13 April 2008

Getting Mighty Crowded

Not on this Saturday morning.

Devon St, New Plymouth, New Zealand,
March 2008.

08 April 2008

Endless summer

Neil Finn has always been a champion of the Womad concept. When the first New Zealand Womad took place in 1997, he made an effort to get the idea across to an Auckland public that was either ignorant or apathetic. (Probably both, though the setting – Western Springs park – and lineup were excellent. It wasn’t all throat-singers, and offered a final performance of the original Enzso show and the first performance in New Zealand of Richard Thompson.)

So it was a nice surprise, if not completely unexpected, when Neil offered to come to the rescue after the lead act at this year’s Womad had to cancel. The “barefoot diva” Cesaria Evora suffered a small stroke in Australia, and in her place Neil performed a solo set.

Since the first two Auckland Womads – which had disappointing sales – the festival has moved 200 miles south to New Plymouth, in the centre of the North Island. There is a strong folk tradition there, a hardcore of old hippies, veterans of the 1980s Sweetwaters rock festivals, and now their teenagers. Plus, Wellingtonians and Aucklanders of a similar ilk only have half the distance to travel.

The setting is sublime: Brooklands Park in the heart of New Plymouth, which is like a botanical gardens of native bush, set around a natural amphitheatre called the Bowl of Brooklands. In front of the stage is a pond between the performers and the audience, often breached in the past by drunks (or by Tim Finn, rowing a dinghy around during ‘Dirty Creature’ in a 1980s Enz show). It has also hosted huge events such as the Seekers at the height of their fame or, recently, a solo show by Elton John.

But the toe sandals are out at Womad, and among the stalwarts there’s a slight atmosphere of disinterest for mainstream pop. Nevertheless the organisers have programmed the festival brilliantly, with mainstream acts at the perfect ascendant moment of their career (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Beirut) combined with soul veteran Mavis Staples and a top array of “world” music that has broken through to western audiences: Toumani Diabate, the Terem Quartet, Taraf de Haidouks, and the “Ray Charles of Cambodia”, Master Kong Nay. Also there is a strong contingent of New Zealand music at its best: old hands Midge Marsdan and Don McGlashan, plus the Phoenix Foundation, SJD, and the ubiquitous and always welcome Age Pryor.

Neil looked a little lonely standing on the dark, wide Bowl of Brooklands stage, dressed in a deconstructed navy pinstripe jacket, with a birds-nest hairdo. He opened with ‘She Will Have Her Way’, fleshed out with 12-string acoustic, and then he said, “Ill now do a song as I actually wrote it”. Starting slowly, and singing Love can make you weep, it took me a moment to recognise ‘Something So Strong’ performed as a delicate demo, using just barre chords.

The thousands of people perched on the hill, snapping their mobile phone cameras or waving fluoro-lights made Neil say “I feel like I’m tripping”, and he responded with ‘Silent House’: All the flickering lights / had filled up this silent house ... His electric guitar provided a raga-like drone as a bed, to song that just gets more captivating.

In a set of favourites – this was a middle-New Zealand crowd, rather than a crowd of Crowdies – ‘Only Talking Sense’ sounded very fresh. A subtle ‘Private Universe’ and exquisite ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ would have coaxed a sing-along elsewhere; at the Bowl, it’s always a bit tricky trying to connect with the audience over the moat.

‘Anytime’ is a hidden gem off the One Nil record, but even more glorious performed live, with arpeggios from roadie John adding to its dramatic build. Don McGlashan emerged with his euphonium for ‘English Trees’, Time on Earth’s real stayer. Its mournful tones were just perfect to take the Hammond organ solo on a slow, careful ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’: it was like a Salvation Army band coming down the street, the very sound Neil was aiming for on ‘Together Alone’. The versatile McGlashan and whatever band he chose to perform with would be the perfect support act for the next Crowded House tour.

As the crowd melted into the trees and home to bed, on one of the smallest stages Age Pryor and his Suspicions were going off. Check out his 2007 album Shanks Pony: there are enough melodies and harmonies there to be sure that, whatever Crowded House is producing right now in the studio in Auckland, New Zealand’s songwriting is in good hands for the future. Thanks to Womad's smart system of having acts play more than once (to avoid clashes), Pryor was to have performed nine times during the weekend, including his own band, with Jess Chambers and the Firefly Orchestra, and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. A bug (a firefly?) prevented the latter; it would have been great to hear what he added to their spirited version of ‘Weather With You’.

