Monthly Archives: May 2017

Seu Jorge

What a voice.
Deep, rich, creamy and full of emotion.
The next best thing to seeing Bowie in concert.
I want to move to Brazil. I want to learn Portuguese. I want to dress like a sailor in a funky red hat.
He’s given me an itch to learn his lovely language and to discover his original music and sing it in my deepest, velvety voice and to learn how to play some samba and play it on a hot Brazilian day.
All these thoughts coursed through my head at the end of his brilliant set.

His name is Seu Jorge and one day, he received a call by none other than Wes Anderson. The rest, as they say, is history.

Casually strolling on stage, cup of tea in hand, looking like he’d just walked into his living room – the absolute embodiment of “chill” – he launched into “Ziggy Stardust” and from the moment he opened his mouth for that opening cry, I was hooked. During a week when the only voice consuming my mind was that of Chris Cornell, he provided me with a welcome distraction and reminder that many other beautiful and different voices still grace us the world over. It proved a refreshing release and re-invigoration.

What’s more, Seu was full of casual banter. After the opener, he described the scene when he first got that famous phone call: playing PlayStation as his then-wife picked up the phone and nonchalantly answering Wes Anderson’s questions. “Yes I know Bowie”, “blond guy?”, “two different coloured eyes?”, “sometimes I confuse him with Billy Idol…”.
Had it not been for that single phone call, Seu Jorge’s renown may not have strayed so globally to such a teeming hive as Manchester. And so it came to be that Seu Jorge was cast as one of the crewmen in Team Zissou, the crew of Steve Zissou (longtime collaborator Bill Murray) in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Playing a few Portuguese-language covers of David Bowie songs in the film itself, he then released a soundtrack with up to 15 of these covers. During the gig, stories of the shooting of the film were commonplace between some of the songs and he really got the crowd charmed and laughing cheerfully, and was given an enthusiastic response after each and every song.

After “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things”, he revealed how tough it was to change the rock’n’roll songs of Bowie into the samba style he was used to and recounted how he pretended to Wes Anderson that he had his version of “Rebel Rebel” ready but needed 15 minutes to “concentrate” before filming the scene. Cue a mad rush for some inspiration.

And so it went on, performing “Rebel Rebel” before a really lively “Starman”, revealing the lyrics he sings were coined by a different Brazilian band. “Lady Stardust”, inspired by Cate Blanchett in the film, was followed by “Rock’n’roll Suicide” and then a terrific “Suffragette City” which stayed in my head long through the night. “Quicksand” and a “Space Oddity” dedicated to all those wearing hats ensued (he was dressed in his Team Zissou uniform from the film, as were members of the staff at the venue and a few in the audience had either brought their own red hats or bought them at the merch stand).

A thundering “Five Years” was of one the highlights: how he instils the songs with such power I’ll never know but in his hands they sometimes become even more potent in their stripped-down setting with where his voice truly shines with vigour, strength and emotion.

One last story to tell concerning David Bowie’s death and that of his father, a few days apart and how he was convinced by his ex-wife (the same one?) to do something in tribute to them and after mulling over it came up with the idea to tour and play these beautiful song to people around the world. And so he dedicated the next song to Manchester and those affected by the recent bombing.
A rousing “Life on Mars” was performed with soul, sweetness and feeling with a devastating final cry of the title lyrics, to a standing ovation and teary eyes from performer and audience members in every corner of the Albert Hall.

He finished with the simplest of elegances in “When I Live My Dreams”, gracefully acknowledging the crowd one last time before peacefully making his way offstage to leave us with minds appeased to watch him one more time in a special screening of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.

(Albert Hall, 25th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

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Chris Cornell

It’s been a week to the day since I woke up to the news that Chris Cornell had unexpectedly died.
After a week of listening to Audioslave – Soundgarden – Cornell – Temple of the Dog, I’d like to celebrate the life of this most talented of artists.

I remember being about 13 years old and sat at our single family desktop computer in our spacious living-cum-dining room, in one of those now commonplace black swivelling office-like chairs. Responsible and conscious teenager that I was, I opted to not blast out the rock music I was about to play from the high-grade speakers we didn’t have but instead chose the premium super-headphones that probably came with the desktop years before.

