Monday, November 5, 2018

24 Hours: A Breaking News Breakdown

                                         unfolding stories cross this stretch of time
                                         selective recognition
                                         from banner headline mongers
                                         regarding violent death
                                         attention channelled to order
                                         at a word from the elite
                                         deals concealed, re-framed in gilt
                                         young men with neat haircuts and sharp suits
                                         tell yarns with an air of authority
                                         old men clog the future
                                         grab the crotch of hope and squeeze
                                         preaching ‘growth’
                                        distributing the clutter of suffering
                                        while science speaks of end-times
                                        fair warning swept aside
                                        by tides of tattle
                                        celebrity shared vicariously
                                        as the cute-brigade spin
                                        turning like clockwork
                                        to dazzle the eye, plug the ear
                                        and scent away the stink
                                       twenty four more hours of scratch-my-back
                                       and dosey-dosey-doe


written: 23.10.18

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Exploratory Music

A couple of nights back I and my partner went to a gig that looked intriguing on paper.  It featured the cellists Gregor Riddell and his musical (& life?) partner Torun Stavseng, drummer, kalimba player and composer Adam Teixeira, and Nepalese tabla player Sanskriti Shrestha.  It was a mixture of composed music and improvisation, sometimes incorporating loops of found sound on a laptop operated by Gregor.

I’d not encountered any of these musicians before and found the performance interesting and at times quite entrancing.  All four musicians are connected in a network of occasional groupings – Teixeira and Riddell in the BirdWorld duo, for example, as well as a variety of other projects.  They operate in no easily definable category.  Modern classical?  Avant garde?  Experimental?  World music?  Jazz?  There were elements of all these approaches and probably more in the work they performed as a foursome and in various other combinations.  I guess they could be termed musical explorers.

I’m not proposing to review the concert.  I don’t have the language or the degree of musical perception to make any judgements about the quality of the work – though I think that individually they were all superb musicians.  For this blog, I just want to follow a chain of thought that this music brought to mind.

I guess I’ve always given ear-space to exploratory music.  First experiences would probably have been via Frank Zappas ‘Lumpy Gravy’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, the first album by Hapshash & the Coloured Coat and the improvised sequences in the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star’.  All very much associated with the rock music I mostly listened to back then, but extending its boundaries.  The subsequent era of ‘progressive’ rock often touched on the exploratory side – probably the most obvious example being the later (and continuing) work of Robert Fripp/King Crimson.  Robert Wyatt’s ‘The End of an Ear’ also comes to mind.  And of course, there was jazz and the work of ‘minimalists’ such as Terry Riley.  I would try to listen to as much of this stuff as I could access, but have to admit, not much of it appealed.

Come the 1990s and ever growing access to technology (both for making and recording it), there was a boom in exploratory music.  I got drawn towards it and became a subscriber to ‘The Wire’ magazine, which for some time now has provided some of the primary coverage of the music that was burgeoning then and continues to now, as far as I know.  My tastes drew me to the work of Bill Laswell and his many collaborators, and in passing to the likes of Paul Schutze, Chas Smith, Pauline Oliveros and others.  (I’m rattling through this and barely touching on the quantity of people whose work I gave a listen to, as it’s not the main point of this blog entry.)  But work on the more extreme ends – the ‘noise’ music of Merzbow and the like, for example – was beyond me.  I guess my approach was a bit ‘vanilla’. 

Interestingly too I read of the precedents I’d missed back in the day.  How for another example it was the work of experimental group AMM in the early/mid 60s that inspired Syd Barrett and possibly the remaining original Pink Floyd members to bring an improvisational approach to some of their recorded and live work.  Fascinating.  But when I actually listened to AMM it surprised me how close it was to much of the then-contemporary material I was listening to.  Obviously and as mentioned, the available technology opened up many new sonic possibilities, but the ground covered did not seem that different – sonically speaking.  Could it be that a lot of these experimentalists were doing a kind of ‘re-inventing the wheel’ exercise?  That, out there on the cutting edge, they were just reaching places where other musicians had trod long before?

