List’s aren’t really our thing but as everyone else is doing them, here’s Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite albums of 2020 or as many as we can recall right now. Most of these we’ve reviewed either here or for other sites or various magazines, dig around and you can find what we said about them. Anyhow, despite Corona, 2020 was a bumper year for recorded music but nor so much for musicians and all who depend upon and support their efforts. So, if anything below captures you fancy, please buy a copy.
Part 3 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist, written by Ken Irvine.
THE FRIDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
When I left the Old Swan much later that evening it was snowing.
Big heavy flakes that took hold fast on the dry pavement. I decided to walk home to the studio. There was monumental news tonight and I needed to digest it all, to process it while walking and to tell Venetia in the morning. Tyrone had given me a bottle of tequila from behind the bar as a Christmas present – they had been told to close down again, it had happened so many times, the open/closed cycle, that by now he didn’t care much about what happened to the stock, he had bigger problems.
I turned left and headed up past the rows of restaurants, late night chicken shops and kebab joints all closed by the curfew. At the end of the road I cut straight across the roundabout, or rather the ancient churchyard that sat incongruously in the middle of the normally busy intersection. It was mainly silent now. The snow fell softly, already framing the gravestones in white. I counted only one bus heading for the depot, its engine whining as the back wheels slipped on the powdery snow.
It wasn’t too far to the studio and, the more tequila I slugged, the shorter it seemed to become. But actually I was slowing down. Perhaps if I’d been travelling at a normal pace I might have been able to prevent what was about to happen, but probably not. Every side-street was devoid of movement, the only tracks entering or leaving were those of the occasional fox, no humans or cars. When I got to my road I could hear a vehicle idling and the sound of a car radio playing faint Christmas songs as if the driver’s window was open. A door slammed in a house, and someone got into the vehicle. A few seconds and it was approaching me. A locksmith’s van. The driver and passenger were both peering down at a mobile phone and they passed me without acknowledging my existence, the phone’s glow illuminating their weary faces. I was nearly home, half of the tequila was gone, I listened as Fairytale of NewYork faded into the distance
I was approaching the studio and looking forward to getting into my bed.
I had really landed on my feet where that was concerned. I thought about the mysterious owners. What sort of wealth allows you to make an impromptu stay in Barbados for a year, and not even bother to try and make money from your vacant property? I wasn’t complaining, they had been good to me, and long might it last. I looked up at the building- a quaint mews outhouse in a cobbled lane – the first time I had seen it in snow. There was a garland of white lights hanging across the courtyard. I should switch them on, it will look pretty. I raised my bottle and toasted the owners. I don’t know why I didn’t notice deep imprints in the snow leading straight to the door.
“Secured by occupation” the sign said “This property is secured 24 hours by Live-In Guardians.”
That was us – that’s what the owner told us our status was – we weren’t guests, we weren’t tenants, we were Guardians – we were doing them a favour- in return they let us guard the property for nothing. Except I hadn’t remembered it being so formal an arrangement. I fumbled in my pocket for my key. It would all end sometime, but for the moment all was good. The tequila had taken its toll on my hand to eye coordination – I couldn’t get the key in the lock.
In fact the lock had gone altogether – there was a fob device. The label said “Newly secured by LIGonly authorised LIG Ltd entry”
Who were L.I. effing G. Ltd?
It had happened.
“What the F-?” I yelled
I hammered on the door in desperation for 5 minutes solid– did I imagine it ?– did I see a silhouette at the window dart to the side?
There was no point in hanging around here. The studio was now someone else’s home.
The only person I could think of was Venetia- I didn’t even know the time, my phone had gone dead. So I walked out onto the road and started heading west. She had moved into the studio to work with us for lockdown, but as soon as she got the freedom she had gone back to her own flat further west.
The busy main road that even at this hour would normally be throbbing with traffic. But now, the combination of curfew and big freeze had given me the opportunity to stroll straight down the centre of the road without encountering anything.
I walked for what felt like an eternity still heading west until eventually I found myself outside my old office, the landmark that let me know I had to turn left. The flyover towered above me, I had not been out this way for a year, too many bad memories, the whole area conjured up failure for me. I walked over to the car park.
