Sunday, 16 June 2013

Outsider Lounge Music - Captain Luke and Cool John Ferguson

Provenance: Saw an excellent documentary on the Music Maker Relief Foundation about the work they do helping musicians from the American South. From paying utilities bills to getting the performers back on stage, they do a lot of good work. They're nice people to boot - so go help them out!

Review: I first caught sight of the charismatic Captain Luke in the superb documentary Toot Blues, profiled as one of a group of musicians who have been assisted by the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Amidst a slew of great performances, a real stand out for me was the Captain's rendition of 'Rainy Night in Georgia'. The fact that this CD contained another Tony Joe White number, the immortal 'Polk Salad Annie', helped to swing my decision to make the purchase.

There is always a sense of trepidation when approaching an album such as this. What if it's terrible? Perhaps even worse, what if I'm only left with the traces and fragments of the artist's talent, hints at the man's former gifts peering through sporadically as a faded palimpsest? After all, Captain Luke was in his mid-seventies when this was recorded, a time when most people are well into their retirement. In addition, it seems especially cruel to criticise such a worthy endeavour - buying an album from the foundation isn't about generating royalties or exposure, but it could mean an extra bag of groceries for somebody who's fallen on hard times.

Thank goodness, then, that 'Outsider Lounge Music' not only comes up to snuff but exceeds all expectations. From front to back this album is an utter joy. The foundations of this recording are rock-solid, from the immaculate song selection to the unfussy production, but there are two stand-out elements that really make the album shine.

The first is Captain Luke himself, or rather his wonderful, warm baritone, full of personality and an understated authority. Although he performs admirably on jaunty numbers such as 'Old Black Buck' (a Captain Luke composition) and 'Put On Your Red Dress', it's on the ballads where he really sparkles. Luke is nothing less than a master at tackling the slower numbers, his voice tinged with tenderness, sadness and regret. Nowhere is this better exhibited than on the aforementioned 'Rainy Night in Georgia' and the doleful 'Still Water', a song redolent of lonely Southern nights.

The second factor that pushes this album into the higher echelons is the masteful guitar playing of Cool John Ferguson. The listener is left with the impression that Ferguson can play pretty much anything he's minded to. He brings a welcome jazz sensibility to the slower numbers, evoking George  Benson and Wes Montgomery amongst others. When the tempo rises, Ferguson demonstrates a busy picking style underscored with impeccable technique and inventiveness. Although ostensibly accompaniment to Luke, on 'Polk Salad Annie' its the singer who anchors the song, Ferguson scurrying around the vocal with some breakneck bluesy improvisation.

'Outsider Lounge Music' is a potent brew of soul, blues and jazz, performed with evident vim and relish. A fine achievement for anyone, but it's almost disgustingly good considering that Captain Luke was crafting this fine testimony at a time where most others are content to trade on former glories.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Solid Air - John Martyn

Provenance: My parents heard a documentary about John Martyn on the radio and bought the album. I loved it and bought it for my wife. Now it's been subsumed into the collection.

Review: I feel something almost akin to shame when I reflect on the fact that I hadn't heard of John Martyn until the age of 26. It's very possible that I glossed over his name in an article or two but to my discredit I paid absolutely no heed.

As a teenager, I spent far too much time listening to Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and (whisper it) Yngwie Malmsteen. Unless you could rattle off half a million notes on guitar with your fucking tongue or something, I didn't want to know. We all do stupid things when we're young, and mine was listen to shred. Even worse, I would then hold everything else through the prism of shred. Neil Young was a whiner with a band who couldn't play. Roy Orbison was some blind guy that sounded like he was crying all the time. John Martyn didn't exist.

It's all behind me now, though the odd Satch album gets a spin when I'm feeling particularly masochistic. Solid Air, on the other hand, is played on an almost weekly basis.

I was hooked within twenty seconds of pressing play, not least of all because of the extraordinary singing. It managed to be both alluring and alienating, the natural warmth of Martyn's voice undercut by the slurred drawl which renders every other word incomprehensible. The music was no less compelling, a woozy combination of folk and jazz, electric piano riding over finger-picked guitar to glorious effect. One of the real stars of the album is Danny Thompson, whose elastic double-bass playing provides a languid counterpoint to Martyn's flurrying, cascading arepeggios.

Why pick out individual songs? "Over the Hill" is a carefree strummer featuring spiky rhythm mandolin from the great Richard Thompson. "I'd Rather Be the Devil" is a thrilling deconstruction of the haunting Skip James classic, Martyn's Echoplexed guitar spinning notes off into the cosmos. Meanwhile, "Go Down Easy" is a heavy-lidded, seductive slice of minimalism and "May You Never" is sweet without crossing the line into saccharine (though Eric Clapton managed the dubious achievement of rendering it both sickly and soulless. Nice job, Slowhand).

I'm hardly flirting with originality by proclaiming this one of the defining albums of the British folk scene, if not British popular music. It's sublime, and nothing else sounds like it. What else is there to say? Buy it.