I don’t know.  I’m not a musician.  But for a while in the early 2000s I learnt to use the ‘Cubase’ music programming system, and though what I eventually produced was pretty clunky, I still reckon that some of it was indistinguishable from the work of the exploratory musicians (check it out for yourself if you want at , try Zone Doubt or Stirred Into Dreams).  So that was an eye-opener.  I began to get an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ feeling about some of this stuff. 

And as we progressed into the 21st century I began to find The Wire increasingly heavy going.  I’d dutifully listen to their free CDs and downloads and find less and less of anything that I actually enjoyed listening to.  With a few exceptions, the writing too seemed increasingly over-my-head.  A few years back I cancelled my subscription.  My dalliance with experimental or exploratory music (call it what you will) largely petered out. 

This is not a roundabout put-down of Gregor Riddell and his cohorts the other night.  I genuinely enjoyed much of what they did.  Perhaps this kind of stuff, like a lot of other music, is better listened to live than recorded.  Perhaps it was because they were such good musicians, capable of far more than I could manage with only Cubase and some virtual instruments.  But still it set me thinking about the shifts and changes in my relationship with the kind of music they make and play. 

To cover all this in the detail it requires is beyond me.  But after sequencing these relatively random thoughts as best I can, my conclusions are:
 It works a lot better when there’s clear evidence that the musicians are skilled.
 That I personally enjoy music that folds in the results of experimentation and exploration to something that works on a more conventional level.

I shall continue to listen to some of it.  But not as much as I once did.

Pics: Gregor (top), Sanskriti, Adam and Torun

Monday, October 1, 2018

Thoughts on Armando Iannucci's 'The Death of Stalin'

A week or two back I went with my partner to see the film ‘The Death of Stalin’.  Familiar with the satirical work of Armando Iannucci, the screenwriter/director, I’d some idea of what to expect.  If you’ve not seen or heard about it, suffice to say it’s blackest of black humour, played for laughs by an ensemble of UK/US actors who make no attempt to sound Russian as they portray the jockeying for position and power of Stalin’s immediate circle following his death.  The ‘milk of human kindness’ has no part in this story.  On first impression, I can’t say I enjoyed it, but its humour hit home and seemed to me to be making some kind of point

Walking back, I discovered my partner had deep reservations about it.  In her opinion a serious political film ought to add to our understanding of the human condition.  She couldn’t see the point of making inaccurate caricatures of long dead political figures and the humour to her was ‘schoolboy’ in nature.  And it lacked all but scant reference to the better sides of humanity.

I found myself having to question my own belief in the virtue of satire.  And to think more deeply about why I thought it a good film – though not a great one as I too had felt the dark view it presented was not what you’d call a ‘rounded’ impression of humanity.  Satire, on the whole, doesn’t do that.  It often exaggerates greed, ruthlessness, stupidity or whatever to make its point.  Its employment of coarse humour is, I suppose, a kind of leveller, a toppling of pedestals.  But why direct it at these particular figures at this particular point in history?

I think the answer I’ve come up with is this.  It’s partly to do with context in the body of Iannucci’s work.  In ‘The Thick Of It’, his satire of modern UK politicians and their supporting staff, he portrayed them as utterly venal characters – it was like a nightmarish and foul-mouthed version of ‘Yes Minister’.  Nevertheless these unpleasant characters were reined in (to some extent) by the conventions by which we abide in Britain in our times.  By imagining Kruschev et al as virtually the same sort of characters, but able (after the precedent set by Stalin) to instigate arbitrary executions, rape and massacre at the drop of a hat, I think Iannucci is attempting to demonstrate what this sort of behaviour leads to when it reaches the point where it is completely unchecked.  It’s a warning that the characters running the show now might well do the same, given half the chance. 

Okay, it can be said that not all politicians are as blatantly venal as Iannucci chooses to portray them.  Some have strong humanitarian views and are motivated to try to advance them.  But the old saying about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely still holds sway.  Even those with the best will in the world are, at the very least, forced to make compromises.  Satire digs at the bullshit, the spin, the front that all too often covers up for rather than admits human error and the making of less than satisfactory choices.