Not that I was audibly-proficient enough to notice, but sound quality did not bother me back then and would not even have mattered a jot anyhow because what I was listening to transcended mere sound quality and its own excellency shone through and seeped from my eardrums through my brain and right to the very core of my soul or whatever part it is in your being and essence that makes the hair rise on your arms and your body tingle.

I remember wondering how music, mere sound waves, could give such physical and tangible pleasure; wondering where it all came from, how it came to be and I remember most of all the clear and precise purpose it instilled within me: to be able to give and create such a wonderful feeling in other people.

Is it irony or fate (urgh) that the very title of the song to have set the future course of my life from then on was “Show Me How to Live”? Probably just random chance but that’s exactly what Chris Cornell’s baritone voice did to me that very day during the first verse of my favourite song – a verse I’ve tried to replicate countless times since – up until the explosive chorus kicked in. I could go on about that specific song with its deep humming intro groove, the phased-out and fluttering wah wah and tremolo solo by Tom Morello or the staccato-like outro cry by Cornell (or the awesome car-chase music video!) but I digress from the topic at hand, namely: a eulogy to mine and many more people’s favourite singer, songwriter and frontman.

Audioslave

To me, Chris Cornell has always meant first and foremost Audioslave. Often referred to as RATM + Chris Cornell (or the three instrumentalists from Rage with the singer dude from Soundgarden) for their first album, they were nonetheless well-received and liked by fans and critics who noted how well the musicians blended and how they fit and stood out in the rock and alternative scene at the time. Many people’s favourite songs will probably be found on their self-titled and debut album with its heavy hitting blazers like the aforementioned “Show Me How to Live”, opener “Cochise” (with Morello’s random and innovative use of a pencil to make a helicopter sound, as you do) or “Shadow on the Sun” and its mellower and softer “ballads” (if you can call them such) “Like a Stone”, “What You Are” or “I Am the Highway”.

But if that album does somewhat feel like an amalgamation of the members’ previous bands – in absolutely no way whatsoever is that a bad by the way in my humble opinion – their second album Out of Exile did find them with a style and feel of their own. It still possesses the heavy hitters, the crunchy riffs and the guttural Cornell screams but it’s a lot more balanced out with a softer, more varied and alternative sound. Perhaps a fair way to put it might be that the songs are generally less one-dimensional and that as a whole album, it flows together more effortlessly, mirroring their gelling as a fully-fledged band. Opener “Your Time Has Come” is just as visceral as previous songs but with a lighter groove but is then followed up by the marching drums of eponymous “Out of Exile”, the wah-wah-heavy solo from “Be Yourself” and the absolutely smouldering and blistering one from easy-going “Doesn’t Remind Me”; you’ve got the lilting arpeggios of the sweet “Heaven’s Dead”, the futuristic loopy bass intro to “Yesterday to Tomorrow”, the poppy and self-descriptively-sounding “Dandelion” and album closers “#1 Zero” and “The Curse” which sound more like what Audioslave should sound like than any other songs.

Third album Revelations has its strong moments like the title track or first single “Original Fire” but is generally more lacking in oomph and guile and tended to be a bit too repetitive, especially in songs like “Somedays” or “Jewel of the Summertime”. But again there was some evolution and they were definitely developing the “Audioslave sound” with songs like “One & the Same”, “Sound of a Gun” and another great closer in “Moth”. The album does have a certain cohesion and overall funkiness to it though and one can just wonder what would have come of future albums or a reunion.

Audioslave is the perfect showcase of Cornell’s talent and evolution as an artist as it not only shows his heavier past with his deep voice, lengthy screams and explosive vocal strength but also the softer side with his low baritone, falsetto backed by acoustic guitar or even piano. But it’s not enough to truly appreciate his influence and range as an artist.