“SkyLark Developments” it said “Westmorland Houseis being repurposed as living accommodation for students, a hotel and luxury flats. The basement will be remodelled as the studios and headquarters for the Central Ballet School,” There was no indication of what had happened to the company that once inhabited the building, no forwarding address; had they gone for good?
“We had to let him go” the guy had said at the magazine rack yesterday evening. All front – in the end he had been let go himself. His camel coat, expensive aftershave and shiny leather shoes hadn’t helped him. I had got out in time.
I was five minutes from Venetia’s place – I walked down into the subway – not sure why I used it, I could have easily crossed the empty road.
There was someone there. Where Andre had been sleeping this time last year, someone had taken his patch. When I approached I realised it was Andre’s sleeping bag, his pile of books. Surely not? Especially after what I’d heard tonight.
I slowed down, conscious of my short breaths, and walked quietly up towards him.
No, the sleeping bag was twisted and empty as if he had leapt out of it last year and never looked back. I sat down on the cardboard. His radio was still there, I switched it on. It still worked. I didn’t know what time it was, but no doubt too early to turn up at her door.
I smiled, he had it tuned to a country station, If we make it through December Merle Haggard was playing.
I took a last slug of the tequila and drained the bottle. I guess I must have fallen asleep.
I woke up shivering, the news said it was 7.30am. I had to get somewhere warm – otherwise I was going to die out here. I knew where I was going, but before I got up I picked up the book on the top of his pile.
A couple of things had been tucked into the back cover and they slipped out straight away.
My letter from last year.
The trigger for all of this. “Andre!” I wailed – listening to the “dre dre dre” echo down the tunnel.
The other thing was a jolly looking Christmas card.
I opened it up. The writing was mainly in spidery capitals, scrawled and menacing.
“You’ve had your chances my frend – theirs new owners hear so why want you make yourself scarce. The contrackters are coming into this tunnel in boxing day with cleening fluids and its not gunna be pleasant”
Now I knew fully what he had meant, “ you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”. Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, whatever, his time had been up down here. He had put everything into the album, his blood sweat and tears into making that video that had opened more doors for us than we could imagine.
I tore the venomous Christmas card into small pieces and threw it up in the air. The through-draught lifted it up into the stairwell, and I followed the pieces up the stairs until they disappeared, mingling in with the falling snow against the black sky. As I trudged on I wondered about the paid thug and the dodgy development. In the end the developers never moved in, the downturn put paid to that, the deal had fallen through – no one needed student accommodation, hotels or to invest in luxury flats – no one had walked through this tunnel for nearly a year. And a ballet school? …. I thought about that advert.
Why should the ballet dancer retrain? – anybody can be a cyber security consultant but very few can be a dancer. Something Venetia had said to me one day, she wasn’t bragging, she said she could do most things to a reasonable level, she had put her all into everything but hated most of it. She had found solace in making music.
Someone was coming out of the apartment block, so I didn’t use the buzzer. I walked up the stairs and knocked on her door. She opened it quickly in her dressing gown and was about to say something, but did a double take when she saw me – “Oh it’s you –man, you look like shit!.”
Nina Simone “Little Girl Blue” was blasting out – she hit a dial on the wall and it muted.
“He’s in Cambridge “
“Andre? – yea I know”
“How do you know? “
“Never mind, tell you later, – your story first – what’s happened”
I sat at her kitchen counter and shaded my face as the first light of dawn was glinting up the river.
“The thing I went to in the Old Swan last night, it was an open mic. I know them all down there – we do it every year on last Thursday before Christmas. It’s traditional, candlelit, and most folk do a Christmas song – those of us that are left here that is. This year they had cancelled it, but in the end they managed to set it up, very last minute and distanced, in the beer garden “
“Yea, but they had a big fire pit and mulled wine – it was nice – festive – ticketed – I managed to get the last. It was a bit disappointing really – I hadn’t been there since this time last year and expected it to be a bit of a homecoming , but none of the old crowd was there- all new people – not friendly like before, kinda disinterested – younger…. I was talking to this group – telling them about the band – trying to show how big a deal we had been, we are – I told them about us being on the TV– and one of them goes – oh yea I had a ticket for that a few years ago , my Uncle knew one of the cameramen – I was like no , we were actually ON it – she still didn’t seem to get the concept, she was saying , yea I was going to be on it too, but I blew it off, gave my ticket to someone else!”
