This is a slightly revised and extended version of my original review in the Nottingham Post with setlist.
Interesting to see this joint tour in the 700 seater Playhouse (where it sold out at lightning speed) rather than Billy Bragg’s usual haunt, Rock City. It suggests that this is a sit-down show, suited to a contemplative audience.
And so it proves. Bragg is accompanied by old friend Joe Henry. He’s best known here as a producer (Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint), but is primarily a prolific singer/songwriter. The duo have made a concept album, Shine a Light, mostly recorded in railway stations. The pair fit well together. They’d need to, in close proximity on those notoriously empty US trains. ‘65 hours, 3,000 miles.’
Two sets of railroad songs bookend solo slots from each performer. They’re chosen, Joe Henry tells us, not for nostalgia, but because the songs still have something to say to us. The best is by Leadbelly, whose In The Pines (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night) was famously covered by Nirvana. The least successful is Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, which suits neither man’s voice.
The chat between the songs is as important as the songs themselves. It’s the story of a journey more than a standard gig and the Playhouse is an ideal, intimate venue. I particularly liked the story of their recording a Jimmy Rodgers song in the room where Alan Lomax recorded the legendary Robert Johnson (Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio), then finding that Rodgers had lived in the hotel too.
Good to hear Rock Island Line and Midnight Special done live. The railroad material was fun, but, for me, the highlights were a solo song by each man.
Henry apologised for Trump. ‘It is where we are. It isn’t who we are.’ His finest performance was Our Song, a story about America told with Randy Newman-like precision at the piano. He finished the first half with a tribute to Allen Toussaint, a lovely version of Freedom For The Stallion.
Billy Bragg stopped Between The Wars early, breaking from the line ‘sweet moderation’ into Help Save the Youth of America. He made several cracks about ‘the unintended consequences of Brexit’ (Trump being the biggest). He was most on the money when he talked about how we deal with mass migration being the question that will decide what history makes of us. The song from him that struck the strongest chord was a cover of Anais Mitchell’s Why We Build the Wall from the album, Hadestown. The enemy, we’re told is poverty, and poverty is on the other side of the wall. This used to be a song from an opera about the devil, now it’s a description of the state of the U.S.A.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
In the Pines
Waitin’ for a Train
Early Morning Rain
After The War
God Only Knows
Freedom for the Stallion
Between the Wars
Help Save the Youth of America
Accident Waiting to Happen
Why We Build the Wall
There Is Power in a Union
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Railroading on the Great Divide
Rock Island Line
Gentle on My Mind
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
1982. I’d bought ABC’s debut single, Tears Are Not Enough, on 12” a year before, when I was working. Adored Poison Arrow. My fixed term job was all but over and I was a year away from doing teacher-training. My girlfriend had a job at Kingsmill Hospital, near Mansfield. She’d bought a car but hadn’t passed the test yet, so I used to drive her to work then come home.My oldest friend, Mike Russell, had a job he hated, as a trainee accountant, but at least he was earning, so could afford to buy albums, some of which he’d tape for me. A cassette of The Lexicon of Love arrived a couple of days after its release. ABC are a Sheffield band, and we were both from there, though neither of us lived in the city at the time, which made him extra keen on them.
So, one Wednesday or Thursday morning, after I’d dropped Barbara off at the hospital, I put the little cassette player I’d brought with me on the passenger seat and popped in the cassette that had arrived in the post that morning (remember when post came early?). ABC’s debut kept me company as I joined the rush hour traffic back into Nottingham. From the opening track, Show Me, it knocked me out. Perfect pop with an emphasis on failed romance that struck a deep chord, for my first big relationship had nearly run its course and I would soon move out. By the time I got to the LP’s side two, bookended by the brilliant Look of Love and the gorgeous All of my Heart, I knew that I was in the company of a masterpiece. This was Sheffield’s year. The other side of the cassette was a new album by another city band whose recent singles I’d bought, the Human League’s Dare.
