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What I'm Listening tO

        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.

September 2019: Tour Edition, Part 1

Revenge of Son of WILT 

It must be very hard for anyone who's never been a touring musician to imagine what it's like. Some people think it must be a nonstop rolling party, a feast of debauchery that no one in a fair world should really be able to get away with. Others can't understand how anyone could endure a life so grueling, disorienting, and generally uncomfortable. The truth is that it can go to either of those extremes, but mostly, it's somewhere in between, along with elements of both a camping trip and a stint in the Army. 

Personally I love it. If you do it right (that is, by pacing yourself with some kind of common sense, and working with good people who won't drive you crazy) touring is a fun and very satisfying way of working hard. I have no patience with people who complain about it but keep doing it (see WILT January 2015, about Donald Fagen, who spent half of his book doing just that. By the end, I wished he'd for God's sake either stop touring or stop writing). 

This last tour pushed me to the limit, but my voice held up pretty well. When I was thanking people last month, I really should have included the two vocal teachers who've helped me, Adrienne Angel and Katy Agresta. Any touring singer who still refuses to learn some techniques to warm up their voice and avoid straining it—because it will ruin their style or 'take away their soul' or something—is an idiot. In 81 shows, there was only one in which I strained my voice early in the show, and struggled to get through the rest. Unfortunately it was an important sold-out show in Berlin, with a lot of friends in attendance, but they all said it was great anyway. 

This sort of thing can be kind of disturbing. I've done shows I thought were terrible, only to be told afterwards that they were brilliant. You can't help thinking: either I, or my audience, is much more clueless than I thought, and I don't want to believe either. Ultimately I have to trust that there are plenty of things about the whole show that are well-prepared, and consistent, enough that it really is OK. At any rate, I haven't done too many shows I thought were great, only to be told they were crap. 

The psychological stresses of touring can creep up on you, though. Towards the end of this tour I confess that my concentration would sometimes just . . . go away somewhere. I'd find myself in the middle of a song thinking unwelcome thoughts like: is this song really any good? Or: did I remember to reply to that email from my accountant? Anyway, I apologise to some of our later audiences for my various wrong chords, nonsensical lyrics, and 'avant-garde' piano solo moments. The unintentional ones, anyway.

I guess this might come across as complaining after all, but it's written with a smile, so to speak. There's plenty to be proud of; for instance, we didn't cancel one single show, even when I got sick about halfway through. Someone always gets sick on a long tour (though on this one, they mostly had the decency to take turns doing it). The constant travel and extreme changes of climate don't help. In February, on an epic drive from Chicago to Denver, we were stuck for seven hours somewhere in Kansas on a closed highway in an Arctic landscape of snow and ice; in late June we sweltered in a European heatwave without much in the way of air-conditioning—there were several shows I only just got through without throwing up or passing out onstage.

We didn't cancel any shows, but (for anyone who's been wondering) the promoter pulled the plug in Tel Aviv. He'd done a deal based on two shows, but ticket sales in Israel are unpredictable and in this case were slow enough that although we could have played one show, it was no longer financially viable for him (or us, really).

And semi-apologies to those who've protested that we didn't go to their country. Australians are probably top of that list. I would have been happy to go to Australia (who knows, it may even still happen) but there's another misconception about concert tours, which is that they just go wherever the guy whose name is on the ticket personally wants to go. Sure, I have an input; I can, and do, make suggestions, or say no to venues I really don't like. My manager has an important input too, but beyond that, we have to surrender to our booking agent, the local promoters he deals with, and local demand. Not to mention all kinds of reasons why you shouldn't play shows in certain places on certain dates . . . planning a tour is a tricky business all around. Just the logistics of getting both people and equipment from A to B, often on a daily basis, are daunting. And venues, tour buses, hotels, even flights, are being booked up further and further in advance; for every artist pondering the possibility of doing some shows in, say, six months' time, there are a dozen who've already planned whole tours two or three years in advance. 

And ultimately, many cities, even major ones, just don't have appropriate venues. We finished in Spain, and played Barcelona and San Sebastian, but not Madrid, where there was no option that wasn't too big, too small, or unavailable. This can be true of whole countries (Portugal and Austria come to mind). And I can't seem to get arrested in 'Eastern' Europe. On this tour we had eleven very successful shows in Germany, and one flop, in Dresden, which was behind the Iron Curtain while I was building an audience in the West. When the Berlin Wall fell, people in the East mostly either wanted the Rolling Stones or whatever was new and fashionable in the West—a lot of people like me got lost somewhere in between. Nevertheless playing to 250 people in Dresden was more fun than playing to 12,000 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam the next day. Bigger isn't always better. Though it does pay more.

