Monday, December 10, 2018

Extinction Rebellion - Thoughts following the buzz of participation.

Having covered the Extinction Rebellion day on 17th November a couple of weeks back, I’ve had too much going on to participate in its subsequent actions.  These included several days of ‘swarming’, stopping traffic in London for short periods, and a second day of action commencing in parliament square a week later.  They’ve tended to get less overall media coverage than the earlier forays and I imagine this will be considered in the period of reflection the organisation intends to take before instigating further action in April next year.

Members of our local group have participated in some of these actions when they can, both in London and on a smaller scale in various localities.  Our group will be meeting again next week to consider the long haul ahead – enabling ourselves to participate more fully in forthcoming national non-violent direct action initiatives and considering what can be done to spread the message here where we are.

All well and good, but considering what we are up against, is it yet anything approaching enough?  The message is brutal.  Roger Hallam speaks of mass starvation across the world within 25 years.  We are in the process of societal collapse all across the planet.  While climate change continues to accelerate exponentially (an Arctic without ice by 2023 is one recent estimate), we face massive biodiversity depletion, ocean acidification, air soil and water pollution, water depletion, devastating consequences of soil erosion and deforestation.  The shit is hitting the fan everywhere we look.  Yet there is a feeling that most people don’t want to know.  We, myself included, continue to act as if everything is continuing as normal.  We watch ‘Strictly’, speculate about rifts between Kate/Will and Meghan/Harry, follow our teams/fashion icons/celebrities/rock bands and munch our takeaways as if nothing could possibly go wrong.  The alternative is just too scary to admit,

This of course suits a lot of people – most notably those who own and control most of the world’s wealth.  Look at what’s happening at the 2018 Climate Change conference in Katowice.  We already have the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait objecting to the conference ‘welcoming’ the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, even in the watered down form it inevitably took.  Insane as it seems, among the wealthy across the world there is a powerful desire to protect the status quo (and fossil fuel industry) right up to the end.  And it is not necessarily because they are genuine denialists or believers that technology will get us out of this.  Preparations are being made, bolt-holes and bunkers are being prepared for what, I’m told, they refer to as ‘the event’.  Meanwhile the media collude with the illusion, maintaining an increasingly dodgy concept of ‘balance’, afraid to upset anyone unduly and perhaps lose ratings as a result.

It is so easy to feel helpless, to sit around and say ‘we’re fucked, there’s nothing we can do about it’.  I’ve done a lot of that myself.  The value of Extinction Rebellion for me personally is not because I think it has a chance of succeeding.  It’s because I don’t want to die thinking I didn’t lift a finger, didn’t at least try to do something about what is so plain to see but so hard to accept. 

Does it have a chance of succeeding?  This is what I’ve been wondering.  The feeling on Lambeth Bridge back on the 17th was powerful and good, but even there I found myself unsure about some aspects of what I was observing.  I can’t be one hundred percent certain but I suspect the majority of those who were on that bridge were well educated and middle class.  Certainly I saw very few non-white faces indeed.  Okay, there was a racial equality march in London on the same day, and that was important.  And there were four other bridges where the racial mix might have been less one-sided.  I hope so.  But my general feeling is that ‘Rising Up/Extinction Rebellion’ has been carefully thought out and prepared by a group of people who are academics in the main and that it is being embraced so far by people with the same leanings.  Its goal is mass civil action, powerful enough to make governments reconsider their apparent folly, but it has a long, long way to go before it can consider itself a mass movement.  To manage that, it has to break through social barriers, to sweep up people who have not yet grasped that anything out of the ordinary is going on.  That is one big ask.

And of course it’s not the only movement in the world that is seeking to sweep people up.  We have, as tends to be the case in times of deep insecurity, a resurgence of the right wing, of fascism and worse, as its leaders and rabble rousers offer simplistic pie-in-the-sky.  Over here we have the Brexiteers and the far right, Trump as figurehead for those who run the show in the US, and the likes of Bolsonaro in Brazil doing much the same.  And when it comes to ‘mass’ action, it seems the ‘yellow vest’ protestors in Paris are showing XR a thing or two (though perhaps not a purely right wing movement – don’t know enough to decide).  But I’m finding this paragraph too depressing to continue, so I hope you get the picture.  There is strong competition for hearts and minds here.