Across the city, the student who would become my life partner was also being introduced to the album. Indeed, she went to see the original Lexicon of Love tour at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, whereas I didn’t get to see the band until this century. The last time was with Mike, Sue and various Sheffield friends at the City Hall, a few years ago. It was good, but not, somehow, stunning: maybe because we couldn’t afford the £75 seats, so were a way back. Or maybe it was because, at that stage, ABC had become a heritage act, with no new material that the audience had come to hear. And, when that happens, something vital often goes.
That situation changed this year when Fry released the sequel, Lexicon of Love II. What follows is a slightly extended version of my review in the Nottingham Post (whose Kevin Cooper took the photo of Martin and Anne above), where you can also see the setlist. The main thing I don’t mention (reviewers never say where they’re sitting but normally get decent seats, often around the soundboard) is that we had fantastic, third row seats. The first three rows had been saved for people willing to fork out double for a hospitality package with pass, programme and meet and greet, but they hadn’t all sold).
ABC’s Lexicon of Love is a towering album of the 80’s: an angst-ridden glam-pop classic. As a debut, it was impossible to follow, but the band has endured. At least, lead singer Martin Fry – he of the gold lamé suit -have. There are no other original members.
34 years on, Fry has released a sequel, The Lexicon of Love II. The main surprise, perhaps, is that it took him so long. A pleasant surprise is that Anne Dudley, whose orchestral arrangements were so crucial to the first album, is back on board. She’s taking a break from her own stellar career, which includes the music for Poldark.
The biggest surprise is that the sequel’s a terrific listen, a mature suite of memorable pop songs that look at the original album’s relationships theme from the vantage point of middle-age.
Lexicon of Love II is ABC’s biggest hit since their debut. Deservedly so. Tonight’s tickets are pricey, but no expense is spared. ABC are with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Dudley. The great Carol Kenyon (best known for the vocals on Heaven 17’s Temptation and touring with Pink Floyd) is one of the backing singers. I worried that Fry would make the mistake Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson made with his Thick as a Brick II tour. He performed the old album first, then the sequel, which was bound to suffer by comparison, and it made for a very flat evening.
Fry is more savvy than that, interspersing familiar songs with most of the new album in the first half. The lovely Lexicon of Love overture (originally the B side of final album single, All Of My Heart and, shockingly, not included on my extended CD reissue of the LP) leads into one of their best post-Lexicon singles, When Smokey Sings. Fry wears a grey three piece suit rather than gold lamé but his shoes are golden. Viva Love is the first of three strong songs from the new album before he throws in (How To Be A) Millionaire. Support Rob Fusari joins him for this and the excellent co-write The Singer Not The Song, which Marcello Carlin, my favourite music writer, waxes lyrical about in a short story that is the centrepiece of the lavish programme. Fry looks like he’s having a ball. He resurrects one of ABC’s best songs from the forgotten years, The Night You Murdered Love and closes a packed first hour with Be Near Me from the Millionaire album.
The second half is the first album, and it does not disappoint. I’ve seen this classic done with an orchestra before, but tonight was even better. Not a duff track on it, and The Look of Love brings the house down. There’s a free seat next to us in the third row, so we take plenty of opportunity to dance. And we get ABC’s best song twice, for they do it as a sing-along in the encore. Both versions feature a gorgeous moment when Carol Kenyon, right in front of me, sings the melody line. Fry is in fantastic form, clearly enjoying himself enormously and the revamped Concert Hall (with free, good wi-fi, unlike my home for several hours when I wanted to post this: thanks, Virgin) has never sounded better. A stunning show.
Oh, and, a few months after Mike died, a year ago, I inherited my pick of his albums. Mostly things I didn’t have, obviously, but I chose some for their sentimental connections, like the Big Star albums, which used to be our secret, and The Lexicon of Love. The programme with Marcello’s sleeve notes will live inside its cover. Mike was a big fan of Marcello’s music writing too, and he’d have liked that. He’d have loved this show.