And money is certainly a factor. Back in the 80s, people sometimes consciously lost money on the road, assuming that they'd make it back in record sales. This seems bizarrely funny, now that touring has turned out to be one of the few ways you can make a living. It's not a question of being 'only in it for the money'; that has never been the case for me (or I would have become a banker or a lawyer instead of a musician in the first place). I don't need to buy a castle in Tuscany, I just don't want to end up broke and in debt. The USA is by far the biggest, logistically easiest, and most lucrative touring market. Europe is harder, often for reasons to do with taxation and regulation, with the UK probably the worst, followed by France. In the case of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, there have been offers, but they're not good enough to break even. So, going back to those Australian fans: I'm sorry, but the reason we haven't gone there comes down in the end to a lack of enthusiasm or commitment on the part of your fellow countrymen. That, and geography.  

More stuff about touring next month. Now, some WIBLTOT. (What I've Been Listening To On Tour).



Magda Giannikou is a fascinating woman, who had already distinguished herself at the National Conservatory of Greece and studied film scoring at Berklee in Boston before creating Banda Magda as her New York-based vehicle. This is her third album, and a step forward. The arrangements, including some strikingly beautiful writing for strings, are the work of someone who really knows what she's doing. She sings more in French than anything else, but also in Portuguese, Spanish and her native Greek, all of which helps to create an exotically colourful musical world.

Ms Giannikou's voice is nevertheless, for me, one of the least interesting things about her. On her first album, it had that breathy, little-girl quality you hear so much in French pop that it sometimes strikes me as almost a bit creepy, in a Lolita-ish way. She's sounding a bit more grown-up now, but there is still a slightly cartoonish theatricality which for my taste doesn't always sit well with the sophistication of the music. Tigre is, overall, still delightful, original and refreshing: an imaginative blend of European and Latin-American influences which almost completely bypasses American ones.

DICK DALE: King of the Surf Guitar

The late Dick Dale, on the other hand, seems as American as you can get, yet was half-Lebanese and his biggest hit, Misirlou, is a Greek (or possibly Arabic) folk song. This compilation is majestic and dumb, silly and sublime, and just the thing to play on a tour bus after you've just come offstage in Italy from a boiling-hot open-air show in which you've been dive-bombed by bugs and had all the power go off twice.

BILLIE HOLIDAY: Lady Day – The Best of Billie Holiday

I wrote a while ago about the old Billie Holiday vs. Ella Fitzgerald debate, coming down firmly in favour of the latter. I may have been a bit unkind. I do think Billie's later work is overrated, but I hadn't listened enough to some of her earlier stuff.

This particular compilation is of her recordings for Columbia between 1935 and 1941—before she became the tragic junkie diva, and her voice got bogged down in a lot of (to my ears) repetitive tics and world-weary mannerisms. She was not even very well-known on the earliest tracks, most of which are small-group jazz sessions in which she gets up, sings one chorus, and sits down again. Which is just as well, because she's surrounded by a veritable galaxy of jazz stars. Some of the biggest names appear only once or twice (Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge) but there's a goldmine of tracks featuring her as 'the girl singer' with a band led by one of the greatest Swing Era pianists, Teddy Wilson.  

Wilson is a wonderful player, with fantastic technique, elegant ideas, and a delicate touch—he's sometimes been called, rather aptly, a jazz Chopin. I love the way he throws in sparkling, perfectly executed runs which always seem to contain odd and asymmetrical numbers of notes, but always land in just the right place. 

Furthermore, he's often joined by Count Basie sidemen like Jo Jones, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, and Lester Young, who also appear on tracks credited just to Billie herself. The playing is great all around, and Billie sounds like 'one of the boys', which is apparently pretty much how the boys saw her. As part of an ensemble cast, she comes across as an interesting and appealing singer, with a sly sense of humour (Cole Porter's 'A Fine Romance' is actually subtitled 'A Sarcastic Love Song', but Billie is the only one who makes it sound sarcastic). There's a touch of roughness, almost of vulgarity, about her, and yet at times there is the kind of wistfulness that I often find, in some odd way, to be more moving than tragedy; at other times, she just plain sings. All around, she is quite different to any of her contemporaries. Of course she was going to be a star. I still wonder, though, how good a thing that was, either for her or for us.