Posts Tagged ‘cowboy junkies’
Sunday, November 14th, 2010
I’ve always felt that Copenhagen had a slightly seamy, dark vibe to it. There is an underbelly that isn’t always apparent to the tourists gawking at the Little Mermaid or strolling through the Tivoli Gardens. Today we spent our day deep within its bowels, in Christiania: a very surreal day.
Christiania is a community that grew up around an abandoned army base, a few minutes walking distance from the center of Copenhagen. When the army moved out in the 1970’s the squatters and self-labelled anarchists moved in. It’s gone through many changes over the past few decades and the community has fallen in and out of favour with the local governments and the “straight” citizenry, but today it is a thriving community (it seems to be run much like a housing co-op) with its own restaurants and schools and hardware store and all the mod-cons that your average anarchist comes to crave as he or she grows older. It also has its very own thriving hashish market…and this is where the sleazy underbelly begins to expose itself. When I say “hashish market” I don’t mean that there are a bunch of guys standing around with their hands in their pockets whispering surreptitiously to passersby. This is a full blown market with stalls set up so that the consumer can see the various bricks of hashish for sale, as well as jars of various strains of marijuana and all of the necessary accoutrements for your smoking pleasure. The market has a heavy atmosphere with lots of tough young punks looking on with lots of ill tempered dogs in hand. Large signs everywhere scream of a “no photography” policy. There are oil drum fires every dozen feet or so, so that the goods can be quickly disposed of when the police make one of their fairly regular raids on the compound. We were told by the locals that this area is run by the Hells Angels and it certainly has that feel to it. It seems that drugs have always been the Achilles heel for this community. Back in the late 70’s when the police would pick up a junkie they would simply dump him or her in Christiania because the heroin problem was so rampant in the community that they figured it was easiest to corral them all in one location. Today they have been able to establish a “THC only” policy within the community, but it’s the market that gives this place a bit of a freak show vibe. The general aesthetic is also a bit Mad Max-ish. It kind of has that post-apocalyptic vibe with lots of open fires, strung lights, large iron works, odd-ish sculptures created from found materials, graffiti on every possible surface and lots of facial hair and dreadlocks.
We played in one of the communities’ venues, a low ceiling, narrow, pit of a club. The promoter never showed up and there was a general who-gives-a-fuck vibe to the day. Despite that, the people who worked at the venue were very nice and as helpful as they could be and the show was sold-out. It was a standing gig, with people crammed up against our foot high stage. So we tried to crank it up a bit and blow through the bodies. We had fun and I think most of the audience did too.
Monday, November 8th, 2010
Margo and I left a day earlier than the rest of the band to do some radio in London. It’s always exciting going to Europe, it’s never exciting getting on the plane to make the journey: unending line-ups, long delays, cramped spaces, bad food, bad movies, bad air and testy waiters and waitresses-in-the-sky. But all-in-all Margo and I had a painless passage. The rest of the band was not so fortunate. Their flight was moved up two hours (who ever heard of a flight being moved up) and no one received the email that the airline said that it sent out. Fortunately the flight was delayed by an hour and they arrived at the airport a couple of hours before the flight was originally scheduled to leave because of the piles of equipment that they had to check in. So they made the flight and had just enough time to pay the $1750 excess baggage fee. Oil Companies, phone companies and airlines….I’d like to see a poll that ranks the most hated industries in the eyes of your average consumer. While the rest of the band was dealing with their headaches Margo and I were facing a few of our own. The BBC, where most of our interviews were to take place, was beset by unscheduled strikes and our day of interviews went down the drain. So Margo and I spent the day wandering around the West End. It rained all day, apparently it was a “wet” rain, the type of rain that I’ve rarely experienced outside of London. It’s more like an extremely intense mist. One steps outside and thinks, “this isn’t so bad” and then after walking a couple of blocks it’s like you’ve just done a couple of laps in a swimming pool. There’s no point in using an umbrella, there are no drops, there is no gravity, the water just envelopes you. Despite being shutout by the union and soaked by the weather it was still a pleasure to be back in London. This is such a great city. It vibrates with energy. It is ancient and powerful, an entity unto itself. I love being here.