So the odds are stacked against XR.  But then I’m pretty sure that at one time or another in our history the odds seemed stacked against the abolition of slavery, women’s emancipation and more.  XR’s organisers make some play of quoting these events, and drawing in Martin Luther King and the civil disobedience that challenged racism in the US, along with Ghandi in India, as examples of how their strategy might work.  I want to believe them.  I really do.  They have my support, but building any confidence in their hope of success will be hard work indeed.

Photographs © Neil Baird |

Monday, November 19, 2018

Extinction Rebellion day of action 17-11-18 - first hand account

My partner alerted me to the Rising Up organisation a month or two back, as plans for the events which commenced with a road-blocking by Parliament Square on 31st October were already under way.  They were offering talks on climate change and the need for immediate action to combat the near inertia of our government (and others) on this urgent issue.  Also the failure of the media to present both climate change and biodiversity loss as the threat to humanity’s continuing existence in the increasingly near future that it clearly is.  The chosen method by which they hoped to highlight this issue was non-violent direct action in acts of civil disobedience, and they also offered training sessions on how to do this.  First thoughts were, this looks interesting but do they have the nouse to pull off something that the Green Party et al have yet to achieve?  We decided to ‘watch this space’ and pick up on it if it looked like it was going to go somewhere.

It certainly does have that appearance now.  Only a couple of weeks ago some enterprising locals got a couple of speakers to come to our town and give a talk on what was by then going out as the ‘Extinction Rebellion’.  Over a hundred people showed up, which for a rural north Dorset town is impressive.  The speakers were a former anti-road-campaigner and a young woman from an alternative community who had only been drawn into the movement herself a couple of weeks before.  They spoke with passion and good humour.  Regarding the recent IPCC report and the muted response it received, they pointed out that since the breakdown of our climatic systems is occurring with exponential rapidity its findings were already way out of date, not to mention the degree to which they were compromised by political input.

What impressed me was the careful thought that had clearly gone into this initiative.  The speakers emphasised the requirement to approach non-violent direct action ‘respectfully’ and of a ‘regenerative culture’ within their movement.  This included a recognition that some of us are prepared to face arrest etc. and some aren’t, but that all support is valued at whatever level.  And also that the organisation has a commitment to giving legal and other support its activists.  There’s a lot more to it than I’m including here – the info is out there on the web.  If you care about the situation, google Extinction Rebellion and take a look.

Following the talk, things moved fast.  A local ‘affinity group’ was set up and one of the speakers returned the following week to give us some basic NVDA training.  A number of us were available to go to London for the ‘rebellion day’ on the 17th.   A minibus was hired, and on a chilly Saturday morning at 7am, set off with thirteen of us on board to join the rebellion.  Up until a day or two before we though we would be heading for Parliament Square but then the news came through that Lambeth, Westminster, Waterloo, Blackfriars and Soutwark bridges were to be blocked.  We were asked to go to Lambeth, and headed on foot from our transport to the bridge, passing Roger Hallam – one of the organisers – being interviewed by the media on the way there.

The first part of the action was both tense and kind of bizarre.  We felt like extras in ‘The Third Man’ as we gathered on and around the bridge, in pairs and separate clusters, trying not to look as if we were preparing for what it was clear that almost everyone present knew we were going to do.  This included several police officers, waiting on the pavements.  There was a helicopter overhead and police vans constantly crossing the bridge, with sirens blaring more often than not.  We knew roughly what to do when the signal came, but not exactly when that would be.  At one point a youngish, lightly bearded gent approached us and informed us it would all be happening between 11 and 11.15am, and where best to position ourselves.  It turned out that he was Rupert Read, another of the organisers.

When the time came, it all happened pretty quickly.  I assume that some of the more seasoned ER activists took the necessary action at each end of the bridge, and those of us who were on it became aware that suddenly the road was clear of traffic.  We swarmed over the barriers onto the roadway, and sat ourselves down.  I was not aware of the police taking any action to try to stop us.  We knew they had been informed of what was to take place.  I’d guess that with five bridges to monitor, and the fact that there was also a big racial equality march taking place in London that day, they were simply too stretched to do anything preventive.