I don’t doubt that a serious and balanced approach, a humane portrayal of a variety of characters in such situations, some well-intentioned, some not, might add more to our understanding than ‘The Death of Stalin’.  That might make a great film, one to savour and watch repeatedly.  Iannucci’s film I wouldn’t watch again – but I’m glad I saw it the once.  As a broad piece of satire and as a warning for our times (a US President for example who has stated that he ‘doesn’t have a problem’ with the use of torture) I think it had a fair bit of value.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival 2018

I spent most of last weekend at the Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival, mainly in the Stourpaine (Dorset) Village Hall, with occasional sojourns to the nearby White Horse pub.  For anyone who enjoys hearing high-quality poetry read live, this really is an annual event worth investigating.  You need quite a lot of mental stamina for it, mind.  Someone was counting and by the time it wrapped up it was reckoned that 389 poems had been read out in performance – the work of nearly 40 writers by my count.  You also need a pocket full of cash, as nearly everyone who’s got books of their work to sell brings them along – which amounted to two trestle tables laden with tempting (and often beautifully designed) literary morsels. 

For those who don’t know it, Tears in the Fence is a literary magazine.  It appears two or three times a year and it’s now on its 68th issue – which places it amongst the more long-lived of such publications.  If, as I was for some time, you are baffled by the name, bear in mind that the magazine has quite a strong political agenda and in its early days supported the ‘Right to Roam’ movement.  So it refers to ‘tears’ in both senses of the word.  It features a variety of poetry, some accessible and some that requires work on the part of the reader to get to grips with.  It also runs a number of short stories each issue and has a lengthy review section covering mainly poetry publications, though I’ve contributed some fiction reviews in the past two or three issues myself.  If you’re interested, more info can be found at:

The Festival, from what I’ve gathered of its history, was a large and thriving concern some years back, and then slipped into hiatus for a while.  It was revived in 2014.  I sauntered along as a punter to this one, having been living locally for a year or so.  I ended up getting involved in workshops that are given by the magazine’s editor, poet David Caddy, and from there my interest and sense of connection grew.

As mentioned, contributions to the festival are of a high standard, and to be honest some of the poetry – at least on a single listen – went way beyond my ability to get to grips with whatever the writer might have been trying to say.  Sometimes that doesn’t entirely matter – it’s possible to appreciate the flow of words crafted in sequences as you might enjoy a piece of music for its sound qualities and its rhythms.  But for me that part of it works even better when I can make at least some sort of connection, so here are some (not all) of my personal highlights from the festival.  On the Friday night I found this with the ecologically themed (but multi-layered) work of Jeremy Hilton and the meditations of Paul Matthews.  One of the latter’s poems, ‘The Light That I Know’ considers a picture of the oldest light in the universe, as seen on the glossy pages of a Sunday colour supplement and speculates as to whether the vastness of the universe cancels out the significance of small things.  Or that’s what I thought, listening to it.  I’ve bought his book, ‘This Native Light’, so if I figure out that my little summary is inaccurate, I’ll post an update on that.  Also that night, I was taken very much by the writing of Welsh Asian poet Jessica Mukherjee.  She covered a wide range of topics in her reading, from Magdalen laundries to floreography to the ramifications of Brexit, and her work was clear, powerful and (importantly for me) accessible.  Having lived in South Wales for many years I particularly enjoyed a poem in which she spoke of her efforts to get to grips with the concept of Dewi Sant (St. David) until she ‘heard him in the waters off the Mumbles’.

Concerning the three long sessions on the Saturday my memories are already blurring but mention should I make of the following.  First off, South African poet Louise Buchler’s impassioned reading of her long and powerful prose poem: ‘Your Woman is in Pieces’.  And then – in a performance that astounded the entire audience, I reckon – Amy McCauley reading (sometimes reciting) with pointed intensity from her book ‘Oedipa’, whilst stalking around and through the audience, and at intervals beating out rhythms on the floor as she read.  I’ll need to read her work before I can figure out what it’s actually communicating, but the memory of that performance will, I suspect, add a layer of significance to it.  The afternoon was graced by 1.62 of the stories of Seattle based author Lou Rowan, whose first tale of a food slopping slob took time to build to a humorously strange climax.  Also the work of Romanian born Maria Stadnicka, who was one of the ‘hits’ for me of last year’s festival and who took on chairing some interesting discussion sessions as well this time.  Her poems, dry, sparse and surreal, have a knack for disrupting the mindset of reader or listener, jarring and sometimes very funny.  I was also drawn to the poems of Peter King, particularly his s.f. poems describing imaginary planetary landscapes – with something of the quality of Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’.  Marvellous stuff.  That hardly does justice to the day, but is all I’ve time to mention.