Friday, November 5th, 2010
A few weeks after my synchronistic moment in the book store (see previous blog), I had another one in the Toronto airport. We were flying home from one of our many tours of this past year when a man came up to me while I was standing in the immigration line. He recognised me, which is a rare thing unto itself, and he wanted to tell me that he was returning from the West coast where he had spent the past few weeks with his brother, who had several months earlier been diagnosed with ALS. He told me that the disease had ravaged his brothers body at a stunning rate and that his brother did not have long to live. One of the things that he had brought along on his trip was the Trinity Revisited DVD. And that he and his brother had watched Vic’s performance of Dreaming My Dreams over and over and they had cried together, a lot. The power of Vic.
For some of the Demons recording sessions Margo wasn’t available so we invited our good friend Andy Maize to join us and lay down “ghost” vocals as we worked on the bedtracks. Some of Andy’s vocals were so powerful and on-the-mark that we decided to keep some of them and Margo ended up working with them, creating a duet using the “ghost” vocals as her singing partner. One such song was “Marathon”, a touchingly beautiful lament set at the end of the line. Here is a rough mix of the bedtrack with Andy singing the lead:
Saturday, October 16th, 2010
The album that introduced all of us in the band to Vic’s work was West Of Rome. Margo’s husband had come across it and passed it on to us knowing that it would make an impression. It did. The album had some the most off-kilter, heavy-as-shit writing that I had come across in many years. Some of the writing was definitely outside, using personal references, in-jokes and colloquialisms that cast a bit of a shadow over the meaning of some of the songs. But the emotion was always clear and the sound of the album, beautifully produced by Michael Stipe, had a really intriguing texture.
The song that sucked me right in and remains one of my favourite songs was the title track, West Of Rome. The sense of “place” in that song, both physical and mental, is astounding. In the liner notes of the album, underneath the lyrics for the song, was a note from Vic saying that the song was written immediately after finishing John Fante’s book of the same name. So I put the title on my list of books to hunt down in my travels: over the next fifteen or so years I never stumbled upon it. And then, one week after starting to record Demons, I walked into a used book store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts along with our stage tech Tim. A few minutes after being in the store Tim comes walking up to me with a pristine copy of a Black Sparrow Press edition of West Of Rome in his hands and says, “Mike, you’ve got to buy this book….”. Mysterious ways, mysterious ways, heaven and earth and mysterious ways.
For a lot of the bedtracks on this album Pete, Al and I got together to work through ideas and approaches for the songs. I would usually put down a vocal (even if the key wasn’t exactly right for my golden pipes) during the recording or directly after to give a sense of whether the musical approach was working. Here is the bedtrack for West of Rome in its rawest form:
And here is the final version with Joby Baker providing some beautiful piano and Tania Elizabeth adding her magical touches on fiddle…as well as, of course, Margo doing her thang…
Monday, October 11th, 2010
Napa, CA: A lazy day in Napa. We could only find one hotel room in this town because it’s the start of “Crush” week, or month or something…it has something to do with drinking wine. In any case we could only find a room for our driver so we spent half the day parked on a highway beside the hotel, while Marc, our driver, slept. It seemed like a good day to spend in my bunk, so I did. Napa is an odd little town. Its’ one visible function seems to be to serve the wine-tourists. A considerable amount of money has gone in to refurbishing some beautiful 19th century buildings on the main drag: tonight’s venue, The Napa Opera House is one such building. It’s a beautiful old building which has been creatively and lovingly restored. We had a pretty good show tonight, aided by an excellent audience.
San Francisco, CA: It’s Fleet Week in San Fran, and that, coupled with the Giants being in the playoffs, gave these usually intense, boisterous streets an extra edge of insanity. The sidewalks were teeming with sailors and baseball fans and the skies were screaming with the Blue Angels acrobatic fighter-jet team. The beautiful weather also seems to have enticed all of the locals into the streets….the end result is a type of controlled-mayhem. I love this city: a wholly unique and special place. Tonight was a new venue for us, Bimbo’s 365. Apparently the place is an old North Beach institution. It kind of has that 1950’s Gentlemen’s Club vibe, complete with painted Vargas style pinup girls on the walls and a signed photo of Liberace in the lobby. It’s a little on the funky side, but not a bad venue. We were worried about geese tonight because of the layout of the place, but the audience was excellent and attentive. A full house and a very good show from our side of the stage made for a great way to end this run. We head back to TO very early tomorrow morning and then it’s off to Europe for some fun with our old world friends. Tonight’s show was our last show in the US for a while. After the Toronto show on November 19th we plan to take an extended break from the road. Something may materialise for the summer and there might be the occasional one-off, but, in general, we plan to not do any extensive touring in 2011. So if you can make it to Toronto, we’ll see you there. Otherwise, stay virtual, maaan…there will be lots happening on the website.