Venetia looked suitably embarrassed for me – “You shoulda just let it go, anyway get to the point …”
She was right, I had wavered and had two far more important things to tell her.
“When I get in there , this guy goes on stage , and says that he doesn’t like Christmas songs much , but he’s gonna play one that he’s written as a kind of antidote to Christmas, he starts strumming , and I’ve had a few drinks , but I think what he’s playing sounds familiar – guess what?”
“He’s playing White Christmas and claiming that he’s like, Irving Berlin or something? How old is this guy?”
“Young – way younger than us – he’s about 22 – no he’s singing Christmas in July”
“Whaaaaa? We wrote that! Did you say anything?”
“I grab him when he’s having a smoke at the fire pit and say – is that really your song? , and he says yea it’s one of his, and I say No it’s not. I know the guys who wrote it.”
I continued “He’s a real arrogant little git and he says “How do you know that the guys who said they wrote it didn’t take it from me?” And I say “Cos you’re looking at one of them.”Then he turned away sheepishly and came back with a big friendly grin. I say, “ So WHERE is he then? and he replied “I’m sorry man , I now realise who you are …..I only met him half a dozen times, but he had an effect on me – it’s hard to explain. I feel bad for claiming his work there – I just thought you were some drunk guy, I gave a lazy answer, I love that song it’s so beautiful – you should be very proud. He was in Cambridge when I met him, still is, he used to come along to an open mic that I ran he was shy and kinda uneasy – but I got to know him a bit…You know you saved his life don’t you – another winter in the cold would have been bad enough but when all that…. hit in March… he’s not the most healthy anyway … he wouldn’t have had a chance. But yeah he’s good, got somewhere to stay and he works …”
“Don’t tell me, in Fortrose Bros? ” She laughed.
“Not quite, but something similar” I said.
“Did you ask him if he knew why Andre left us?”
“This kid seemed to know a lot about us, he said Andre’s got great affection for us, maybe doing the album was the pinnacle of what he thought he could do – creatively – he reckons that Andre kinda saw the writing on the wall and that times were gonna be hard for musicians.”
“He took all that re-training crap seriously” she said at the end of it all
“Anyway,” I said “You told me that you knew where he was.“
She handed me a letter.
“It’s not opened – how do you know what it says?”
“It’s his writing, a Christmas stamp, a postmark from Cambridge on Tuesday – that’s how I knew. It just came fifteen minutes ago.”
I opened it. A card, written in Sharpie, covering one half; we both read it together.
Dear A and V,
I expect you were wondering what happened to me – sorry, it all got too much. When we got accepted for that TV show I was like, here we go it’s all about to happen – hell I was a bum this time last year and you rescued me Alex, set me on the straight and narrow – but that’s exactly it. When we started getting all that praise it became addictive: I wanted more, and we got more -it started spiralling, over the summer, all that social media stuff, I thought we were going to be the biggest thing, I guess at one point I thought I was going to answer my phone and Bob Dylan was going to be on the other end.
It then continued on the other half written sideways …, I turned it round, I felt her hand grip mine tighter.
You may think I didn’t try hard enough to stay with you but believe me I’ve been trying all my lifetime to hold something down, truth is I really struggle with stage fright- you might think that strange for an ex-busker – I’m working through it – I’ve managed to get up to performing in front of ten or so people and that’s just about ok – but more is still a problem for me. You probably remember this time last year you said we may end up touring around in a band, a great big clunky, sweaty rock’n’roll band – well for obvious reasons that didn’t happen, and from what I’ve just said you will understand that it might not happen; but the body of work that we produced has made me more proud than anything. And never say never. So we sit on the edge of another year, there’s a new president, and a new administration. /PTO
I turned over to the back
You will notice that I wrote to both of you at V’s place, truth is A, I was starting to get nervous about these owners at the studio, and I think you should get out of there soon – you and V are a great act – just work on your personalities a bit – think of me – and remember to smile when you’re on stage and it’s all gonna happen for you next year.
I don’t know why he wrote his name twice. He just did. That was Andre.
