My colleague, the talented fantasy novelist, Graham Joyce, died last year, and I helped clear his office (which we shared with Georgina Lock) a few weeks ago. There’s an event celebrating his life and work this Saturday, at 11am, as part of the States of Independence independent publishers festival in Leicester, which is always an interesting day. Graham was a true independent: free thinking, irascible on occasion, inspiring and, most of all, an original. I was, for a few years – technically – his line manager on the MA in Creative Writing that I used to run and still teach on. Graham preferred the word ‘boss’ and, boy, did he hate all bosses. We had our differences, but they had long dissolved into mutual warmth and respect by the end of his life. Our colleague and friend, Professor John Goodridge, has mounted a small exhibition celebrating Graham’s life and work at Nottingham Trent University, and I photographed it yesterday. The exhibition’s in our busiest lecture hall, John Clare 6, and aimed primarily at our undergraduates, so not easily accessible to the public. However, if you’d like to read a pdf of the text that accompanies the exhibition, you can download it by clicking on the link below
I don’t put all of my Nottingham Post reviews on here and, when I do, I generally don’t extend them much, but I was only given 300 words for Rumer last night, and felt like writing a bit more today, so here it is.
Rumer has by far the best ballad voice in modern pop, a worthy successor to Dusty Springfield and Karen Carpenter. I’ve seen her four times, the first a casino showcase the week her debut album came out. The second, headlining Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall, maybe a little before she was ready to, and, lastly, it was a pleasure to see her reformed band Stereo Venus open for St Etienne at Sheffield’s Leadmill in 2012. A lot’s changed since Rumer played the RCH in 2011. She’s found a new partner (see photo), released that rare thing, a terrific covers album, Boys Don’t Cry and, recently, Into Colour, her second album of original songs.
‘Happiness writes white’, Philip Larkin wrote. Some found the new album less impressive than her melancholy debut, the voice as perfect as ever but the songs less memorable. All I can say it that, tonight, new numbers like Dangerous, Reach Out and , particularly, Sam, more than hold their own at the centre of the set, alongside early hit, Aretha.
Last time, with one album out, half the set consisted of covers that Rumer didn’t end up recording: Carole King’s Being At War With Each Other, Elton John’s Rocket Man, Gil Scott Heron’s Lady Day and John Coltrane, Laura Nyro’s American Dove, Joni’s Free Man In Paris and Stephen Bishop’s Little Italy. Only the relatively obscure Travelin’ Boy ended up on Boys Don’t Cry. This time, she’s much more confident and relaxed. Covers, however, are thin on the ground, despite Boys Don’t Cry and a 2nd compilation (of B sides and rarities) on sale tonight. Pity, as she’s a fantastic interpreter, with a voice ideally suited to Bacharach/David and Jimmy Webb, whose P.F. Sloan is a highlight. I’d have liked to hear more songs from Boys Don’t Cry, particularly Welcome Back, Flyin’ Shoes and Home Thoughts From Abroad.
Tonight’s terrific band are led by arranger and fiancé Rob Shirakbari on guitar and piano. A backing singer has flu, but guitarist Darren Hodson steps in, more than competently duetting on Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), which she peformed on Live From Daryl’s House but couldn’t get permission to include on her tour only rarities comp. The musically complex Pizza and Pinball describes her boyfriend’s youth. Then we’re into Seasons of the Soul, with Saving Grace, Blackbird and, for the first encore, Thankful, just her and Rob’s piano. Exquisite.
I say ‘encore’ but they stay on stage, having nowhere to escape to. It’s an odd venue, the Albert Hall, with decent acoustics but nobody monitoring the crowd, so that an idiot on the raised section stage right with a bright camera light is allowed to distract the audience and singer for long periods. Rumer is very chatty, at times almost ingratiating. You don’t ask Nottingham people whether they love living in Nottingham – public demonstrations of love aren’t in the city’s character. So, in reply, she gets call outs from people who’ve travelled distances to see her: ‘Liverpool!’ North Allerton!’ At another point she tries to have a conversation with a guy two thirds of the way back, who has to repeat his mildly embarrassing comment four times before she can make out what he’s saying. But, hey, with a voice that perfect and a band that good, she can get away with most anything.
