Monday, June 26, 2017

Lessons from Death Row

“The most precious thing you have is what you cannot hold in your hand” is a paraphrase of something Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara) wrote about the power of mind over circumstance. Philosopher, poet and resident of Death Row, San Quentin, Steve is one of the contributors to an exhibition of art and words at Sun Pier House in Chatham, Kent. In fact all the contributors are awaiting execution at the infamous Californian state prison.

I went along because my partner is curating an art and text online project on the subject of death and related matters. These guys though are trying to transcend the apparent horror of solitary confinement under a regime where every day could be your last – and many of them have been living this life for 20 plus years. Through art, poetry and philosophical observation they are finding calm, meaning, even redemption, to use one of Steve’s words about a fellow ex-Cripps gang member whose life was terminated ten years ago.

Some have found that an overt spiritual relationship with Christ has helped them come to terms with their daily struggle. Others, like Steve, have a looser, philosophical connection with Christianity, seeing themselves as on a journey of personal transformation that the emotional denial of their life on the outside made impossible but that solitary confinement makes necessary. This doesn’t mean that he thinks we need to junk all our past experiences. The things that cause us shame are part of who we are and we would not be the person we are without them. This resonated with me. It wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t feel that to have murdered someone is wrong – self-evidently part of his redemption was very much about accepting that. It does mean that if we have been wronged, been a victim, as many who go on to wrong others are, then this will have shaped us. For the most part the impact may be negative, perhaps, but we may also have found what he calls an inner light to illuminate our darkness (see below). I was moved by this, even if the light sometimes shines less than brightly. A wisdom engendered as a survival mechanism perhaps, but not less wise for that. 

Some haven’t lost their sense of humour either. Gallows humour abounds in the available San Quentin cookbook, subtitled “Your Last Meal?”, the result of how inmates dreamt up ideas to “re-cook” or “re-present” the appalling food they are served up.

Some of the art seems to reflect the past lives of some of the inmates, voluptuous female figures are a repeated image. In part this is inevitable among isolated men, but there seemed to be more going on than that. 
Luis Maciel's artwork

Some of the art is highly skilled, like Keith Loker’s incredibly precise use of the stippling technique (millions of pencil dots) to evoke an American dream car. Another of his drawings, ‘A Mother’s Thoughts’, had the accomplishment of a professional illustrator. Perhaps he is the boy, depicted in the mind of this elderly looking woman, running on a beach. Another part of the depiction is a grave, her own maybe, or most likely his. Another Death Row inhabitant, Jerry Frye, wrote of his pride that his paintings were seen by his parents before they died. He presumably wasn’t.

A painting by Anthony Oliver
I recommend seeing this show. If you can’t, then check out the website set up by the charity ArtReach, which was founded by the artist Nicola White to promote the work of the inmates. It’s a beautiful space, Sun Pier House. The work and wisdom of these men is glimpsed either side of large windows affording views of swans swimming amidst the old dockyards. 

Sun Pier House cafe
Perhaps it’s fitting that the artists in residence on Death Row, San Quentin haven’t yet made it to the community centre’s official gallery, currently showing impressionistic slices of nature by Medway artists. The inmates’ work is positioned on walls next to dining tables and behind seating in the café. This is in keeping with self-taught artists whose work is from the heart, but it also sometimes made it difficult to fully appreciate the work amidst the mundane chatter of locals enjoying tuna sandwiches. This was also a very English problem of public displays of emotion (engendered by some of what you see and read), and wondering how others might judge you for it. 

In San Quentin, wrote Steve Champion, you daren't question somebody's "phantom face" (see his typed text below) because prisoner code tells you not to compromise another inmate's emotional space. We, however, are free to do so, but perhaps we don't dare either.

Steve Champion

Monday, April 24, 2017

Searching for Kelvin Message

My "Searching for the Old Folk Rebels" project has its own blog page, kicking off with a profile of Kelvin Message, musician, guitar engineer and tutor.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Jesus & Mary Chain psych out Bexhill

The Jesus & Mary Chain played Bexhill more than three decades after they launched their career  by provoking a riot in a London squat. Last night the De La Warr Pavilion was taking no chances. The sedate Sussex town’s premier entertainment venue was awash with bulky bloke security operatives. Gauleiters confiscated plastic bottles from unsuspecting punters, unless, like me, they were armed with a fictitious “medical condition”.  Otherwise they were instructed to present a lottery ticket after the show in order to win back their offending pre-bought soft drinks or home-bottled tap water. You have to pay for water inside, one of the many walkie-talkied heavies informed me, as if the explanation made this particular practice of coercive capitalism any more acceptable, or legal given that bars and clubs are obliged to give customers tap water for free.  

