America And Me - Part Two

As my own mother accused me of racism in my last post, I feel compelled to write some nice things about America. Starting with this rambling blurb about music east of the Mississippi, for which we have almost no relevant photographs.

Clarksdale, Mississippi
A fat man who I presume to be the manager of a band sits chain-smoking by the stage in the Morgan Freeman-backed Ground Zero blues club in Mississippi. He sits through the first instrumental unimpressed, distracted almost. Then, after a song and a half, he hauls his massive frame onto the stage and picks up a guitar that looked comically small in his hands. His name is Big T and he's here to play the blues for us.
Photo: Wee Mo
When the big man gets going, his gyrations are unmistakeably phallic. His mouth moves in involuntary spasms in time with the music, too. It's not the first time I've seen a performance like this, but that doesn't mean it's anything short of fucking incredible. The band rattles through Mississippi blues standards with aplomb, stopping regularly so Big T can get back on the cigs.
After the third or fourth break, with the crowd good and oiled, Big T introduces another musician, a suited Methusela called Johnny Billington. The 77-year-old is crumbling by the minute, but has just enough control of his faculties to clamber onto a chair on stage, fold his legs over themselves like a muppet, then grab a guitar and perform just two songs – eight of the most unforgettable musical minutes of my life. When Mr Billington plays the blues, there's no doubt he's lived through every hardship he describes, and probably some he's forgotten. His crumbled face hasn't, though, nor has his scorched voice. It's hard to believe he's got many miles in the tank, but hearing the engine in its final sputters is nothing short of a genuine privilege.

Memphis, Tennessee
Al Green is much younger than I had imagined. When singing perhaps the world's most tender, lovely balad, he sounds old, weary. But that was in 1972 when he was just 26. Now 65, he has been a church man for the past 34 years.
Still, it's not unreasonable to expect big things at the First Tabernacle Gospel Choir, a couple of miles away from Graceland. This is Memphis, he is a goddamn soul legend after all.
After a slight delay, when the reverend comes out, he sits on a leather-bound throne, being nothing short of a nuisance to the others on stage. He talks over a deacon at the lectern, makes jokes when a steward goes through the announcements, and sits sipping at a bottle of Gatorade, for all the world looking like a fat, truculent teenager.
Photo: Wee Mo
One of the choir steps forward and launches into an almost implausibly enormous hymn/anthem. It starts slow and is irritatingly repetitive: “God is marvellous, so marvellous, marvellous, marvellous...” But after a few minutes, the music builds and the singer becomes more animated. Soon he's doubled over, screaming and sweating. Eventually, he retreats back to the rest of the choir, sobbing in rapture. It's an astonishing and almost unsettling few minutes – indeed too much for one German family who walk out mid-screech in apparent protest.
At the height of the fervour, most of the congregation is standing, desperately trying out-do their neighbours in a display of religious ecstasy. The winner is a gigantic woman in a purple frock who launches into full body convulsions, moshing in the name of the Lord. God must be on hand to stop her from having a goddamn embolism, as well as her pals, who are there to fan her and sit her considerable ass down.
It's also finally enough for Green to snap out of it and take the mic from his distressed clergyman. After a bit of mumbling, the band picks up again and the suddenly the man of God is out his fucking nut on the Holy Spirit. 
He runs out in front of the lectern and looks briefly ridiculous doing a lizard-in-a-dessert quick step, as though the very fires of hell are burning his holy feet.
The entire thing goes on for about 15 minutes, after which everyone feels quite exhausted. Well, almost everyone: “I know you probably got some of my CDs in your car – ain't no shame in that. Heck, I got some of my CDs in my car, to remind me of the old me. To remind me of who Jesus saved! Somebody say 'amen!'”
If someone was doing an impression of a demented preacher, they'd likely come out with Green's chat: “Testify! Sanctify! Can I getta witness?'” He screeches, he wails – he's a sequence cape away from being James fucking Brown. He warns us that at any moment he may start speaking in tongues (he doesn't).
Photo: Wee Mo
Make no mistake about it, this is a performance first and ego-outing second. Some brief, delirious chit-chat is then followed up with a full-on funk arrangement, complete with wawa-pedal guitar, and soul-saw keyboard.
Unfortunately, after that, there are no more delays before the full-on god-talk. Large sections of the eulogy are total nonsense; incoherent noise even if you could understand every word through his thick accent. Even when reading scripture directly from The Book, the reverend distracts himself, railing against credit cards and mobile phones. Naturally, Jesus is the answer to everything and god is apparently a kind of benevolent loan shark: “We got dark days ahead of us, with this deficit and budget and what not... But American wouldn't have no deficit if it just leaned on the everlasting arms of the Lord!”
This shit goes on for two hours. There are no more songs; there is a collection plate. At the end of it all, I'm left with two questions: “How much of all of this is genuine? And if it's not, does it really matter?”