Friday, October 8th, 2010
Bend, OR: It would be difficult to find a nicer town than Bend for a day off: lots of locally owned shops, good coffee, a brew pub on every corner and a beautiful river cutting through the town with a huge public park along its banks. We stayed at a very funky (in a good way) hotel…the building and compound once housed an old school and it has been converted with warmth, comfort and history in mind: a nice combination The many different bars and restaurants at the hotel seem to attract the locals, which is also a good thing. There seems to be a bit of money in this little enclave in Central Oregon. We had a sold out show tonight with a very receptive audience and we delivered. A very refreshing couple of days.
Portland, OR: It was a very full day in Portland, one of my favourite cities in the US. We arrived early in the morning, so Tim and I took the opportunity to head over to the Doug Fir restaurant for a very tasty breakfast. Jeff, Margo and I then headed downtown to KINK-FM for a live performance in their new, beautifully put together, performance space. Jeff and I then headed over to Powell’s, the greatest bookstore in the freakin’ world, where I kept a check on my impulses and successfully kept my bill well below $100. Then it was back to the Aladdin Theater for soundcheck and the show. It wasn’t sold-out tonight which is a little worrying because Portland has always been such a great town for us. Perhaps we have been through here a little too often in the past few years. In any case, those who did show up were in fine form and more than succeeded in holding up Portland’s rep as having some of the best audiences in the US. We had a very, very fun night.
Grant’s Pass, OR: We have definitely stayed in this town before but I don’t think we have actually played the town. After tonight I have a strong feeling that we’ll never play here again. A shockingly thin audience tonight. The numbers were kind of confounding to us and the promoter, but if the town itself is any indication, this area has been hit hard by the recession: a lot of empty windows on Main Street and way too many pawn shops, thrift stores and so-called antique stores, a sure sign that there are many people around here in desperate need of cash. It’s a beautiful area, though, with some spectacular white water rafting and hiking nearby and all sorts of other healthy, fun and dangerous things to do. Tonight was not a good night on-stage, despite performing a triple shot of Neil during the set….as the song says, ‘we tried to do our best but we could not”.
Monday, October 4th, 2010
Two months off the road can seem like an eternity when it comes time to packing up and preparing to head out again. A sickening mixture of anticipation and dread flows through the body and then muscle memory takes over, you find yourself tucked away in your bunk, the rattle and hum of a bus rolling down the highway buzzing away in your ear, that antiseptic clean-not-clean smell in your nostrils and it’s like you’ve never been away. At least we are in one of our favourite parts of the continent, the Pacific North West, and it’s October, one of the most beautiful months of the year out here.
Bellingham, WA: We couldn’t have picked a better day or a nicer town to kick start this little jaunt: a cloudless, sparkling blue sky, mid-70’s temperature with a light breeze, Mount Baker’s snow-capped peak in the distance, a perfect day to wander around and explore. It’s been over ten years since we’ve played here, which is too long to stay away from a cool little town like this: a couple of great coffee shops, a specialty donut shop and one of the best used book stores that I have ever come across….all the necessities for life on the road. It was a very nice sized audience tonight and very appreciative. They helped us to get through those opening night jitters: an excellent way to start this run.
Edmonds, WA: Another excellent day and this time we find ourselves on Pugent Sound in another quaint little Washington State town (perhaps a Seattle bedroom community these days). This town doesn’t have the university presence that Bellingham has, it’s a little more upscale and therefore not quite as engaging to the itinerant musician, but those ocean breezes make up for any lack of a boho scene. Another full house tonight and another excellent crowd. This is kind of fun.
