Thursday, 18 March 2010

Every Gig I've Ever Seen #56 Big Star

Big Star The Grand, Clapham, London, August 1993

(I wrote this before Chilton's sad death, 2010. RIP)

Alex Chilton had been a teenage star in the 60s with the Box Tops. Big Star followed who were the ultimate cult band. They never played Europe and hardly played in the US. Bad management, bad drugs, bad luck. Ahead of their time. I’d seen him solo in Berkeley and had since bought all 3 Big Star albums and knew them inside out. 

And suddenly he announced a tour with the original drummer and back up from the Posies. Unbelievable! And it was just down the road from where I was living.

Large group of us went. They concentrated on the first two poppier albums, not the bleak third. Have you ever heard “Holocaust”? Music for the end of the World. Alex had a big semi-acoustic and made it look easy. He’s not sold on the myth and even spent 2 years working in a New Orleans kitchen. He didn’t care. But he played the songs as if they were fresh. Chiming riffs and licks. “September Gurls” was magic. “Back of a Car”, “Baby Beside Me”, “Way Out West”, “I’m in Love with a Girl”, “You Get What You Deserve”. Song after song, all of them bigger and better live. The crowd were screaming approval and Alex seemed to enjoy it, though he commented that he couldn’t believe we wanted to hear this “old shit”. He came back for one last encore 10 minutes after the house lights went up and the venue was half full. Michael Jackson had just been done for kiddy-fiddling (the first time) and he dedicated “Thirteen” to him. One of my Top Ten gigs, easy.


Every Gig I've Ever Seen #55 Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton Berkeley Square, Berkeley, California, November 1985

I knew Alex Chilton had been the lead singer of The Boxtops and I knew one song, “The Letter” from my “Stardust” original movie soundtrack album. A great album by the way and is how I first heard Hendrix. KALX used to play “September Gurls” by his next band, Big Star, all the time. More recently he’d produced the first Cramps and Panther Burns albums, which I loved. He was indie underground Legend. Alan McGee, who set up Creation records and signed Oasis, apparently made all his signings listen to Big Star. They were like the Velvet Underground – no audience first time around, but became cult. At this stage, though, Big Star were a distant memory and Chilton had all but retired from music. So, a rare sighting of a Legend. Big Star reformed in the early 90s for a tour and finally got some kudos and dosh.

He was short, kinda straight looking and played great guitar. There was no ego or rock God posturing. Normal guy. He played “Slut” by Todd Rungren, loads of old soul and RnB covers, one about AIDS (“fuck me and die”), no “The Letter” but did do “September Gurls”, the opening riff getting a big cheer. All very casual and almost throw-away. He made it look easy. The only song I recognised, when I finally heard more Big Star, was a version of “Big, Black Car”. Totally Cool. Made you want to keep it to yourself but at the same time wanting more people to know about this great thing.

Alex died suddenly on St Patrick's Day, 2010 aged 59.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Every Gig I've Ever Seen #54 John Cale

If you live long enough you’ll see most things. I’ve seen John Cale many times, including the Velvet Underground reformation in 1993. But, the whole of ‘1919”? With an orchestra? Dude, I’m there!

In Rock’s twilight years we’ve seen many classic albums played in their entirety: Pet Sounds; Funhouse; SF Sorrow. The songs still work and fans, old and new, get a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. “1919” is Cale’s most complete album – orchestral pop with a weary strain of melancholia. The songs are loosely based around the theme of life after The Great War and Treaty of Versailles. Cale gave the Velvets their avant-garde edge and has always been about more than just 3 chords.

Officially Cale’s 67, though some say he’s 72. Whichever way, he has presence. With a capital P. He makes his entrance with an ‘Hello London, nice to see you”, casual suit, shirt out, hair dyed rust-and-blonde. El Hombre cool. And we’re off, straight into ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales”.

Strings, horns, drums and guitar all blend beautifully. Cale’s rich baritone cuts through it all. I’m Fan Boy and could happily listen to him singing it all a cappella. Mind you, I get teary when I hear Welsh rugby fans singing their national anthem. There’s something about the Welsh heart…

Meanwhile, back in the jungle. “Hanky Panky Nohow” was gorgeous. “The Endless Plain of Fortune” cello-tastic with horns that made hairs stand. “Paris 1919” tailor made for the event. “Andalucia” aching. “Graham Green” jaunty. “Half Past France” made my eyes prickle. The songs, familiar to me over decades, were reborn. The ballast of the orchestra gave them a full, warm, analogue glow.  “Macbeth” romped us home. Ovation and a visibly touched Cale patted his heart.

I could have gone home happy then but, seeing as the original album was only 30 minutes long, there was more to come. The orchestra went off, leaving Cale with the band. “Amsterdam” from his first album was a complete surprise and special treat. “Femme Fatale” was radically reworked and tipped a nod to his history. “Heartbreak Hotel” was the usual demented tale of woe. “Fear” is still scary whilst making you laugh. The band are great. Axe work that flowed, every note fitting. The drummer man – a joy to watch; loose but nailing it.

The orchestra return for “Do Not Go Gentle” which builds and builds. Dylan Thomas set to orchestra with pounding piano clusters. “Hedda Gabler” is another obscure cut, which swells and unfurls beyond its original vinyl recording. It’s big. Things end with an even older curiosity; ‘Dirty Ass Rock n Roll”. Not an obvious choice but a jolly way to wind things up.

I was there. Tidy. “Music For a New Society” next, perhaps?