Soundgarden

Cornell rose to fame with the previously mentioned Soundgarden, part of the so-called “Big 4” of grunge along with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Although Nirvana’s Nevermind was undoubtedly the album to have launched grunge into the mainstream stratosphere, Soundgarden are often regarded as the first band to bring recognition to the genre. They released 5 albums during their first stint with third album Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, the same year as Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten, garnering praise with songs such as “Jesus Christ Pose” (with its intense drumming and awesome gloomy riff), “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” (whose unexpectedly shiny and contrasting chorus shall forever surprise me). It prepared the terrain for their breakthrough album Superunknown which featured their biggest hit, the haunting “Black Hole Sun”, along with “Fell on Black Days” and the groovy “Spoonman”. Their next album Down on the Upside continued the trend of critical and commercial success with “Pretty Noose” and “Blow up the Outside World” proving popular picks. Amongst those bands, Soundgarden were noted for their heavier, at times even sludgier, sound and especially their weird time signatures in many of their songs (take “Rusty Cage” for example which switches from 4/4 to 7/4 to 9/8 to 19/8…) which also often featured alternative tunings. Cornell became famous for his huge vocal range which he was able to let loose on many of Soundgarden’s songs that often stretched further than 5 minutes, from quiet to loud and back again like “Slaves & Bulldozers” or “Like Suicide” or in the short punkish songs like “Face Pollution” or “An Unkind”. They were definitely the most experimental band of those famous during that era and pushed the boundaries with their eclecticism but as tensions in the band grew, they disbanded in 1997 and Cornell went on to pursue other endeavours.

They did reunite in 2010 though and released a new album called King Animal and I had the opportunity to see them perform live in Paris in 2012. Aside from some technical difficulties (bassist Ben Shepherd was fuming and quite close to walking off…) and generally pretty bad sound, it was both heavy and intense and fun and breezy. Each band member had their very own stage presence, their aura or character shining through with Ben Shepherd, giant of a man, with his very low-hanging bass stalking around the stage, Kim Thayil a wise immovable object doing the weird stuff he does so exquisitely, Matt Cameron with his friendly face all smiling throughout just getting on with his awsome drumming and Mr. Cornell wailing and hitting those high notes and amicably chatting to us between songs.

Chris Cornell gave off an impression of pure humble friendliness, of being an earnest person as well as performer, sincere in manner and words. What he may lack in charismatic and entertaining stage persona, he more than makes up for in genuine grace and kindness, casually addressing the audience and breaking the physical and intangible barrier between artist and fan.

Temple of the Dog

An important moment in Chris’ life and grunge’s as well was the death of his good friend and roommate Andrew Wood, who was the charismatic frontman of wave-making band Mother Love Bone. His untimely death by overdose just days before the release of their debut album shook many of the musicians of the scene at the time and Cornell decided to approach two of the members of the band, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, to record some songs he’d written for Andrew. The project quickly grew and a few songs became a whole album: a tribute to Andrew Wood called Temple of the Dog from lyrics in one of Andrew’s songs.

Additional members Matt Cameron and Mike McCready were brought on as well as guest vocalist Eddie Vedder and in one fell swoop, Cornell was responsible for the future creation of Pearl Jam. Together they recorded an amazing and worthy album, softer than Soundgarden and showcasing the balance Cornell would come to achieve later, that stood the test of time and is now considered amongst his best work. It opens with the elegiac centrepiece “Say Hello to Heaven”, in memory of his late friend, but also the 11 minute monster “Reach Down” and the graceful “Call me a Dog” or “All Night Thing”.

Another perfect introduction to the talent that is Chris Cornell.

Solo Career

Between leaving Soundgarden and joining Audioslave, and vice versa, Chris Cornell released a few solo albums, from 1999’s Euphoria Morning, to 2007’s Carry On before what many consider his biggest mistake with the Timbaland-produced Scream in 2009 and culminating in 2015’s Higher Truth. If we can divide his career in three stages, we’d have the heavy experimental side first with Soundgarden and his debut Euphoria Morning, spectral grower of an album that would please most of the old crew with its unusual chord sequences and changes, dreaminess and ethereal feel.

Second album Carry On corresponds nicely to his more straightforward alternative rock period with Audioslave, containing the hallmarks of a solid rock effort, albeit with Cornell’s unique ethos permeating it. His solo records really do not sound like anything else out there. One might be tempted to point to Jeff Buckley (to whom he dedicated “Wave Goodbye”, on his first, after his death) or possibly Nick Drake with his latest record but it’s difficult to categorise him.

Chris’ solo career has been solid if unspectacular and many would point, rightly so, to 2009’s Timbaland-produced Scream as his lowest point, yet even that record, for what it was, a pop record typical of the times (and typified by Timbaland, go-to producer of those dreadfully forlorn pop years) was not the disaster many claim it to be. The title track is as catchy a Cornell tune I’ve ever heard, and although the rest are lacking, they still feature his inimitable voice and are a different breed when played acoustically.