Last year’s tale, “The Rough Sleeper” and “A Christmas Playlist” are extracted from “We Need an Able Hand” by K. Irvine and are published here with authorisation, they should not be reproduced without permission from the author
Part 2 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist. Written by Ken Irvine
THE BIG MAN
I bought the Christmas edition and nothing else. I had realised that I had enough to eat and drink in the studio, I guess I had just gone in there for some recognition. Now, out in the cold, with the magazine tucked under my arm and my hands deep in my coat pockets, I mused about how strange it was that we had ended up in there, Fortrose Bros, of all places.
When we first turned up on that late spring morning, half volunteering, half hungry, they had treated us like nineteen year old gap year kids. The shelves had to be filled on the go – during opening hours – no sooner had the delivery wagon backed up the alley into the loading bay, than we were in there, offloading the cages and wheeling them straight into the supermarket. No storing this stuff in the back – it was needed straight out there.
We had been nighthawks in the studio but in the store it was the opposite – they had wanted us in there at 4.30am to meet the first deliveries, the bread and the dairy – that had been the end of our working day in the studio – our bodies were used to our first beer at 4.45am, then we would drink till about 9am – listening to the recordings, bed at 10am then rise around 5pm to start all over again.
Andre found the supermarket tough the first few days, I would smell alcohol and weed on his breath, I think he had stashed some away to help him get through the day. He was miserable and uncommunicative at work – especially with the customers. The management told us that we were all ambassadors for the company and we should know the products and drop anything to help a customer. “Drop everything” – but at the same time, not fall behind in our assigned tasks.
He just didn’t buy into it at all. He wouldn’t last the week.
And then one day something changed.
We were out back, sorting out the surplus produce – for pick-up by the Food Project. I was hungry and wanted some lunch – I had opened up a packet of ham and was rooting around in the crate for some nice bread to go with it.
“Good idea, shoot a piece of that over here.”
I pushed the open packet towards him –
“No,” he said covering his eyes with one hand – “don’t let me see it.” He dipped his hand into the packet and dropped a piece into his mouth still with his eyes covered.
“Nice choice my man, Wiltshire free range roasted ham with rosemary and thyme, … one day still left on the shelf life too”
I read the label: “OMG – dead right-how do you know that?”
“I lived on these things for years – in the streets. People round here are tight with money, they won’t give you a pound coin – which is what I really wanted – but they were generous with food and drink – always the good stuff too.”
He went quiet for a bit then got up and headed into the store. I feared the worst.
When I came back in from helping the driver load the crates into her van, I saw him in a heated debate with a customer. She was shaking her head animatedly and yelling, “No – how can you say that?”
I went over to defuse things, we needed to keep these jobs, but when I got close I saw that she was smiling at him.
“Believe me M’am I’ve read a lot about this, it’s a family farm, on a modest scale, their approach to animal welfare is second to none, you will appreciate this – I just had an IMMENSE sandwich with this in the – ummm… staff canteen – it cost me a bit more but it was .. incredilicious.” He kissed his fingers.
I watched her replace her packet of cheap cuts with the premium one and walk away still smiling.
“You totally upsold her” I whispered.
He told me later that she was one of the people who would drop food off for him on the streets.
“I was humbled, man,” he said. “You know, she would always leave the best of stuff” He picked up a bottle of chocolate milk. 89p it said in big letters. “Not this, but that one” – he pointed to another that was priced about three times more. “Then I see her in here and she’s buying the budget meat for herself – so I was like, you have to treat yourself in these times. You’re wrong, I wasn’t upselling her. I also told her that our £4.99 Pinot is better than the £8.59 one she had in her basket, so she’s up on the deal”
And she didn’t recognise you?
He laughed. “Look at me, I’m a square,” pointing to the brown and green striped shirt, grey tie and brown grocer’s apron, glasses and facemask. “I’ve never worn a neck-tie in my life – till now.”
So, no one ever linked the smooth-headed, metal-framed-glasses-wearing grocer with the wild-eyed, dreadlocked, homeless busker.
Now I had followed suit, but only recently, my locks had gone. It felt weird, the cold air against my bare head, but strangely liberating – like I had been playing a character for years and now I was free. The cold air was condensing around the edges of my mask – I pulled it tighter and wished I had worn a hat.
I was listening to Wilco’s Tiny Desk concert from 2016 – trying to figure out how they got that vocal sound without a PA.