Nashville, Tennessee
Like Memphis, Nashville isn't really a modern home of music. It's more like a living museum. Yes, the bars and clubs are full of live country music, but almost none of it is new. The crowd wouldn't want new even if it was offered to them either. Instead, everyone is happy to throw money (and shapes) at any act willing to trot out any of the “classics” – play it, Sam, so long as we know the tune. As the majority of country songs sound idiotically samey – and the lyrics seem to cover only heartbreak and mundane daily activities, like truck driving, or hitting the pub after work – Wee Mo and I are quickly bored by the whole thing.
Photo: Wee Mo
That is until we accidentally discover Clay Canfield. Imagine Sam Elliot at a Halloween party, dressed as a country and western singer – that's yer man. He's not playing country, though, in fact I wouldn't know how to properly describe his style, other than singularly impressive. Playing the moothy (harmonica), singing and simultaneously attacking the strings and drumming the body of his guitar, Canfield's is a hypnotic, powerful performance. As he's half-steaming, every song is sandwiched between a rambling, half-funny, half-sad story. Like Johnny Billington, Canfield lives his music. The country crowd don't really know how to take it all, especially when he borders on letting his emotions run away when describing a beautiful song written by his dead friend. At the end of performing it, perhaps to avoid getting more upset, he rolls it into All Along The Watchtower. Without exaggeration, I tell you it's one of the best covers I've ever heard, by anyone. Ever.
Unfortunately, for us we only get to see the last half hour of his extraordinary show. Worse still, he is followed by Woody and the Tremendous Bores, a six-piece of professional dullards who trot out several dozen utterly forgettable country classics. They are one of the whitest, most frigid bands I have ever seen in my life. The hissing steam from Clay Canfield powerful, warm post-gig piss had more soul than this lot.
But hooray for Clay Canfield! Hooray for what he does!

Asheville, North Carolina
Clay Canfield was the most talented individual we saw during our musical week in the States. Johnny Billington was the most moving. Al Green was perhaps the most unforgettable. But the best overall performance? Like a good music festival, that came totally by surprise, at an expected venue from an unexpected band.
Asheville is one of those towns where weirdos congregate, some relieved to be able to express themselves, others intent on being weirder than their weird neighbour. What's the difference between this and neds trying to out-do each other with louder tracksuits and more garish trainers? Answer: a postcode. You get this kind of thing in places like Brighton, and art schools across the world. Personally I find the whole thing a bit fucking wearisome.
But, for all that, creativity of all kinds is encouraged. Out on the street there's a ramshackle percussion group with around 50 people participating. Some are even in time. Up the road there's a juggler, and a fiddler, and a clown, and a double bass, all fighting for tourist dollars.
We duck into the Jack Of The Wood, which for those who know it, is not unlike the Uisge Beatha in Glasgow's bohemian West End. Within a couple of minutes, Pierce Edens and the Dirty Work pipe up.
Though it's a widely-known musical fact, I will repeat it here: any band featuring a double-bass player is a sure-fired fucking success. When that player looks and performs like System of a Down's Serj Tankian, then all the better. And when he's backed by a drummer that looks like Ronnie from the Shield on eccies, and a guitarist that looks like the ever-creepy Mr Lizard, then better still.
Not Pierce Edens, nor Asheville for that matter
Thus the Dirty Work, the grungy, old-New World sound for Pierce Edens. I once wrote about Sigur Ros playing in Scotland, describing my amazement as the frontman shredded a bow on an electric guitar “sawing away like he's slaughtering a troublesome hog”. I think of that again when listening to Edens singing, where his vocal chords are the bow. He looks 30-ish, but sounds like smokes a 1,000 a day and gurgles gravel in the morning. The sound is something like the throaty one from Gomez singing Nick Cave tunes, but that's probably doing the band a little disservice. I've got no doubt they listen to the eclectic Australian (they've probably never heard of Gomez) but Edens's songs are original works, and Cave's influence is no more than just that.
Anyway, with a bourbon in hand, it's their end result that impresses me the most – them that I can imagine playing a tent at some far flung festival, being covered in pints of celebratory beer and piss. Fingers crossed it happens for them some day.