I normally do a holiday reading blog around this time of year. We’ve been unable to get away, although a weekend in Whitby beckons. However, I’ve been enjoying the sunshine and my last month running our UNESCO City of Literature, whose first director, Sandeep Mahal, starts today, which is very exciting. I’ve been helping sort out the publication of the Dawn of the Unread book, and I’ve also done plenty of reading, finishing a book I started nearly forty years ago (see the post below), dipping into numerous short story and poetry collections and devouring a few novels. Here they are, in the order in which I read them.
Alison Moore – Death and the Seaside
The third novel from one our UNESCO patrons is allusive and multi-layered. Moore keeps you alert and uses plenty of post-modern tricks, but in a unique, very personal way which always keeps the reader on board. I discussed it last week with the Arts Council’s new literature director, Sarah Crown. I liked it a lot, but not as much as the review in The Guardian, I told her. Oh yes, she said, I wrote that. Oops.
David Mitchell – Slade House
I normally rush to read Mitchell’s novels, but I read part of as a short story that he published it over a few days on Twitter and was – how to put this? – less than impressed. Yet, when I got round to this shortish novel, which I polished off on a long train journey, I soon discovered that it’s a very good kind-of-ghost story, one that gets increasingly satisfying as it develops. Isn’t that the problem with long ghost stories, that they frequently fizzle out long before the end? There is one problem with the book, which, like all of Mitchell’s novels, turns out to have references to other novels, especially his last one, the uneven The Bone Clocks, and you really need to have read that for part of the new novel to work. But fair enough. Alison Moore’s novel also expects us to have read and thought about other novels. This is, surely, a reasonable expectation.
Sj– Moonstone: the boy who never was
Another from a UNESCO city of literature, this time Reykjavik, where the Spanish flu epidemic sweeps the city at the end of the First World War. A young gay man survives it, while coming under threat because of his sexuality. A short, satisfying afternoon’s read, beautifully written.
Elizabeth Strout – I am Lucy Barton
After the rave reviews, and seeing the terrific TV adaptation of Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, I had high hopes of this. While it’s very well written, I came away slightly disappointed. I was expecting interconnected short stories but found a thin, fictional memoir about a sick woman’s relationship with her mother, with a little about a failed marriage and quite a lot about her relationship with a woman writer who may or may not be based on a real figure. It’s good, but, for me, didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, as a good novel should.
AD Miller – The Faithful Couple
This, on the other hand, got better as it went along. I picked it up cheap on Oxfam, having enjoyed Miller’s Russia-set debut, Snowdrops. The new one’s subject, male friendship, is typical first novel terrain and I wasn’t impressed at first. Reading on the lounger in the lawn, one hot day this week, I was annoyed to find that I’d got past page fifty. That’s my rule, you see. If I get past page fifty of a novel, I have to finish it. But, in this case, I’m glad I did. The writing is strong and the relationship (charting the fortunes of two very different friends who meet on a USA holiday, and are implicated in something bad that they did there) credible. Miller chronicles the messiness of life, with its built-up resentments and broken ambitions, very well. This would be a good novel to read for a take on metropolitan life over 18 years, from 1993. That said, there isn’t much call for novels like this these days, so, unless someone’s enthusiastic enough to turn it into a TV mini-series (hard since so much of it happens in the characters’ heads, it probably won’t get noticed a lot, which is a shame. Anyway, I’ve got thirty pages left, and I want to know how it end, so I shall be finishing it over lunch before going into town for this evening’s City of Literature board meeting.
