The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.
Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.
Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.
Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.
Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.
Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).
And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).
I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.
The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.
Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.
As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.
I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).
The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.
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My Morning Jacket’s music is often described as psychedelic rock or space rock, which might give the impression that the band from Louisville, Kentucky, is a sort of a stoner rock band. That would be wrong.
My Morning Jacket’s (or MMJ) music has integral elements that come from a wider range of genres: southern alternative country; 1970s rock; folk; progressive rock (marked by longer compositions with greater instrumentation); and even reggae. All that may seem a hodge-podge of influences, but it is not.
Melding all this together, MMJ, which has seven studio albums to its credit, make music that is uniquely their own. At the core of that uniqueness is frontman Jim James’s vocals whose sheer range is stunning – from the lows to the mids to a falsetto, few singers in contemporary non-classical genres can probably match his virtuosity.
Besides, MMJ, as I mentioned, have a genre-straddling ability that is singularly impressive. Last fortnight, the band released its seventh studio album, The Waterfall, on which its musical diversity remains intact.
There are some trademark attributes of MMJ’s music. James’ vocals, of course, which overwhelm everything else, but also the band’s inclination to employ reverb: where the sound produced by instruments as well as the vocals are made to reverberate a little, often giving the impression of sounds emerging from inside a tunnel.
Also watch: My Morning Jacket
For me the reverb factor makes MMJ a compelling band to listen to – in particular, how the reverb sounds on James’s vocals. And I’m glad that despite their considerable evolution from the albums of their early days (2001’s At Dawn, which was their second album – I confess, I haven’t heard their first, Tennessee Fire) to the more recent ones (2011’s Circuital) they haven’t jettisoned those attributes.
They’ve gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound – The Waterfall, incidentally, has harmonies by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard – but their songs still retain the quality of being able to transform into live show staples.
Believe (Nobody Knows) is the first song on their new album. It’s an uplifting song with the synthesizer and guitars taking off, while James sings about agnosticism or ambiguity or perhaps both: Roll the dice/ That sails the ship/ And all the doors will open. There’s no stopping them after that.
On the next song, Compound Fracture, James sings in falsetto on a song that seems to be straining at the bit to be performed live. Indeed, if you’ve heard live recordings of the band – 2006’s Okonokos is one – you can imagine each one of the new songs on The Waterfall being done in a concert: Believe and Compound Fracture, which are tailormade for such a performance; but also, the remaining dozen, such as the acoustic and reverb-laden Like A River on which James’s falsetto is again on grand display; or the slow-starter Spring (Among the Living), especially when it gathers momentum and becomes spacey, invoking some early MMJ vibes.
Also watch: Nucleus with Allan Holdsworth – Live 1972
MMJ hasn’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. That may be because of their predilection (like many contemporary bands) to tour a lot or because of frontman James’s side or solo projects.
James has been in a folk supergroup, Monsters of Folk (which had, beside him, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and M Ward, the solo artist); and last year, he collaborated with others on Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, a rediscovery of Bob Dylan’s unpublished lyrics from 1967, which James, Elvis Costello and others put to music.
In a recent interview with the British music magazine, Uncut, James has talked about the challenges of playing with Dylan on stage and about hanging about and snorkelling with the Dead’s Bob Weir.
The good news, however, is MMJ are back with The Waterfall, which reaffirms the band’s ability to do two things at once: be a muscular rock band as well as a flexible genre-hopper. Rare in rock that.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
If I told you I’ve been listening to Snakeships Etcetera, Phaideaux’s Corner and Splat, what would you think they are? Well, it’s jazz. Or rather, jazz fused with rock and dating back to the 1970s.
The band is UK’s Nucleus (a friend drew attention to them a few weeks back), which existed between 1969 and 1989 and their star attraction was late frontman Ian Carr, trumpeter par excellence.
Other instruments in that ensemble used to include a variety of horns, guitars, piano and organ. The album those strangely named songs are from is called UK Tour ’76. That’s 1976. Yes, ancient. But terrific.
