Express. I almost felt like Woody Guthrie, if I hadn’t been so tired and cold.