What to read next? I’m rather spoiled for choice, as the photo above demonstrates. The bookcase used to belong to Stanley Middleton. Nice to see Alison Moore give him a nod in her top ten books about the seaside for The Guardian. Click on the picture for a closer look. The bottom shelf needs a little explanation. The novel on display is one that took me ages to track down, written under a pseudonym by my favourite novelist, Brian Moore, at around the time of the publication of his first novel under his own name, Judith Hearne. All of the books to the right of it are poetry collections. I’ve built up rather a backlog in the three years that I ran Jazz and Poetry Nottingham (now, sadly, in hiatus). I should probably start that fat Elvis Costello autobiography and read it before Bruce Springsteen’s memoirs come out. I’ve heard mixed reports of David Szalay, which is on the Booker longlist. Maybe I should try that. And I’ve been saving up Graham Joyce’s final novel. Also, the new Ian McEwan is published today, and Robert Harris has a promising looking one out in a couple of weeks… so many books, so little time, as the badge I bought at City Lights says. One of these days, I might even start writing another one myself.
Thirty-nine years ago this month, I set off to hitch-hike around Europe. I took, as I recall, only three books with me. The Hitch-Hikers Guide To Europe, of course. Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler (I’d already read On The Road and Dharma Bums) and a notebook to write in. Back then, I wrote a lot of poetry. I’d been working for seven months after dropping out of university so had saved up enough to last for up to a month, depending on how well I eked it out, before returning to Nottingham, where I would study English Literature and American Studies.
I’d long finished Lonesome Traveller by the time I got to Genoa, by way of stops in Boulogne, Paris, Digne and Nice. It was in Genoa that I succumbed to joining the Youth Hostel Association so that I could stay in a hostel just outside the Italian city. I bought the required sleep sheet, a thin cotton sleeping bag thing that saved on their laundering bed linen. Bit of an expensive investment, as I didn’t stay in a hostel again for the rest of the trip. Tried to get into the one in Athens, but it was full, and I slept on a roof instead. It was in the Genoa hostel that I met the Australian, a few years my senior, who was also travelling alone, and we agreed to hitch together for a while.
The Australian and I got up early to hitch to Rome, hoping to get to St Peters Square in time for the Pope’s midday mass. Instead, we landed at a campsite just outside the city after four, the Australian sharing my tent. He lent me the book that he’d brought with him to read on his trip: James Clavell’s Shogun, which I hadn’t heard of, while he ripped through Lonesome Traveler. In Rome, we wasted precious travel money on black market Rolex watches while we queued to get into the Sistine Chapel. An Italian spiv displayed them from the inside of his jacket, like in the comic books, and offered a discount for two. The Australian talked me into buying one. Then we hitched to Naples and, from there, to Pompeii. I loved Pompeii, and was to return there seven years later on my first foreign holiday with Sue. But I got food poisoning and the Australian didn’t want to hang around waiting for me to get better. Also, we’d been travelling together for a week, and were probably a bit tired of each other.
I was OK with that, and it only took me another day or so to feel up to moving on (I ended up getting as far as the Greek island of Naxos) but the Australian hadn’t finished Shogun and took it away with him. I was only about 500 pages through the 1000+ page novel. So I never found out how it ended. There was, I recently learned, a very successful TV adaptation in 1980, but I didn’t notice: probably too busy writing a dissertation and preparing for my final exams. It starred Richard Chamberlain, who I find hard to imagine playing Anjin-san, the English samurai, so was probably best avoided. In 1990, there was a musical, which took great liberties with the plot. Why didn’t I buy or borrow a copy? Probably some innate distaste for best-sellers. I assumed that my holiday reading standards were lower and I would be disappointed. Also, it was so long and I didn’t want to have to read the first three books all over again, not when I had all that great literature to get through for my course.
At the beginning of this year, Shogun showed up as an Amazon Daily Deal (once a big boost – Bone and Cane went back to the top of their charts when it was in the deal). I was about to go to New Zealand and stocking up my Kindle for the four flights. So I paid my 99p and, in February, on the endless flight back to the UK, began to read it. And, you know what, it was really good. A terrific plane read. Easy to follow, crisply written, with good characterisation, lots of exciting events and some insight into Japanese culture. The depiction of seventeenth century Japan reminded me of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011) which is set a century or two later. However Shogun is essentially six novels in one, and I was taken ill two days after I got home, so didn’t start the third book for a few weeks. Eventually, though, I made the novel my bedtime read. I would aim to read 1% before I fell asleep (that’s around 6000 words, at a guess) and often managed it.
