St George’s Senior Programme Producer Phil Johnson, tells us about some of the artists and shows he’s booked for the new season. Plus discover some of the artists he’d like to programme in the future and what’s currently on his playlist…
Nick Drake, Cello Song – a different, ‘lost’ version of this classic Nick Drake song provides the jumping-off point for our forthcoming show ‘Strange Face’, whose performer, Michael Burdett, found it on a tape he rescued from a skip at Island Records when he worked there as a young man in the 1970s….the show, which is very funny and very moving about all sorts of things, contains lots of obscure information about Drake, an artist who I rather overlooked for many years but now listen to probably every day. The 70th anniversary of his birth falls next year, and will form the excuse for a substantial celebration as part of St George’s re-opening programme after the completion of our new building. Joe Moran’s recent book on shyness, ’Shrinking Violets’, includes a chapter on Drake and other recessive folk-ish singers such as Vashti Bunyan and Anne Briggs.
John Martyn, Small Hours – when I saw ‘Strange Face’ at Ludlow last summer, before it went on to a become a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe, the ‘Doors’ music played before the performance was John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’, the song he reputedly wrote about Drake. Recently, I’ve been listening to a CD of Martyn’s BBC sessions, called ‘In Session’. It’s all good but there’s a final track called ‘Small Hours’, recorded for a John Peel show in 1978, which caught my attention because it features an early-model drum machine, and where Martyn sounds a little like Shuggie Otis, another of my favourites. The double bass player Danny Thompson, who played with both Nick Drake and John Martyn, and who appeared at St George’s not long ago with Ryley Walker, is another musician I hope to present as part of our re-opening season.
Arve Henriksen, glacier descent…..although his music is on the face of it very unlike that of Nick Drake, Arve Henriksen is another artist whose work I return to again and again, partly for a contemplative quality I find in it; to me, he’s one of the quintessential musicians of our age; someone who has absolutely created his own world of sound. He’ll be performing for us with the gorgeous voices of Trio Mediaeval, but this particular track from some time ago, is – as the title suggests – a peak experience, gloriously evocative of both the natural world and a certain kind of ecstatic altered state one can feel outdoors, in extreme cold.
June Tabor sings Lili Marlene. Quercus, who also appear this season, share that very English folk meets jazz quality that I treasure so much in Martyn and Nick Drake (whose ‘River Man’ has almost become a jazz standard, played by Brad Mehldau and sung by Andy Bey in a version that every one should have a chance to hear.) Although the piano of Huw Warren and the saxophone of Iain Ballamy are faultless in this setting, it’s the voice of June Tabor that makes Quercus so extraordinary, and almost anything by her commands interest, above all for the way she communicates the words. Her introductions are almost as important as the songs themselves.
Other things I’ve been listening to lately which don’t have a connection to what’s on at St George’s include a new, posthumously released album, ‘I Go Back Home’, by the great jazz singer Jimmy Scott, another favourite of mine. It’s one of those “with special guests” type-jobs, probably put together in a variety of locations, with the strings recorded in Prague I think. But it’s all pretty good and I’d recommend hearing two tracks in particular: the opening ‘Motherless Child’ and the very strange but loveable ‘Folks Who Live on the Hill’, which is actually sung by the actor Joe Pesci (of Good Fellas and Home Alone fame), who was a friend of Jimmy’s, and who here impersonates his singing voice very movingly, in a style that is almost more Scott than Scott.
I’ve also been playing lots of recordings on the Norwegian label Hubro, especially the latest album, ‘Chromola’, by the trio 1982. It was recorded in a church in Bergen and uses both of the pump organs from there, added to Hardanger fiddle or violin and drums, for a series of proggy improvisations which can be surprisingly groovy. Tracks on 1982 albums are always numbered rather than titled, and I’d especially recommend numbers one or two here.
The coming visit of The Handsome Family has offered me an opportunity to listen again to some of my favourite country music, and in truth I prefer the original, over-emotive and sentimental songs of genre stalwarts such as George Jones and Merle Haggard to the post-modern gloss on the form that the Handsomes specialise in. This song by George Jones, These Days I Barely Get By, may be beyond parody, but I know it by heart.
Mark Springer, the Potentino Concerto; Finally, a word of commendation for a show that will inevitably prove less popular than some of the bigger name artists. The pianist and composer Mark Springer was a founder member of one of the most legendary Bristol-connected bands, Rig & Panic. He writes ‘serious’ music now but unlike many new music-type composers, his work has real depth to it and a very winning, neo-classical regard for early modernist European composers such as Stravinsky. His coming filmic concert with the Lochrian Quartet will present music connected to the Tuscan landscapes of Castelo di Potentino in Tuscany. The music is sublime.
And let’s not forget the fantastic Omar, who appears with Courtney Pine on Friday 24 March, and the still fresh as a daisy sound of his big hit from 1991, ‘There’s Nothing Like This’: the perfect summer anthem and a look back to a really optimistic time in British jazz soul and R&B, which went to influence the Nu Classic Soul artists in the US like D’Angelo and Eryka Badu.
I remember seeing Omar at a showcase for the tragically short-lived English soul artist Lynden David Hall, held at a cheesy club in Leicester Square. When Omar entered, accompanied by his minder, it was like soul royalty coming through the door, and the boxer Lennox Lewis, high fived him in homage as he came in, which took some organising as Lewis is very very tall. A link to Lynden David Hall singing his own ‘Do Angels Cry’, a song about the transmigration of souls, follows Omar.