Artwork by Kaii Higashiyama

I wake in cold blue before the sun. Unraveling the dreams I have come to treasure. One or five AM. I have no idea. My head so cold it aches. I check the kids are covered and brave downstairs. Three degrees in the kitchen. But the fish are still swimming. I light the stove with stones thrown from Asamayama soaked in kerosene. Set the coffee on it. A shower, the quickest way to warm up. But it`s hard to get in. Ice on the inside of the window. Frosted glass. Move the frozen laundry. On tip-toes against cold tiles. Harder to get out.

Minus eight during the day. Minus twenty at night. All effort spent on keeping the family alive. No time for anything other than the business of surviving the weather. Chopping wood while the sun shines. Sleeping once it sets. A complicated city boy with a simple country life. It can be good to have your priorities straightened once in a while.

Snow makes roads impassable, so I carry my youngest son to school. My own personal trainer. These weeks we are working mainly on calves and shoulders. Dressed in cheap Wellingtons, three layers of thermals and a goose-down jacket that was too warm to ever wear comfortably in England. Now I never leave the house without it.

We take a short-cut. Across jidoukan. The snow has cleaned everything. Made everywhere new. It shines with countless jewels. Our footprints the first. It seems a shame to leave them. Ever more elaborate chandeliers of ice, dragon`s teeth, hang from drainpipes and branches.

Down empty streets early morning in Nakakaruizawa. Not the Old Town, with the summer houses, the bessou, the money, the famous and the expensive French restaurants, but the community of people who work to serve the holiday makers. Jimoto no hito. Those that suffer the seasonal cold. Lack of activity and lack of work. Together. Don`t worry. Shinpaishinai de kudasai. There`ll be skiing come February. The roads will soon be busy again.

We stand at a crossroads. Waiting for lights. Watching the sun reflect off everything in long broken sunglasses. A bright red hat bought from Slam City before the kids with “Destructo” stitched on it. I draw air through my nose and it hurts. I think about a balaclava. Then memories of meeting Millwall. I guess I might be a bit scary in a ski-mask. Most likely get arrested as I enter Lawson. Get shot as I go for my point card.

As we pass, a village wakes and shutters rise on a parade of shops where, customer-less, life goes on. Slowly. The bakery are playing my CD. With optimism, we talk of sledging and snowmen. My youngest son and I. We wonder at our freezing breath. We play at who can make the bigger cloud.

Weekends we go ice-skating. The open-air arena at Kazakoshi Kouen. My kids struggle with their laces, and I selfishly lose a Karuizawa minute in thoughts of Streatham on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes a Wednesday night. Nicola Sagar, Tony Chattaway, Dave Miller. Steven Wilbury, Robert Storer, Mark Perry. Karen Szulkai. Tony and Steven Robinson. DaSilva. Jackie and Janice. The Human League versus Frankie Smith. George Benson. Give me the night. Bauer hockey boots. The barrel roll. Galaxian and Centipede. Leaving my diary around so others might reveal my loves. To shy or lame to do so myself. Innocent days. Moments before drink. And discos. Twenty-nine years off the ice and fifteen minutes back on and I think of buying my own boots again. Smiling with the past for once. I watch a pretty girl skate backwards. Nostalgia. Love. Promise. To the south, mountains are all I see.

The skating has had another plus besides reminding me of being next to teenage girls in tight jeans and tie-blouses. It has put me back in touch with my second son. Six years old now, but only three when we arrived in Japan. In England I would carry him everywhere, and he would not sleep unless I was next to him. Then came his younger brother, putting some distance between us. And then came the language. More fluent now in Japanese, he often needs his older brother to translate my questions and requests. But by taking his hand on the ice a trust was renewed. I tell him to go faster. As fast as he can. I tell him I will not let him fall. To catch my sons. The only reason I remain strong. Now he reads me books in Japanese. Explaining words I might not understand. Carefully re-pronouncing them until I have managed to get them right. And every night he lets me read him The Mr Men.

Evenings, I keep the sake outside. No need for a fridge. My intake limited to that which has refused to freeze. Sake in moonlight. Tastes better this way. One long night late December our carpenters taught me that.