Before the sonic escapades of the JMC, a privileged-sounding, floppy haired young rock god by the name of Willow Robinson bored everyone shitless with his stupefyingly soulless appropriation of Free and country rock clichés. For once I understood why most gig-goers stay in the bar for the support act. Willow was accompanied by a Silent Bob-lookalike on bass, replete with sun-glasses and idiot hat, while an extra from the gym thumped the drums. I like the JMC, but if they signed-off on this public school, poodle-haired, ponce and his cod-rock posturing, not to mention a goon squad more suited to a UKIP rally, then they, and the DLWP, deserve a slap.

Jim and William Reid did their thing, backed by three other musicians and occasionally a female singer. Jim was typically, I guess, hard to see amidst a lighting arrangement suited to mystique and mind-bending. 

Their performance was at times as rocky as they actually became in the 1990s, but at others it almost reached the psych-goth transcendence of their early work. By definition this included excellent takes on ‘Some Candy Talking’ and ‘Just Like Honey’. In their second set – JMC don’t do encores – they totally kicked out the jams and took both new and old material to another level. They closed with what Jim said was a new song. Initially fairly normal by JMC standards, half-way through though they suddenly dropped down a few gears and the song morphed into a warped, feedback-heavy, slow-mo wig-out that decreased my heart rate by half. Amidst often intense red light and, I think, unintended, shadow projections (see pictures), the JMC had taken this punter on a trip, aided only by a plastic cup of Guinness.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Circle of Trust - Hastings Friendship Group’s second CD launched at Relax

“Will the Circle be Unbroken?” was the song of solidarity that folkies from another time and another place used to sing. This Hastings musical circle remains tight, thanks to the efforts of Councillors Trevor Webb and Nigel Sinden and many supporting performers. 

“The Circle of Trust” is the name of Hastings Friendship Group’s second CD. (The first, "One Hastings Many Voices", was released earlier this year, and was reviewed on this blog). Showcasing a lot of local talent, "The Circle of Trust" has just been released and is dedicated to Maria Grazia, a sadly departed singer and songwriter who performed at HFG events. The new CD is raising money for Sudanese charities under “The Circle of Trust” moniker. Maria gets a heartfelt tribute at the close of the CD: “Goodnight Maria” is one of the best things I have heard Paul Crimin do. It’s his own song too.

The launch event was at the excellent (if a little pricey) "Relax" restaurant and bar at Marine Parade, on St Leonard's seafront on Sunday October 23. Listening to the CD, and reflecting on the live performances of many of those featuring on the album, there are some whose star inevitably shines brighter than others. There are also those who came across much better at the launch gig than on the CD, and vice versa. The most important thing about the CD though, aside from the good cause and giving a different platform to local artists, is that all the performers are playing original material that was either written by, or for them.

The CD’s producer (and writer of several of its songs) Nelson King (who also produced the first HFG CD) closed the evening. (I had to make my excuses before Nelson hit the stage, sadly). He and Wendy White’s number, “Follow Me” is a good cut on the CD, well produced by Nelson, albeit ending abruptly. His entirely self-penned song, “I Don’t Believe a Thing,” is also a strong feature on the disc.

Preceding him was a young woman who is fairly new to HFG events, Georgia Faye Steele. Georgia played electric piano and belted, and I mean belted, out some classics. Note to the organisers: this woman can sing…loud. Turn down the PA (a bit), or get her on earlier to wake up the bar (and the neighbourhood).

Her own song “Something New Just For Now” came across much more authentically than covering the folk (and very male) song, “House of the Rising Sun” (best known by The Animals), or, even more bizarrely, singing the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. Georgia is probably going places though.

Nick Warren is no stranger to HFG gigs. Unfortunately for him he had the graveyard slot as the closing acts beckoned. Nick had to make it fairly snappy at the end and barely got time for a well- deserved round of applause. Nick sings his own songs (as far as I can tell) and plays acoustic guitar with feeling. “Riptide” especially stood out. “Be My Baby One More Time” is the self-penned song he plays on the CD.

Tania Pieri was accompanied by Juliette on electric piano and backing vocals. Juliette told me afterwards that she hadn’t performed in public for 30 years. This gig was one of Tania’s first too. They did an excellent gospel cover, and another number had some tantalising lyrics including one that went along the lines of “it’s a good day, put away the pills” (unless my hearing problem is worse than I realise).

Tania’s own composition “Fire and Light” come across well live. On the CD Tania’s strength, like some other HFG performers, doesn’t register in the same way. However, live on a Sunday afternoon at Relax she and Juliette were probably the best act.

Katie Wren is just 16. She performed confidently and her own song, “Fairy Tales”, comes over well on CD too. (She also covered Train’s “Hey Soul Sister”, which has a riff that to my ears sounds a lot like Tracey Chapman’s song “Fast Car”.

