Archive for March 2018

Anna & Elizabeth: The Invisible Comes to Us

March 29, 2018

The Invisible Comes to Us is the third album by Anna & Elizabeth who have been championed by this blog for a long time. The two have a special love for Appalachian mountain music and Elizabeth LaPrelle is the finest living traditional ballad singer bar none. It has been three years since their last album and this new release takes their exploration of old songs into groundbreaking new territory.

With their feet still firmly in this world the partnership moves forward to embrace some pioneering experimental arrangements. Multi-instrumentalist Anna Roberts-Gevalt recently immersed herself in the Brooklyn avant-garde community and this is co-produced by her and Benjamin Lazar Davis. As a result many of the songs are presented with hints of woodwind, brass, synths and new technologies that subtly complement but never overwhelm the stories being told.

In the sleeve notes the duo writes: “These are songs we first heard in small archives in our home states, Vermont and Virginia. Recordings made in living rooms and kitchens, of songs learned in childhood. The characters, and the landscapes they occupied, grew rich in our minds. This record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs.”

Among many standout tracks are ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and the old Vermont hymn ‘Mother in the Graveyard’ which find the pair on relatively familiar ground. The superb ‘By the Shore’ with its jazzy opening backdrop and Anna’s overlapping vocals even has echoes of Brecht and Weil not to mention Laurie Anderson. It was experimental enough to disturb my cat who normally takes no notice of the many sounds that waft around our home.

Anna & Elizabeth have done a wonderful job of reimagining these songs for a modern audience and most of all they have made a sublimely enjoyable album. Folk song contains universal truths and though the times may change the same concerns continually engage us. This is strikingly brought home in the words of the song ‘Jeano and Jeanette’ that opens the album and also closes it with a crackly fragment of a recording from Margaret Shipman whose voice speaks to us from the past:

“If I were Queen of France or still better Pope of Rome / I’d have no fighting men abroad nor weeping maids at home / All the world should be at peace and the right should be the might / I’d have all that made the quarrelling the only ones to fight.”

Anna & Elizabeth are currently touring the East Coast of the USA and their final date is in New York City on 23rd April with guests Jim White, Susan Alcorn and Benjamin Lazar Davis. Then in May they tour the UK and Ireland ending with dates in Sheffield (15th) and London (16th).

The Invisible Comes to Us is released on 30th March by Smithsonian Folkways.


A Question of Musical Upbringing

March 16, 2018

Here is the first part of something I’m calling A Musical Journey. It’s about the music I grew up listening to a very long time ago. 

1. A Question of Musical Upbringing

I always thought the first record I ever bought was ‘A Teenager in Love’ – the cover version by Marty Wilde. Or else it was ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ by Marvin Rainwater. I still remember buying both of them.

‘Whole Lotta Woman’ was released in 1958 and reached Number One on the UK chart. I never imagined I’d be looking it up decades later – or that I would ever listen to the song again. Having done so I realise it’s not to my taste at all now, which is a relief as I hope this shows I’ve developed a bit in my musical appreciation since I was a child. ‘A Teenager in Love’ stands the test of time only a little better and there were three different versions of it in the charts in May 1959. The song is full of longing and the lovelorn angst of the teenager (and pre-adolescent) and it suited the mood of an eleven year old boy very well.

But wait. Lonnie Donegan released his single ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ before either of those so that clinches it. I definitely remember buying that one as well because the B side was called ‘Ham ‘N Eggs’ and it’s not something you can easily forget. At that tender age I imagined ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ was an original penned by Lonnie himself but years later discovered it was a Texas gambling song popularised by Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s.

The first time I bought an LP, as we called it, was a bit later when I acquired How Do You Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The title was a canny combination of the Liverpool singer’s first two hit singles: ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘I Like It’. Ever since I started thinking about it (and I haven’t really thought about it at all until now) I regarded it as an album of its time containing those two early hit songs plus a lot of uninteresting filler tracks. In fact, a quick search reveals neither of those songs was even on the album, though Gerry’s third hit ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was. This is memory not history.

