Cult Classics Album Breakdown 21

Tom Russell – Hotwalker (2005)

So, what’s a hotwalker? Well, it’s a person (usually a stable-hand) who walks a hot, sweaty horse after a workout, or a sprint on the racetrack. Tom Russell has an interest in people for a start; much of his music is observational, or tributary, or reflective. But he also has an interest in exceptional people too, and this, the second part of his Americana trilogy, certainly features many of those. In fact, it’s a very unique listening experience which intersperses snippets of free speech (from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, hobo composer Harry Partch, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac and Little Jack Horton) with musical interludes. It’s a record – if you can call it that – that requires lamplight and your full attention. It’s useless without both.

Russell is an exceptional artist. He’s as earthy a singer-songwriter as you’ll ever hear who writes about the land and towns and cities and smog and people and words and poetry and music – basically a fascinating mix of the most organic parts of life, and then the the inevitable emergence of skid row. His music is a melting pot of many traditional genres, such as folk, country, folk-rock, and most poignantly, cowboy music of the American West. He has a particular fascination for the Mexico border, and paints landscapes with words in the most vivid way. His music has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, k.d lang, Nanci Griffith and many others of repute. He’s prolific too – he writes albums for fun and paints the most wonderful avant-garde canvasses. A bone-deep artist through and through.

This very original concept behind Hotwalker is a depiction of post-war Beat landscape, where drunks and roamers and lost poets and outsiders star in Russell’s journey into the soul of “the old America, where the big guilt, political correctness and chainstores hadn’t sunk in so deep”. Russell acts as narrator, and the soliloquies of Little Jack Horton, a carnival circus midget who hung out drinking with Charles Bukowski, are particularly fascinating. That high-pitched voice is clearly from a time gone by – and now, it is. He died shortly after these recordings were made. His tale about stealing a train with Bukowski after a heavy drinking session would seem certain to be fiction had it not been Bukowski that was involved.

The record is a sweeping, chug-along journey through rough-ass country talk, squawking jazz, stripped back and chiselled folky-blues, spooked parlour songs, hypnotic carousel waltzes and americana drama. There’s a nod to the Pope of Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, (Van Ronk) delivered in Russell’s neatly emphatic baritone, and I just love Border Lights for it’s deep-dive into “that delicious dark-eyed myth” of 1950’s Mexico where folk got high on cheap dreams and rum. There are countless Okies “hopped up on moonshine and amphetamines” in Bakersfield – turns out its yet another nod, this time to Gram Parsons and Buck Owens. Russell is such a wide-eyed writer with a love of recognising his own heroes and influences.

To some this may be a tough listen. At times it’s tuneless as recitations are made, but for me the whole package is an experience rarely found on record. Russell is a born storyteller, and this, essentially, is at the core of Hotwalker. It’s brave, but I wouldn’t think Tom gives a fuck. He pursues his art, and Hotwalker is certainly art. Live, this man is compelling too. A wonderful, cult discovery!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

Top track trio:

Border Lights

Honky Jazz

Bukowski 2 “on the hustle”



Being early doesn’t always pay…

The year was 2010.

And, sorry, I’m going to ruin the story straight away by assuring you that everything ended well.

However, it began terribly.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood announced a really unexpected joint tour – and by joint, I don’t mean two separate sets – they were promising a full show on stage together. I got straight on the phone to my bandmate Adrian and spilled a million reasons why we had to be there. He listened patiently then informed me that his arm didn’t need to be twisted up his back. And so, that was that.

The closest gig was at Birmingham LG Arena, so we booked tickets months in advance and excited ourselves stupid with every mention of it. After all, both these legends were getting on. Right?

The date of the gig was the 18th May, 2010. It was clearly written on the ticket. They had arrived at my house, and been filed away safely, away from reckless lurking hands ‘cleaning up’ or the overly-vexatious boxer dog. In fact, I’d slipped them inside my vinyl copy of The Beatles’ Blue Album. That was the Holy Grail in my house that no-one else dare touch.

I’ve always loved the feel of a concert ticket in my hand. They feel like freedom and possibility and exhilaration. I love the writing on them, big and bold…a famous name that promises to become a face, right in front of you. The curious hologram. The date – a moment of your personal history captured in print. That thrilling line of punched holes, ready to be ripped by a bored concierge with spots and sincere disinterest. The type that have no idea who the legends are you’re going to see.

Adrian, the great guitar player and co-singer in our regularly gigging duo, Little Wing, had nothing to do with the admin. I handled it, paid for it, and he simply reimbursed the cash. I was just about as experienced a gig-goer as anyone you could possibly meet from my generation. I’d watched hundreds, all over the world. I could reel a few off to impress you if you like? The Eagles in Melbourne, Australia. Chuck Berry in Luxembourg City. The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in Paris. Paul Weller in Benacassim, Spain. Leonard Cohen in Montruex, Switzerland. I could go on, but I’m sensing you hating me already.

