WOMAD Day 2

This continues my writeup of WOMAD USA.

Yesterday I went late, having first stopped in at a company picnic that was a bust (gray and rainy, lots of kid’s activities but few for adults, cold food). I got there in time for Kathryn Tickell’s performance, and it’s a damn good thing as it was the second best thing (after the Blind Boys of Alabama) about the festival so far.

Kathryn is a master of the Northumbrian pipes, which are (as her introducer said a bit clumsily) “less scary” than traditional Scottish pipes. They’re smaller and quieter, and are fed by a bellows rather than by the performer’s breath. She is also a master fiddler and treated us to alternating sets on both instruments. She’s been playing with rock musicians, including Sting and Peter Gabriel, as well as doing her own music. I can’t really describe her performance musically without feeling a bit New Age (the whole “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” problem), so I tried to write down some things she said about the tunes instead:

I was commissioned to write about Otterburn, a battle that happened six hundred years ago between the English and the Scottish. In Northumbria everyone is a little of both, so I didn’t know which side I was supposed to be on. I didn’t know whether to make it a slow sad song or a happy little victory jig, so I compromised. After six hundred years it seemed the right time.

I wrote this reel for my brother – he’s fifteen and a great fiddler, but at present he’s more interested in beer.

I play these songs [fiddle tunes] in the village pub with my uncles. They have the same haircut, the same clothes, the same red accordions… Being farmers or shepherds they don’t get into town much to buy clothes, that’s not important to them. But they do get the Farmers Weekly, and you can buy everything from there. So they all have the same Farmers Weekly checked shirt… If there’s a wedding or funeral you see them all wearing the Farmers Weekly suit. There are only four choices after all.

This song [I wish I had written down the name. Sting had Kathryn play the beginning of it for his song “Island of Souls” on The Soul Cages] – do you know what’s happening to coal mining and shipbuilding in Northumbria? It’s all shutting down. The coal pit shut down. With the closing went 60% of the town’s jobs, and really the heart of the town. My grandfather worked in another pit but knew about this one. He said the mine tunnels extend for miles under the ocean. I asked how they would close it off, and he said the entrances to the tunnels would be sealed off and the sea would slowly seep in. So I wrote this song picturing the sea slowly seeping in from the top and bottom of the coal tunnels, reclaiming its own.

The rest of the day? Well, the Neville Brothers started off strong and went directly to hell as soon as Aaron Neville took the lead vocals. His version of “What’s Going On” only showed how inferior his vocal technique was to Marvin Gaye’s and started me wondering why I had paid a lot of money to hear the band do covers. Then he started in on “Don’t Know Much,” his crapulent song that was made famous when Linda Ronstadt did the duet with him. Between his singing both parts, the unbelievably low-rent keyboard accompaniment, and his air guitar during the solo, my respect for him went straight down the tubes. I stuck around to hear the group do a little more New Orleans style stuff, but split soon thereafter.

There was supposed to have been a performance by Iarla Ó Lionáird, an Irish solo vocalist, but there was an unscheduled switch and an awful bazouki band was on that stage. I watched DJ Peretz (aka Perry Farrell) playing records for a while. If I had been in more of a dancing mood it would have been a lot of fun, but I was pooped and went home instead.

Dancing about Architecture

Just got back from the first night of WOMAD USA, the world music and dance festival founded by Peter Gabriel. The USA festival is held in Marymoor Park in Redmond.

I arrived about 5:30, straightened out my ticket (why does Ticketmaster only ship to your billing address? If Amazon figured it out, shouldn’t they?), and entered the festival grounds. The first act I wanted to see was at 7:00, so I wandered around to get the lay of the land. I heard the first few minutes of Baka Beyond’s show, but came to the same conclusion I had reached after a couple of months of listening to their debut album “Heart of the Forest”: they’re world pop too watered down to be really engaging. I moved on to Savina Yannatou. She had a fantastic voice, but unfortunately her more meditative material couldn’t be heard well over the sound of Baka Beyond coming over from the next stage. I grabbed dinner and headed over to the main stage.

The stage crew took forty-five minutes longer than they should have to get all the mikes set up for the first act, but finally Isaac Hayes took the stage. He played a set that dipped pretty heavily back into “Shaft,” “Hot Buttered Soul,” and some of his other early works. Both “Walk On By” and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic” were fantastic. Because of the late start, I decided to leave before the set was over. As I was walking back to the other stage, I heard him start into his classic hit from South Park: “Chocolate Salty Balls”! How wonderful for all the little children (and their parents) in attendance! Fun song, though.

All those thoughts were put out of my mind by the next act, though. The Blind Boys of Alabama are a gospel act that have been around for over sixty years. The three members who were there from the original group came out, led by a sighted guest vocalist and the band (two guitars, bass and drums). They started with “Run On for a Long Time,” which I was familiar with both from Moby’s remixed version and from the version by Bill Landford and the Landfordaires. I looked around and the crowd were on their feet singing and looking happy. As the group proceeded through “Do Lord,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and “Way Down in the Hole,” people got more and more energetic. Clarence Fountain interjected a few commentary points along the way (“We’re not trying to save you, we’re just going to give you a good time. I’m having a great time. Compare how old I am to how old you are and see if you think I’m having a good time.”)

Then they got serious. Their version of “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of House of the Rising Sun) got people swaying and a few witnesses from the crowd. Then with “Look Where He Brought Me From” and “Soldier (in the Army of the Lord),” one of the other vocalists gradually worked his way into the crowd for about twenty-five minutes, shouting and generally getting into the atmosphere of a revival. At the end, they left the stage, then the core members plus bass and drums returned for a quick run through “Jesus Loves Me.” As the organizer said after they left the stage the second time, what a way to start a WOMAD.

By that time, I was pretty drained and only stuck around for a few tunes by Youssou N’Dour, including “Shaking the Tree” and a few songs I recognized from his early nineties releases. Then the rain came up and I went home. Two more days of this!

Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy

Today’s update is a little disjointed, but I wanted to go ahead and post it rather than try to get it perfect.

One of the benefits of hearing a band live is that sometimes you can understand some of the lyrics to your favorite songs better. The lyric quoted in the title of today’s piece was snarled with great clarity and venom by Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke on Saturday night, during “Paranoid Android” (their “breakthrough” single from 1997’s OK Computer). And Thom did look like a paranoid android — bobbing in front of the microphone like a man possessed. The full context is “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy/You don’t remember, you don’t remember/Why don’t you remember my name?”

And the audience kind of sat there getting stoned. At least that was what was happening where we were sitting.

The Gorge, near the city of George, Washington, sits in a high natural amphitheatre overlooking the Columbia River. You can see down into the river bed for miles past the band shell. It’s the most sublime location for a concert I’ve ever seen.

Radiohead is a band that makes music that kicks back against the complicity with which we are giving up our humanity. Unfortunately I think most of the crowd on Saturday was too far gone to respond.

The new Radiohead song that won’t leave my head, “Dollars & Cents,” was given a disturbing spin on Saturday. Radiohead have made a career out of defying expectations, and originally I understood “Dollars & Cents” to dramatize pressures that the band felt to be conventional pop artists (“Be constructive with your blues…Quiet down!”). But on Saturday I thought I heard Thom sing

     We are the dollars & cents
     We are the pounds & pence
     We are the marketing men, and yeah
     We're going to crack your little souls

Words of caution to live by for an MBA student.

PS The full lyrics to “Dollars & Cents” can be found at followmearound.com.