Come summer our new home will be complete. Underfloor-heating, four-wheel drive, a dishwasher. I won`t know what to do with myself. But I am happy now. I want for nothing. And now is what`s important.

Japan: The Experience Of Swimming
8 Up: Before Dawn
Sybarite: Without Nothing I`m You
Cocteau Twins: My Truth
Santana: Song Of The Wind
Gutter Snypes: Trails Of Life (Inst.)
Sergio Mendes: Iemanja
Seawind: Morning Star
Talk talk: It`s Getting Late In The Evening
Fluke: Cool Hand Flute
Dead Can Dance: The Arrival & Reunion
Kaine: Welcoming Idaho
Brian Eno: Mist/Rhythm
Santana: Tales Of Kilimanjaro
Cantoma: Pandajero
John Williams: Woodstock

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[Dr Rob]

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Andy’s back with more reportage on life in Jamaica, this time with a report on what looks (and sounds) a perfect night out…

Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: there are not many better names for groups. I found some footage on You Tube this week of an amazing Tribute to Count Ossie night that I went to towards the end of last year. It was put on by Nambo Robinson, one of the unsung heroes of Jamaican music. If you pick up any reggae album with a horn section on it there’s a good chance Nambo and his long-term partner, saxophonist Dean Fraser, are on there. Their horns have featured on countless classic albums by the likes of Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Bob Marley, I Roy, The Light of Saba and Sly and Robbie.

The session was held in the breathtaking setting of the terrace of the old plantation house on Templehall Estate, north of Kingston. Walking across the fields in the dark to get to the house reminded me of the thrill of approaching an outdoor party but with the nyabinghi drums calling you in rather than the throb of bass.

It was a moving and celebratory night of Count Ossie’s music and the incredible influence it had on the development of ska and reggae. Nambo recalled how, “As a youth at about age five or seven, I had just moved to Glasspole Avenue at the foot of Wareika Hills, Rockfort. It was one night during the Christmas holidays I heard the drums of Rastafari for the first time in my life and I could not sleep. I kept wondering who were those people playing. When I asked my Mama ‘a who dem people a mek dem soun’ deh?’ and said I wanted to go see them, she said, ‘no yu cyaan go up deh. Dem a smoke weed an a celebrate fi de New Year.’” He did get to go and listen to Count Ossie and the drummers and horn players, eventually becoming one himself. “I soon found that every emotion I felt could be expressed through the music of Rastafari.”

The evening was in three parts. The first featured the surviving members of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, including Count Ossie’s son, and focused on the bare essence of their sound – drumming and chanting.

The middle section brought together Nambo’s band for a blazing selection of Studio One classics including ‘Armageddon Time’, ‘Skylarking’ and many others. Check this version of ‘Rockfort Rock’ with Dean Fraser on baritone sax.

The nyabinghi, horn and rhythm sections combined in the final section showcasing the jazz-influenced side of Count Ossie’s work. I couldn’t find any video of this part, but I did find this beautiful clip from 1974 showing Count Ossie’s group at the height of their powers with Cedric Im Brooks on soprano sax. Almost Balearic…

All in all, one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Shame it was only witnessed by 100 lucky heads. The flame is still alive, but it’s flickering…

[Andy M]

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Happy to welcome Andy M back with more stories on island life and a mix of favourite dub sounds.

Saturday night – ‘Soup and sound’ with Dexter Campbell (below), the Ska Professor. Now, as multi-sensory concepts go, soup and sound leaves Jean-Michel Jarre’s son et lumiere trailing in its wake. A low-key downtown bar in Kingston with tables outside, full of characters with stories written all over their faces. Groups of old guys playing dominoes. An old woman in the corner sits on her own all night listening and meditating (or is that sleeping?) to the music. Dexter runs the Echo Vibration soundsystem and at 70 he’s still going strong and regularly tours Europe and Japan. He played an amazing selection of rare-as-hen’s-teeth ska, rocksteady, early roots and jazz all night. The first time in my almost three years in Jamaica that I’ve heard vinyl being played out and a welcome change from the usual diet of dancehall and the canon of 20 reggae classics that gets rinsed out in 30 second/tune doses at most dances. A great night, although I woke up in the morning feeling slightly cheated. The rum had been flowing so freely that we forgot to sample the soup…



