Mark Rogers of Masterton-based music promoters Up With People is one of the founders of the UK’s Loose Music – a label responsible for releases from the likes of The Handsome Family, Neko Case, M.Ward and Giant Sand. As well as promoting concerts in Wairarapa he continues to look after UK pr for the likes of the Handsomes, the Damaged Goods label and NZ’s Tiny Ruins, Flying Nun, Heart Attack Alley and French For Rabbits and is a regular contributor to radio and press on all things musical.
1 – Van Morrison,Common One: My mate Paddy Moffatt’s been dead for close on two years now. He took a headlong dive into the bottom of a glass and never surfaced. We first met in the early ’80s in north London when we were both making futile efforts at further education. Much to the dismay of our parents instead of the prescribed texts we instead studied album sleeves, reggae jams and the darker sides of that glorious city’s nightlife. When he moved back to Ireland after what can politely be described as a controversial incident I took a summer trip over the water to pay him a visit and we somehow ended up on the west coast in the county of Donegal for a weekend of bad behaviour. I’ll never forget Paddy parking the car on a hill overlooking the sea (“You can’t see it but America’s over there, so it is”, he said) digging out a supply of herbal remedies and pushing a tape of Van Morrison’s Common One into the player. As opening track Haunts Of Ancient Peace drifted out of those speakers I knew that the album would stay with me forever. Critics have written a million words about Astral Weeks but for me Common One is, well, the one. Everything about it whispers class…. the bass playing alone elevates it above just about everything else in his considerable cannon of work while Pee Wee Ellis’s horns just soar. It’s a mystic masterpiece of pastoral rhythm ‘n’ soul that drifts between Beale Street and the backstreet bars of Belfast and in all the years that have passed since that day on the west coast of Ireland I don’t think a week has gone by without it getting an airing. This week has been no different.
2 – Little Feat, Dixie Chicken: There’s a school of thought that believes any kid thinking of starting a band should be forced to listen to Little Feat before they’re allowed to put plectrum to string. Legend has it that when they opened for The Doobie Brothers in London back in the 1975 the crowd was still chanting their name half-way through the headliner’s set and if you check out You Tube for their performance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test (astonishingly recorded at 9.30 in the morning) you’ll get a rough idea why they were considered to be one of the very best live acts of their day. The reason? Well, to put it simply, when they get into the groove they swing like a ball and chain. Dixie Chicken is where it all comes together for the band and the late and forever great Lowell George. His songwriting, mellifluous vocals, a languid slide-style and the way in which he allows songs such as the title track and Fat Man In The Bathtub to just breathe are a lesson to all musicians and producers. It’s playing now – a weirdly cosmic mix of soul, funk, country-boogie and R’n'B – and I don’t really know what to do. Take five and relax? Get up and dance? The up-tempo numbers make you want to lay back and cruise through the day. The slow ones get you moving in the kind of illicit kick-back-fashion that certainly can’t be legal. It all sounds so effortless and is that rare thing in an album – utter perfection. Opening line “I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis and the Commodore Hotel” is rock’s equivalent of “Call Me Ishmael” and what follows is an absolute joy. Dixie Chicken and four of their other albums have been released as part of the Original Album Series which is on-sale for the cost of a couple of bottles of wine. It’s what’s commonly known as an absolute bargain.