Last night, I finished the novel. It goes off a little bit towards the end. There are a few sentimental passages and overlong sentences that suggest the author was getting tired. He holds back information. This is partly to create suspense as to why characters are behaving as they are but, nevertheless, it gets clunky. There’s a long passage towards the end when the principal Japanese character, Toranaga, thinks about his motivation and plans for Blackthorne, the novel’s hero, that no self respecting writer would be happy with. But these are minor caveats. It was one of those books that you look forward to reading in bed, with a style that was easy to follow but content complex enough to tire the brain and send me to sleep. It’s one of six Clavell Asia saga novels and, while I wouldn’t rush to read the others, I wouldn’t rule it out, either.
This morning, I read up on Clavell, surprised to find that this Australian-born Englishman wrote The Fly, The Great Escape and was writer/director of To Sir With Love, amongst other movies, on top of the big Asian books. He translated Sun Tzu’s still hugely influential The Art of War. He was also a Japanese prisoner of war, which inspired his first novel, King Rat. He sounds like an interesting guy and I’ve downloaded his Desert Island Discs to listen to on my morning exercise bike ride (the photo above is from their site). The Anjin-san in Shogun is based on a real English sailor, William Adams, who had a fascinating life. Several other novels have been written about him.
My Australian wrote to me that December, with a cheque for the twenty dollars he’d borrowed in Rome. The gold had quickly begun to rub off the fake watch, he told me. He’d told a sob story and sold his to some Americans in Italy. I still had mine, which had stopped working within a week. When my mum took it to be mended the first thing the jeweller said was, ‘you didn’t think this was real, did you?’ The Australian had a temporary job lecturing in Engineering at a university in Arizona. For all I know, he’s still there. And I have to find a new book to read at night. I’m halfway through David Gates’ Preston Falls, which is a cracking read if you like novels about fifty-something blokes whose lives are falling apart, but isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep. I’ll turn on my Kindle and see what takes my fancy. By the way, if you like novels about Japan, as I do (hoping to go back there next year), my favourite two are Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and J David Simons’ terrific, too little known, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which I wrote about three years ago.
The second night of Ryley Walker’s UK tour comes two weeks ahead of third album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (no, that second word isn’t a typo) which only the illegal downloaders in the crowd will know. Walker was meant to appear in a duo with legendary former Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson, fifty years his senior (Ryley is 27). But Danny is ill – at least that’s the official story – so we get his regular trio, featuring two musicians from Oslo. It’s hard to imagine how this show would work without terrific drummer Stale Liavick Solberg, whose flamboyant jazz chops propel the evening’s tight, spacey improvisations. Walker’s intricate guitar work soars, while understated bassist Julius Lovid holds it all together. They create a wide, absorbing soundscape, more exciting and absorbing than on the impressive album (which I have heard a few times).
The 70 minute, eight song set is dominated by material from Golden Sings. I’ve had my doubts about Walker before. Those early John Martyn and Tim Buckley influences seemed too obvious and it was the appearance of Danny Thompson (who I’ve seen many times, with John M and Richard Thompson) that persuaded me to check him out tonight. But live, Ryley’s his own thing, an absorbing showman with terrible hair and engaging humour. If the vocals remind me of anyone, I realise as the evening progresses, it’s Tim Hardin’s late 60’s jazz slur. Walker namechecks the Miles Davis of that era, especially praising the On The Corner LP. These are the things he loves, he tells us. Well, them and chips with mayo.
Two thirds of the audience is my age or older, well placed to have seen Walker’s influences in their heyday, but there’s a healthy sprinkling of young hipster types too and the the evening goes down a storm with everyone. 76 minutes rush by, concluding with the opening tracks from his breakthrough album Primrose Green, with its imitation Van Morrison sleeve. Watching him yelp and swagger through encore Summer Dress, you can be sure he’ll be back, bigger. What his next stage will sound like is anybody’s guess.