Joanna Nissel’s precise and well-crafted but moving work caught my attention on Sunday, along with Linda Black’s word cascades, but on all three days I could have written of strong qualities in the work of everyone who read.  The other thing that’s worth mentioning about the festival is its friendly, supportive atmosphere.  There was little if any sense of overbearing egos that can be a drag at arts events. 

So there you go.  If you fancy participating in this celebration of words next year, the dates are 13th-15th September and details will appear in due course on the TitF website.  Modesty forbids me to speak of my own contribution, but festival stalwart Andrew Henon has kindly posted a video of my reading at the 2017 festival and perhaps in time will do likewise for 2018.  Here’s the link:

Monday, August 27, 2018

Spoon-fed with Film Music

Last night me and the other half watched the film ‘Dr Marston and the Wonder Women’ on DVD.  The film has much in the way of merit, it deals sensitively with some interesting issues, ‘taboo’ to a large extent even in current times.  At the same time, possibly because it has a great deal to pack into its near two hour running time, it tends to over simplify and fudge some of those same issues.  But one thing about it, for both of us, did tend to undermine its impact and credibility.  The music.

Like the vast majority of mainstream films it made heavy use of an orchestral styled score to emphasise mood, atmosphere and emotion.  More often than not, I think, this music tends to be a sort of pseudo classical music when used to underscore stories that are biographical, historic, or concerned with emotional events.  Genre films tend to have their own soundtrack conventions – atonal music in horror films, electronica or ambient works in science fiction and so on.  All this comes into the category known as ‘non-diegetic’, which is to say that it is not heard as a part of the story, as for example when a character switches on a radio and a certain song or piece of music is heard.

It’s this non-diegetic music with which I often find I have a problem.  There are certain conventions that work on us psychologically in generally predictable ways.  Sadness is evoked by minor chords, ‘borrowed’ minor chords in major scales or ‘suspensions’ (which as I understand it involve short moments of dissonance resolving into consonant harmonies).  Yearning, specifically I read, can be expressed by a technique known as ‘appogiatura’ in which a non-chord note appears in the melody.  Happiness, of course, is associated with major chords.  Strong rhythms, shifting dynamics and build-ups enhance action sequences.  And so on.  It is one of the wonderful mysteries of music that these musical structures have these effects upon us, and I’m not suggesting that all films should do without them.  My problem lies with the sense that I am too often being spoon-fed.  The soundtracks tend to drench me in the required emotion, rather than allow me to arrive at my own conclusions from the dialogue, the acting and the storyline itself.  In doing so, for me, they detract from the impact.

There are excellent films that do almost completely without non-diegetic music.  The Dardenne Brothers’ ‘Two Days One Night’ (about which I wrote in this blog several months ago) is a striking example.  The Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men’, or Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ also.  Even Alfred Hitchcock chose not to use it in his films ‘Rope’ and ‘The Birds’.  It’s pretty clear that it is possible to evoke a strong response in viewers without this element in the mix.  Or if it is deemed appropriate by the director, why not keep it to a minimum?  Francois Ozon’s ‘Frantz’ I found to be a deeply moving film that used its soundtrack music sparingly and wasn’t afraid to do without it entirely in key scenes.  When I watch a film like this I feel I am able to make discoveries and draw conclusions for myself, without being told what to feel, often in unsubtle terms.