Covington, WA: I’m not quite sure where we were today….it was very close to Seattle, let’s call it a Seattle suburb. We lost those high blue skies as the clouds rolled in and we were stranded out in the middle of nowhere behind the venue, which was a Performing Arts Center attached to a high school. It was a strange day. Not a bad gig tonight…we were a little unfocussed at times but there were some nice moments and the audience picked us up when needed.
Vancouver, BC: Back across the border to a strange gig in the East end of Vancouver. Two shows tonight at a very odd little venue, The Cultch. We’ve had our problems attracting an audience in Vancouver over the past few years and tonight was no different. The first show was sold out, the second, not so much. Unfortunately we suffered a bit of a meltdown in the first show, we just couldn’t find each otherand so we flailed around for ninety minutes. The second show was a lot more focussed and we felt slightly redeemed. After the show we packed up and headed for another border crossing and a nine hour overnight drive to Bend, Oregon and a much needed day off: a cross country flight, three border crossings and five shows in four nights….yes, a much needed day off.
Saturday, September 25th, 2010
Our brief journey with Vic began in the mid-1990’s when we stumbled upon his album, West Of Rome. We had just begun work on the collection of songs that would become Lay It Down and we decided to throw the title track of Vic’s album into the mix. We worked on the song for weeks but were never able to match its wistfulness, its forlornness, its honesty; we were never able to replicate the way the song just simply and effortlessly existed. It sounded so unlike a studied recording and so much like a man sitting in a motel room just east of the border, his life evaporating before him. Vic and this album were one of the reasons that we decided to venture down to Athens, Georgia (his home town) to record Lay It Down. Several months later when our album was released we invited Vic to join us on a leg of our North American tour. The first date and our first meeting was in Ottawa at a club called Barrymores. Vic arrived in his wheelchair and was greeted by a flight of about thirty stairs which were the only way in to the second floor club. I was more upset about it than he was, he just shrugged his shoulders and asked the two strongest people that he could corral to carry him and his chair up the stairs. No big deal…just another surmountable obstacle in the life of someone who spent the better part of the last two decades on the road. Throughout that tour we watch Vic every night as he, stymied, infuriated, intentionally pissed-off and then subtly disarmed and won over audiences across the US and Canada. There was no secret to his game, just him, his guitar, and his uncanny voice, which could be grating and beautiful in the same breath, and the flat out honesty of his songs. After that tour we would cross paths occasionally out on the road, or when he came through Toronto, but mainly we kept touch through his music. After West of Rome he seemed to release an album of new material every year (including the stunning collection Is The Actor Happy) all the while keeping up a hectic tour schedule. We hooked up again in the early 2000’s when we did a tour of the UK with him. I have two treasured memories of him from that tour. The first is from our first gig in Leeds where Vic arrived with his bass player and drummer in tow. The trio had spent the past few weeks rehearsing several albums worth of material. In the car ride over to the gig Vic had told them that the drummer would now be playing bass and the bass player would be playing drums. Neither of them had any practical experience on the others instrument but Vic wanted to keep the material fresh and edgy. They both had the look of freshly caught fish. My other memory from that tour is a show in Brighton which took place in a beautiful wood and glass pavilion that had the most delicate acoustics. Vic played to the room. The instruments all but disappeared; Vic songs took flight on the wings of his falsetto and floated, soared and swoop around the space. In my declining years I’ll swear that he did the entire set a cappella, because that is what it felt like. We like to say that music can transport one’s being, one’s essence, from one plane to another, but who can say that they have ever been truly transported….I can, thanks to Vic. Our last get together with Vic was in 2007 when he came up to Toronto to help us with our Trinity Revisited project. The consummate professional, Vic was prepared and patient and willing to work, no muss, no fuss. My favourite moment of our two days together was when Vic and I played the song Postcard Blues together for the first time. Vic singing and playing guitar in his inimitable fashion and me parrying with my guitar, his voice and our instruments ringing throughout magical Trinity church. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was just a rehearsal and it wasn’t recorded. During the taping and recording of Trinity we had an opportunity to do a bit of playing together while the film crew adjusted lights and did those time consuming things that film crews do. It was during one of those breaks that we came up with the idea of doing a Chesnutt/Junkies album. It would be his songs and we’d be the band. We talked about it through email and on the phone and tried to block some time in each of our schedules. The last time that we talked he said that he was working on a song cycle centered around his childhood in Georgia and maybe this would be the album that we would record together. I was on a cell phone in a parking lot outside a gig in Maine and he was in a van driving on the QEW heading to a gig in Toronto. And that was all.
