Tuesday, 12 November 2013

No Deeper Blue

My one lasting contribution to popular culture is probably the cd Riding the Range which came out about three years ago.  This was a various artists tribute to the late American singer songwriter Townes van Zandt.  The story started a couple of years earlier in 2007, the tenth anniversary of Townes death.  It surprised me that no-one in the UK seemed to be commemorating the event.  So, if no-one else was going to, well, I might as well.  Organised as a fundraiser for www.qe2activitycentre.co.uk, we called the gig No Deeper Blue.  There was a very fine line-up: Michael Weston King accompanied by Jackie Leven, Jinder, Jason McNIff, Andrew Perry and Anthony Greenwood. 

You can see them all together in this clip.  To be fair, the sound quality does not do it justice - the sound of six guitars bashing away was a bit like a steam train coming at you.  It was a rousing end to the evening.

Fast forward to the tail end of 2009.  Someone asked me what I was up to.  Asked if I was arranging any more gigs, any events. Nope, nothing.  So, writing your novel?  No, not even writing a blog.  Recording an album maybe?  Funny you should say that . . .  I have got this idea for a fundraising cd . . .  A tribute album for the late, great Townes van Zandt.

After a chat with  a couple of people, including an independent record label owner, I was committed.  Devon Sproule was first to say she'd record a song.  Michael Weston King agreed to provide one, then promptly went through his address book, leading to a string of emails . . . Peter Bruntnell says yes, Johnny Dowd says yes, The Mighty Stef featuring Shane Macgowan, Tom Ovans . . .  Michael arranged for Righteous Records to release the album through Cherry Red.

The first MP3 to turn up was Tom Ovans' cover of Loretta.  I knew it was gonna be good from that moment on.  As each new song turned up I'd burn a new cd with the five or six or seven songs now in.  Kid in a toy shop. 

The highlight for me was a contribution from Jackie Leven who wrote a song specifically for the project - and I was present when he recorded it.  Here's something I wrote about it back then:

Several Leven collaborators have contributed to the album; Michael Weston King, Johnny Dowd, David Wrench and Henry Priestman have all appeared on Jackie’s albums, and all contribute a song to this Townes tribute.  Their songs are all covers of Townes’ songs.  Townes himself covered “Riding the Range”, a Michael Weston King song, and I’m pleased to say we’ve rescued it from the obscurity of a limited edition German released 7” vinyl single to the obscurity of a charity fundraising album.
But.  There is also a new song from Jackie.  I asked him if he’d like to contribute a cover, he hummed and haa’d and said no, but maybe he’d write a song in the style of TVZ and pass it off as a lost Townes classic.  In the event he wrote a song about TVZ, called “Townes at the Borderline”. 
A deadline was set for all contributions to come in.  It passed.  There were several late arrivals.  Jackie sent some lyrics and said the song was done, it’ll sound great, but its not recorded yet.   Trying to sort out a date with Michael Cosgrave.  Another deadline passed.  Some late arrivals – Peter Case and Stan Ridgway, Jeb Loy Nichols, turned up.  Still waiting for the Magic Numbers, Danny & the Champions of the World and Jackie Leven.  Final deadline coming up.  Jackie planned to record it solo; fell through.  Final deadline Sunday.  Magic Numbers and Danny & Champs tracks arrived Sunday evening.  Told the man from the record company Jackie’s track would be ready Tuesday.  Didn't tell him its not recorded yet. 
7:00 Monday morning picked up Jackie and headed west for Devon and Michael Cosgrave’s home studio.  Jackie’s uncanny ability to avoid traffic hotspots sent us north towards Andover before taking a left, heading west.  This had the advantage of meaning we passed Stonehenge.  I won’t lie to you, driving across Salisbury Plain, passing Stonehenge, listening to a Norwegian version of Blood on the Tracks with Jackie Leven did give me a sense of the interconnectedness of everything.  We also listened to a rough draft of the cd - and it sounds great.  There’s lots of variety but it all hangs together like one piece.  Variety?  From Devon Sproule to David Wrench is quite a journey.
We get to a sleepy Devon market town (copyright Devon Tourist Board) where Michael Cosgrave lives and records.  “I’ve got the Tizer” says Jackie, “where’s the Calvados?”
After some domestic wrangling (there’s a chaotic number of children in the house when we arrive) Jackie and Michael get to recording.  The studio is a room, the parlour once I’d guess, with a piano on one side, stacked high with cds, music books; in fact there’s cds and music books everywhere, plus LPs, cassettes, videos, old hi-fi systems.  Plus all that you need for a modern recording studio – a Mac or two, some charity shop speakers, mic and music stand.  I perch behind the piano and shut up.  Jackie sits down, gets his guitar out.  Has a drink.  Plugs in and starts noodling.  There’s an intro and a harmonic, a verse and chorus, verse and chorus and I’m listening to the guitar part of a brand new Jackie song.  Michael plays it back.  Sounds good.  Jackie puts on some headphones and sings the lyric.  One stumble, otherwise one take.  Simple but effective.  Lunchtime.
 A Devon pasty and a pint later its back into the studio.  The guitar and vocal track is played back and Jackie plays some curly licks (like curly fries but more musical) over the top of them.  There’s a discussion about how the song should start – straight into the vocal or with a guitar intro.  The discussion descends into a Derek and Clive dialogue, the like of which probably hasn’t been heard round these parts for some time.
Jackie decides there should be some harmony vocals.  The track gets played back; he growls tunelessly.  It gets played back again; he burbles, tunelessly.  One more time; more painful wassailing.  Oh bugger.  I’ve got a lot invested in this, don’t screw it up.  Then the three parts are put together and played back and it sounds bloody perfect.  There’s some more discussion about percussion and some instructions for Michael about how it could be finished off.  As we leave Michael Cosgrave is strapping on an accordion.
Home by five.   I listen to a very rough version recorded on my camera, sounds good.  Next day the finished version appears – it’s a cracker and you need to buy Riding the Range to hear it.
There was a line in the song which I questioned Jackie about – he describes Townes as being “surrounded by a worried looking man”.  I said you can’t be surrounded by one person.  Jackie said it was his manager constantly buzzing around Townes red faced and querulous, like Indians round a wagon train.  Afterwards I noticed that in Townes’ song Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria TVZ writes "she stands all around me, her hands slowly sifting the sunshine". So I guess if its good enough for Jackie and Townes then one person can be surrounded by another.  Jackie went on to say “hands slowly sifting the sunshine –genius – I saw a chick like that once – turned out she was a champion Romanian flea catcher whose donkey had died...”
When it came out the album garnered some good reviews, but it was released around the time that people stopped buying cds.  This is what Maverick had to say

Like Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt eschewed the wealth and privilege of his upbringing for the pursuit of artistic freedom and paid a high price. That he went to his grave in relative obscurity remains tragic, but the creative wealth of riches he bequeathed us is more than enough to sustain his posthumous reputation for decades to come.   Releases with the integrity and invention of ‘Riding The Range’ can only help to enhance it even further.  

This isn't a sales pitch but if you're interested  you can get it in EyeChoons or Amazon or directly from www.qe2activitycentre.co.uk. 

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