For a while after that it was like a good many demos I’ve participated in in my younger days.  There was a sound system set up and after the organisers who were assigned to this bridge – including Mr Read – had said a few words, people were invited to take the microphone and say their piece, as were musicians and readers of poetry.  Preaching to the converted, of course, but all enhancing the sense of common purpose and being given plentiful support whatever the quality of their output.  I was particularly impressed by a woman from Cumbria who spoke articulately and at some length about the effect of climate change and biodiversity loss that she has been observing and experiencing in recent years.  She was filmed – hopefully that clip will show up in due course.  When there weren’t folk speaking, singing or leading chants, there was a fairly funky playlist of music on the go, and a generally festive atmosphere.  Lots of banners and flags with the hourglass ER logo – a couple of banners that caught my eye were the ‘There is no Planet B’ one and the brutally EJ Thribb-ian ‘Roses are red, violets are blue… unless they’re all dead’.  I spent most of the event holding up one end of a colourful painted one by an artist in our group, thus necessitating photographing and eating/drinking to be a largely one-handed affair. 

The group grew considerably in number over the next hour or so, several hundred though I couldn’t be sure how many.  Police were a constant but unobtrusive presence throughout this period, mostly at the periphery of the group, occasionally walking through the crowd and/or conversing with individuals therein.  But then came a warning that they were planning to start making arrests.  Having decided that this time round I didn’t feel ready to go through the arrest experience, I moved to the pavement to be an onlooker, as did some others.  But those who chose to risk arrest were plentiful, bless ‘em, and the bridge remained fully occupied by seated people and some who chose to lie down.  In due course small groups of police came amongst them and seemingly at random made arrests, carrying people off where necessary.  At each one a cheer rose from the crowd, in support of the arrestees.

It was rather obvious that there were not enough police to have a hope of clearing the bridge.  I assume that this was also the case on the other four bridges.  At various points we were told that they had run short of vans also.  My, hasn’t austerity bitten hard?  But in keeping with the ‘respectful’ ethos, a lot of sympathy was expressed, and the vibe was pretty much ‘we know you people have just got to do your job here, and it’s a shitty one at that.’  As mentioned earlier there was an odd feeling too.  The police, with vans and signs were doing the actual blocking of the road at either end, protecting us from irate motorists.  There was a token feeling about the arrests – a sense that a show of law enforcement had to be made.

They did eventually return in somewhat larger numbers, and several of them formed a line across the bridge to the south of the assembled group.  The purpose of this was never entirely clear, other than to stop people exiting or entering that way.  At the north end roadblock, people were allowed to leave but not to re-enter.  The police came in amongst the crowd on the roadway small groups to make a second wave of arrests.  I think I heard an estimate that there were around forty, out of the eighty to ninety people in total across the span of the action, arrested on Lambeth Bridge.  It was rumoured that we were mainly targeted being the shortest bridge and potentially the easiest to clear, but I don’t know how authoritative that one was.  Two of our group were amongst them – processed and released later on the same day, with the possibility but no certainty of some prosecution pending.

But then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the police left.  The roadblocks remained but with fewer vehicles.  Just a few community police officers stayed hanging around at the edge of the crowd.  Perhaps there was trouble elsewhere, affecting the racial equality march.  Though I’m happy that the event got a certain amount of press coverage (those amongst us with smartphones were monitoring it by the end of the day), it is one of my regrets that the other marchers seemed to have got no coverage at all. 

And that’s about it.  I’m not sure how long people remained on the bridge after we left at around 3.30 to 4pm.  There didn’t seem much point in prolonging it – the statement had been made.  We had a deadline for getting back to our minibus so were unable to join the subsequent action in Parliament Square (where, I later read, trees were planted).  It was clear that we had played our part in a well-planned and effective piece of political action.  The campaign is ongoing and escalating, as it must be if it has any hope to have an impact that will reach our cloth-eared legislators.  I expect to be participating in more such actions, though have too many commitments to take part in those that will take place over the next week or two in this the first major phase of the ‘rebellion’.  I applaud everyone involved.  My hopes for the future of humanity, larger wild-life and the future of the planet are not strong, but I cannot not have some part in this initiative, despite the odds against it.

Here are Extinction Rebellion’s three demands:
1. The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
2. The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
3. A national Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

It’s drastic stuff, but – as they say – we are facing an unprecedented global emergency.  Let’s not quibble over what is and isn’t possible by 2025, let’s just go for it.

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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 3: Bill Kreutzmann

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #282.  It was the third 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.

                                                                        Sticks Man

                               Profiling the music of Bill Kreutzmann, post-Grateful Dead.

