Lyle Lovett Live

I have a few reactions to some live shows which I thought I’d throw out there. These are from things I’ve seen in the past year or more. I won’t call them reviews – I don’t have the press releases a reviewer would get, so not as informed as I’d like to be. I’ll add detail where I can.

The first is Lyle Lovett at the State Theatre in Sydney back on 29 March 2010. Here’s what I sent out to a friend at the time:

I was so impressed. I have a DVD of him performing mostly his jazz stuff, with a guest appearance by Randy Newman and the two of them performing their work for the Toy Story franchise. Whilst the music was fantastic, and the Large Band a treat, frankly I found it a little lacking. I now realise why. The difference when you see him unedited and live is the chat between songs, which reveals more of his wit and warmth. And charm. The man is the consummate gentleman and extremely gracious – even in the face of those inevitable moments when people shout out from the back but clam up when Lyle actually tried to engage.

What I didn’t realise is that Lyle appears to have a studio band and a live band – with only one member from his studio lot joining him on the road (Viktor Krauss – brother of Alison Krauss). There was an interesting set up – very pared back. No drums – just bongos, a cello, Viktor Krauss on electric double-bass, and two fellows from a bluegrass background who blew me away. Keith Sewell played lead acoustic and mandolin and has a voice entirely suited to bluegrass with its nasal twang, and Luke Bulla played mostly fiddle and lead acoustic on a couple of songs. His voice is lovely – it has a lot more clarity and resonance and blends beautifully with Lovett. These two have been playing bluegrass since they were six years old and have known each other since then. They are only in their thirties or so, but it’s clear there is only bluegrass in their veins.

And I think Lyle and the band would have to be the sharpest dressers on the road. Ever.

Of course Lyle’s guitar work makes you realise how technically good he is. And the voice. That’s what you go for and it doesn’t disappoint – that catching, dry, almost faltering but somehow rich sound which is quite unique and delivers as emotively live as in the booth.

The effect of the sparse backing band is that he has been able to recreate the mood of Joshua Judges Ruth, whilst the bluegrass guys made the newer stuff from Natural Forces really work well. ‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’ and the title track were all superb.

For me the only downside of bongos with brushes is that you lose some of the drive behind some of the songs from The Road to Ensenada which is my personal favourite of his albums. ‘I Can’t Love You Anymore’ and ‘Private Conversation’ just missed that kick which is what I love about them. That said, it does inject a new feel to the songs and you start hearing them differently. And that’s a pretty petty criticism for a performance which delivered in so many ways.

I was on a total high after this show – and after watching live videos, I hadn’t expected to be. Then again – how could I not? I’m a fan for a reason – he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, sharpest, most talented singers and musicians I know of. I have almost all his albums. Why was I surprised?

His My Space page has some tracks from Natural Forces for free download – and I highly recommend ‘Pantry’. You can also demand that he comes back to Sydney (column on the right lets you DemandIt). Go on, I did. Because I, for one, hope he gets back here soon.

Discovering Chinagrass

A friend in the UK recently mentioned an artist who has been around for a couple of years now, but of whom I’d not heard – a guy called Mamer. My friend called his music Chinagrass.

The bluegrass part of that term conjures flatpicking, fiddle, mandolin associations; voices at higher, more nasal, registers; Monroe, Scruggs, Rice and Rowan or Alison Krauss. Maybe the occasional jug band or jew’s harp. For want of a better description, that Appalachian mountain music which, by definition evokes an indelible sense of place.

I gave up trying to mentally reconcile those associations with what little I know of Chinese music and instead just dived in. What I got was something not a million miles away – but somehow entirely original.

Mamer is a young, 30-something who has become a cult figure in the underground music scene in Beijing. I’m no authority, so I’ve done some digging and have some seemingly intelligent and informed links at the end of this post which you can look into. Of note is that he grew up in Xinjiang province (northwestern China) listening to traditional Chinese and Kazakh folk music, but his life since then has been thoroughly modern – dropping out of music college to become a voice over artist (thanks to a beautifully resonant voice which had him overdubbing all the baddies in TV shows) and also singing in an 80s covers band doing Michael Jackson, the Police and Metallica. His influences throughout this time ranged from Yes to Pink Floyd, the Doors, King Crimson and Television.

