TOP TEN: October 2014

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1• Live See Scrolls!

I could hardly believe what I was seeing or hearing, but I knew it was Tami Neilson’s ‘Walk Back To Your Arms’ – a smart slice of honky-tonky retro in a minor key from her great album Dynamite!, released earlier this year – performed by a gamelan orchestra and shaven-headed, tattooed, howling-and-whistling throat-singer Jonny Marks. That was just one of the highlights of the annual APRA Silver Scroll Award, held last week in Wellington.

 The Scrolls is a New Zealand music event that is actually about music. Each year, the members of APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association), all of which are songwriters and composers, vote from a list whittled down by a panel of critics and practitioners to decide the year’s favourite song. It has nothing to do with sales, radio play, promotion or anything else. It’s the closest musicians ever come to being judged by a jury of their peers.

 The Awards ceremony is the kind of ritzy, red carpet carry-on at which local musicians tend to feel a bit out of place – nice wine, haute cuisine – but it also gives them the rare feeling of being valued. The Silver Scroll and other assorted honours are dished out in between performances of the five top songs, all reworked in often astonishing rearrangements. This year’s musical director was Luke Buda of The Phoenix Foundation, whose matching of songs to different performers showed his imagination, humour and inspired musicality.

 A regular feature of the evening is the Soundz Contemporary Award for modern classical composition. In the past this has always been an awkward fit; a small pointy-headed island in a sea of pop. This year, for the first time, the classical contingent seemed more like part of the party. In an unprecedented move, the late Douglas Lilburn – pioneering orchestral and electronic composer – was inducted by APRA into the NZ Music Hall Of Fame – an institution otherwise frequented by pop heroes like Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn. In honour of Lilburn, excerpts from three of his works were performed, including a lively synth interpretation by Ed Zuccollo of his 1940 Aotearoa Overture, and his electronic tone poem Welcome Stranger played by the banjo-and-theramin-bearing Labcoats.

 But it wasn’t all wacky reinventions. The winner of the Maioha Award for best song in Te Reo Maori, Robert Ruha’s ‘Tiki Tapu’, was given a heartfelt, soulful performance by Electric Wire Hustle, with Mara TK’s voice in full flight.

 It was a good night. Borders between high and low culture seemed to be collapsing all over the place and I was having a ball, picking my way through the debris.

 You can watch the whole thing here – but it’s long.

2• Beatles in Aldershot

Even the Beatles, it seems, played their share of shows in scuzzy dancehalls - the kind with a tatty mirror ball and old party decorations on the walls, and where only half a dozen couples show up to dance. These great photos from 1961 should feel familiar to anyone who ever cut their teeth in a high school covers band. Plus an interesting item regarding a set of photos from the end of their career…

3• Old drums

Thank you Peter Dasent, for drawing my attention to this lovely collection of images of vintage drum kits (and a few vintage drummers.)

4• Old drummers

And while on the subject of drummers, here’s one of the best. Al Foster played with Miles Davis for many years and is one of those intuitive sensitive geniuses. I especially love the solo he plays in this old Miles tune, which always sounded to me like it was based on a playground rhyme.

5• Sisters

A beautiful, mysterious series of photos by Nicholas Nixon, of his wife and her three sisters, taken annually over a forty-year period. Gazing into their changing faces I start to imagine all sorts of stories. Nice essay by Susan Minot too.

6• Lou Reed’s mystery package – is that you Waldo?

As this piece from Death and Taxes explains, an unopened package Lou Reed sent to himself in 1965 could contain the very first recording of the Velvet Underground. Oddly, the whole thing makes me think of ‘The Gift’, that blackly comic Velvet Underground song, about the guy who mails himself to his girlfriend…

7• $37,000 for one record

Another of those stories that makes me feel better about how much money I’ve squandered on music over the years. Tommy Johnson was brilliant, though, and I’m sure the price this guy paid for a record by the early rural bluesman would probably make Tommy feel better too, about all the money he spent on Sterno, or, as he called it, ‘canned heat’ - the jellied alcohol product he consumed to get high, and which ultimately killed him.

8• Joe Boyd/John Peel

Joe Boyd, the wonderful record producer (Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention) and writer (his memoir White Bicycles is a must) takes a stroll through the archives of his late contemporary, John Peel and pulls out a few favourites and some nice surprises here.

9• Ry Cooder in Nashville

And if you have an hour or so to spare, Ry Cooder is in hilarious form in this great interview with country musicologist Barry Mazor. Cooder’s impressions of the Stanley Brothers are brilliant. Mazor is a smart articulate interviewer too, with a lovely turn of phrase. Introducing Cooder, he refers to him someone “who has never committed an act of musical taxidermy”. Amen to that.

10• Ezra Furman

Currently my favourite sexually-conflicted, Judaist punk rocker. This guy’s got songs, good ones, lots of 'em. Chords you've heard before, and lyrics you haven't. And he’s tired. Meet him here.

Tags: new zealandry cooderphoenix foundationvelvet undergroundlou reedthe beatlesdouglas lilburnelectric wire hustlemiles davisjohn peeljoe boydfairport conventiontommy johnsonezra furman

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