Creatively, I think, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart were the guys who covered the most ground, out of the four surviving Grateful Dead originals, but over the last twenty years or so their colleagues’ work has not been without considerable merit.

Bill Kreutzmann then, this time round.

Kreutzmann kept a low profile, musically during the mid nineties.  He’d made his home in Hawaii, and seems for a good few years to have concentrated his creative energies on other work, including film-making and computer based artwork.  His first serious venture back at the drum-kit was a short-lived trio known as Backbone who put out a self-titled album in 1998.  This one passed me by, I’m afraid, and now seems pretty much unobtainable.  By all accounts it was firmly blues and r’n’b based and even the relatively short tracks on the album contained a fair dose of loose jamming.

Interviewed at the time and asked the inevitable question as to whether he would get back together with his former band-mates, Kreutzmann seemed reluctant.  ‘I didn't want to tour with the band after he (Jerry Garcia) died. It would be like the Beatles without John Lennon. There is no such thing.’  Nevertheless, he was tempted by the idea of a New Year’s Eve 1999 reunion which he thought would be ‘fun’.  An intermittent series of link-ups followed and have continued to this day with the current Dead and Company band.  Some newly written material emerged during the 2003-4 and 2009 periods of touring as The Dead, but seems to have been rapidly sidelined.  A shame in my opinion.  Everyone loves the old songs, of course, and instrumental, even vocal reinvention has always been part of the performance, so I’m not going to knock the pension package ventures but a strong dose of the new is something I’m always looking for.

This Kreutzmann has embraced in a good many of his other ventures, so the rest of this piece is devoted to them.  First up was another band, The Trichromes.  I don’t think they lasted any longer than Backbone, but managed to turn out some very pleasant recordings.  Initially ex-Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon was a fifth member, contributing to an e.p. release containing one excellent new song ‘Dice With the Universe’ with lyrics by Robert Hunter, plus a couple of lengthier live tracks.  They were down to a four piece when they recorded their 2002 self-titled album.  This featured eight songs with lyrics by Hunter, including a re-recorded and slightly less satisfying version of ‘Dice’, two more by guitarist Ralph Woodson and a long instrumental to close.  A little reminiscent of mid 70s Allman Brothers, the album mixed pop, rock and folk elements never quite hitting the heights but mostly enjoyable. 

As the decade rolled on, not unlike Steve Kimock (with whom he has frequently played), Kreutzmann participated in a number of short-lived, ad-hoc and one-off line ups.  One, Serial Pod, in 2005 involved a largely instrumentally jamming collaboration with Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio of Phish.  Other links have included taking the drumming seat with the David Nelson Band on several occasions and in 2006 re-uniting with Mickey Hart as The Rhythm Devils.  This line-up I described more extensively in my Mickey Hart piece in Gonzo 225-6, but here I will just mention one of the few still available soundboard recordings of this band.  You’ll need to go to Live and pay for this one, but – titled Rhythm Devils Concert Experience – it’s a nice compilation of some of their best tracks and can be downloaded for a small sum (it also came out as a DVD).

2008 saw a somewhat more prolonged venture, the Bill Kreutzmann Trio (aka BK3), with Oteil Burbridge on bass and Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski.  They played a good few gigs around this time and have occasionally reconvened since.  Material included the inevitable Grateful Dead covers, some of Murawski’s songs and one or two new compositions.  Audience recordings of some of their shows can be found on the Live Music Archive.  Something about Murawski’s guitar style never quite clicked for me, so with such material as I downloaded and listened to long since deleted I can’t tell you too much more about them.  They had their enthusiasts though – here’s a quote from a review: ‘At times it got out of hand, at times it worked. One magical moment occurred during the segue into "Franklin’s Tower" where Kreutzmann exploded into one of his patented four measure rolls across the toms, ending in a triplet pattern on the fourth bar that Murawski duplicated with synchronistic beauty. A delight to the senses.’  Maybe you had to be a bit of muso to appreciate them.

The collaboration that thrilled me somewhat more began the following year when Kreutzmann jammed with a singer-guitarist known as Papa Mali.  Aka Malcolm Welbourne (he got the nickname from Burning Spear, we are told), he already had a couple of well-received rootsy r’n’b albums under his belt at this time.  Louisiana born and New Orleans based, his music had a nice if somewhat inconsistent swamp rock feel about it, with raw vocals reminiscent of if not quite in the same league as Dr John.  He was and still remains a fine, improvising rock guitarist.  Playing with Kreutzmann, along with Tea Leaf Green bass man Reed Mathis and multi instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, brought out a hitherto unexplored psychedelic edge to Mali’s music.  What ensued reminded me strongly of the energy, drive and raw edges of the Grateful Dead back in their 1967-69 heyday.