The point being, I’d been on trains, planes, ferries, trams, buses, cars…basically everything but horseback to get to gigs. Logistically, for a daydreaming technophobe, I was pretty slick. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, how about this.

“Hey, Adrian, you ready for the gig this week?”

“Yes, great.”

“You fancy driving? We’ll split the petrol?” (Tactical – he’s not really a drinker).

“No problem. Let’s set off early and get there in good time.”

So, off we went on our two-plus hour jaunt down the M6 to Birmingham playing Clapton and Winwood CD’s, riling ourselves up for the gig of a lifetime.

Upon arrival in Birmingham we were surprised by the lack of traffic.

“I knew setting off early was a good idea,” Adrian said.

I’d spotted a McDonalds, so my attention was otherwise occupied.

“Yep,” I said.

When we landed at Birmingham LG Arena a short while later, we were even more astonished to see no cars in the car park. In fact, the whole place was a ghost town. The barrier was down, and when we approached the gate a baffled looking security guy stepped out of a small hut and approached the van.

“Can I help, lads?”

“Hi mate, yeah, we’re here for the Clapton / Winwwod gig,” Adrian said since he lingered at the driver’s side.

“The what?”

I leant over. “Eric Clapton,” I reiterated. “And Steve Winwood. Here. Tonight.”

What?”

I wanted to shout THE FUCKING GIG! but the genuine concern spreading across the bloke’s face stopped me in my tracks. Adrian turned to face me and that sinking feeling melted me into my seat.

“No gig on here tonight, Lads,” the Brummy chap said, hands aloft in apology.

“Fucking hell,” I whispered, pulling the tickets out of the envelope. The guy stuck around for the climax. “But it says here, the Birmingham LG Arena, tonight.”

The guy leant into the car to see the tickets in my hand. Then he slowly withdrew.

“That ticket says 18th May, mate. It’s the 11th today.”

Well, my ass fell clean through the van flooring. Adrian laughed. I sank back into my seat, horrified by my own stupidity. Other people might have punched me. Adrian said:

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

The only compensation for such a mistake was that we arrived a week early and not a week late, but it wasn’t round the corner. We made the best of the situation, and had a rather nice curry before making the trip home.

The following week we made the gig, on the correct day. We even got there for the correct time and sat in the right seats. We did really well. Clapton and Winwood were superb – a raucous mix of tunes from both solo careers, Cream, Traffic, Derek & The Dominoes, The Spencer Davis Group and some covers too. A career spanning retrospective by two of England’s finest. Clapton’s slowhand was on fire, and Winwood’s voice better than ever. Well worth the two trips!

© Southport Reporter

Anyway, we’re still friends. We still play music.

I don’t book the tickets anymore.


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 9

Mark Knopfler – Privateering (2012)

There are some songwriters that have such a signature sound you know exactly who it is within three seconds of listening. Mark Knopfler is one such musician. It’s not even just for those clickety slick licks anymore either; it’s the full, panoramic soundscape that blends Folk with Trad with Rock with Country Blues – it totally belongs to him.

Knopfler is also a songwriting machine. His output has been consistent post-Dire Straits, and all of it a remarkable standard. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so they say. And in a similar vein to AC/DC (although wildly different, of course) Knopfler never strays very far from home base. And why should he? The formula is there, and the end product unquestionably polished. Privateering, his 2012 twenty-track double solo album, maintains his incredibly high standards and features some absolute Knopfler gems.

Knopfler has a knack of writing new tunes that sound like standards. The title track Privateering is one such number that could well have been written around a campfire one-hundred years ago. After The Beanstalk sounds like something Robert Johnson could have composed, and Bluebird has something eminently Peter Green about it. The beauty of it all is that Knopfler lends sounds from his peers, and like a great LP that he just can’t bring himself to return, keeps it for his own. A bit naughty, but somehow brilliant.

The former Dire Straits and Notting Hillbillies frontman also has a knack of rousing gentle folk-rock soundscapes and moody portraits painted by acoustic guitars, penny whistles, delicate electric guitar blues licks, melancholy fiddle and captivating accordion. Red Bud Tree is delightful, as is the outstanding, penetrating Go, Love. There is a tenderness in Miss You Blues that emits a deep-rooted satisfaction of his lot from Knopfler. It’s just about as listenable as a record could be.