And then came 2015’s excellent Higher Truth, an acoustic treasure of an album, complete with all sorts of intricate arrangements, instruments (mandolin!) and tunings that proved a bedrock to earnest and heartfelt lyrics laid above soft fingerpicking and seamless chord changes.
As with many of his albums, you need a few listens to properly appreciate and pick up on the many hidden facets, the nooks and crannies and the secret snippets of genius scattered throughout but you’ll be rewarded with records quite unlike any others that would comfortably sit alongside many great songwriter albums.

The basis for his Higher Truth came from the acoustic tour that preceded it, and from this tour came the magnum opus that is Songbook. It’s a 2011 live album based on this tour and acts as a sort of intimate acoustic greatest hits collection, where the setting really allows his spirit and voice to shine through. With songs from his whole vast catalogue, from Soundgarden to Audioslave, through Temple of the Dog, along with solo cuts and topped off with two covers of which a fantastic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”, there’s neither a better epitaph nor a better initiation to the sweet and incredible talent that was Chris Cornell.

I was fortunate enough to catch his last performance in the U.K. at the majestic Royal Albert Hall in London where he only played SIX covers, from Prince to Michael Jackson, the Beatles to a mash up of U2 and Metallica.

He was an extremely well-loved figure in the music industry, amongst both peers and fans and he always come across as a genuine lovable character in documentaries such as Pearl Jam Twenty, Hype! for example. If Dave Grohl is considered the nicest guy in rock then Chris can’t be far behind, just peacefully biding his time in the corner. With all the poignant tributes pouring out for him, I just wanted to add my own to the long list and thank him for his perseverance and for having had such a positive impact and influence on my life.

I’d like to dedicate to him the very song he himself wrote for his late friend Andrew Wood.

Say hello to heaven for us Chris.

Broken Social Scene

It’s May 23rd, the day after a terrorist attack at Manchester Arena and you’re opening your tour in that very city, what do you?
Why not kick things off by bringing onstage, straight from the off, a born and bred legendary Manc in Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr? Yeah, that’ll do nicely.

Not sure anyone in the crowd could even have begun to suspect something like that from this sizable and ever-changing collective of Canadian musicians. But as the 9 members of Broken Social Scene waltzed onstage, they wasted no time at all in bringing him on for the surprise opener and big favourite “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old”.
I for one did not expect them to open with my favourite song but so sweetly beautiful was it with Emily Haines’ soft and syrupy voice repeating those cherished lines during the bridge that it felt like its own standalone introduction, a taster, a teaser, an presentation to the opener. With its hauntingly delicate and cosy melodies, it just bathed you in its velvety glow.
It was timeless.

                    Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me

Not quite the sort of song you’d associate with Johnny Marr but he did stay on for one more as various of the (semi) permanent members shuffled off stage or swapped instruments. So then they “properly” opened the show with another live favourite “Cause = Time” which upped the ante and got things rolling with all 6 men feeling their way into it, Marr singing along, all smiles, and by the end they were confidently rocking it out together as one, louder and louder as the song climaxed. There was still a certain element of shock at Johnny Marr’s mere presence but guitarist and crowd alike enjoyed it and vociferously acclaimed him after his short, welcome and inconceivable cameo.
He left the stage echoing frontman Kevin Drew’s – who looks like Eddie Vedder’s long lost brother – thanks and his urge to stick together for Manchester.

Then it was just the band. Just the 9 of them that is: like a chaotic yet cohesive indie rock version of Snarky Puppy I’d seen 3 weeks prior. They chose that opportune moment to play one of their newly released songs from upcoming album Hug of Thunder and delivered a powerful performance of “Halfway Home” that fit in seamlessly with the rest of their material and kept the wave of synthesis we were slowly cresting on the rise. A wave we fittingly crested and became one with on the next aptly-titled “7/4 (Shoreline)” which grew and burgeoned once more – and not nearly for the last time that night – into a wall of discernible sound that emanated good ecstatic energy and culminated in the two-man horn section sneaking up onstage for their indispensable part in the outro.

Relax and breathe and release the shackles. Everything felt better, felt alright.
They chose not to let up yet with a pulsating and wonderful “Texico Bitches” before switching singers for the next song. The one I’d been labelling “the old man in the band” took the vocal reins and started “Stars and Sons”. Turns out this sprightly grey-haired and high-kicking bassist of the previous songs was none other than founding member Brendan Canning whom I knew of only in name. I did him great disservice because he was the most lively member during the gig, enthusiastically animating the crowd and jumping around and cutting loose. And he played some great bass, although the brilliant bassline to “Stars and Sons” was played by another member of the band. Don’t ask me who.

