Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out. Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension. This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti. And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot. Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.

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Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.

David Bowie: The Serious Moonlight Tour 35 Years On

David Bowie, Milton Keynes Bowl, 3rd July 1983. Photo by Denis O’Regan

The current London heatwave has sent me back to the summer of 1983 when it seemed like the sun shone every day and the radio was set to ‘fun’, blurting Men At Work, Thompson Twins, Kid Creole, KC and the Sunshine Band, Dexys Midnight Runners and Culture Club.

But Bowiemania trumped them all. In July ’83, all my parents’ friends were dancing to Let’s Dance and David’s Serious (or should that be Sirius?) Moonlight Tour was the hottest ticket in town.

Apologies to Milton Keynes natives, but Londoners of a certain generation will probably always suppress a titter at the mention of the new town’s name (The Style Council didn’t help with their satirical 1984 single).

Maybe Bowie tittered a bit too when three Milton Keynes Bowl dates (1st/2nd/3rd July 1983) were swiftly added to the tour due to unprecedented demand in the London area (he had already done a night at Wembley Arena and a charity show at the Hammersmith Odeon). But the gigs were a huge success, and Denis O’Regan’s photo marking the occasion is surely one of the great ’80s music documents.

According to O’Regan, who had unparalleled access to Bowie and his entourage throughout the world tour, David had never been happier: ‘He talked about it being his Phil Collins period but this was heavily in retrospect. At the time, I know he loved it. It was the happiest and most successful he’d ever been’, O’Regan recently told MOJO magazine. Bowie was also making a bit of money at last, freed from dodgy record and management deals.

But he wouldn’t have been the great artist he was without injecting some spikiness into even his most ‘up’ periods: see the ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘China Girl’ videos, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and also the below interview, where he takes MTV to task for not playing more black artists.

Prince: The Lovesexy Tour @ 30

I haven’t kept many VHS cassettes: ‘Steve Martin Live’, Japan’s ‘Oil On Canvas’ and King Crimson’s ‘The Noise’ are probably lurking around somewhere, and two vids that definitely won’t be hitting the charity shop any time soon are Prince’s ‘Lovesexy Live: Volumes 1 and 2’ (still unavailable on DVD…).

The Lovesexy tour kicked off 30 years ago this week, on 8th July 1988 at Paris’s Palais Omnisport. The seven-month jaunt, taking in Europe, North America and Japan, was arguably Prince’s greatest ever.

A spectacular in-the-round stage set was designed as a kind of ‘fantasy island’, half a playground and half a dreamscape, with curtains, a mini basketball court, brass bed, swing set and a Ford T-Bird which Prince ‘drove’ around the stage at the start of the show.

The Lovesexy tour band: left to right, Cat Glover, Dr Fink, Boni Boyer, Miko Weaver, Eric Leeds, Prince, Levi Seacer Jr., Matt Blistan, Sheila E

Taped on the last night of the European tour – 9th September 1988, at the Westfalenhalle in Dortmund, Germany – ‘Lovesexy Live’ still makes for a thrilling watch. First, the music: this band could turn on a dime. It’s hard to imagine any other set of musicians from the era pulling off the ‘Adore’/’Jack U Off’/’Sister’ medley. Prince’s guitar playing is at its best, with creamy, delay-drenched distortion and tight, tasty Telecaster.

And of all the ’80s ‘pop’ acts who incorporated jazz into their work, Prince may be the most successful. In collaboration with his superb horn section (Eric Leeds on saxes, Matt Blistan on trumpet), he often went back to the source: Ellington’s ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ and Charlie Parker’s ‘Billie’s Bounce’ infiltrate ‘Blues In C/If I Had A Harem’, and Blistan occasionally quotes from ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing’). Meanwhile Sheila E brings the Bay Area jazz/rock sound so beloved of Prince. Her solo feature is a highlight of his ’80s live work.

