Tag Archives: Simon Nicol

Watching The Dark

15 Jan


With hundreds of thousands of  bad compilation albums out there, it’s easy to forget that there are some good ones too. I suppose the advent of iTunes and shuffle buttons mean that fewer people care about listening to tracks in the sequence the artist intended them to be heard – and certainly a lot of compilations are thrown together, seemingly at random. This one is an exception: A triple-CD collection of  tracks recorded by Richard Thompson  between 1969 and 1992. It was compiled (actually, I’d prefer to say curated) by long-time Thompson enthusiast Edward Haber and issued in 1993 on Hannibal Records (HNCD 5303), the label set up by Joe Boyd who had produced many of Thompson’s finest recordings over that period. It was also pulled together with the artist’s full involvement.

In more recent years Thompson has been the subject of two substantive box sets.  (Plus a double album anthology of his period with Capitol Records (Action Packed)). There’s  RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a mammoth 5 CD + book collection produced by Free Reed in 2006 and a 4 CD retrospective, Walking on a Wire put out by Shout! Factory in 2009) but this was the first real anthology (although Island records issued a double album of live tracks and rarities in 1976 when Thompson had left the music business for a while to live in an Islamic commune). Listening to this again though, I think it may be the best of the whole bunch.

The first thing to note about Watching the Dark is what good value it is. Each of the three discs contains more  than 70 minutes of music and of the 47 tracks, only half (24 if you’re pedantic) were available at the time of issue. The remainder are a mixture of  live versions of songs, re-mixes, wholly unreleased or unavailable material. The package also includes a carefully compiled and expensively-produced colour booklet. While not including song lyrics this does provide details of the source of each recording (studio or venue) and every musician plus a thoughtful essay on Richard Thompson’s career to the date this collection appeared.

The next thing to note is how the project is sequenced – which us unusual but works surprisingly well. Instead of attempting to ‘theme’ the material or simply present it chronologically, Haber groups the tracks into two or three year periods (1978-80,  1972-73 and so on) but then spreads it about (so three tracks from Thompson’s Fairport Convention period are in the middle of disc 1 while three from his  first solo album are on disc three while the five most recent songs of all are in the middle of disc 2.  I can’t work out why this works so well – but it does! Another thing I found impressive was that Haber didn’t feel the need to represent all of Richard Thompson’s side projects. This means that although the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson collaboration is featured (‘Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found’) there’s nothing from other ensemble albums like Morris On, Rock On or Saturday Rolling Around.

Finally, there’s the music. The five LP’s worth of songs recorded with his former wife Linda Thompson form fifteen of the tracks here – and for me they’re among the most outstanding (‘Withered and Died’ and ‘Strange Affair’  are certainly in my top-ten Richard and Linda favourites! Interesting too are three songs which were released on the Shoot Out The Lights album (‘For Shame of Doing Wrong’, ‘Backstreet Slide’ and ‘The Wrong Heartbeat’)  but which are represented here in earlier versions produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy for an album which Richard Thompson vetoed because he hated the production.  I think they’re rather good though, although the sound is rather ‘lusher’ than I would have associated with Thompson at this time.

Also well-represented are live tracks from the Richard Thompson Big Band which, for a while, included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (who were making their own albums as a duo around this time). A later female vocalist who was part of the band for a while and who is represented here is Shawn Colvin.  Others featured include Pete Zorn, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol as well as past and present Fairport Convention drummers Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway.

In the mix too are some solo performances – including a handful of acoustic guitar versions of traditional tunes.

All in all, it’s a really impressive collection and worth commending. Although it’s not cheap, even on Amazon, it shows that decent compilations are worth buying if they’ve been compiled with care and attention to detail (unlike those which appear without even crediting the artists, producers and engineers whose work is represented).