Check out their two shows, available again on the LMA, at the Las Tortugas ‘Dance of the Dead’ event (31-10-09) for a powerful dose of this band.  They tended to start the proceedings by going straight into a jam that would segue into some of the potentially looser material from Mali’s albums such as ‘Do Your Thing’ and ‘Firewater’.  There’d be a smattering of 60s Dead covers, before running on to the often lengthy highlights of their early gigs.  These included Mali’s ‘Early in the Morning’ – a blistering hard rock version of the folk song ‘Little Sadie’ - ; and powerful covers of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Bottle Up and Go’ and Dr John’s ‘Walk on Guilded Splinters’.  It was psychedelic rock at the top of its game, jam-heavy but loaded with excitement.  In the second of the two Las Tortugas shows they broke out, pretty much for the first time, a new song with some of the best Robert Hunter lyrics I’d heard in years.  It’s the lament of a punch-drunk loser character, beyond caring whether he lives or dies.  For my money ‘King Cotton Blues’ is up there with ‘Wharf Rat’ or  ‘Black Peter’ amongst Hunter’s most affecting ‘in-character’ songs.  Check out the unforgettable chorus: ‘King Cotton Blues, boys / Be it understood / Shotgun is too merciful / Hanging is too good / Drowning too uncertain / And poison is too slow / To snuff a worthless widow’s son / Whose time has come to go.’

With Willie Nelson guesting on the chorus vocals this song was the centrepiece of their 2010 album ‘7 Walkers’ – which was the name they’d given themselves as a band by then.  Hunter presented them with several more strong lyrics tailor made for Welbourne’s croaky but passionate vocals and bayou stylings, such as ‘Louisiana Rain’, ‘Chingo’, ‘New Orleans Crawl’ and ‘Sue From Bogalusa’.  By the time of the album’s release, Mathis (back with TLG) was replaced by former Meters bass man George Porter Jr.  They were still shredding it live through 2010 and on into 2012, with the album’s title track extending into a powerful live epic.  A second album was spoken of, more Hunter lyrics apparently in the pipeline, but it never happened.  Though they never disbanded as such, they’ve not played as a band since.  It’s possible a period of perhaps severe ill-health on Welbourne’s part may have had something to do with this.  Videos I’ve seen of him in more recent years show a man who has lost an awful lot of weight, though he seems healthy enough now and brought out another solo album in 2015.

Kreutzmann, meanwhile, maintained his loose association with Reed Mathis in various jamming situations and the two continue to play together when the opportunity arises.  For a while in 2014 they had a four-piece band formed, under the name Billy and the Kids, with Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits and Tom Hamilton Jr.  Compared to the 7 Walkers venture I felt both the name and the repertoire (Grateful Dead covers pretty much exclusively) lacked inspiration.  It was quickly superseded, following the Dead’s 50th anniversary ‘Fare Thee Well’ concert series, by the Dead and Company outfit.  Some one-off shows have proved more interesting, in recent years.  In September 2014 for example, a line-up for the ‘Lock’n’Step Festival’ combined Magner, Hamilton and Burbridge with guitarist Steve Kimock and featured a wonderful guest spot on two songs by blues man Taj Mahal.  And in December of that year Kreutzmann linked with members of the David Nelson Band , Mathis and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby in the curiously named Trypto Band.  Meanwhile back with Murawski he has worked with former Copperhead bass man ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and Donna the Buffalo singer Tara Nevins – a combination that looks interesting, but which I’ve yet to hear.

Of the two former Grateful Dead drummers it’s Mickey Hart who tends to grab the limelight with his flamboyant character, exotic percussions and imaginative ventures, while Bill K tends to be the solid rhythmic backbone of whatever band he plays with.  But his improvisational skills match those of all his former outfit’s members, and – so long as it’s not just rehashed Dead songs – I’m more than happy to listen to anything he gets involved in, should the chance arise.  Some of it may perhaps leave me cold, but when the spark ignites it’ll be powerful and exciting stuff.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 2: Mickey Hart

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #225/6.  It was the second 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.