Sunday morning – beach cricket with Luciano.
The best thing to do when the kids wake you up with a sore head on Sunday is to head half an hour out of town to Fort Clarence beach. A beautiful stretch of white sand, fringed by almond trees and with a little shack that sells the freshest fish. Mid-morning and the beach cricket was in full swing when the bowler’s head was turned by a fragrant aroma and greeted by the sight of Luciano (‘Jah Messenger’, not the minimal DJ) striding through the covers resplendent in a HIM style solar topee, drawing on his pipe.

Sunday night – Beres Hammond in concert.
I’m still amazed that there’s not more live music in Jamaica. A lot of the great old artists are more in demand and make more money touring Europe and the US these days. When they do play it’s normally at ‘stage shows’ with 10-20 artists on the bill sharing an unfamiliar backing band. The show always starts late, only leaving time for two or three songs per singer before the next act is rushed on. Thankfully someone has spotted the gap in the market and Pulse have started hosting regular full-length concerts – John Holt and Freddie McGregor in recent weeks were followed by Beres Hammond on Sunday. He put on a great show and had the 500-strong crowd on their feet singing along with every word. Jamaican crowds don’t hold back which I like. My personal highlight was Ken Boothe walking through the crowd, blessing everybody and shaking hands with one hand whilst carrying a burning joss stick in the other.

And finally, I’ve been listening to a lot of dub recently. Sadly it’s disappeared from the music scene here but dub is the foundation…

Andy’s Hi-Fi: Dub Is The Foundation

Tappa Zukie: MPLA Dub
Augustus Pablo: Pablo In The Dance
The Mighty Light Of Saba: Lambs Bread Collie
Wareika Hill Sounds: Tears In Exile
King Tubby And The Aggrovators: Ruffer Version
The Skatalites: Herbsman Dub
Russ D: Spiritual Dub
Jah Shaka Meets Aswad: Aswad Special
Dennis Bovell: Rowing (12″ Version)
Rhythm And Sound With Cornel Campbell: King In My Empire
3 Generations Walking: Midnight Bustling (Midnight Rockers Mix)
Musical Youth: Pass the Dutchie (Special Dub Mix)

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[Andy M]

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I watch Tokyo go by from the window of a Metro train. Mejiro, Takadanababa, Shinjuku. I wonder if I will miss any of these places. I am leaving.

I have grown tired of Tokyo. Or rather, she has worn me out. This beautiful lady has a bounty to offer but only if you have an abundance of money and free time. Currently I have neither. Great place to visit. Hard place to live.

I am guilty of only really appreciating things when looking back. In the moment, I am always questioning. Often my mind is on what’s next. I should learn to live in ‘The Now’. Neal Cassady without the crank. Instead I try to keep moving, afraid that if I stop, nostalgia will hit me like a wave.

Las Vegas tango. Last tango in Paris. One last joyless fuck in an apartment in Bayswater. Angry and hurt, she grabs the headboard and forces her hair in my face. Some things are best forgotten, but I guess the old mental scrapbook doesn’t work that way. Sketches Of Spain bring the myth of my conception. Supposedly in Stiges. On the honeymoon. But since I was a couple of months premature, I reckon that’s the kind of truth people felt forced to tell in the early 60s. Sting sings a song about man’s crimes against man. I try to remember being in another place, but I am lost in Tokyo. No one bothers to translate. I hear a lover on the phone. Just out of the bath. Wrapped in a towel. Propped up on pillows. Flirting. I’m trying to be clever. Funny even. Before long, she’ll end up disappointed. There’s a soft focus TV promise of what love should be. Slow. Gentle. Understanding. “Hey, we have all the time in the world. Relax.” Instead, stolen moments and lies.