It was time for a Feist-less “Hug of Thunder”, their beguiling second release from the new album, and Ariel Engle proved an able, cute and lovable deputy in her absence, even when fumbling a high note. But it was adorable and t’was not a night to hold grudges. As opposed to “Halfway Home”, they hadn’t quite nailed it down yet but they grew into it somewhat and have a whole tour left to find its perfect little niche in the set. Not that the lovely crowd seemed put off by anything anyways but they followed that up with the hugely popular “Lover’s Spit” dedicated to the lovers out there and wonderfully capped with a heartfelt and pleading rant of advice to keep those “things” – *mimics handheld appliances* – away from us, especially from the bedroom where we don’t need 756 likes, and to find love and comfort in human touch and togetherness, be it in just a single person, or two, or even yourself. On a bed of lovely music, a speech from the heart to make your soul ache with agreement and guilt.

Kevin Drew cut a charmingly friendly figure on stage, engaging the audience pleasantly, casually and simply, intervening with mid-song banter or chatting away before the next one, he was a great watch throughout and an admirable frontman. The gig served as a cathartic reminder of the power of music to join people together, transcending the physical barrier between artist, audience and outside world as he inspired us into a soul-purging and cleansing outpouring of any and all emotions by screaming as loudly and as long as we could on the count of 3 as the noise level flourished to a new high.
He steadily got rid of all of the tension, theirs and ours during a special evening, joking around during the next song “Fire Eye’d Boy” sung by guitarist Andrew Whiteman, exclaiming he’d changed a lyric around and the chemistry in the band was clear to see as they all harmoniously jammed off each other, exchanging smiles and pleasantries along the way. It really is a great and comforting sight to see a band so at ease with each other’s presence.

They then performed two new and never-heard-before songs in “Protest Song” with Emily Haines with a great self-conscious and self-deprecating chorus about the long line of protest songs. One of the highlights of the night then ensued as new song “Stay Happy”, sang by Ariel, drifted into noise and jam land and then blended into “Sweetest Kill” for a while as Canning and Ariel traded different song lyrics and twisted and turned the tune into a beautiful cacophony of controlled music. It was a marvellous concoction of new and old, drawn-out instrumentals with repeated and climactic vocals soaring to elation.

They rounded off the night with another new song called “Skyline” and a vibrant “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” enthusiastically roared on by the gleeful crowd to whom Kevin admiringly gave his sincere thanks for making it out and standing together with them on that special day before they slipped offstage. But within a heartbeat, Kevin was back with an acoustic guitar and invited Emily on for a stripped down, tender and graceful rendition of “Backyards” with Emily’s somehow husky-soft chorus so evocative and soothing. Band members then steadily came back onstage, one by one, to add their voices to the outro’s amplifying lines before hushing it down completely until the only sound resonating through the airy space of the magnificent Albert Hall was the sound of a few hundred enchanted souls singing together, in unison, as one.

                                              It’s a heart parade, just be courageous

A fitting end indeed but also pleasantly not the case as they came back on one final time for their customary closer “KC Accidental”, to the immense delight of the hall, and its stop/start rhythm did nothing to lessen the audience’s emotion as we jumped and bounced around all the way to the loud, thrilling and joyous end, satisfied smiles on the faces of every single person, band and crowd, as we all took our time to leave by savouring the special moment.

There’s something so purely heart-warming and jubilant about watching this group of people play, proving that Broken Social Scene are anything but what their names implies.

(Albert Hall, 23rd of May, Manchester, U.K.)

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan can do what he wants.

That’s was my prevailing thought leading up to the gig. If he doesn’t want to play guitar anymore, OK. Only piano? Alright. Change the keys or vocal arrangements to every song? OK. Record five albums worth of American songbook covers? Yeah ok. Ban taking pictures and videos at his gig? Be my guest. Not utter a single non-lyrical word during the entire performance?  Fine by me.
But this is not to be a debate about a performer’s role on stage, what he should and shouldn’t do, but rather a retelling of the wonderful performance the lucky Merseyside crowd were privy to by none other than one of the world’s last living legends of modern music: still at the top of his game, albeit on a different peak.