                                                               Devilish Rhythms

                                    The many creative ventures of ‘rhythm devil’ Mickey Hart.

Of all the musicians who were a part of the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart has arguably had the most varied and unpredictable solo career.  Unlike his generally laid back Californian colleagues, Hart is a fast talking, self-promoting character with something of the showman/charlatan about him.  His interviews tend to read like press releases.  On the whole, there’s something endearing about his enthusiasm for whatever project his restless mind has latched onto.  I imagine, though, that he could be a bit wearing in person.

Between 2011 and 2013 he managed to braid together many of the varying threads of his work into one almighty outfit, the Mickey Hart Band, and this piece will focus largely on that intensely productive period.  Prior to that, however, let’s take a look back at his activities outside of the Dead since the early 70s, kicking off powerfully in the form of his 1972 album ‘Rolling Thunder’.  With a spectacular Kelley/Mouse designed sleeve, this album drew in large part from the pool of Californian musicians who participated in the making of Paul Kantner’s Jefferson Starship and David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’.  It’s a rousing, energetic, mostly rock styled piece of work, containing several strong, memorable songs and it stands up well to this day.  Recording sessions continued with a view to a follow up.  It never found release but most of the completed or near completed tracks can be found for download on the web these days.

Hart’s ethnomusicalogical interests were already surfacing on this album, manifest in both the Shoshone Indian Invocation with which it begins and the contributions elsewhere of tabla player Zakir Hussain.  Hussain was a major collaborator in Hart’s next album, released on the Dead’s short lived ‘Round’ label and featuring an almost entirely percussive outfit known as the Diga Rhythm Band.  The focus on drums and percussive instruments remained throughout several more record releases, running up until the middle 90s.  These included ‘The Apocalypse Now Sessions’ (with Bill Kreutzmann), ‘At the Edge’ and ‘Planet Drum’.  There was a sense of parallel development between these albums and the increasingly elaborate ‘Drums’ segments which spotlighted Kreutzmann and Hart during Grateful Dead shows.  Rooted in what was frequently a bit of a curse in 70s rock music, the drum solo, these became one of the most exploratory passages in (usually) the second set.  Hart brought ‘world music’ to the table with things that rattled, things that boomed and things that buzzed, many of which I assume he’d located and collected on his travels.  There’d be an element of electronica creeping in to the sound too, especially as the remaining members of the Dead began to re-assemble and ‘Drums’ morphed into ‘Space’.  In the late 80s and early 90s there was often little difference between these improvisations and the new and fashionable music of outfits like The Orb.  Hart’s albums likewise, whilst zestfully rhythmic naturally, explored sound textures and ambience inventively.

Outside of his own recordings and performances, Hart – as mentioned – spent a great deal of time travelling, studying and recording music across the world during this period.  He was looking particularly for forms that were in danger of cultural extinction, in association with such august bodies as the Smithsonian Institute, and issued a large number of these recordings, details of which can be found on his website.  He was also writing fairly prolifically.  At least four books on music have appeared so far.  Haven’t got round to reading any of them myself, but from the titles I see in Wikipedia I’d say it’s a safe bet that the emphasis is largely on percussion.

But unpredictability has been a constant facet of this man’s career and the release of the album ‘Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box’ in 1996 certainly took me by surprise.  It was a song based album, and though some of the tracks were ‘rapped’ by Hart (a touch affectedly, in my opinion), the majority were graced by the elegant vocals of the Mint Juleps.  Originally UK based, the Juleps were a multi-ethnic female harmony singing group, who I’m pretty sure made regular appearances on UK TV programme ‘The Tube’ in the early 80s.  How they ended up in Hart’s orbit I’ve no idea, but their superb vocals on a full set of lyrics by the Dead’s Robert Hunter were a match made in heaven.  The music behind the vocals remained largely percussive, but with bass, keyboards and occasional guitars thrown in.  ‘Mystery Box’ remains a personal favourite of mine to this day.  A fine twelve minute version of one of the stand-out tracks, ‘Sito’, performed at one of the 1996 ‘Furthur Festival’ gigs, can be accessed on YouTube.