By all means include music in the soundtrack creatively.  It can be used, for example, to make an ironic commentary on what is being shown, or to add an element of emotion that is not included in what we are seeing/hearing within the story.  Yann Tiersen’s music in ‘Amelie’ for example adds a whole extra and often-humorous layer to what is shown and said onscreen.  Some films, like the wonderful ‘Koyaanisquatsi’, have been built around existing pieces of music.  Just don’t ladle it on, as so many mainstream films and so many of the well-known film-music composers seem to want to do.  Or maybe I’m just being some sort of art-snob, and should just accept that most people prefer it that way.  I don’t know.  I just feel that films in general would be better off and the experience of viewers would be enriched without it.

As for ‘Professor Marston…’, well, it wasn’t the worst example by any means.  The score was tasteful and on the whole quite pleasant, I’ll give it that.  It’s just that, for me, it added nothing whatsoever to the film, and I wished there was some kind of facility on the DVD player by which I could turn it off and enjoy the experience without being told so obviously what to feel.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Bath-Time Candle

She peeled off the single strip of sticky tape, and pulled apart the tissue paper in which it had been wrapped.  “Very special candle,” she said to herself, imitating the middle eastern accent of the man in the market who’d sold it to her.  She sniffed at it.  The scent was still clear and strong, but definitely unfamiliar.  She placed it on the tiled ledge that surrounded her bath, a little away from the other candles that stood there.  She turned the taps and poured in the bath mix.

When it was full and the foam thick and inviting on the water’s surface, she took a lighter from a shelf and bent to light the candles, leaving the latest addition until last.  It was the least substantial of them all, yet there was something about its richly marbled, ochre red surface that had attracted her to it as it lay on the barrow where she’d bought it.  Something about that unfamiliar scent, too – a little spicy, a little like cedar-wood, a little of meadow flowers.  He needn’t have said a word, that seller.

She slipped off her dressing gown, hung it on the door and switched off the bathroom light.  As always, when she undertook this pleasant ritual, the tiny bathroom was transformed.  The perfect little flames, the warm steamy atmosphere, the mingling fragrances – all brought a sense of exotic cosiness to the bare functional room, with its plain white tiles, compact sink and mirrored cabinet.  That feeling was enhanced by the soft sensations of lowering her body through the foam and into the water, until all that could be seen of her – were there anyone to observe – was her face peering through the foam.

She was calm.  At ease.  Somewhere outside that door, the world and its hassles ground grimly on, but here she was detached and secure.  Nothing struggled to suck her attention, no desperate problems demanded that she conceived a solution.  Not now.  Not here.  This was refuge.

Thus, when she became aware of a series of sputtering sounds and raised her head slowly to see what was their source, she felt no sense of perturbation to discover that all the other candles had extinguished themselves, one or two of their wicks still smoking.  Yet the new candle still burnt with a generous flame.  It was sufficient. 

It was curious that the others had gone out.  She would investigate later.  She lowered her head back into the water, immersed in the crackle of tiny bubbles bursting, and closed her eyes.

That scent.  Even amidst the foam, it was stronger now.  Her thoughts were  of palaces, of exquisitely tended gardens overflowing with blossom, elegant figures in silken robes walking slowly, observing the richness that surrounded them.  She imagined herself strolling amongst them, participating freely in their subtly worded conversations, occasionally drawing forth laughter with remarks that were both witty and apposite. 

She could have been Scheherazade, re-telling the vast cache of nested tales that had saved her from death over the course of those one thousand and one nights, blessed with the learning she had acquired from vast but long lost libraries.  For there were none who could tell as she could of the fisherman and the djinn, of the three apples, the City of Brass or of Princess Parizade and the magic tree.

And in each of the magic trees that surrounded her hung golden, gleaming apples, perfectly ripened in the glow of a now descending sun – whose light rays pierced a scattered chaos of cloud forms, filling the firmament with radiance in a thousand exquisite shades of colour.  And in this sylvan idyll, she walked on, dressed now in elaborate robes that might have been painted by Rossetti, Millais or Burne-Jones, in that lush fantasy to which they subscribed of a past that never was.

That fictive past was hers in which to roam freely, its parameters just adjacent to those more commonly shared by the human throng.  If there was decay here, it merely served to feed and nurture rebirth.  If there was despair, it was simply a stage on some journey that led to revelation.  If there was terror, it was but a step from ecstasy.  So she strode, her body upright, her legs firm and sure, on a pathway that passed by pagodas, pantheons and pantiled archways, in a crowd of companions or in the simplicity of solitude.  Onwards.  Tirelessly onwards.