I watch days go by on lost roads. Clouds scream across a blue sky shot in time-lapse. I’ll get my deck-chair out. Eagles rise on a warm swell in Nepal. Gangs of small children crowd a mountain path. Following me for the sweets I brought as gifts. Dahl for breakfast, Dahl for lunch. Dahl for tea. I ain’t never been to New Orleans. The only voodoo I know is in the thunder of the London Underground and the sodium orange on deserted streets going east. The only healing chant, silence.

“Come with me”, she sings. I`m in Ronnie Scott’s. Two couples before the children, drinking champagne. (Another) one of those transient bubbles I questioned. I’ll never question anything again. I promise. Pat dreams of Mexico but I’m in Reckless in Islington. Tara’s letting me trade my boxes of Trance for a grounding in Funk and Rare Groove. I cut my hair, take the medication, and stop going out. For eight years.

Sing me to sleep. Weatherall soundtracks a film in a chapel off Oxford Street. Days of Shoreditch, Small Fish, and Silas. Nights watching Sav collect glasses. Walking between Borough and Brick Lane when the snow stopped everything.

Hendrix plays and I’m acting. Living out a role in ‘Withnail & I’. Pulling on a tattered overcoat as I pull myself off a mattress on the floor. Pulling on a joint, for effect, and to keep out the cold. A room on (H) Ash Grove where the rent was a tenner a month. Working out Pence:Brain Damage ratios. Drinking Thunderbird all day. Pints of cider with ice. Playing at it. I thought I’d never miss that place either.

I am leaving Tokyo, but I am not leaving Japan. I am heading for the hills. Half-way up an active volcano to build a mountain retreat. Friends worry that I might become isolated, but I am isolated now and I fear that to feel isolated in one of the busiest cities in the world may be harder than feeling isolated in the middle of nowhere with only the bears for company. I’m taking the easy way out.

I worry that if I stay in Tokyo I will become a bigot. My patience and enthusiasm exhausted. Cursing the endless armies of school children as I pass on my bike. I have already retreated from Tokyo. Minimizing my trips out of the house. Metro journeys filling me with despair. One more carriage full of blank faces. Any conversation limited to pleasantries or apologies. Any hope of depth, any bond, seems impossible. It would be easy to give up, yet the small successes I have with language light my days. I will never give up. But I am not winning. Retreat. Regroup.

There was a time when I could flick my toes and greet it all like one big adventure. I’d get my kids to sing “row row row your boat” in a round. Life is but a dream that so quickly passes. I think of my first friend here. The chain-smoking delivery guy who brings my records. Shin-Otsuka, and the woman with the thick scar that marks her hair-line who jokes with me in 7-11. Otawa-Dori, and the old man we used to greet everyday to and from school. Dragging his tiny dog along on stiff legs in the heat and the cold. The dog died and the man disappeared. Kohinata, and the woman with the magenta bob, ever-present shades and tight leather skirts, who lives round the corner with a Ryuichi Sakamoto lookalike. Probably in her late 60s, but you still might.

My children play under Mejiro-Dori’s highway, where we feed the stray cats, and the cats piss on the parked cars.

It’s not places that are important, but people. And I’ll take them with me.

David Sylvian: Nostalgia
Michael Shrieve: Las Vegas Tango
Miles Davis: Sketches Of Spain
Sting: Fragildad
Vangelis: Good To See You
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Before Long
Cerrone: Corruption
Jean-Luc Ponty: Ethereal Mood
Bill Laswell: Lost Roads
Neville Brothers: Healing Chant
Finis Africae: Armadilha
Tania Maria: Come With Me
Pat Metheny: Sueno Con Mexico
Bowery Electric: Sleep
Jimi Hendrix: Little Wing (Live)

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[Dr Rob]

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Andy M moved to Jamaica in 2007 and will be sending occasional postcards from the land of wood and water to Test Pressing on music and island life.

Today marks the start of reggae month in Jamaica. An odd concept in an island where music infuses life 365 days a year, but a fitting way to honour the birthdays of the Crown Prince and the King of reggae. Dennis Brown would have been 53 today and Bob Marley would have become a pensioner on the 6th.