03 April 2008

House Guests 2

When writing Something So Strong I really enjoyed interviewing long-time Crowded House engineer Tchad Blake. He came on board towards the end of the first album, and was a stalwart during Temple of Low Men and Woodface. Those magnificent textures on ‘Whispers and Moans’ are his work.

Blake is the best kind of Californian: intelligent, relaxed, but not too-cool-for-school. Low-key, and happy to have his achievements speak for him. His work with Mitchell Froom for artists like Los Lobos (the masterpiece Kiko), Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt and the Bad Plus certainly do that. Many other engineers one meets are blowhards, but not Blake. His website is minimalism itself.

It’s rare that you see an interview with Blake, and this recent one is really for tech-heads only. It’s about the gear he used to engineer Suzanne Vega’s Beauty and Crime, for which he recently won a Grammy. A much better interview is this one from Mix, when Blake was based at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in the UK.

But this posting isn’t about Blake, it’s about the net and how it has made the world a smaller place. It was while writing SSS that I started using the net every day, and it quickly came in handy. There was no Google then, but through user-groups and people’s generosity you could easily get some Irish folk buff who knew the lyrics to, say, ‘The Parting Glass’. Or track down the engineer of ‘Weather With You’ (Blake is the exception to the rule that if someone has a personal website, they will usually love talking.)

In 1996 I was a subscriber to the Randy Newman newsgroup Little Criminals. There were only 60 of us, and I wasn’t one of the half-dozen who regularly posted. The only other site that I subscribed to was Tongue in the Mail, brilliant for tracking down facts and keeping up with the news but, like Little Criminals and any fan site, also an outlet for those with too much time on their hands.

The reason I subscribed to Little Criminals was that Newman’s archivist was also a subscriber, so you got news pretty much from “slot-mouth” himself (to quote one early reviewer of his singing). One day in 1997 the archivist wrote that Newman was about to make his first proper album (ie, not a film soundtrack) in nearly a decade. What did the fans want from it?

Well, I knew what I didn’t want: an album with the Eagles as backing vocalists, Toto providing drums and Jeff Lynne on synths. So I made the case that the album should be produced by Mitchell Froom. Like Newman, he loved the piano, appreciated real, analogue instruments, was a “classical” producer who knew the orchestra and had a palette of sound, and, most importantly, appreciated a good song. He was also intelligent and shared the same mordant sense of humour.

I heard nothing back. But a few weeks later Something So Strong was launched and Tchad Blake happened to be in town. I mentioned to him that some Newman fans were pitching for him and Froom to produce him. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We heard from his people the other day. Unfortunately we’re booked up.”

Bugger. Meanwhile Newman was booked to score Maverick and Pleasantville. A couple of years went by, and suddenly – after 11 years – Newman’s non-soundtrack album Bad Love was released. The producers were Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

I interviewed Newman on the phone about the record. Without prompting, or telling him I had written Something So Strong, he mentioned that Neil Finn was one of his favourite current songwriters:

“Crowded House – that’s of interest,” said Newman. “But most stuff isn’t. I just met [Neil] out here he was doing something. They were good records. I remember Knopfler when we were making Land of Dreams, he just loved that band. I hope he told Neil, or told ’em both.”

So I couldn’t resist telling him the story of how I had written to his archivist suggesting Froom and Blake. He listened patiently then said enthusiastically, “Oh yeah – that’s how it happened.”

Bad Love was beautifully produced, but not the most consistent set of songs Newman has ever released. Still, ‘Miss You’ is like a heart-breaking haiku, and gets me every time. The album was Newman’s worst selling, he later cheerfully recalled. It only sold 70,000 in the US.

But he went back to Mitchell Froom when the time came to record The Randy Newman Songbook – solo piano renditions of his best songs. It was sub-titled “volume one” but the Little Criminals are still waiting. Froom almost eschews making records to be hits, and he has succeeded at that a few times. But he makes great music, and I’ll always remember Newman signing off the interview: “And hey – thanks a lot for the tip about Mitchell!”

You’d think they might have heard of each other on the tightly inter-connected LA musical grapevine. But then, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, either.

Update: in news just to hand ...