It was a shame that Craig Devlin wasn’t there on the Sunday. His “Carry You Home” opens the CD and is one of its strongest cuts. Trevor told me before I had had a chance to check the CD out that Craig is the most authentically rock artist HFG currently have on their roster. He has an earthy, lived in voice to be sure. Yet another HFG person who either is or should be destined for greater things.
Mike Guy’s “Little Town Blues” is sadly under-produced on the CD, or just recorded at a lower volume than the rest of the tracks. It’s a shame because it grows on you, well it has on me. I had originally taken the lyrics for a non-ironic channeling of John Major appropriating George Orwell’s famous misty-eyed vision of England. "Little Town Blues" is in fact based on the lyrics of the "Dorset Gypsy Poet", Raymond A Wills. The clever and evocative lyrics work well with Mike's gently affecting tune. Mike also sung "Mr Bobby" by Manu Chao (a Bob Marley tribute) and his own, localised, take on Route 66, "A259".

Dave Williams’ “Dare I Believe” CD contribution is both professionally performed and produced. Live, Dave (see pic below) has matured as a performer. No longer, on this showing at least, tackling the rock behemoths. Aside from the above song given to him by Payen Bingley, he covered lower key numbers that suited his range and style.

Pete Williams (no relative, see pic below) performed a blinding version of the Nelson King song "The River". This was great live and is equally great on CD. No small feat. It has that feel of an old folk/acoustic rock classic, as if it was a huge hit back in the day. Pete teamed up with his old musical sparring partner in Harry's Brother, Steve Avery, for a version of "The Weight" that (for me) was the best performance of the night. It was also the third best version of the song that I have ever heard (after The Band and the Staple Singers, naturally).

Sadly, Tom Cole was finishing his self-penned, and very catchy, CD contribution, “Long Way Home”, when I arrived. His voice is sounding more mid-Atlantic these days (as almost every English singer invariably does).

Tom Cole with Flashboy in the foreground (and Trevor and Nigel in the background)
John Busbridge’s “Summer of 67” is certainly a whole lot better than the better known “Summer of 69”, and evokes that fabled time nicely. After the first summer we had Devaluation and, during the second, British troops went into Northern Ireland. “Sgt Pepper” versus “The Ballad of John n’ Yoko”. False dichotomy I know, and I digress. John’s tune is reminiscent of Robin Sarstead's “Where Do You Go to My Lovely” fused with Dylan's “My Back Pages”. Musically appropriate I guess. He also covered "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan". I hadn't realised it was originally performed by Dr Hook. To my mind it shall forever be Marianne Faithful's song. "At the age of 37, she realised she would never drive through Paris, in an open car, with the warm wind in her hair.." Oh yes.

On the CD, Maman Jay performs a number under the “Kids from 7 Streets” title. The 7 Streets project was launched by Trevor to bring help to homeless children. The song has a moving intro by one of Maman Jay’s grandchilden. It was written and, unlike all the other tracks, was produced by Abye Abdullah. Trevor tells me that Abye, like Maman Jay, originates from one of the French Indian Ocean islands.

Exclusive to the CD, Indian Dave is no Indian but he does a nice line in ethereal flute playing. Jazzi B (Jasmine Bollen) makes a solid contribution with  “Life”, a song written by Nelson King. Dan Wahnon tells us of trying to make it up in the smoke ("Hard Road Home") in a surprising foray into new wave circa 1977 (with Dan Duke providing electric guitar accompaniment). Oksana Kirjuskina is an HFG regular. Her impressive larynx does a nice turn on “Your Smile”, a song familiar to HFG regulars.

A word for the performers who didn’t make it to the CD this time and who played early on at the gig. Flashboy, otherwise known as Andy Ives, had the difficult task of singing while Kevin Sloan held his Tablet aloft as a lyric sheet. Flashboy's numbers included a cover of "Wasteland" (which I think is the song originally performed by 10 Years).

Kevin then sung good covers of a couple of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, "Fortunate Son" and "Bad Moon Rising".

The Circle remains unbroken. Here’s to Trevor, Nigel and all the HFG crew. Buy the CD at Relax, Gecko’s and other reputable outlets.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Al Riach live and dangerous in Crowhurst

from October 2016 edition of "Crowhurst News", published in East Sussex, England
Click on image above to read a larger and, hopefully, more legible version of this reprint from what is a hard-copy only monthly publication produced in the village of Crowhurst, located near Battle, East Sussex, UK.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Labour leadership ballot: A victory for common sense

I have just mailed my Labour Leadership ballot. It was a tough decision to bring myself to vote for “none of the two sad saps whose old hard left and neo-right wing cabals, respectively, have done so much damage to the Party since the 2015 leadership election”. But it had to be done. It is only sad that a spoilt virtual ballot isn’t possible too, given that the greater majority of members have and will vote online.