Until at last she knew she needed rest.  And where better to rest than in the still, sun-warmed waters of a tiny lake to which she came, grass edged and partially shaded by leafy beech trees and blossoming banks of rhodedendrum?  So she stripped herself of the silks and the braids which had adorned her body, and lowered herself into the lake.  Its temperature seemed at one with her own.  She swam a few languid strokes, then flipped to lie on her back, water supported.  And were there some traces of foam on its surface?  Was there not a faint sense of recognition about this water, and the lingering traces of a scent that was both familiar and strange?  She closed her eyes, floating, drifting, savouring all that she had perceived. 

When at last she opened them again, she was in her little bathroom, and the only light was the burning nub of a once ochre-red candle.  A few more minutes and she would have been in darkness. 

She rose, grabbing a towel, wrapping it around herself and stepped out of the bath.  She hesitated for a moment before pulling the cord to switch on the light. It would be intrusive, she knew, but it had to be done.  A prelude to everything that ‘had to be done’ when she stepped out of that little space within which the infinite had momentarily opened.  But she was not unprepared.  She felt clear and certain, ready for anything.

Too bad the candle had burnt down so completely.  She would look for that man next time in the market, she was sure. 

But she was not so sure she would find him.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 4: Bob Weir

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #289.  It was the fourth of a series of pieces I wrote for the magazine concerning former core members of the Grateful Dead, taking a look at their musical activities following the demise of the original band with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

I felt that a lot of former ‘Deadheads’, especially here in the UK, had tended to lose interest in these guys’ activities, which seemed a shame as all four of them had, each in their own way, edged into new and worthwhile musical territories.  Obviously, those like me who did keep track could use the internet to keep abreast of their activities and access some of the music.  But for anyone who hadn’t bothered, I thought a few pointers towards selected highlights might be enough to rekindle interest.

My own interest is not so much on the live performance of the band’s old material, which – understandably in many ways – all four of them tend to fall back on.  Not that the reinterpretation of an old song hasn’t on many occasions wowed me, of course.  But it’s what they have done that is new and exploratory that excites me and on which I tend mainly to focus.

                                                                   Weir: Still Here
                                     A look at the work of Bob Weir, post Grateful Dead

An old friend, now deceased, used to fancy himself as a bit of a psychedelic guitarist.  He kind of noodled on the guitar in spare moments when he felt so inclined, and over the years we stopped expecting him to progress all that much.  But towards the end of his life, he moved to France and somewhere along the line got friendly with some accomplished musicians who lived in Paris.  Their tastes were more eclectic than our old friend’s, but they were fond of the Grateful Dead and content to play in that style.  They’d travel down to his place, happy to have some space to practice and jam, and they generously took time out to teach him a few licks so he could play along with them.  One bucolic weekend I and another member of our old network joined them for a weekend.  We could hear that he’d learned a lot, and played his guitar with greater confidence, but it was also clear that our new found Parisian friends were still some considerable way ahead of him.  In a break I was talking to one of them and asked him how he felt about our old friend’s contribution to the music.  He smiled indulgently and said: “Ah, he is our ‘Bob Weir’.”

It would be utterly inappropriate to compare the actual musicianship of Bob Weir to that of our friend.  Bob’s been a serious, practising musician since the early 60s, and has well and truly proved his worth.  But in the early days of the Grateful Dead, his musical calibre was sometimes in question – to the point where, for a brief period, he was ‘fired’ from the band.  This wasn’t a brilliant decision on the part of the others, they ‘fired’ Pigpen too.  What were they thinking?  And since then I think it has been recognised that Bob plays in a unique and entirely individual style.  What was shaky, perhaps, at the start became his strength.  I’d like to think that this was what the French musician was referring to – the way that, not being schooled in the conventional manner of acquiring a skill, a determined learner can find his or her own way to something special, something from within.  Or maybe he just figured that that was the politest way to answer my question.