If Bob had wanted to play a whole set of acapella Kate Bush covers with his back to the audience whilst sipping margueritas, I’d have been more than happy to sit back and enjoy the show. Because why the bloody hell not. If anyone’s earnt the right, he has.

On the cusp of his 76th birthday, as the guitarist in his excellent backing band strummed some western cowboy-like introductory chords, Bob took to the Liverpool Echo Arena stage right on cue, bedecked in suave suit and white fedora hat, surprisingly small – but sprightly – even from 200 yards away. As the guitarist switched tunes with nary a second’s break, Bob went straight to the piano and with barely a moment’s adjustment or hesitation launched straight into the appropriately-titled “Things Have Changed”. Whether deliberate warning or blunt statement, there’s no denying the implication of the title line “I used to care, but things have changed”. Although the latter part of the chorus is undoubtedly true, the first part could be debated considering the Newport Festival, Dylan going electric and just his general attitude overs the years and once more my mind harkened back to that ever-pervading thought: “Bob Dylan can do what he wants”. More than this though, it felt like he was giving us some advice to do likewise and not expect the young guitar-toting, politically-driven Dylan of yesteryear and, in a way, just “not care” and come to terms with the facts that things have indeed changed and we should accept this new present-day version: both the old school sultry crooner or the awe-inducing grizzled-voice relic.

If this concert is anything to go by though then this Bob Dylan is far from done and testament to this was the fast-paced rolling rhythm of most of his own songs and his quick-fire invigorated singing, from the opener all the way to the beguiling closer. The soft cover songs from his latest releases acted as tranquil counterpoints to his own upbeat songs by slowing the rhythm down and letting his voice shine out more melancholically. But just as soon again he’d be fidgeting, stooping over the piano during one song, then sitting at it for the next one and before you know it, strutting his way over centre stage to grasp the mic stand and lull us all again with his deep and raspy yet sometimes clear voice.

From a strummed, rich and fuller “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” complete with more instruments and more experience, sounding more like a wise elder than a young troubadour, Dylan slips into a bubbling and shuffling “Highway 61 Revisited” that rocked and rolled like the tough ole rocker still lurking beneath Dylan’s skin. Most of his songs carried on in the same vein of newfound grit and roughness that seeps from his voice with its deep seasoned resonance into the very bowels of the song and its lyrics. This vocal weight and the pulsing rhythm infused and darkened many of his songs, rendering the already sombre ones all the more enticingly sinister, like 2009’s “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” or “Pay in Blood” and “Early Roman Kings” from his last album of original material Tempest.

Another aptly-titled song was the first cover of the night, “Why Try to Change me Now” by Cy Coleman and brought an automatic, unexpected and uncontrollable smile to my face as soon as its first calm notes reverberated around the venue. The perfect contrast to his originals with their soothing melodies, a slick and mellow “Melancholy Mood” (Frank Sinatra) followed shortly after and seemed crafted specifically for his time-worn voice.

The songs off Tempest felt somewhat more bouncy and alive, perhaps due to their recentness, and Dylan breezed through the cheerful “Duquesne Whistle” as easily and contrastingly as he’d sneered through the ominous “Pay in Blood”, switching the lyrics to offer us timely reminders such as “life is short and it don’t last long” or “my conscious is clear, what about you?”, with the song just casually nestled between the two previously mentioned covers, adding to setlist’s careening lilt.
After Harold Arlen’s mournful “Stormy Weather” with its chill and foreboding guitar intro, Bob sped things up with a jangly and playful “Tangled up in Blue” to the delight of the crowd and then stood up at the piano for a bluesy “Early Roman Kings” that deftly showcased the backing band’s competence. “I ain’t dead yet” he sings after howling and drawing out the previous lines like some apocalyptic soothsayer. Definitely still not done.
A creamy “Spirit on the Water” with the fitting last lines of “you think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime, let me see what you got, we can have a whopping good time” was punctuated with the most relaxing of musical breaks and then followed up with a simmering and poignant “Love Sick”.