3 – The Handsome Family, Through The Trees: Back in the 90s, somewhere in west London, me and Tom Bridgewater were haphazardly compiling what was soon to become Loose: New Sounds Of The Old West – one of the very first collections of so-called Americana/alt.country – when a tape came in the morning mail from UK music publishers Bug. It was a sampler featuring a few of their acts that they were hoping would make the final cut. As it played through we were still arguing over the possible inclusion of Whiskeytown’s Houses On The Hill (it didn’t get on – and we still argue about it to this day) when this crazy-assed Texan voice came booming out of the speakers singing the line “whenever I feel I’m on my way down I get up and move the furniture around”. It was country music for the Nirvana generation and I was hooked. Turned out to be the Handsome Family and a track from their album Milk & Scissors. Calls were made. They had a new album due. Did we want to release it? Er, yes please. Ok, there’s a copy on the way. The other day I was looking for something I’ve since forgotten about when I found the CDR of that then- new album that Rennie Sparks of the band sent over to us. It was called Through The Trees and is a record that genuinely changed my life. It never became the million-seller that I was convinced it would be (commercial sensibilities have never been my strong point) but it opened so many doors for both myself and the Handsomes. I hadn’t played it in a while but even after one spin I’m reminded of what a truly great writer Rennie is. No one comes even close these days to the lyrical imagery she conjures up on tracks such as Weightless Again and in a perfect and just world she’d be ranked up there with the likes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The note that’s tucked in alongside the CDR reads “Hi guys. Here’s the new album. Hope you don’t think it sucks. Love, Rennie“. I didn’t. I don’t. And I never will.
4 – Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams, Sad But True – The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, Volume 1: Some country duos are just natural fits…the Everlys, the Louvin Brothers, George and Tammy, Gram and Emmylou…thanks to some strange twist of fate their voices just fly together and in doing so make my world at least, a far better place. In the case of New Zealanders Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams their voices don’t exactly fly in the conventional sense but still somehow combine to produce a confluence of sounds that puts many more established acts to shame. Tales of murder, theft and devilish deeds link up with stories of love both lost and found where hearts get broken and heads get cracked and it may well be one of the best albums to be released this year – thanks in part to some extremely impressive songwriting but also to the kind of production job that could have come straight out of RCA’s legendary Studio B. They headed to Wairarapa recently for one of our Up With People shows. It was the closing night of their tour and we hooked them up with the local brass band for an onstage rendition of Hine E Hine that allowed Marlon’s voice in particular to absolutely shine. Tears were shed. He’s a Jeff Buckley or Mark Mulcahy in the making. Of that there’s no doubt. But when he combines with Delaney there’s a different kind of magic at work – the kind that only really happens when two very special voices meet. So, it’s true. New Zealand really has got talent. And there’s nothing sad about that.
5 – Aretha Franklin, The First Twelve Sides: Every few weeks or so I receive a press release proclaiming some such artist to be the new Queen Of Soul. I guess it’s not the singer’s fault rather that of a desperate press officer clutching at musical straws in an effort to talk up their latest hopeful in this business we call music. But it still gets me every time. There is only one Queen Of Soul and her name is Aretha Franklin. My dad had this album. It was tucked away in between the family staples of Don Williams (another great country voice), Simon & Garfunkel, a few hooky Top Of The Pops compilations and bizarrely John Lennon’s Sometime In New York City. Growing up I never paid much attention to it until in my very early teens I noticed that the producer was one John Hammond. This was the guy who’d ‘discovered’ Dylan. So it must be cool, right? On the turntable it goes. It was a true Eureka moment and I’ve never looked back. Since then my collection of Aretha’s output has long got way out of hand and yesterday I was playing a demo version of I Never Loved A Man which begins with Jerry Wexler encouraging Aretha and her band with the words “Hey. It’s started to get good in there” – which has the be the greatest understatement of all time but it got me thinking how it must have started to sound good the minute the red light went on in that studio six years previously with Hammond at the helm and she opened that gloriously provocative mouth of hers to sing Won’t Be Long – the opening track of this album. So back I went to The First Twelve Sides – an album I’ve been playing off-and-on for thirty-something years. It was 1961 and Aretha was eighteen when she made it. Long before she hit Memphis. Long before she met Jerry Wexler. Long before she sang for Obama. Eighteen. I still can’t believe it. Her label, Columbia Records, knew they had something special on their hands but like many record companies royally screwed it up as they unsuccessfully attempted to break her in to the jazz market and then the pop market. But Hammond knew what he was doing and by teaming her up with the Ray Bryant Trio to cover in her own regal style songs by the likes of the Gershwins and Curtis Lewis he helped kick-start the career of the greatest singer of all time. Long may she reign over us.