The record is ably supported by some stellar session musicians, most notably former Dire Straits keys player and master arranger, Guy Fletcher. Fiddle and cittern player, John McCusker, is another notable name, along with bassist Glenn Worf, Michael McGoldrick on whistles and pipes, and Paul Franklin on pedal steel. The blend is primarily Folky, but this is a band that does much, much more. Seattle is a highlight, with its majestic chord changes and clement longing. The golden nugget on the album for me, however, is Kingdom Of Gold. At all times rousing, it is lyrically stunning and builds like a fine sunrise, culminating with an enchanting backing choir and something profoundly medieval. Knopfler at his very best.

There are a few throwaways in amongst the twenty. Corned Beef City and Gator Blood didn’t do much for me but carry my legs to the kettle for a brief break, but even those intervals are timed well (ha!). Today Is Ok is more of a filler too, though not without its quirks. All in all, a few weaker moments on a twenty-track album is to be expected. They are very much carried by the deep and meaningful quality radiating from the rest.

There is a misery and melancholy that somehow surrounds Knopfler these days, though it only seems to aid the music. I wouldn’t be rushing out for a pint with the man, but I’d certainly be rushing to the record shop every time there’s a new album announcement.

He’d probably have lemonade anyway.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Mark Knopfler News 2020

Top track trio:

Go, Love

Seattle

Kingdom Of Gold


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 6

Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967)

Disraeli Gears reads like a Cream Greatest Hits – except it’s better!

Eric Clapton has been involved in some amazing projects over the last fifty plus years, but this one (bar maybe his solo Unplugged album) is the defining moment of his career. It charted Cream’s super powers; their progression into a psychedelic avenue of swirling, kaleidoscopic rock music in a burgeoning scene that boasted the likes of Hendrix, Sgt Pepper era Beatles, Steppenwolf, The Doors, Iron Butterfly and Spirit.

Disraeli Gears spawned two all-time classic rock singles – Strange Brew and Sunshine Of Your Love – both Clapton masterpieces that have never faded in terms of popularity and influence. Strange Brew, the album’s opening track, is a radical groove built upon Jack Bruce’s pioneering frontline bass. Clapton’s guitar work is, quite simply, very special. Dreamy, ambiguous lyrics are the norm on this record – and it’s not rocket science working out why. Clapton, whose drug problems nearly killed him, was literally traversing other dimensions. Ginger Baker probably lived fifty years longer than expected. Jack Bruce’s struggles were well documented.

Sunshine Of Your Love is the soundtrack to a jilted generation. A genius riff ably supported by stunning drum sequences from Ginger Baker, and mesmerising duel vocals by Bruce and Clapton. World Of Pain is psychedelia personified; a stoned reflection of one’s view from a window: “Outside my window is a tree / They’re only forming / And it stands in the grey of the city / No time for pity for the tree or me.” Clapton’s Beach Boys wah wobble lifts the song sky high. It’s an album that makes you wonder about the capabilities of the imagination.

Dance The Night Away boasts a fantastic vocal from Jack Bruce – testament to his great talent as a co-frontman. Tales Of Brave Ulysses is an surging, ethereal number featuring a mesmeric spoken vocal from Bruce, whereas Blue Condition is a total change in direction; Ginger Baker singing in his monotone Cockney drawl to a light hearted melody, echoing the Small Faces Ogden’s Nutgone Flake era. For a man who came across as warm as an iceberg in everyday life, Baker’s voice is rather endearing.

Swlabr features more stunning guitar playing from Clapton, whose natural ability to follow the song with just enough of everything and never too much of anything, has remained nothing short of genius. We’re Going Wrong is a powerful ballad in which Baker takes flight with his fearless drumming, and Outside Woman Blues, one of Clapton’s finest and most underrated arrangements. It’s a thumping, infectious fast-Blues with a profound ability to draw you towards the repeat button.

The album takes another diversion with Take It Back – a rolling and tumbling, harmonica driven number with a melody reminiscent of late Beatles material. The album’s closing track, Mother’s Lament, is another comic-cockney ditty led by Baker – an odd ending to a storming Rock record, but charming all the same.

Cream reformed in 2005 to play five sell-out nights at The Royal Albert Hall, London, for one last time. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce did not look like well men. Clapton, rather ironically considering his terrible vices in the 60’s and 70’s, looked in great health. Bruce and Baker are now gone – Bruce in 2014 of liver disease, and Baker in 2019 having reached the milestone of 80. It’s Clapton’s turn to look frail now, though at 75 he’s still on the live scene, albeit much less frequently. He’s the last man standing from this pioneering power-trio.

Cream as a cohesive unit were absolutely untouchable – and the reunion of 2005 a marvellous event which will live long in the memory. Much of Disraeli Gears was returned to during this farewell residency, and why not. It’s a seminal album from a unique and trailblazing period in music history.

Music like this should never fade into obscurity – and believe me, it wont.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Strange Brew

Sunshine Of Your Love

Outside Woman Blues