One thing I’m sure I’ve got right is being given a fearsome dressing down by my mother for buying that Gerry and the Pacemakers record. This was not because she preferred Freddie and the Dreamers but because she had already bought a copy to give to me for Christmas and had been keeping it a secret. It’s a telling off that I still recall and was delivered for my selfishness and impetuousness in not being able to wait and see if I was going to be given the LP as a present on Christmas Day. One of us had to go back to the record shop to ask for a refund.

Years later I saw Gerry with his group (possibly all different members) when they played a nightclub in Leicester in front of a fairly disinterested and certainly inebriated audience. How Do You Like It isn’t very good anyway. Definitely nowhere near as exciting as any of the albums by The Beatles. I now have just three Beatles albums – Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, and Abbey Road – and never need to play any of them or listen to any other Beatles songs as they are all so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. The Beatles made a huge impression and their brilliance and inventiveness seemed to come out of nowhere.

Willson’s was the shop where I did most of my early record buying. It was in the centre of the city where I grew up and very close to Norwich Castle. The ground floor was a general music store selling instruments and sheet music. The records were kept upstairs in a fairly small room. Two young female assistants worked behind the counter. They would play any record if you asked them. The only albums I clearly remember buying, though there must have been a few, were With the Beatles and, before that, The “Twang’s” the “Thang” the second album by American guitarist Duane Eddy.

Eddy played electric guitar instrumentals with a characteristic deep ‘twangy’ sound frequently accompanied by a wailing saxophone and vocal whoops and yells from his group The Rebels. His big hit (not on the album, so I bought the single) was the theme from the American high school film Because They’re Young which had an orchestra playing behind the twangy guitar. It was the best thing he ever did. I don’t think I saw the movie but have always liked high school films and it’s a taste that continues to this day.

My purchase of With the Beatles at Willson’s was not without its problems. This time it was the LP’s second side, as the first track, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, got stuck after a few seconds and to my great dismay wouldn’t play properly. The next day I took the record back to the shop and before I could speak the assistant said: “Side two, track one?” A whole batch of them had the same defect and a replacement was immediately produced and popped into a paper bag.

Gene Vincent

There were other shops in the city where I used to listen to records and sometimes buy them. There was a department store just a few minutes walk from Willson’s where records were sold on the top floor. This was a much bigger space and contained a number of listening booths along the wall opposite the counter. In the early 1960s it would still have been much more common to buy singles than albums. I often went to this store with a friend on Saturday mornings and would ask the assistants to put on a single to listen to in one of the booths. This happened so often that I was once asked slightly menacingly if I was really intending to buy anything.

Most of the records we listened to were American pop songs. Often these were covered by British singers so there were at least two different versions of the same song to choose from. The record labels and their colours and sleeve designs stick in the mind. MGM had a yellow label, London was black with a stripy paper sleeve, Pye was purple. Then there was Top Rank with a picture of a man banging a gong and whose artists never seemed to make the charts. The guitarist Bert Weedon was one of those but I loyally bought all his records.

One of the singles I bought after sampling it was a song called ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and this was the cover by Welsh singer Ricky Valance. It was a controversial song at the time because of its subject matter which was thought to be in bad taste. The title quoted the last words of the song’s young hero who took part in a stock car race to impress his girlfriend but died from his injuries after being pulled from the twisted wreck of his crashed car. Doom-laden melodrama was dangerous but also a big seller.

My sister, ten years older, had her own record player which was an antique thing with a handle on the side to wind it up when the music slowed down. There was also a container for the needles that had to be constantly replaced as they wore out. In general I didn’t care a lot for her music collection which contained an unfeasibly large number of songs by ageing crooner Donald Peers who sounded far too straight and conventional for my burgeoning radical tastes. Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols were still some years in the future though.

Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’ was another song that got frequent plays on my sister’s record player but she eventually made the local newspaper and had a moment of fame when Bill Haley came to England on tour and played a date in Norwich that she went to see. He was all the rage before Elvis Presley upstaged him with more daring rock ‘n’ roll but my sister’s photo got in the local paper as she had somehow been the first person to obtain his autograph.