Over the next ten years Hart continued to release still more albums of mainly percussion based music, whilst participating in the post Garcia groupings of The Other Ones/The Dead and collaborating with other musicians besides.  Then, in 06, he got together with Kreutzmann once more, reviving the name ‘Rhythm Devils’ – a nickname with which they’d been dubbed in the Dead and had used for the ‘Apocalypse Now’ album – and recruiting the hugely accomplished Steve Kimock on guitar, along with Mike (Phish) Gordon on bass.  With a mixture of material from their existing repertoires, plus a handful of new songs with lyrics provided once again by Hunter, they took to the road.  They added singer Jen Durkin, who’d previously been in a band known as Deep Banana Blackout.  After the bliss of the Mint Juleps, her strident voice didn’t quite cut it for me.  Credit where credit’s due though, she managed superbly a tongue twister written by Hunter in the chant-song ‘Fountains of Wood’.  You try rapidly repeating ‘Multiphonic, supersonic, catatonic, anodyne,’ a few times, let alone singing it.

There were various incarnations of the Rhythm Devils over the next five years, several musicians passing through the ranks.  Invariably tight and very much a dance act, they struck me as one of the most interesting and exciting new projects from any ex-member of the Dead.  But what came next was quite transcendent.  Although he somewhat prosaically stuck with the name Mickey Hart Band, the outfit he formed between 2011 and 2013 (releasing two albums and undertaking two US tours) was a near perfect synthesis of just about every pie that Hart ever dipped finger into.  I can find little whatsoever to criticise about the Mickey Hart Band of that time, except perhaps that Hart might have done better to steer clear of his own attempts to write lyrics.  No matter, they mostly sound good even if on the whole they don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and both the albums have a further dose of yet more lyrics from the ever prolific Hunter.

But the music, that was pure transport.  Sometimes I imagined it as a cross between the Grateful Dead and Daevid Allen’s Gong at their very best.  It’s pretty damn good on both the albums, particularly the first – somewhat portentously titled ‘Mysterium Tremendum’.  Live they took it to the max.  Fronted by two powerful singers, one of whom was an outstanding black female vocalist named Crystal Monee Hall, they brought together the complex, multi faceted rhythms of world music, a bunch of really memorable tunes, a slew of Orb-esque electronica and samples and a whole division of deep, deep drones.  Hart even managed to find yet another superb guitarist in Gawain Mathews.

 Their shows were non-stop, mixing material from the albums with a selection of often radically re-arranged Grateful Dead songs and the occasional fascinating cover (Cream’s ‘White Room’ was a cracker).  Hart brought a few marginally gimmicky concepts to the feast – tone patterns based on signals from stars and other heavenly bodies, followed with the second album by sounds generated from a skullcap of sensors picking up rhythms from his own brain as he played.  There was a fair bit of bull in all this, but it was all part of the fun (just as that bit of daftness was, I think, with Gong).

Live soundboards of the second tour shows were available for a while on Hart’s website, but were not to be found when last I looked.  The albums (the 2nd one was called ‘Superorganism’) give a fair idea of the band’s strengths, but if you can find any soundboards of the shows on file sharing sites, I’d recommend them.  Hart, like most of the Dead, takes care these days to keep soundboard recordings largely off the internet and audience recordings tend to muddy the complex and layered sound – but there are a few on the Live Music Archive and some are fair recordings.

To my disappointment, as the faff about the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows began to accumulate, Hart let the band members go their separate ways.  Though he and Kreutzmann doubtless add sparkle to the currently running Dead and Company band, it all seems a bit business-as-usual compared to what was achieved by the MHB.  The only thing that’s caught my attention from Hart in the last year or two was a studio collaboration with veteran jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd, of which there was but a five minute extract on YouTube available last time I looked. 

Nevertheless, Mickey Hart gives the impression of being a pretty tireless guy and age does not appear to have slowed or mellowed him that much.  I live in hope of more pleasant musical surprises from this rhythm devil before he and his drumsticks make their exit.

Not all that long after the above piece was written came the announcement that Hart was to release a new album, 'Ramu', which then appeared late in 2017.  In many ways it was pretty much what I was hoping for.  Although not a re-appearance of the Mickey Hart Band it had the same level of vitality and inventiveness that I found on their albums.  One track featured a further collaboration with Charles Lloyd and there were strong contributions from a number of other performers of varying degrees of fame.  It was not accompanied by any live performances at the time, presumably due to Dead & Co. commitments.  I reviewed the album in Gonzo 272 and may well re-run the review here once these 4 pieces have run.