Dancehall is now the jittery heartbeat of the nation’s youth and Mavado and Vybz Kartel the new heroes. Graffiti proclaiming ‘Gully’ or ‘Gaza’ covers walls across the country, scrawled by the partisan followers of the two rival DJs (Mavado comes from Cassava Piece a poor community on the banks of a gully, and Vybz Kartel was brought up in an area in Portmore known as Gaza for the high level of violence). Whether this tribal loyalty is just a natural expression of teenage identity or something much more dangerous is a heated topic of debate. What’s clear is that many schools are divided into Gaza and Gully gangs and there have been countless violent incidents between rival groups if not any deaths as yet. Politicians and commentators bemoan the hyped feud between the DJs as a symbol of moral decline and the negative role of dancehall music in society.

At first this reminded me of the hysteria a few years ago over the alleged role of gangster rap in youth violence in Britain. But in a significantly more violent society with widespread illiteracy and few alternative role models for young boys, the posturing of DJs can have a much more insidious impact – this is no suburban fantasy for middle class kids. The Gaza/Gully conflict got such media attention that the Prime Minister organised a summit in December that brought together the two artists to sign a peace treaty.

Too much ism and schism as the old song goes. Last year 1604 people were murdered in a country of just 2.7 million citizens. The police say gang violence was responsible for two thirds of these deaths. Many of these gangs have political links and receive state contracts that sustain them. All this is nothing new. In 1978 in a bid to quell the political violence, Bob Marley organised the One Love Peace concert and brought together onstage the leaders of the two main parties. It may not have succeeded, but it was a noble effort. How Jamaica needs a reggae star now that will stand up for, rather than manipulate, the youth and urge action to sever the ties between politics and organised crime which is holding this great country back.

SONGS FROM ANDY’S HI-FI


Bob Marley – Rainbow Country

A joyous skank. Play loud, shut your eyes and feel the sun.
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Dennis Brown – Why Seek More (aka Give A Helping Hand) 12” Mix
A two-part rocker from Dennis Emmanuel with Niney the Observer at the controls. Amazing bass and drum work-out.
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[Andy M]

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The pink balloons atop the four foot tall Altec 7 cinema speakers are deflated, spent and shriveled like ball bags in an outside privy on a winter’s morning. The lists of cocktails that decorate the walls have long since been mixed. The night lit by fluorescent shots long since sunk. No more limes to slice. No more lemons to be squeezed. No more gaigen swearing at the overworked bar staff. The Lowrider posse. The samurai. The photographers. The dancing girls. Girls in tracksuits, see-through sheer dresses, and corn-rows. The Rosies. Have all gone.

The couch beside the decks left vacant now the Metro is up and running. The gorgeous jazz-singer out of sight and out of mind. My eyes, long accustomed to the dark and the smoke, watch the dB-display attached to the vintage UREI. A flickering pulse amid the empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays. 6 AM in a basement bar in Ebsiu, that’s fun but uncomfortable with more than thirty people. There’s only five of us left.

An irresistible force feeds Coldcut through infinite loops. Reflecting sadness off a thousand mirrors. I hammered this when it came out. I was living above an off-license at the wrong end of Upper Street. Naked to the top deck of the No. 19. If it’s tonic water youze want, it’s tonic water you’ll get. Bandulu do Acid Jazz. One for the Land Of Oz regulars who swapped writing graffiti amid the violence and whores of Streatham Hill for Thailand and a dragon’s warm embrace. Electric counterpoint and a key change bring new horizons. A rare feeling of great optimism. (Little Fluffy) Clouds in a blue sky. Ships at a distance have all men’s dreams on board.

Voodoo echoes through an empty city at dawn. Rattling down the black line. Post-coital techno. Sexed with strangers on a lonely come-down grey journey home from North to South. My love she lives on the Tulse Hill Estate. Dresser strewn with make-up. Cold wooden floor strewn with fashion magazines and clothes. Silverfish in the loo. Woozy with cider. Sick for another drink.

Nineteen years later sunshine betrays the cold on a lonely afternoon in Kohinata. I haven’t spoken to a soul all day. Waiting for the kids to come home. Thoughts move to the frozen snows of Karuizawa. A retreat from the world half-way up an active volcano. Home seems too long ago. Tokyo is too hard. I need a place to hide awhile. I am not Tereza, like Sabrina I’ll disappear.