Another Sinatra cover in “All or Nothing At All” was followed with a rapturously-received “Desolation Row” before a chirpy “Soon After Midnight” capped off this harmonious triplicate, and hardly a heartbeat later I was clicking my fingers along to the sprightly bass and twinkling cymbals of Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”: one of the most smoothly upbeat moments of the gig with such a shifting and danceable jazz sound. Still toying with us and taking us places, they launched straight into a yearning “Long and Wasted Years” with its delicate swaying melody bringing another beaming and pleasant smile to my tired face. Once more Bob sounded vigorous and teeming with life on the more recent songs and properly rocked me to blissful dreamland with Yves Montand’s “Autumn Leaves” which was particularly and perfectly suited to his voice with its dark undertones. After a tiring day bathing in the Merseyside sun, I even allowed myself the luxurious pleasure of closing my eyes and slipping into slumber for a few heartbeats. Is there anything as sweet and surreal as being serenaded and crooned to by Bob Dylan?

Dylan’s typically unusual singing style and reinterpretation of his songs makes you wait with bated breath for that moment of recognition as a song kicks off and that proved to be the case as the band came back onstage with the sweet sound of a violin introducing the unrecognisable “Blowin’ in the Wind”.  The questioning nature of the original replaced with underlying tones of learned wisdom, as if Dylan knew all the answers and we were but pupils in his vast and insightful classroom, walking down a road he himself has trodden on for so long all the way to its very end wherein lies a secret only he has discovered.

Bob’s nonchalant effortlessness, chopping and changing songs seemingly at whim, cutting out verses, changing the lyrics, singing them differently, seemingly out of key and rhythm are a staple of what makes him so unique. And from my vantage point 200 yards or so away, with the absence of screens to properly lay my eyes on him and visualise this musical legend, this carefree and extraordinary musical aura only added to the timeless sensation I felt. Unable to make out any of his features as he strutted around the stage, I was only privy to a black-suited silhouette in the distance topped with white fedora hat who croaked and crooned his whispery, booming or languid voice around the respectful watchers. Uttering not the merest word of greeting to his audience, he remained a ghostly, mystical and intangible figure throughout, leaving me with this feeling of singular timelessness and luck at being able to enjoy such a personal performance.

I managed to gain some metres and close the distance as I left my seat to try and get a closer look at this legendary persona, diminutive in size but towering in presence. But even a mere 50 yards away as I lolled my head to gloomy and sombre highlight and closer “The Ballad of a Thin Man”, all I was able to glean was a mop of fuzzy grey hair as he took his hat off to bow with his excellent backing band and show his appreciation to the equally appreciative and respectful audience. And then he was off, disappearing as swiftly as he’d appeared, beguiling us and leaving me wondering if it had all been a crazy dream.

(Echo Arena, 8th of May 2017, Liverpool, U.K.)

Snarky Puppy

You’d be forgiven for wondering who the bandleader was when 9 regular looking chaps walked onstage at the O2 Apollo last Thursday. Only 3 saxophonists, 2 drummers, 2 keyboardists, a bassist, and a guitarist – without counting the number of instruments each of them switched between… I had to ask which one the phenomenally-named Michael League was to my mate who indicated the bassist as he opened the set off with the twirling bassline to “GØ”.

I was soon extremely glad I’d ditched the comfy looking balcony seats I’d had planned on sitting on to stand on the floor with my friends. “I’ll just peacefully enjoy and admire the professionalism and skilful, pinpoint execution on show from my elevated height” I had naively thought upon buying the tickets. Although possible and no doubt thoroughly enjoyable, I’d have been a fool and missed out on the intrinsic hip-shaking, finger-clicking urge that comes with the propagation of their brand of modern jazz.

As the title implies, “GØ” got the ball rolling as both the audience and band members eased and felt their way into it, until saxophonist Chris Bullock took it upon himself for the first solo and from then on, the tone was set. From sax to minimoog to guitar, the solos never stopped, each and every one to huge acclaim from the buoyant crowd, with the songs swaying one way and the other under the calm leadership of Michael League, who seemed content to take a back seat to proceedings, leaving the spotlight to the other members and their instruments as they swirled in and out of the songs.
That did lead to every small moment of magic from Michael’s bass being greeted with an even bigger roar of approval.

They followed the opener with two further songs from their latest effort, 2016’s Australian-pronounced Culcha Vulcha, starting off with setlist oddity – if such a band can be considered to have “oddities” in their catalogue – “Beep Box”, a slow and quiet jam morphing into slow but bouncy when the first synth line suddenly ghosts in out of nowhere and the bass bounds around with its descending line, all of it topped off with a flugelhorn (“a what?” I know..) solo outro. A quite surreal and otherwordly tune that only further showcased their eclecticism, if any doubts still lingered…
And then it was back to familiar territory and regular groovy business with “Grown Folks” with snazzy bass and guitar riffs to uphold another uncannily familiar horn riff.

