Monday, February 06, 2012

In a minority of (approximately) one on that Transatlantic Sessions gig

I don't like - to paraphrase the excellent Santa Fe singer songwriter and art activist Joe West - jam bands.

I dislike sessions, noodling, showing off, and virtuosity in the service of itself. For me music is about the song or the tune first, and it is in the creation of that work and its interpretation, a performance that serves the song, that communication is established with an audience. And communication, connection is what it is all about. That connection need not, necessarily, be safe and easy. Lux and Ivy, John Martyn, early Costello, Steve Earle in vintage form, Townes Van Zandt, the Clash...ah well. Maybe not every week.

I went to last Friday's Lerwick performance of Celtic Connections/the Transatlantic Sessions On Tour with high expectations. This was a stellar lineup of musicians and singers, many of whom I admire greatly. It was beyond a sellout, with much internet clamouring for tickets and, due to the unreserved seating, a queue to get in that stretched from the Clickimin Centre for several hundred metres to the camp site.

When Aly Bain and cohorts came on, the excitement was bubbling in the hall like Old Faithful about to erupt. It was a homecoming from Aly, and he played it very self-effacingly and carefully, knowing all too well that for every local fan, there's an embittered denigrator keen to cut the homeward superstar down to size. So there was no 'showing off' from Aly. Not that he needs to. He's been the most important and influential fiddle player in Europe for four decades, and  humility is part of his power and charm. He is  a genuinely nice bloke with supernatural gifts and a commitment to perfection that has brought him huge, and richly deserved rewards. I could have done with hearing a lot more of him at this gig.

And John McCusker, for that matter, though later in the second half he did get more exposure. Jerry Douglas, though, with Aly the co-chairman of the Transatlantic board, would not shut up, neither verbally nor on his steel guitar and dobro.

Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for the bottleneck and those who wield it. I was reared on Leo Kottke and Elmore James, Big Joe Williams and Tony TS McFee. But slathering its slippery sound over everything, every tune, every blessed song, was too much. and the 12-minute solo performance that began the second half left me with severe dobro aversion. It was an ego out of control. The genie was out of the bottleneck.

Elsewhere there was much to love: Ruth Moody was a revelation, Edi Reader a treasure as usual, Karen Matheson beautiful and sweet. Declan O' Rourke told good stories but played and sang his complex songs (for me) unconvincingly. I kept expecting 'Galileo ' to segue into 'Magnifico-oh-oh-oh...I'm just a  poor boy, nobody loves me' but alas, this most pretentious of songs never did.

Raoul Malo...a man in love with Roy Orbison's voice, and bereft of really good songs. What he has sounds like the Big O (Only Lonely...? Give us a break!) and the only truly incandescent three minutes in his and the Mavericks' armoury, in my humble and, I admit, possibly deranged opinion, is What A Crying Shame from the second album.

Tim O'Brien, on the other hand, is a flaming genius on about 15 levels and as many instruments, and he has a great voice. He was splendid every time he popped up in an audience-facing direction (loved the Bruce Molsky old-timey quartet he was in too) though his leading of This Land Is your Land went spectacularly awry. How can an American not know the words? How did Raoul Malo manage to come in a chorus early? Why did Edi Reader sound more convincing than anyone else on stage when she sang it, and she's from Irvine? Actually, Edi's a blues and country singer at heart, which always leaves me thinking her Burns stuff sounds slightly unconvincing. But maybe that's just me. She is also, as was proved here and throughout the TV CC coverage, very possibly the best backing singer ever. She can harmonise with anything and anyone.

But too much of this was safe, sweet and full of musical and verbal in-jokes for those on stage. It was, in fact, a session, as it said on the tin, and like most sessions, there was self indulgence and muso flirtatiousness galore. Inward looking on far too many occasions. It was also whiter than white. From an American point of view, it was all  Nashville, no Memphis.

I kept wondering about The Great Danny Thompson, rock-like at the back on bass, a man who has lived through more musical madness than everyone else on stage combined. I wondered if his mind wandered to the crazed, manic days with John Martyn, when fights were picked, restaurants trashed, when the vicious Martyn genius could see him switch in a  flash from cuddly crooner to violent abuser of audiences and any hapless crosser of his path. I wondered if he craved some of that mercurial, confrontational  danger, rather than the safe, essentially MOR celebration of niceness that we saw at the Clickimin on Friday night.

I admit, though, that no-one I've spoken to agrees with me. Everybody else had a wonderful time.

And everybody else is wrong.


Scotvic said...

Much as I love all the individual musicians, I have given up going to the Transatlantic sessions as the whole is very definitely so much less than the sum of the parts. And that over- loud Dobro on EVERY piece- No, No, No!

Sheenagh Pugh said...

" Everybody else had a wonderful time. And everybody else is wrong."

Well, no, they're just the target audience, which you aren't. If I went to a horror film I could say just the same, because I loathe the genre. But if everyone else enjoyed it, I would conclude that it must be good of its kind. What I wouldn't do is try to review something in a genre I couldn't relate to and wasn't the target audience for.