The Dylan Project

3 Nov


This evening I’m going to The Stables theatre in Milton Keynes to listen to the current incarnation of The Dylan Project play live so in preparation I’ve gone back to the original CD from 1998, on Woodworm Records (WRCD029).  This is credited to Steve Gibbons but is very much a collaborative project – and by the time of the second album, the following year, the album’s title had become the band’s name

Mr Gibbons is an unpretentious working musician (vocals, guitar, harmonica)  from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) who has been recording and touring steadily, but scarcely spectacularly, since the 1960s and whose main claim to fame came through charting with a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Tulane’ in the mid-seventies.   The genesis of the Project came out of his conversation with another Brummie, Dave Pegg  (the bass player from Fairport Convention). Both were Dylan fans and their thoughts turned to putting together a collection of their favourite songs.

If it were me or you of course, we might just draw up a playlist for our i-pod or burn a custom CD for the car – but these guys are professional musicians: Gibbons was an experienced band leader and Pegg, at this time, was the owner of a well-regarded recording studio and a boutique record label and  so what resulted was this album.

The pair each pulled one of their regular collaborators into the venture:  P.J. Wright was part of Gibbons’s main band (playing steel, pedal steel and slide guitars) and Simon Nicol (guitar/vocals) was Pegg’s bandmate in Fairport.  Though not featured on the sleevenotes or artwork, the drummer on all tracks was Gerry Conway (who was at this point just joining Fairport).

What they put together was a really listenable collection of fifteen tracks – fourteen by Dylan of course, but also an opener (‘Colours to the Mast’) by Gibbons. This is an expert pastiche but one which is an affectionate, celebratory, tribute rather than a parody – and which showcases how well Steve Gibbons’s gravelly voice can handle Dylan’s material. The sleevenotes are great too, as each of the four protagonists describes the circumstances by which the project came together and  their own reflections on what Dylan means to them.

The cover tracks include some of my favourite songs – (‘Simple Twist of Fate’; ‘I Want You’ and ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’) and also some which I’d not appreciated sufficiently in their original incarnations (‘Ring Them Bells’ and, especially, ‘Dark Eyes’). In all of them the backing arrangements are sympathetic – but not in awe of  the originals. More importantly, you get the feeling that all involved were having a thoroughly enjoyable time working on material they knew and admired.

Yes, it’s ‘only’ a tribute album by a bunch of old men and of course it’s not the same as watching Mr Zimmerman play his own songs. Since Bob Dylan is as unpredictable as ever though, it’s unlikely you will hear more accomplished  live performances of some of this material, played by their writer, with familiar arrangements, in small to medium venues.  Clearly others feel the same way – which is why The Dylan Project continues to tour regularly.

(PS The Woodworm label is no more but the Dylan Project’s recordings can now be found on  Road Goes on Forever records at:  http://www.rgfrecords.demon.co.uk/current_releases.htm ).

The History of Fairport Convention

21 Apr


This is a great artefact as well as a collection of music! It’s since been re-released as a single CD with a different cover but this review is of the double album issued on Island Records in 1972 when Fairport was taking time out  re-convening before the Rosie album the following year. It was a package put together with real care: a gatefold sleeve, fronted by a Pete Frame family tree, detailing who was in which incarnation of the band between 1967 and 1972 . Inside was a bound-in booklet with an intelligent note about each track and photos and, on the early pressings, even the paper ‘seal’ and ribbon on the cover was real (and yes, on my copy it is blue – others are red or green).

I think I bought it in about 1974 having read about Fairport in Melody Maker and New Musical Express and, not quite knowing where to start, decided to go for an anthology first. Little did I realise that this would be a purchase that would define a large part of my musical landscape  over a period now approaching forty years!

Although there’s nothing from their debut album (which was on a different label back then – now the rights to both their Polydor and Island recordings belong to Universal), it was a pretty good summation of what the band was about at that time. Twenty tracks – some written by luminaries Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny (and less common inputs from Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Ian Matthews) plus the ever-reliable “Trad. Arr.” which invariably showcase the fiddle of Dave Swarbrick.

Plenty of these still make appearances on today’s Fairport setlist – although not as carbon-copies.

I’m not sure I’d recommend this  as a first purchase for anyone unfamiliar with Fairport – and the abridged CD has less appeal – but if you still own a turntable and ever see a copy of the double album in good nick, snap it up!