For some reason, Michael felt the need to calm things down a notch for a moment by switching to some older songs that guitarist Chris McQueen got going with some beautiful arpeggios until the trumpets eased themselves in effortlessly to the tune. And when the conga came in, the “Flood” was well and truly on its way, with Bob Reynolds throwing out a surging tenor solo culminating in a booming cascade of tight drumrolls over a backdrop of looping piano and shimmering horns. If only for their length and diversity I’ll spare you the details and shan’t go into every solo that was performed but by the end, it was safe to say “Flood” hadn’t calmed things down even a smidgeon.

“Tarova” kept things going with a percussive intro grooving into a sexy late-night sounding soundtrack to some parallel bygone era of an intense and modern roaring twenties, complete with a mean ole dirty tenor solo by Bullock. A velvety “Gemini” then began with a soft but pounding bassline intro coupled with easy and effortless guitar and piano, calming things down to a serene calmness. A few backing vocals kept the mood flowing as the song bubbled its way along with the silky backdrop a welcome change in mood as Minimoog and Rhodes solos acted as the calm before the storm that was to come.

That storm was “Tio Macaco”.
Percussionist Marcelo Woloski started jamming hard on a pandeiro (“a what?”): how such a small-looking instrument can be made to sound so strong and powerful I’ll never know but Marcelo worked it like a charm during the intro (and afterwards!) until the horns kicked in, sounding once more like a song you’ve always known but never actually heard before. More wonderful solos ensued from the ever-reliable horn section and other instrumentalists but the highlight came towards the end with a double percussion solo-cum-battle between both drummers.

If I was already fixated on drummer Larnell Lewis before this – we had trouble deciding who our favourites were (it’s not a competition though is it?) – it did nothing to lessen my admiration of him or both of them as they swung one way or the other mimicking the other’s drumrolls, calling and responding or just ripping it up in tandem. It was a fantastic end to a great tune and a treat to watch them sweating it out!

Michael League got “Big Ugly” started with his rolling bass line and it settled into the now-familiar pattern of building a head of steam and then slowing things down before the big climaxing crescendo when the synth kicks in first, then the horns and finally Chris McQueen, letting it rip for one of the most euphoric and majestic solos of the night. I had a new favourite.

And then they unleashed the “hits” – if you can call them such from a band like Snarky Puppy – or fan-favourites from their “breakthrough” album We Like it Here starting with “Lingus”, stretching to 14 minutes and feeling fuelled on adrenaline and sweaty good vibes. The song incited the first handclaps to the song’s undeniably uplifting and catchy melodic vibes before Michael slowed it all down to introduce the band to unanimous applause – special cheers reserved for drummer Larnell Lewis and respected England-based keyboardist Bill Laurance who fronts his own similar iteration of the band with frontman Michael League. Having had the temerity to ask for some more Bill, we were duly treated to an insane and sublime prolonged solo from him as the song rose and crescendoed – or descended? – into madness  with the percussion following suit and providing manic backbone to it all . As “Lingus” resumed its “regular” course, Bill switched to the Rhodes piano for the outro, for some ethereal and intangible but truly funky vibes as the song kept climaxing to its bittersweet end.

Coming across as a genuine Michael League popped back onstage alone for the encore to give a humble little speech about the importance of supporting live acts by encouraging to stay open minded support for smaller bands by buying their music and going to watch them perform instead of streaming their music which he bemoaned doesn’t cater to these smaller. “There’s a big difference between listening to music and supporting music”.

And then the first clear guitar notes of “Shofukan” rang out for their closing song. The Oriental-sounding horns quickly came into the fray, laying themselves over with their distinctive Eastern (yet Snarky Puppyish) sound. Justin Stanton treats us to a subtle and restrained solo, at times threatening to burst out but keeping it beautifully controlled. And come the song’s closing horn leitmotif, the last two minutes – and even when they’d left – of the song were heartily sung by the five thousand or so ardent fans in the venue, giving the audience the feeling of having been able to participate in the complex and jazzy Snarky Puppy recipe for good times.

(O2 Apollo, 5th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)