We never got round to sending the video to NPR back in springtime. That had really annoyed Venetia.
“You lazy fekkers, I left you one thing to do!” She was berating us like schoolkids – I started wondering what it must have been like working for her in the bank or wherever she had been employed.
“Sorry Momala,” said Andre
“Stop calling me that!” But she went off, biting her lip and suppressing a smile.
Maybe it was all for the best, otherwise we wouldn’t have met the man.
“Hi kids, how are you all doing in here?” He was a middle-aged guy, tanned, grey haired with a stubbly beard, no mask. He was dressed for an informal business meeting, smart jacket, open neck shirt, jeans, and he had walked in like he owned the place, one day in early summer. None of us asked him who he was- when we spoke about it later we realised that we all thought at least one of us was acquainted with him.
He asked what we were up to and we sat fidgeting in our seats for a moment, then let him hear some tracks that we were mixing,
“take the bv’s out there, they’re cheesy and they’re at odds with the guitars-”
“-cut that intro you don’t need it –straight in with that horn stab”
Andre was at the desk at the time and he found himself obliging the overbearing stranger, half thinking that we would restore the parts after he had gone – but it turned out that we got used to his ideas and went further with the edits in the same vein. Venetia called him the big man, and from then on that’s how we referred to him, or a variation, big man, BM or the man.
The last thing we played him was our home-made video of “We Need an Able Hand” – he went a bit crazy when he saw that, the blurred close up of Andre’s face at the mic, the build-up of the track, the two guitar parts that I somehow had managed to play simultaneously, the interweaving melodies on Venetia’s bass and the other-worldly drum part that was almost impossible to call – as the camera pulled out to reveal that Andre was not only delivering the heartfelt vocal but was playing that drum track.
“The blues, the blues, it’s the very essence of the blues,” he kept murmuring “This is it guys, this is genuine. Tell me, please tell me you haven’t sent this to anyone.”
He picked up on us all avoiding his gaze. “Tell me, come on – have you actually physically sent this out?”
“Well, we were going to send it to NPR for their competition…. but we missed the deadline.”
“Hallelujah! Forget NPR, they’re minnows in a sea of sharks. I tell you, let me have this … I can get a major corporation interested. Promise 100%.”
He held my gaze and in the periphery I was aware of Alex hypnotically pulling a pen-drive from the desk and handing it to him.
“We trust you, man,” Alex said, but with slight menace in his voice. The man snapped his hand closed and was gone.
He hadn’t even asked for the band’s name – but somehow he must have found it, because about a week later a letter arrived, addressed to Alexandre Appolonia, c/o The Studio, St Julian’s Mews….on BBC stationery.
“We loved your back story,” the BBC guy said, “we are doing a special on,” he scrolled his phone “….. Black Pumas, but … starting the show with new acts, and you guys fitted in perfect.”
“BBC not bigger than NPR!” Venetia had mumbled under her breath as she grudgingly helped us unload the battered equipment from the back of a Citroen estate. I had sensed she was apprehensive, so was I.
A lot had happened since the letter had arrived.
I just wanted them out of there before they twigged. I could do a passable imitation of his voice – about 90% there – I had persuaded myself that it would be ok, a song is a song, it doesn’t matter who sings it
“How many are there of you again, will 3 mics do?”
Luckily the people from the BBC looked as nervous as us, they weren’t comfortable in the cramped surroundings – some hasty instructions and then they were off. There was a laminated instruction manual.
I wasn’t sure if they had noticed, they certainly didn’t question us any more – where was the flamboyant front man with the dreadlocks, the one who bashed out the songs on a drumkit set up stage front and sang beautiful poetic heartfelt lyrics with an air of detachment from the body that was working the drum kit?
They didn’t ask that.
I slumped into the leather sofa when they had gone. We could do this. Luckily, we had Venetia on bass. It was fate. She had answered an advert. She had the look, torn clothes, a croak in her voice that sounded like it came from late night cigarettes. She had confided in us later she had got the look from an internet search and had seen a picture of the Clash – the croak had come from a fight she had had with her partner when she had thrown him out for good.