However it appears he’s not lost sight of his past, and his album, Eagle, encapsulates both his modern and traditional sensibilities. The result is what I can only call an intoxicating sound. I’m getting the bluegrass elements: the stringed instruments (traditional dobra and guitar), the jew’s harp, the song structures. But there are so many other elements – middle eastern and sub-continental rhythms, dub, electric guitar looping through and all overlaid with a rich, low voice that puts me in mind of Tuvan throat singers.

Others have heard everyone from Woody Guthrie to Velvet Underground in what this guy is doing.

The sources I’ve looked at talk about how the open grasslands of his childhood are evoked by this music. I get that. Maybe because I grew up on wide open grazing plains in the Riverina. I admit grass was often a luxury where I’m from – but that sense of openness definitely speaks to me (undoubtedly brought into sharp relief by some level of nostalgia after many years of urban living).

I can only suggest you have a listen for yourself.

You can go to his My Space page here and listen to 4 or 5 tracks from the album.

But I think this You Tube video gives you a great summary sense of who he is, his music and some of his influences.

Chinagrass performers are not unknown to Australia. Sydney Festival in 2011 brought out another group of performers which has been added to the Chinagrass genre called Hanggai. From what I’ve seen, I’d class them as more world or folk music than Mamer. Then again – I have a lot more listening to do…


Links on Mamer

Scarborough Evening News (UK) Review

Read about and listen to Mamer via Real World Records

John Grant

One of the reasons I wanted to set up this blog was to start talking about singers like John Grant.

Don’t worry – I have a lot to say about a lot of other artists, and if you’re trying to get a handle on my taste and my musical angle – don’t worry, so am I. It’s something of a moving feast, and always open to new ideas and directions. So there’s your invitation. Send me your thoughts. As I publish more, you’ll start to see what I’m on about.

Back to John Grant. I’d not heard of him until a musical contact of mine @Timinator let me know he had a ticket to see him at the Vanguard in Newtown and couldn’t go. Completely unknown to me, I nonetheless trusted Tim’s judgement and took the proverbial punt…and the ticket.

As I now know, John Grant is an American singer/songwriter who was the lead singer of a band formed in 1994 called the Czars which, as he told the audience, we wouldn’t have heard of due to ‘a complete lack of success’.

I am yet to hunt down anything of the Czars and will let you know once I do – but essentially I wanted to get this review and a couple of links and samples out there.

Despite what I’ve written below, after a number of listens to his first solo album, the song which has stuck in my mind on an almost continuous loop is the title track: Queen of Denmark. Not just for the lyrics which are wry and heartbreaking, but for that clear-throated vocal which, as a live performance, is still reverberating through me from the shoes up…have a listen…

The show was a little while ago now but, as I often do, I like to email friends with reactions. Here’s what I sent Tim at the time:

I cried.
Not sure what I expected, but out came this guy in a neat jacket and jeans and unleashed a voice that I still cannot believe.
May have been the venue as well (so intimate that his voice filled the room and came up through the floor). And then, in a couple of songs, he really let go, and I realised he hadn’t really been trying until then. Shivers up the spine stuff.
Love the songs – Sigourney Weaver, It’s Easier, Fireflies stick in my mind – Where Dreams Go to Die and TC and Honeybear seemed to be well-known to the crowd, and I loved those as well, but the first three really struck me.
Caramel is a beautiful love song – quite raw and unpolished in the live performance – just perfect. Although it’s very slick on the album.
I like the synth thing – he credits Iva Davies of Icehouse, and the 70s/80s stuff as an influence, and it really adds something you don’t see every day. He tended to stick to one effect/sound approach, which sometimes jolted me outside the song experience – but mostly it worked really well and just made for a fully unique experience.
He’s also brilliant on the keyboards.
Lyrically fantastic – great humour (esp Sigourney Weaver) and wryness which is genuinely amusing and endearing. Outer Space felt weird, may be a deliberate 70s homage, but felt strange/lyrically awkward because I was there the first time, and so it felt dated or something. Probably just a personal thing.
Here’s a guy with serious issues to work through and a lot of anger which he readily admits and discusses, but a little self-deprecation and a real warmth means there was a lot of love in the room. The way he breezes over the fact his coke dealer tried to suicide on the sofa made you feel like he was recounting the everyday larking about of a small child.
Although someone on Twitter said they walked out – but hey. Their loss.
I noted another Tweeter saying his wife was going to the concert and that she considered him criminally neglected as a talent – I wholeheartedly agree.

Here’s a Czars song for your edification because, from what I heard, their complete lack of success was another crime…

John Grant has promised he’s coming back to Oz soon. I’m so there.