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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this whole business of performing live and touring – something I haven’t done for a while, but hope to get back to sometime this year. I’ve also been listening to two of the greatest live albums ever made, but more about that in a moment.
I did my first real gig at the age of sixteen, playing piano in a pub. From then on, I did pretty much every kind of gig it was possible to do, solo or in duos, trios, rock bands, jazz bands, and cheesy pop and cabaret groups. Pubs, clubs, restaurants, weddings, military bases, you name it. I’ve had pennies and cigarette butts thrown at me as a show of disdain, and glasses and bottles thrown at me with murderous intent. I’ve also played gigs where members of the audience tried to murder each other, and came staggering into the band’s dressing room covered in blood, wanting to patch themselves up. That’s when we had a dressing room; sometimes we’d have to dress in the van. That’s when we had a van . . .
I know, it sounds a bit like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but it’s true. Some people, on the other hand, had a hit with their first serious musical venture, and have toured in a fair amount of comfort ever since. They’ve never known anything else, and while touring can be hard work at any level, their perspective might just be a wee bit more jaded than it really should. Such may be the case with one of my musical heroes, Donald Fagen, whose book Eminent Hipsters I’ve just finished reading.
The book is in two parts. The first has some interesting stuff about Fagen’s own musical heroes, and feels too short. The second is about the same length but feels much longer. It’s a diary of his tour with the Dukes Of September, in which he, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs perform some of their own hits interspersed with some old R&B tunes they like. The blurb on the book jacket describes it as ‘hilarious’, and it does have funny moments, but overall it’s one of the most depressing, and ultimately puzzling, things I’ve ever read; page after page about how every aspect of touring is sheer torture, with no redeeming features whatsoever, unless you count the occasional gig which defies all expectations by turning out to be not too horrible.
Here’s the puzzling part. I kept waiting for something along the lines of ‘you might be wondering, by now, why I put myself through this Hell on Earth. It’s because in spite of everything, I still love it’. Either that or, ‘I need the money’. But no. There is no ‘why’. Don just hates touring and that’s that. A friend of mine found this admirably honest, and I suppose it is, but it strikes me as the kind of honesty he should share with a therapist. By sharing it with a mass audience, he breaks two rules that I’ve always tried very hard to keep.
Firstly, although touring can indeed be mentally and physically exhausting in ways that most people are not going to understand, you’re not supposed to complain about it. And that’s because it’s also, or should be, a lot of fun. Meanwhile, most of your fellow humans are exhausted from doing jobs which are no fun at all. Maybe this is ingrained in me because I come from a provincial working class background and my only talent, music, came with no guarantee of earning any kind of a living. In my youth I did a series of soul-crushing part-time jobs, of which the best was probably stacking shelves in a supermarket. The worst was sorting dirty laundry in a mental hospital. And it still seems like a kind of miracle to me that I don’t have to do stuff like that any more. I don’t even have to get up early.
Secondly, don’t insult your audience. You know, the people who got off their asses and paid hard-earned cash to come and see you. In Fagen’s world they can’t seem to do anything right. For instance, they’re either too young (and therefore dismissed as soulless ‘TV Babies’) or too old because they’re . . . well, about the same age as him. Maybe I’m weird, and I’m just speaking for myself here, you understand, but every time I do a gig I’m pretty happy that someone has actually shown up.
I still have the greatest respect for Donald Fagen, but my message to musicians who hate touring is this. If you don’t enjoy it, and if you’re not earning money you really need: don’t fucking do it. It’s as simple as that, really.
Anyway. This is what I’m listening to.
DUKE ELLINGTON: The Duke At Fargo 1940
Among other things, this classic album is (especially in its Special 60th Anniversary Edition boxed set) a historical document: the first time a whole show by a major jazz group was recorded live. And it only happened because two young audio geeks in the middle of nowhere owned a portable disc-cutting machine they wanted to try out. The Duke himself gave his permission - though he didn’t really understand why they were bothering, if you can believe that - and the show was recorded direct to 16-inch discs, at 33 1/3 rpm, using just three microphones. Some songs are missing their beginnings or endings as our intrepid heroes scramble to load new discs onto the machine, but, even allowing for several hi-tech restorations and remasterings, the recording quality is astonishingly good.
Then again, it helps if you’re recording one of the greatest bands of all time, whose peerless playing, brilliant arrangements, and internal dynamics should have made it hard for anyone to make them sound bad. This is the famous ‘Blanton-Webster Band’, named after two of its biggest stars, tenor sax legend Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton, who can be heard here revolutionising the art of bass playing, and who, a year and a half later, would die of tuberculosis at the age of just 23. The Fargo show was also the debut of another distinguished Ellingtonian, Ray Nance, just hired to replace the irreplaceable Cootie Williams (one of Ellington’s many strokes of genius was that every time he lost someone irreplaceable, he replaced them with someone just as interesting but in a completely different way).
Back when I was doing my own sometimes harrowing early gigs, we felt we were working pretty hard if we had to play three sets a night. But in 1940, even an all-star band like this (I haven’t even mentioned Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart or Barney Bigard) would routinely play five. It only recently occurred to me that with no DJ to fill in for them, they were expected to provide a whole evening’s entertainment, for both dancers and listeners. When they took a break, it was probably just long enough to smoke a cigarette, take a belt of something, and go to the bathroom. Then, at the end of a long evening, they would most likely have to get on an uncomfortable bus (no bunks) and drive for eight hours, or eighteen hours, or a couple of days. And they played like this?! These guys were badder than bad. They were Vikings, they were Gladiators, they were Giants who walked the Earth.
There are too many wondrous moments on this recording to even begin to list. I’ll probably be returning to it for the rest of my life.
LITTLE FEAT: Waiting For Columbus
Thirty-seven years later, another band, also one of the finest of its time, was recorded live, with its best line-up, at the peak of its artistry. This time the venues were London and Washington DC, and there were a lot more than three microphones, but the musicians were doing all the things the Duke’s did: playing honest, soulful music, with serious intent but with ample good humour; interacting in a deeply empathic, organic way; leaving spaces for each other, so that everyone got a chance to shine; knowing what to leave out as well as what to put in, but still displaying regular flashes of virtuosity; knowing when to bring the volume and intensity up or down, instead of just playing flat-out all the time; reworking and expanding their material in exciting and surprising ways, instead of just sticking to the recorded versions; grooving like hell and driving the audience wild.
The original recordings of Little Feat’s songs are great, but there’s not one version on this epic live set that doesn’t surpass and transcend them. This is what a live album should be, and it stands as a mighty rebuke to everyone who ever made one that just sounded like a faster, sloppier and more reverb-laden version of their studio work. What’s more, LF on this tour were augmented by the 5-piece Tower of Power horn section, with whom some of the tracks (e.g. Mercenary Territory) achieve a kind of massive, majestic, cathedral-like quality that leaves me stunned every time.
It all sounds very much like people who love each other, playing music they love, to people who love them. There really are only two or three things in life that get any better than that.