Many of the crowd don’t recognise the upbeat final number, Todd Rundgren’s classic, Love is the Answer, another great song she hasn’t recorded, but it has Mike and I punching the air: fantastic song. 84 minutes and it’s over. Rumer has to walk the full length of the side of the packed hall, sliding past patrons to get out. Sadly, quite a lot of people leave before the band finish playing. Maybe they’re rushing to the signing table. The three of us wander over for a chat with Rob Shirakbari as he’s packing up. He’s pleased that Mike and I recognised and loved Love Is The Answer (bit of an odd final choice, as most of the crowd had no idea what it was, but she clearly wanted to go out on something upbeat) and points out that Rumer now has more than enough songs to play a similar length set of completely different numbers the following night. But there’s no next night, as this was the last date on a tour that’s found her singing better than ever. She’s also established a devoted following which, one suspects, will stick with her.
Wouldn’t it be great if Rumer were guest singer when Burt Bacharach visits Nottingham in July? Not impossible. The guest’s not been announced yet and, before joining Rumer, her fiancé was Burt’s musical director.
Here’s a bonus stream of Rumer singing another Bacharach song from the same EP, the one she named the dog in the picture above after:
A slightly extended version of my Nottingham Post review.
In the 18th century, a Welshman called John Evans crossed the ocean to America. He was searching for the mythical tribe of Prince Madoc, Welshmen who mated with native Americans and were the USA’s first European settlers. Two and a bit centuries on, his distant relative, lead singer of popular Welsh band The Super Furry Animals, has written a concept album about him. It’s also an app, and a movie, and a very enjoyable book. All of them are called American Interior.
Gruff, in fur trapper’s hat, takes to the stage at five to eight to introduce a quirky ten minute film that gives the background. Then Gruff and his four piece band begin, bringing with them a large felt puppet of, yes, John Evans, wearing a pirate’s hat. Gruff took this figure round the US with him. The story is in the well-researched book, shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, which, unlike tonight’s show, is also a travelogue.
What follows is part gig, part powerpoint lecture. And it works superbly. Rhys is a hesitant raconteur, with a dry, laconic wit (eg Evans’ family move to a hovel so poor it only has dial-up internet). He has a story full of twists, tall tales and escapades that takes us from London to New Orleans. All interspersed with ravishing pop songs like the title track and Hotel Shampoo’s ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ that recall the Beach Boys and the psychedelic Beatles of ‘Strawberry Fields Forver’. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well.
After 90 minutes, Rhys finishes the tale. More silliness, as signs tell us when to applaud, and how hard. ‘Now we’re ready to start the gig’. We think he’s joking. But, no, he plays ‘100 Unread Messages’, which sums up the whole journey, then encores right up to the curfew, ending with ‘Sensations In The Dark’ and a lovely ‘Year of the Dog’. Terrific.
My friend Don died a week ago today. We only met a handful of times, but were cyber-buddies for more than a decade. Internet friendships tend to involve carefully edited versions of ourselves that wouldn’t fit so firmly in real life, but, had we not lived 4,600 miles away from each other, I suspect that we’d have been good friends. He was very supportive of my fiction, sometimes posting rave reviews on Amazon under quirky aliases (ie Joey Kludge). Three years ago, when I dedicated the second Bone and Cane novel to Don and his crime loving wife, Jo-Anne, he was touchingly flattered and at first convinced I’d just sent them some sort of specially personalised proof copy.
I met Don through a Usenet newsgroup about Bob Dylan. I sent him a copy of a UK only magazine compilation CD he was after. This began a regular, mainly music obsessed correspondence, with many more cds exchanged, that we both enjoyed a great deal. We’d often have conversations that spread through the day, despite the huge time difference. Every year I’d send him my best of year CD and he would send me that year’s latest all music issue of the Oxford American, which he’d introduced me to. It’s funny how you picture people via their online persona. Don, who, after a while took to calling himself Really Real, combined posting about music with acting as a kind of gatekeeper, taking up arguments with some of the more nutty members of the Dylan fan community, always happy to play Devil’s Advocate to get a discussion going.