Some strange cargo, back in another basement. This one on Seven Dials. Running with Fat Cat and GPR. Out-drinking Bjork and freaking out Scanner. Wandering the Mermaid Theatre in a haunted cowboy-shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. Big apples and star dancers. The ghost of A Gravitational Arc Of Ten sings the blues. Rez over everything. White silence on Almeida Street, bar the ringing in my ears.

Heavy skies give (fallen) angles sway. Airto swings into the theme to Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected. Bar-owner Batch gives his last thumbs-up. Marbo, who was feigning sleep, gives me a round of applause, but I can’t tell if it’s in jest. A standing ovation before stumbling up the stairs and out towards the cold morning and the station. Skipping breakfast from the restaurant opposite that specializes in horse meat sashimi. The streets of Ebisu empty save clean-up squads washing the roads and picking up drunks. Guys in tight black Beatles suits. Girls in floral mini-dresses and cowboy boots.

So much is different. But so much remains the same.

Coldcut: Autumn Leaves (Irresistible Force)
Koh Tao: Sun Down
Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint
Primitive Painter: Levitation
James Yorkston: Woozy With Cider
Mark Isham: Mrs Soffel
In The Nursery: Incidental Guilt
Stange Cargo: Million Town (Kruder & Dorfmeister)
Detroit Grand Pubahs: Skydive From Venus
Craig Leon: Nommos
Ellis Island Sound: Angels Way
Airto: Bebe

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[Dr Rob]

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Adam K (a.k.a Waldo a.k.a Gentleman Mixer) is back with his thoughts on the wonderful world of Bill Withers and his ‘Live At Carnegie Hall’ album.

It’s just past the beginning of the year and no one gives a damn about anything. Everything is rubbish with a capital bish. No one has got any of the money they didn’t have in the first place and everyone’s on a diet of bad news and broken dreams with the Nutty Professor II (The Klumps) on a loop behind your eyes. The snow came so quick your postie still looks like he’s been frozen mid-post by the Snow Queen for cavorting with centaurs (the dirty cove). Cadbury cream eggs are on sale. Things are rotten. But is there a small chink of light I can see? Something reassembling good times, cheer and the nectar of human joy swilling around our chinked mugs? Yes yes YES –second in the occasional trawl of lost wonderful albums – Live At Carnegie Hall by Bill Withers.

This is a live album which is not feted or fawned over by the rockist establishment and never appears in any lists of the best album ever, let alone best live album. It’s ignored and only really known by a happy breed of the great and amazing (hands up!). If you meet someone with this record you can cross them off your twat list straightaways and maybe even start a family with them. A good friend swears his love for Bill Withers was the hook that sealed the deal on a romantic engagement. It sounds like a shaky premise for a relationship and it’s not one that is normally on the top of the filter questionnaire list of dating uniformed men dot com but tosh, it’s a pretty damn perfect way to set off into the sunset. The converse is true too though; if your potential other half likes the Levellers you can kill them and the Judge wouldn’t even give you 50 hours of community service with Boy George. The good Judge would shake your hand and the clerk of the court would garland you with flowers and the bells would ring out.

Back to the album – you can buy it for 5 quid from Amazon (other virtual dream destroying warehouses are available) and that 5 quid will be the best you’ve ever spent. Yes, even better than the 5 quid you’re using to buy some Italian disco cast-off which you and 360 other sad beens are looking for to impress the other 359 ( the other 1 already has it from a charity shop for “like 50p”) in a futile disco pissing contest. Collecting in this form is all about individual possession and is not about engagement, enjoyment or gardener’s question time or everything else which makes us better.