We are trying to approach Demons with the same sense of adventure that Vic undertook all of his projects (or at least that is the way his recordings sound). We are letting happy accidents happen, we are trying to invest his songs with the same spirit and the adventure in which they were written, but at the same time we are trying to invest them with our own Northern spin. We have thrown about twenty of his songs into the proverbial pot and we will let the process decide which songs find their way on to the finished album. Exploring his songs and delving deeper and deeper into them, as one must do in order to do justice to any cover song, has been an intense, moving and joyous experience. I don’t think Vic would have wanted it any other way.
Here is our version of Wrong Piano. I don’t think I have ever heard Margo sing so well in the studio and, man, I love my new Fairfield Circuitry pedal…and…oh ya…if you have a freak flag its time to fly it…our aim is to have the album in your hands by mid-November.
Friday, September 17th, 2010
One of the most important songs on the album is Renmin Park: it is the title track as well as the song that opens and closes the album. The song sets up the metaphorical love story that is the album. Initially my idea was to actually write a song cycle that dealt with the two lovers who are the protagonists in this song. As I began to explore this idea, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to sustain such a narrative and that it wouldn’t allow me to explore the many different aspects of our visit to China. I also began to see that the song wasn’t as narrow-cast as I initially envisioned. When I started writing the song I imagined two characters, one Chinese the other a foreigner, and their relationship was an illicit one. The narrative of the song is a simple one about them trying to arrange their clandestine meetings at landmarks around their town (Jingjiang). These landmarks are actual places in Jingjiang; the town is located on the Yangtze and its primary industry is shipbuilding and the shipyards dominate the river front; Gu Xian Temple is an actual Buddhist temple set on top of the only hill in Jingjiang; the song of the propane seller is something that greeted us every morning as the man in charge of refilling the communities propane tanks would travel through the neighbourhood at 6am calling out to let people know that he was there (you can hear the “song” in quite a few of the sound collages throughout the album); and the stone bridge and the pond is something that is common to pretty much every Renmin Park throughout China. The song took on more and more layers as the album developed. I began to realise that it wasn’t just a fictional love story, but also, partly, my friend Mr Liu’s love story; it was also a metaphor for my families love affair with this quirky town and the people who had embraced us; it was also a comment on the very odd and sometimes clandestine love affair that the people of China have with their past and their present and their very uncertain future. The Chinese adore their country, they are exceptionally proud of it, not in a jingoistic way, but more in the way that a mother adores her extremely troubled son. It has brought them lots of pain, and they know that they are destined to experience that pain time and time again, but they have also seen it sparkle and soar. And, after all, it is their creation, and only they can truly understand it and truly, deeply appreciate it.
Here are some of photos taken in some of the places that inspired the images in the song. It’s now time to move on to Volume 2….Demons….and to welcome you all to the world of Vic Chesnutt…stay tuned…
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:
Sunday, September 12th, 2010
We’ve added some new music to the Music Catalogue section of our website. It’s a limited edition four song EP called LIVE!. It was originally released by BMG in 1992. It’s a very nice little document of one of our favourite tours: the Black Eyed Man tour that we did with John Prine. The EP includes a duet between Margo and John on “If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man”. When John first heard this recording he commented, “man, you guys are swingin’ like the Goodman orchestra”. High praise. Also included on the EP is a darn good version of the Flying Burrito Brothers “Hot Burrito #1”. This is a tricky little number and I don’t think we ever did it again after the Black Eyed Man tour. You can listen to the whole EP for free and if you like it….please buy it….Of course, if you have purchased a Clubhouse Subscription you can go into the Clubhouse section and download the EP for free….There’s lots more music to come over the next several months (including three brand new albums) so please sign up for a Subscription if you haven’t already. It’s good value for your hard earned dollars and it helps to keep the website growing and the music flowing.