So, Bob…  Once, though not with much competition, the prettiest boy in the Grateful Dead, for the last decade or so his face has been shrouded in a fierce shock of white and grey whiskers as he’s worked his way through his share of post-GD ventures.  These have included The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur and Dead and Company – all of which I’ve covered in profiles of other ex-members of the band.  If you’ve read those, you might remember that, while I’m ever respectful of skills displayed, the majority of them have failed to impress me very deeply.  What interests me has tended to be the ex-members’ new and exploratory activities, and that’s what I’d like to winkle out here.

Bob Weir had a pretty good track record on this front, even before the post-’95 period I’ve been looking at in these pieces.  Whilst his first solo album, 1972’s ‘Ace’ was virtually a GD album with Bob as leader, he delved into a lighter, more pop oriented style with Matthew Kelly and Dave Torbert in Kingfish in the mid 70s, and explored both jazz and reggae stylings with his ‘80s  band Bobby and the Midnites.  Some of this approach found its way into the later Grateful Dead repertoire in songs such as ‘Lost Sailor’, ‘Saint of Circumstance’, ‘Estimated Prophet’ and ‘Hell in a Bucket’.  His next venture as leader, the band Ratdog, continued to explore these zones.  It grew out of live duet performances with distinguished bassist Rob Wasserman in the late 80s and early 90s.  With varying line ups, Ratdog toured fairly regularly (depending on Weir’s other commitments) until early 2014.  Some of its key members were guitarist Mark Karan, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and drummer Jay Lane.  It’s repertoire included a good many Grateful Dead songs, both Weir’s own and some of the material formerly sung by Jerry Garcia.  It also included material from his solo and former band albums, covers ranging from Bob Dylan to Pink Floyd songs, and as it developed a fair quantity of original material.

Much of this found its way onto the band’s only studio album, ‘Evening Moods’.  Released in 2000, it featured the then current line up plus a number of other musicians who’d passed through the ranks, including saxophonists Kenny Brooks and Dave Ellis and harmonica player Matthew Kelly (a former Kingfish colleague).  As an album it gets off to a cracking start with the song ‘Bury Me Standing’, which I consider to be as powerful and memorable as any piece of work on which Weir has writing credits.  Set to a tight funk rhythm it builds in intensity with some superb, almost Middle Eastern sounding riffs and fine guitar by Mark Karan, joined by Bob (I assume) on slide towards the end.  Words and music suit his vocal delivery perfectly.  The lyrics, by Weir and one of his then-current writing partners, Gerrit Graham, concern the regrets of a character who perceives his life to have been driven by forces beyond his control, hence: ‘Bury me standing, I been too long on my knees.’  Not sure if it was ever performed live – shame if it wasn’t.

Of course, the problem of getting an album off to such a strong start is maintaining the standard, and there ‘Evening Moods’ runs into problems.  Next track, Weir and Barlow’s ‘Lucky Enough’ passes muster – a quiet, reflective song about states of depression with a nicely worded chorus that concludes: ‘But you may find grace / If you’re lucky enough.’  We then pass via ‘Odessa’ – one of Weir’s never quite convincing rockers – into the jazzy zone, where the songs meander tastefully, introspectively and without much to latch onto in the way of tune.  There’s a bit of a rally towards the end with late Grateful Dead song ‘Corrina’, the well-brassy ‘October Queen’ and thoughtful closer ‘Even So’.

A 2CD live album followed, dominated by the band’s versions of GD songs, plus a few selections from the studio set.  Live soundboard CDs were a available for a while, but I’ve no idea where these could be tracked down now.  File sharing sites?  I scooped up a fair 2004 set (with a lovely segue covering ‘Matilda Mother’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’) and a couple from 2007 when Steve Kimock depped for an ailing Mark Karan.  I’m fond of both guitarists, but Kimock, in my opinion, brought a little more finesse to the jams and the band tended to stretch out more interestingly around him.

Ratdog last toured in 2014 and have only reconvened on a one-off basis on a couple of occasions since then.  The last of these was a memorial event in August 2016, following the untimely death of Rob Wasserman.  There remains talk of further outings, so perhaps we’ve not heard the last of them.

