Yesterday I went to see the first of Linda Thompson's three-night series of music-hall revue shows, which cited the Cole Porter quote, "strange how potent cheap music is".
Not just potent, but — at least in some cases — much more persistent than the disposable, ephemeral stuff it was thought to be. This comes at the end of a twelve day period in which I've seen concerts by Ornette Coleman (75 years old), Mose Allison (77), and Van der Graaf Generator (a group of late-50-somethings, playing together for the first time in 28 years). Had I the inclination, I could have fitted in Little Richard (72), who also played in London last week.
Much of this chimes with my earlier essay on Musical Youth and Middle-age Spread, which looked at demographic, technological and cultural shifts in the audience for popular music and the maturing of the pop canon. With that in mind, here are some brief review comments on the recent gigs I've seen.
Linda Thompson's revival of variety songs from the turn of the last-but-one century is bound to draw comparisons with her ex-husband Richard's 1,000 years of Popular Music project, which presented 23 songs from across the second millennium. If anything the "strange how potent" evening was a bit too reverent to its variety show sources: at times it felt more like a conservatory than a music hall.
Highlights for me were Justin Bond's versions of Irving Berlin's You'd Be Surprised and a song from Sophie Tucker's repertoire — as the Kiki in Kiki and Herb, (s)he knows how to do bawdy and certainly broke free of the conservatory — plus Martha Wainwright's performance of Parlez-moi d'Amour, which sounded like she'd been singing it all her life.
As an innovator well past normal retirement age, Ornette Coleman has accomplished the increasingly common transition from being in the vanguard of the revolution to being a cornerstone of the canon. I am not a serious enough jazz-head to pretend that I understand more than a third of where Ornette is coming from. I just go to his gigs hoping that a bit more will rub off on me each time.
I thought that, in Ornette terms, the gig sounded like a consolidation rather than a new twist in his legacy. So I was surprised to read Phil Johnson's review of the previous night's gig in the Independent on Sunday (I can't find this online) proclaiming that "it became apparent that this wasn't any old Ornette Coleman gig, but a something really special — historic even". Keith Shadwick, also in the Independent, agreed it was a special event, but more conservatively reviewed the gig as "a masterclass in jazz history".
As a sidenote, Andy Sheppard and Kuljit Bhamra played a support slot at the Barbica gig, and provided what I found the most beautiful and affecting music of my last fortnight.
Fifty years ago Mose Allison melded the Mississippi blues with elements of jazz piano and a hint of some early twentieth century classical composers. And he's kept doing it since then, going in and out of favour. In the UK, Lonnie Donnegan followed a parallel path, sticking to his own jazz and blues recipe for over forty years until his recent death (and both men have seen Van Morrison lend his support to reviving interest in their work).
The Mose Allison repertoire includes a roughly equal mix of his originals — characterised by what you might call a 'light blues' miserablist humour, which Billy Jenkins has recently appropriated — and blues 'standards'. The latter included two or three Willie Dixon songs, though nothing so boisterous as I Just Want to Make Love to You. Here's John Fordham's review of Mose's last residency at the Pizza Express.
Van der Graaf Generator's new album sticks very closely to the template they first defined over thirty years ago, and their performance of old and new songs came across as meticulously accurate. Taking advantage of new sound technology not available when they last performed a full gig together, plus the decent acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, it's likely that the original VdGG never sounded as good as they did last Friday.
I was struggling during the concert, having burnt the candle at both ends. Staying up late for election night and rising early to get to Brighton for the Remix: Culture event, I tried to ward off the effects of only two and a half hours' sleep with a can of Red Bull. Possibly because my body isn't used to caffeine or lots of sugar, and possibly because it didn't sit well on top of a pint of London Pride and a Thai curry, I was wracked by bowel cramps for the first hour of the concert. As the caffeine cocktail wore off, I lapsed repeatedly into short spells of dozing and lucid dreaming. It was annoying at the time, but in retrospect an uneasy bowel and a liminal state of consciousness seem entirely appropriate to the authentic VdGG experience.
I digress. I don't think I've ever seen as many standing ovations as there were at this gig — though judging from the voices and accents I heard on the way out, this may not be just down to the fanatics' delight at seeing their band together again, but also the result of a significant audience presence from Continental Europe who were, well, less English than the rest of us. For obvious reasons, I wasn't one of the standers. Though I have a clutch of VdGG albums, Still Life is the only one I ever really took to, and that was a long time ago. I could tell through the fog of sleep deprivation and tummy trouble that the band were on song, but I'll never be one to name a VdGG tune within the first two bars.
So there's four different approaches from the 'old hands' to personal and shared legacies of vernacular music — different ways of re-interpreting old material, or keeping it the same, with different attitudes to any notion of authenticity. I wrote before about what I called 'cultural entropy' and the fragmentation of what were once distinct pop and rock idioms. What these performances show is that, within the entropy, there are individuals telling stories that bind music together again — albeit beyond the rock and pop boundaries defined by Top of the Pops and the NME of recent decades.
As the birth of rock'n'roll recedes to more than two generations ago, it's rupturing effect on our musical becomes less pronounced, and more easily assimilated into longer-term developments that the elder practitioners of jazz, blues and folk help to articulate.Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Ideas and Essays, Reviews on 13 May 02005 | TrackBack