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At the fag end of 2014, came a musical blast from nearly 50 years ago. If you’ve been a Bob Dylan fan then you’d probably know of his sessions with a bunch of musicians who later came to be known simply as The Band. Those sessions in 1967 were recorded mainly in the basement of a house nicknamed the Big Pink in a small town called Saugerties, not far from Woodstock, in upstate New York. Read more
My playlist got a little weird last week. It all began with a version of Paint it Black, the Stones’ song from 1966. The version, a cover, was stunning: slower and with none of the original lyrics. There was an Afro-beat and a funky feel to it, replete with congas and stuff. It was rather good. Instead of the original lyrics, the band covering it occasionally chanted “Paint it black”, pronouncing black as ‘Blaak’. I got curious and found out that the cover version was by a band, or rather, a collective, called Africa who put out just one album in 1968 called Music From Lil Brown. I later found that that Music from Lil Brown was an African-American response to Music From Big Pink, the debut album from The Band, which, of course, is the Canadian-American band that got fame because it was Bob Dylan’s back-up band but which on its own was easily one of the best rock bands that I’ve heard. Read more
Sometimes it takes a re-issue of old albums to rediscover a musician that you’ve been out of touch with for a while. So it was with me last week. When a couple of re-issued Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums landed up, re-mastered and with bonuses such as DVDs in tow, I revisited Nick Cave and after the first couple of tracks on the re-issued Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (originally released in 2008), I wondered how on earth could I have let so much time elapse before I re-heard Cave’s music. Read more
I’d thought I’d be able to give Bob Dylan’s new album a good long listen and then perhaps write my two bits about it in this instalment of DC. Tempest, Dylan’s 35th album, came out on September 11; I managed to get hold of it a couple of days later but before I could properly listen to it, the deadline of this column was upon me (Brunch goes to press really early in the week and its editor is quite a strict disciplinarian when it comes to deadlines). I don’t know about you but I just can’t casually listen to any of Dylan’s albums, particularly a brand new one from a living legend who is now 71. Dylan’s isn’t by any stretch ambient music. It requires focused listening. Read more
When you first listen to The Tallest Man on Earth (who’s actually a 5’7” Swede named Kristian Matsson) you could be mistaken into believing that he’s probably mimicking Bob Dylan, so similar is the 29-year-old’s singing style and songwriting to the legendary musician. In fact, some critics feel exactly that way and Matsson, in his three-record career till now, has often faced that criticism—that he channels Dylan. But a closer listen to any of his albums, particularly this year’s There’s No Leaving Now, can change your perception. Hugely influenced by American folk giants such as Dylan and Woody Guthrie he may be, but Matsson’s songs are all about where he belongs and his local Swedish environment. Read more
Many new musicians can remind you of older (and sometimes more famous) ones. Three years ago, I’d written about the Rhode Island-based alternative folk and blues band, Deer Tick, and mentioned how uncannily Bob Dylanesque their lead singer, John McCauley sounds—so much so that a colleague after hearing them play even dubbed him ‘Baby Dylan’. But they’re not the only ones. Whenever I hear New Jersey’s rockers, The Gaslight Anthem, I’m reminded of Bruce Springsteen—and, in fact, that association is not without basis: The Gaslight Anthem are quite heavily influenced by The Boss; they’ve opened for him; and he’s played with them. More recently, I heard Charles Bradley who is known as ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’ and at 64 has just one album (No Time For Dreaming) to his credit. Bradley has his own style of singing funk, soul and R&B tunes but you can also distinctively discern strong influences of two legends, the late James Brown and the late Otis Redding. Then I read that Bradley began his career as a James Brown mimicker on stage before he found his own groove.
A couple of days after Levon Helm, drummer, singer and key member of The Band, the legendary rock group of the 1960s and 70s (and then again the 80s and the 90s), died in the middle of last month, I got to hear a podcast that excerpted two radio interviews with Helm—one from 1993 and the other 2007. There was a distinct difference in Helm’s voice between the two interviews. In the 1993 interview he sounded exactly like he did on The Weight. Remember The Weight? I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead;/ I just need some place where I can lay my head. “Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”/ He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!”, was all he said. What a gorgeous song that is. The vocals were shared by three of The Band’s singers. Besides Helm, there was Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. The song itself was written by guitarist Robbie Robertson who, I read somewhere, was inspired by the films of Luis Bunuel to write The Weight. Read more