Like all his former GD colleagues, Weir has performed as a guest or in short-lived collaborations with a variety of other musicians over the first two decades of this century.  Many of these collaborations have taken place at the ‘virtual venue’ of Weir’s Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI) studio, launched in 2011.  To quote some blurb: ‘TRI is a state-of-the-art multimedia performance studio, designed for broadcasting live high definition (HD) video and audio streams directly over the internet.’  It streams shows and posts videos and audio streams on YouTube, Soundcloud etc.  Here’s just a few of the artists who’ve done TRI: Jackie Greene, Warren Haynes, Ratdog,  Dhani Harrison, WAR, Blackberry Smoke, Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real, Father John Misty, Widespread Panic, Primus, Furthur, Slightly Stoopid, The Be Good Tanyas, Jonathan Wilson, Neal Casal, members of The National, and former Black Crowe Chris Robinson.  There are videos of Bob, alone and jamming with a good many of the above.  Like Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads it has clearly become something of a creative hub.  There’s even been a very musical chat show, running under the name ‘Weir Here’.  All in all, a person could lose several days of his/her life just catching up on seven years of TRI material.

Out of the hub have sprung new creative partnerships, such as that between Steve Kimock and Leslie Mendelson that I covered in Gonzo 261.  Weir certainly seems to have brought out the inner Deadheads in young American band The National.  These guys went on to co-ordinate the three CD set ‘Day of the Dead’, on which an astonishing variety of bands and individual musicians – from Kurt Vile to Orchestra Baobab – cover songs from (or create music in the style of) the Grateful Dead catalogue.  Bob himself turns up on the final track, a live version of ‘I Know You Rider’ with the National.

The same link up was a contributory factor in Weir’s most recent solo venture – a sortie into what are described as ‘cowboy songs’ on the 2016 album ‘Blue Mountain’.  Bob, as any fan will know, has been a purveyor of cowboy songs from the early days of the Dead.  His version of John Phillips’ ‘Me and My Uncle’ is close to definitive, and his Marty Robbins covers – ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’ - have been long enduring.  Inspired, so the publicity material runs, by his time working as a ranch hand in Wyoming when he was fifteen years old, ‘Blue Mountain’ blends the cowboy vibe with the perspective of an ageing man looking back on life.  The majority of the songs were co-written with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter – though we are not told whether he too put in time as a ranch hand in his youth.

At its best and most resonant, on songs such as ‘Gonesville’ and ‘Lay My Lilly Down’ Weir and his supporting musicians (including members of the National and various Ratdog-ers) nail this wistful and timeless atmosphere beautifully.  They have that sense of songs that have always existed, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether by the writers.  The same goes for Bob’s almost entirely solo rendition of ‘Ki Yi Bossie’, one of those ‘Wharf Rat’ style songs that take a sympathetic and well-informed look at folk who are down on their uppers.  The eerily arranged ‘Ghost Towns’ too works particularly well, but some of the rest of the material doesn’t hit the spot for me.  Maybe there’s a limit to how many cowboy songs I can take at one sitting.  Americana has its charm, but does tend to run to excess a lot these days.  ‘Blue Mountain’ is a respectable contribution to the pantheon, just not a stand-out.  Weir has played some of the material live with some of the other contributors, but don’t go expecting to hear these songs at Dead and Company shows.

So, along with Hart, Lesh and Kreutzmann, Weir’s still here.  It may seem that I have a tendency to damn him with faint praise somewhat, and it’s true that my affection for him has its limits.  But there’s no shortage of respect on my part for his restless vitality, his politics (see online for more on that) and his service to the music that I love.  Weir’s musical history is dotted with gems and I’d like to leave you with one that’s accessible on the web, if you’d care to check it out.  It’s Bob performing solo with acoustic guitar.  The song is ‘Big Bad Blues’ – with a brilliant late Robert Hunter lyric and which was performed too few times in the Furthur era.  I can’t retrace the original video I came across of Bob singing it, but here’s a link to another TRI video that gives some idea of how powerful a performer Weir can be with a first rate song to sing.