Don’s online persona was much more curmudgeonly & comic than the real Don, who I got to meet when he and Jo-Anne were visiting Paris at the same time as Sue and I were over from the UK. We later visited them in Vancouver, where they were terrific hosts. Don was a very sweet, quite straight looking guy with a great sense of humour, as well as being an old hippy who never entirely grew up. On our Vancouver visit, I particularly recall Don showing me his original Beatles butcher sleeve, our being surprised by a van full of armed cops arriving in a back alley when we were on our way to see the Hold Steady, and a luxurious woodland picnic. A former schoolteacher, Don came from a prosperous family and was able to retire early, so at least he got to spend a long time doing the things he loved most, which included travelling with Jo-Anne, seeing a lot of movies and, until recently, going to plenty of gigs. His massive interest in music, especially Dylan, was demonstrated by the amount of time he continued to spend on the Dylan newsgroup, long after newsgroups were a thing (I stopped using it when my newsgroup software would no longer update, although it’s easy to access through Google groups).
From time to time, though, Don would keep me up to date with what was going on there, and when Jo-Anne wrote to tell me that he had succumbed to pancreatitis, the day after his 68th birthday, I offered to write a post there, telling the group, which I did last Friday (this blog is an expanded version of what I wrote there). The outpouring of love and fascinated comments about Don was staggering: far too many great comments to summarise here, but I do want to mention one particular guy who goes by the name, Just Walkin’, who wrote to tell me how, inspired by Don, he packed in being a software entrepreneur to become a high school teacher. In his sixties.
Don was a great maker of compilations, often on themes. I have loads of them. He also made 35 ‘great year to be born’ CDs, compilations of the best music (from a Canadian perspective) of every year from 1951-1986. I have a full set, and he’d often send me updated, improved versions. He’d post his theme compilation lists on RMD, asking for suggestions. Over on the group now, a bunch of people are putting together the tracklisting in his honour, Heaven. Ironic, of course, as Don was well known to be a staunch atheist. He hated funerals and there won’t be one. One frequent request I got from members of the newsgroup was for a photograph of Don, which I can understand. Before I met Don, based on his online persona, I had a kind of cartoon image of a bearded unabomber type. I asked Jo-Anne for some she liked and post them above, for the people in the group, and as a memorial to my friend.
I’ve missed Don’s witty repartee for the last few weeks. He was too ill to hear the best of year CD that I sent him, never mind tell me which tracks he loved and hated. We’ll never discuss the book about Dylanologists my brother gave me for Christmas, or the complete Basement Tapes. But music I got from him is all over our house, and he’ll remain a constant presence. Sitting in front of me is a magazine that arrived in the last post, the 2014 Oxford American Southern Music issue: Texas, which Don, who had great difficulty communicating at that stage, asked Jo-Anne to buy for me, and she posted after his death. I’m off downstairs to open it now. Thanks, buddy. It was real.
Here’s where I indulge myself in listing my thirty-two favourite albums of the last year. Usual provisos. Has to have come out in 2014 and be primarily new material (Bruce Springsteen, therefore, is allowed in. Richard Thompson isn’t). Some highly placed albums didn’t feature on the best of year CD below because either they came out too late (D’Angelo, a soul classic, with strong strains of Sly & The Family Stone), I couldn’t make them fit (Natalie Merchant) or I just damn forgot to put them on (Rosanne Cash).
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
2= Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
2= D’Angelo – Black Messiah
4. Young Fathers – Dead
5. Beck – Morning Phase
6. Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
7. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
8. Adam Cohen – Going Home
9. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
10. Mary J Blige – London Sessions
11. The Delines – Colfax
12. Natalie Merchant
13. Gruff Rhys – American Interior
14. Prince – Art Official Age
15. Spoon – They Want My Soul
16. Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
17. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
18. Toumani & Sidiki Diabate – Toumani & Sidiki
19. Ronika – Selectadisc
20. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
21. Future Islands – Singles
22. The Both
23. FKA Twigs – LP1
24. Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
25. Simone Felice – Strangers
26. Lucinda Williams – Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
27. Caribou – Our Love
28. LaRoux – Trouble In Paradise
29. Bridie Jackson & The Arbour – New Skin
30= Rumer – Into Colour
30= Sun O))) & Scott Walker – Soused
30= J Mascis – Tied To A Star