My father had his own record collection and all of them were breakable 78s which sometimes fractured into several sharp pieces when he absent-mindedly sat on them. He liked sentimental songs and stirring marches. ‘Blaze Away’ was a particular favourite with its opening line that he often sang along to: “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away”.

I was influenced by at least one of my sister’s records.  This was an album named The “Chirping” Crickets and it was a revelation as all the songs were good, right from the opening ‘Oh, Boy!’ to the end: even though (or perhaps because) all the tracks were short and it was all over in less than half an hour. It seemed long at the time. It was the first inkling I had of just how brilliantly exciting pop songs could be. And it was my discovery of Buddy Holly who may already have been dead by the time I listened to the Crickets album on the large radio gramophone in our family living room.

The other shining stars among a lot of tacky pop were the Everly Brothers and I first listened to them on regular Saturday night visits to the Firs Stadium where speedway meetings were held most weeks. Speedway was big then and reputed to be the most popular spectator sport in the UK after football. My parents and sister were all speedway fans though my father eventually stopped going as he claimed the races were no longer competitive and had become more like processions.

The Everly Brothers: the epitome of cool in 1960

Music was played loudly over the public address system. It also blared out between each of the heats that made up a speedway meeting and there seemed to be an unusually large number of American country-flavoured pop songs among those on the playlist. The Everly Brothers rivalled Buddy Holly in popularity and surpassed him in coolness and sophistication. As a result, I bought the first ever single released on the new Warner Brothers label. This was the duo’s song ‘Cathy’s Clown’ and it became a big hit in England in 1960. Despite this great musical revelation I don’t recall ever buying another record by them.

The package tour was another great British institution. These were concerts that toured the country showcasing a number of different artists on the same bill. In Norwich they usually took place at the Theatre Royal. Frequently, the headline act would be an American star who was touring the UK and the rest of the show would be made up with British pop acts, sometimes with a local group kicking things off. There was also an MC who came on stage to introduce each of the musicians.

The MC sometimes had a hard time of it. I was at one of these shows when an American MC came on between each act to tell jokes and fill in some time before he introduced the next artist – in this case Gene Pitney. The audience were eager to see Pitney and didn’t take kindly to any delay so some of them started hurling abuse at the MC. He was ready for it and barked back at one young woman: “Lady, you’ve got a kind face. The kind I’d like to run a truck over!”

Sometimes there was a double bill of two American stars. One of these was the visit to the city of Freddy Cannon and Gene Vincent. I was just twelve and Cannon was the one I was more interested in as he had had a couple of big successes with ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ which began with lines enough to make a modern listener shudder:

Well, she comes from Tallahassee / She got a hi-fi chassis  / Maybe looks a little sassy / But to me, she’s real classy

He was due to top the bill that night with Vincent ending the first half of the show. However, when we got to the theatre a notice outside announced that Freddy Cannon was ‘indisposed’ and so Gene Vincent would take over top billing. The rumour went round that Freddy was the worse for wear and was being plied with strong cups of black coffee and walked around the car park at the back of the theatre to try and sober him up. If so it didn’t work.

It’s strange now to think I was disappointed not to see Freddy Cannon because Gene Vincent has, over time, become the far more remembered, almost legendary performer for many British people. That night he came on stage looking moody and rebellious and with a severe limp – he nearly lost his balance and fell at one point. He may have been wearing a metal support on his leg which had been broken just a few weeks earlier in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran. With a hint of defiance he sang what he said was his soon to be released single ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’. His record company had refused permission for him to perform it live before its release but Gene was having none of that.

Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite

The other big American star I saw at the Theatre Royal was Brenda Lee or ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ as she was known, because she was only 145 centimetres short. After the show I waited outside the stage door to get her autograph, along with a handful of other fans. She kept us waiting for quite a while but eventually came outside and obliged. I thought she was great and both her singing and her behaviour seemed very mature at the time. She was still seventeen years old.

It was also the time of the instrumental guitar group and while America had The Ventures (amazingly still popular in Japan today) it was The Shadows who ruled England with hits such as ‘Apache’ that seemed to stay in the charts forever. Again, I saw them at the same theatre and was on the front row for this one. They seemed pretty wild to my young eyes and I squirmed in my seat when rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch looked directly down at me with a challenging mixture of contempt and disdain.