Of course I digress, if you wanted linear go and read a phone book. You know where it’s going and you can laugh when you get to Mr.Nipple. Back on message. Mr Withers is an artist that never gets the recognition he deserves. Most of his albums have a patchy CD release if released at all and his only exposure is Dr Fox hammering “Lovely Day” on Heart FM when the temperature reaches 17 C (i.e. the temperature under which he can crawl out from under the algae riddled stone where he hibernates). Mr Withers is in fact up there with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and perhaps even edges those two through the sheer bristling humanity that surrounds his work, enveloping and bathing the listener in a glow of inspiration. You’ll forgive my hyperbole because it’s all a sky high fact because we’re talking about Bill Withers and this album. For a moment let’s cast off cool and the strictures it coerces upon us, directing us like a shadow nervous system. I know when you listen to this record a feeling of community energy pours out of the speakers and soars like an astral projection of light dissolving clouds and bleaching the moribund grey which coats everything. Friends, I am not a religious man but this is pure testifying business.

Mr Withers recorded this live album over two nights in October 1972 with a band which was essentially Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (minus Charles – who was too busy raising young Eazy E who, on reflection, probably didn’t spent enough time on the naughty step). He was only two albums down, which may seem rather early to issue a live album, a bit like Leona Lewis writing her autobiography “Leona: The story so far, 21 years of being confused by P.T.O written on both sides of the same piece of paper” but at 35 years old he was by music industry standards past it. Coming to music relatively late after a spell in the navy and working assembling aircraft his reluctance to embrace the music industry was pretty established and he did not walk the showbiz line. This is shown by the subject matter of the songs on this record, celebrating his grandmother, Vietnam veterans, friendship, middle aged women’s’ fears about relationships and, err, cold baloney. But the beauty of this record is the performance.

Sure the band’s performance is awesome – the opening 8 minutes of “Use Me” is high grade organic funk, loose and greasy yet tight as two coats of paint. Clearly the band gels and there is real love in their playing swirling around Bill. However the performance that leads this through the roof is Bill’s. Every time the audience sighs, cry or sings out with joy they confirm everything I as a listener feel about Bill on this record. The soul of the man sings out, contemplative, tender, and very funny. Just as great as his singing is (and it’s perfect), it’s his spoken introduction to the songs that are the strongest threads running through this. The two minutes in which he expounds on his relationship with his Grandmother before “Grandma’s Hands” are at points incredibly intimate and at the same time hilarious drawing in the audience and us. He just sounds like the purest soul in the world and time in his company feels like it validates everything rubbish going on anywhere. The best thing with these spoken interludes is that they are a conversation with the audience. There’s no performer’s ego here just the purest communication you get from one on one sharing – that‘s a special quality when in fact he’s singing to 2,000 people in an huge hall.

Hearing his voice points to why I think Bill Withers is a great artist. He sounds like he’s perhaps just as sad and weary as we may be, maybe wary of what we all struggle through but there’s a keen sense of hope, love and support. This is why I think as an artist he endures, he doesn’t sugar coat life but brings a sense of community. Throughout this album there’s a great deal of dark and light imagery, acknowledgment of the dark and of pain but knowledge that there is light and there is humanity out there. The pinnacle of this is “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, a resounding late night lament to a lost lover of pouring emotion as Bill wishes his ex well. Bill acknowledges there is a “darkness over which I have no power” but his love is so strong for her in truth seeing her happy is just as important to him as his brooding which will in time recede. At points Bill sings alone but at the key moment the strings surge forward and it’s heart stopping.

The finale is an epic 13 odd minute telling of Harlem and Cold Baloney which builds like the Amish in Witness, steady Rhodes funk breaking down into a marvellous call and response section with the audience singing like a recently assembled Gospel Choir. This breaks down into individual jams by the band (the bass driven Melvin Dunlap moment is so on point) but is so loose and the audience is with them all the way. The message in this track after the catharsis of this record is that the only way is up and we’re all going to Wembley.

With such a talent you wonder why Bill isn’t out there performing and saving our souls again. I can’t wait to see the next screening of the recent documentary on Bill, “Still Bill”, to find out.

Coincidentally “ Still Bill” is showing on the 21st February 2010 at the Prince Charles Cinema near Leicester Square at 1pm – tickets available here. You know what to do (i.e. see Still Bill at the Prince Charles, buy this album and send me photos of yourself in the bath).

[Adam K]

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