I don’t like being an abstainer, but Militant-reborn (Momentum) versus Mr Smith’s cynical little “retail offer” of left-sounding bargains for the undiscerning shopper in the Labour leader market place is absolutely no choice at all. The UK isn’t a presidential system. The morons at Labour HQ who invited me to vote for “Labour’s candidate to be the next Prime Minister” should consider improving their knowledge of our hard-won democratic political system rather than taking courses in law, computer studies or perpetual revolution. Our last wholly inadequate Labour leader didn’t understand our political system either, and bequeathed us Labour (would-be) prime minister primaries. Consequently, votes to determine Labour’s parliamentary leader have been bought by a ragtag bunch of leftist discontents who’ve rarely sullied their hands with campaign material in a general or local election, let alone knocked on doors outside of red rosette donkey territory and tried to persuade a member of the working class of the joys of socialism and unrestricted immigration.

Four of the only six Labour prime ministers in British history - MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan - were elected by the votes of Labour MPs only. The other two were for the most part supported by the Parliamentary Party but either defined themselves against Labour (Blair) or were wholly incapable of talking to the country (Brown).

Once Jeremy has taken us to our worst general election defeat since 1918 and, please God, resigns, can we take the parliamentary leadership vote away from party members, registered supporters and affiliated members, and place it where it belongs? I mean with those who are Labour parliamentary representatives, and who know what it’s like to talk to voters and do not see parliament as merely a platform for mobilising the masses toward some imagined socialist nirvana. Then perhaps plausible Labour parliamentary leaders (and thus plausible British prime ministers) can throw their hat into the ring, such as Hilary Benn and …eh……Yvette Cooper…eh…

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Buckets of love from buckets of blood

Doug MacLeod is a preacher, a self-help therapist. He treats depression with CBT. Specifically his chosen behavioural remedy is the Blues. Not wallowing in it, but singing about it and hopefully therefore finding a way through it. Doug was abused as a young man. The Blues was his redemption it seems. He isn’t saying it’s easy, but when he sings he finds a way to lift himself beyond his problems and, between songs, advises his listeners as to how they might do the same, other than by the therapy of listening to him that is. 

A mature white American originally from St Louis, Doug has been living in Baton Rouge for many years. He has had at least a couple of his songs covered by some bigger names in the blues field and been regularly honoured himself, yet he remains fairly obscure beyond his musical fraternity. Accompanying himself on a Resonator acoustic guitar, he sings with conviction. 

One award winning number, the “Entitled Ones”, told the story of those who feel deserving of a better life than the rest of us, a song spawned by his own disillusion with an able-bodied friend who bought himself a blue disabled badge because he was too lazy to find a less convenient parking spot.

A less “correct” message was “Home Cooking” whose essential idea is that a man well-fed at home doesn’t go sniffing around for dinner elsewhere. Doug introduced it by admitting that this attitude doesn’t necessarily make for a good relationship but it sure as hell works as a blues song. He’s right. 

My particular favourite on the night was “Long Black Train”. He introduced it with a carefully worded homily about our relatively brief duration on this earth. When the ticket collector tells you this is your stop, he warned, it’s no good saying, “Well, I’d like to ride on a little longer.” So before you get to the end of the line, make sure your journey was worthwhile. The song itself was big on atmosphere, subtly working its charm on you. Like many songs he performed on the night I am sure his material repays more listening, which I intend to do via his latest CD, “Live in Europe”.

“The Devil’s Road” was one of several that gave a hint of the trouble he’s known. It told the story of a woman seeking redemption whose search for guidance from a priest takes on a dark turn. It was unclear in his musical telling of this story which of the two people the devil was supposed to be influencing, or whether desperation and unpredictability can take any of us into unwanted places. God and the Devil are always pretty close at hand in the blues world, a close cousin of Gospel in any case. 

Doug MacLeod live at Mrs Yarrington's Music Club - with thanks to the latter's Facebook page

It would be something to see him play this song in some of the “Buckets of Blood” that, as he explained, the hard-core, down-home blues joints are known as in the US. Mrs Yarrington’s Music Club, held monthly at the back of the Senlac Inn in Battle, is no bucket of blood, but, appropriately perhaps, the pub room has doubled as a temporary Methodist Meeting House, and the evening we were there was almost as hot and humid as a Mississippi summer night.

Toward the end of the gig, Doug told us that we may have a hole in our bucket that our experiences growing up have given us, but despite this those who care about us do their best to keep our buckets filled with love. Remember this, he said. Amen to that.