At school everyone had to play football whether they liked it or not. Most did and so it became a big part of our growing up. Going to see the local professional team was also a rite of passage but none of my family were interested in football and so it was a friend of my sister’s who initiated me by taking me to their stadium when I was around eight or nine years old.  It turned out she was also interested in music but with a more sophisticated taste than us and was a bit of a fan of Frank Sinatra.

Every summer our family went on holiday to North Wales where we would always stay for a week in the same bed and breakfast place in the town of Llangollen. Dad drove and it took him all day to get us there. We would start early in the morning and finally arrive at our destination in the late afternoon – sometimes early evening –depending on how often we got lost or made stops along the way. My father’s sight was poor in one eye and my mother sat next to him and acted as navigator with a special route map on her lap. My parents had never been abroad so Wales was the closest they came. Its appeal was the mountains that were so different from the flat land of Norfolk and all of us enjoyed visiting the ruins of numerous castles.

As a football fan I took the opportunity to take off on my own during these holidays and went to Wrexham to have a look at their ground and to Chester where I managed to watch a pre-season friendly. On one occasion we all took a trip to Liverpool where I went off to pay a visit to Anfield. As a fan of The Beatles it was obligatory to seek out the Cavern Club, though it was daytime and I only saw the outside of the building. By this time The Beatles were already famous and so I must have been a teenager. It may well have been in Liverpool that I bought The Beatles’ Twist and Shout EP.

Llangollen itself was famous for the annual International Eisteddfod. This was held for a week in a large field but also in various other venues around the town and was notable for its choir contests and performances, especially by the Bulgarians and the Welsh. I wasn’t particularly interested in the choirs and not at all in the classical music but the whole spectacle was quite thrilling not least because much of it was held outdoors in large marquees erected in the field. The sheer power of all the united singing voices was impressive, but at the end of the day I was still more excited by pop music.

If it was ‘A Teenager in Love’ that initiated me into the world of lovelorn youth and unrequited love it was another song around the same time that was really the soundtrack of summer. The American Jerry Keller recorded his own composition ‘Here Comes Summer’ in 1958 and the following year it made number one in the UK chart. It was the only hit he ever had and prefigures my own penchant for watching high school movies. The song’s narrator – presumably Jerry himself – can’t wait for the school holidays so he can spend more time with his girlfriend. Jerry sings of grabbing his girl and holding her tight, but he’s a gentleman too and doesn’t want to coerce her so he sings: “If she’s willing, we’ll go steady right away.” He anticipates swimming every day and moonlit walks in the park, and hopes the sun will “shine bright on my happy summer home”.

In Norwich the summer sun rarely shone as brightly as it did in Jerry Keller’s song. I was eleven when ‘Here Comes Summer’ became a hit so girls were still just something to dream about in some future life that seemed a long way off. Neither could I have imagined that several decades later I would be listening to the Japanese song ‘Natsu Tourai’ by Osaka band Soul Flower Union. This is a different song in almost every way and about as far from Keller’s adolescent simplicity as it’s possible to get – though both refer to moonlit evenings. I helped translate the lyrics into English for the band’s CD booklet. Its title means ‘Here Comes Summer’.

Ryukyu Underground

March 8, 2018

Here’s another one for the archive. It will soon be nine years since Ryukyu Underground released their last album so it’s anyone’s guess if there will be any more. Meanwhile FC Ryukyu achieved J3 status but still play in the third tier of Japanese football. This feature was published back in 2009 in the UK magazine fRoots.

Ryukyu Underground

In which the UK ex-pat and his US collaborator continue their Okinawan adventures. John Potter pitches in.

It’s Sunday afternoon in Okinawa and I’m at the football with Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground. The island’s team FC Ryukyu is playing against a team from mainland Japan in the JFL – the third tier of Japanese soccer. FC Ryukyu are bottom of the table with no points but have a celebrity manager in former Japan, South Africa and Morocco coach Philippe Troussier. He hasn’t been able to do much yet but in the warm up to the game the sounds of Ryukyu Underground are played loudly over the public address system. Keith’s connection with the club has also wangled us some complimentary tickets and he reveals that Troussier is apparently keen on the duo writing a new club song for the players to run out to. Perhaps they’ll even change their name to FC Ryukyu Underground.