Then there’s the ‘story’. The Lovesexy show is structured like one of those old Warner Bros gangster pictures – in the first half (lucky for us), we see an ‘evil’ Prince, seduced by the sins of the flesh and tempted by drugs, money and criminality, giving him an excuse to dust off Black Album standouts ‘Superfunkicalifragisexy’ and ‘Bob George’.

Then there’s punishment, atonement and spiritual conversion. Yes, y’all, the second half of the show is ‘God stuff’. But if you don’t go along with it, the music is enough of a spiritual experience anyway. Anyway, Prince certainly seems genuinely transported during ‘Anna Stesia’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’.

Europe couldn’t get enough of the tour. There were no less than seven nights at London’s Wembley Arena and a series of famous after-show gigs, particularly at the Camden Palace on 25th July when Mica Paris was picked out from the crowd to sing ‘Just My Imagination’ and Ron Wood joined Prince onstage for a memorable ‘Miss You’ (see below).

Ticket sales were not so good in the States (14th September to 29th November) where apparently Prince struggled to sell out many arenas, despite it being his first major tour there for over three years. But normal service was resumed when the Japan leg kicked off in early February 1989. The last night of the tour on the 13th was apparently an exceptionally emotional one.

When Prince got home to Minneapolis, he commenced work on the ‘Batman’ soundtrack, another project about the duality of man. It’s not hard to see where his head was at as the ’80s drew to a close.

Gig Review: Level 42 @ Love Supreme Festival, 30th June 2018

Mark King tearing it up

What’s it like seeing ‘your’ band play at a big festival, when only a small proportion of the crowd are fans and most would rather have a chin-wag and quaff cider than listen to the music? Will your band win them over, or at least give a good account of themselves?

It was an interesting experience watching Level 42 under those circumstances last weekend. The Love Supreme Festival was celebrating its fifth birthday, no mean feat for an outdoor ‘jazz’ festival, thriving in a niche marketplace by focusing on the improvising musicians of tomorrow, established genre names and crossover artists whose presence no doubt raises some eyebrows (the other main-stage headliners this year were Earth Wind & Fire, George Clinton and Elvis Costello).

A big festival gig should, on the face of it, be a doddle for a band with as many hits and as much musical credibility as Mark King and his muckers – you knock off a lean, mean hour and get the crowd saying: ‘I’d forgotten about this one!’. But they did it the hard way this time, kicking off with nobody’s favourite Level 42 song ‘Heaven In My Hands’ then segueing speedily into ‘Dream Crazy’, ‘To Be With You Again’ and ‘It’s Over’.

A superb ‘Children Say’, complete with a reference to Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, got things back on track musically but also seemed lost on the crowd. King was unsettled. Had he blown it? No. He soldiered on, making some cracks about the World Cup and the Alan Shearer lookalike on trumpet, before ‘Running In The Family’ prompted an outbreak of interpretative dancing from the Brighton teenagers.

Secret weapon Mike Lindup sounded in superb voice during ‘Lessons In Love’, ‘Something About You’ and ‘Hot Water’, but, predictably, it was the classic jazz/funk/fusion-era material that gained most traction: ‘Starchild’, ‘Love Games’ and a never-groovier ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’. Suddenly the crowd and gig came to life. There could have been much more in that vein. Where was ‘Almost There’, ‘Micro Kid’, ‘Turn It On’, ‘The Chinese Way’, even ’43’, ‘Mr Pink’ or ‘Heathrow’?

But when the material was right, the band sounded superb. King’s voice may be past its best but his bass skills have reached new heights. The slapping sometimes lacked precision but his fingerstyle playing goes from strength to strength. He embellished ‘Children Say’, ‘Starchild’ and ‘Sun Goes Down’ with some outstanding modal moves. There’s life in the Isle Of Wight lad yet.

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

9. David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

8. Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

7. Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

6. Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

5. Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

4. John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

3. Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

2. Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

1. Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.