Ryukyu Underground with Mika Uchizato (centre)

It’s some years since Ryukyu Underground were featured in these pages. To recap, they are a duo comprising the said Keith Gordon, originally from Newcastle but now resident in Okinawa, and his cohort, American Jon Taylor based in California. They first met in Okinawa while living on the island and began sampling and experimenting with its music. With the recent release of their fourth album, the challenge for Keith and Jon is always to try and find new ways of mixing Okinawan music and modern technology. Keith says: “Our core is Okinawan traditional music fused with our western musical backgrounds. That is the basis for everything – I can’t see myself ever stopping experimenting with new forms and new directions to go in that doesn’t follow this idea. Whether anyone is interested in listening is another question and one that doesn’t trouble me too much! Our music is for us a release, an escape from everything else going on around us and I believe we’ll always still have the need of that escape.”

The new album Umui came out in April on the Tokyo-based Respect label. Famed Okinawan singer, musician and producer Toru Yonaha lends a hand on these recordings, and once more the new album features the sublime vocals of Mika Uchizato. Additional vocals are again supplied by two more young women, Ayano Uema and Natsuki Nakamura. The three women had previously sung together on Warabi Uta, an album of Okinawan children’s songs produced by Yonaha.

On Umui there is a slightly more relaxed, slower mood to the music. So what does Keith think of it: “Well, it’s always difficult to know, but I think, in general terms, this is a very natural and relaxed album. As ever, it goes from one genre to the next and we find it difficult to do a whole album of, for example, reggae or techno. We did have some faster tunes which didn’t make the album. So it wasn’t a conscious decision that most of the tunes on the album should be mid or slower tempo. A lot of the source material came from recorded sessions from the Warabi Uta recordings that Mika, Ayano and Natsuki did for Respect. I am now a father and we started working on the album just about the time that my daughter was born so to be working on these songs while she was a baby was very natural. Part of the reason why we have strong reggae tunes on this album is that she liked the bass vibes and could sleep and calm down to them when she was very young.”

And how is it different from previous albums? “Well, I did set out to deliberately try going in a more electronic direction with a few songs – two of which have made the album. Paikaji is a new departure and very electronic. All those years of growing up in the heyday of synth pop coming through there. Also, Urizun, similarly electronic though more ambient. That’s something that we’ve never really done before and it’s something we will definitely explore more in the future. Also, Umaku Kamade – the Afro beatish track – although we’ve used African influences before we haven’t done anything quite as direct as this.”

Jon Taylor (left) and Keith Gordon

I wondered if it is difficult working with Jon when he’s on the other side of the world. “It’s not really a problem. The whole method of making music like ours often involves long hours sitting in front of a computer screen which doesn’t really lend itself to working other than alone really. We communicate constantly all the time though.”

So how about the opposite problem of working closely here with traditional Okinawan singers. How much do they understand what you’re trying to do? “Good question and one that I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer to. Maybe you could call them and ask? Not being cheeky but it’s not really something I am aware of or actively question them about. What certainly helps is that I often see them around and have a very natural relationship when we get in the studio which relaxes them I guess. Toru Yonaha also has a big hand in coordinating the studio sessions and he is very open to new ideas and likes the challenge of what we do which is so very different from his approach. Natsuki definitely gets what we are about musically as she is very knowledgeable about club music and the Asian Underground scene we seem to have been a part of. Mika and Ayano less so I suppose though it has never presented any problems – unlike the time we played live with legendary old Okinawan singer Minoru Kinjo – bless him. He had trouble playing along to a drum and bass track – not surprisingly – though the audience were all on his side and loved it.”

With Umui the UK/US duo has produced one of the most interesting albums of Okinawan music in recent times. Now if only Philippe Troussier can do something similar to inspire his football team who lost again. Maybe that new RU club song will do the trick.

(fRoots Magazine No.312, June 2009).