Venetia was a classical musician. She had studied double bass at the conservatoire and had wound up in a top orchestra in her province, Yunnan. I hadn’t heard of it and she said it was mountainous and not many people had, except the 45 million people who lived there. It wasn’t enough for her parents, who persuaded her to enter an arts recruitment programme in a major accountancy firm. From there she had gone on to work in San Francisco, then had come here. She had worked with a Top Four something or other. About a year ago she had a meltdown at work and started playing music again as a kind of therapy. She left her high-pressure job and got recruited by some symphony orchestra here, I couldn’t remember which one, but they were the real deal. They were due to do a major tour starting in Hong Kong in February. That got cancelled and she had finally been furloughed in March without performing a single note. She needed music, for her mental health – our advert had come up and she had gone online, done her research, ordered a wig and made up a stage name. She had cruised through our audition. We didn’t pick up on the wig or the phony name.
I opened my eyes and she was sitting beside me – studying the manual.
“Kinda weird this, isn’t it, they’re expecting a couple of complete amateurs to set up a TV studio and broadcast live a big chunk of a peak time Friday night show using a few photocopied instructions.”
“It’s not peak time, it’s 11pm, everyone’s in bed.”
I had started to explain to her that the timing was set for people coming home from the pub but stopped when I thought it through. She was clearly still miffed about NPR. That was more her thing.
My phone went.
“Hey, have you seen the news? – there’s going to be a big freeze.”
“I know mate, I’m out in it just now, freezing my bollocks off!”
“You should’ve worn a hat.”
“How’d you guess? – anyway, doesn’t matter. Venetia, you know I worry – that he may be dead …or worse.”
I didn’t know what I meant when I said it “…or worse” – nor did she, but somehow I knew that she understood.
She changed the subject – “Yea, what is it – once every ten years or something it goes this cold – get home and make sure you put the heating on – don’t worry about the bills – money will come to us – it has to – I heard our track in the supermarket today”.
“Hah, so did I. Yea, I will do, but later – I’m gonna check out a music thing at the Old Swan this evening.”
“Rather you than me, ok, enjoy, and don’t worry about him- he’ll be ok, he’s a survivor.”
In the grand tradition of Christmas themed short stories, last year Blabber’n’Smoke published The Rough Sleeper, written by Ken Irvine (which you can read here). One year on (and what a year!), Ken returns to his story which we are publishing in three parts.
A Christmas Playlist. Part One. By Ken Irvine.
Christmas 2019 and Alex has sub-let his flat and asked a homeless musician, Andre, to record an album with him in a studio. Encouraged by the early material the pair go on to enlist classical double bass player Venetia Casal to join them and they form the band Alexandre Appolonia. As lockdown takes hold Alex’ flat is repossessed, and they take on summer jobs in upmarket grocers, Fortrose Bros, to make ends meet whilst living as property guardians.
Months later, it’s the week before Christmas and Alex finds himself drawn to his old employer’s high street store.
1. December 17th 2020
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
There was slight panic in the voice.
They were missing Andre.
I had been lost in a moment, with Joni Mitchell, The River, playing softly over the PA. Everything had been peaceful, and then that interruption. I knew what code nine was – it usually signified a problem with someone’s order. Most likely the customer would be standing resolute at the counter demanding the premium free-range turkey that they ordered in September. Code nine would be used because the staff couldn’t find the order and they and were calling in the store’s diplomatic service, the SWAT team to smooth-talk the irate customer, remove them from the front of the queue and allow the staff to serve others.
I smiled when I thought back a few months to the summer and it had been all Andre, he had defused so many situations.
Joni sang “I’m gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene”
We believed we were going to be stars and money would follow. He did become a star in a way – he was the face of the supermarket for a moment.
Staff and customers alike, everyone knew him, in a short time he had made a huge impression. “Andre Harrison to Aisle 6”, “Andre to fishmonger counter”, “Andre to check outs”.
It was weird – “Andre the homeless man” – perhaps, “Andre the frontman in the band” – more likely, but “Andre to checkouts?”.
I had been standing at the magazine counter, staring blankly at the festive issues. I picked up the glossy store magazine Christmas edition, flicked past the recipes: celebrity chefs telling us how to carve a turkey; a soap star reminiscing about past Christmases; a politician declaring that a goose was a far more sustainable bird than a turkey, There was a double pager on the making of that Christmas ad, and then I got to the page that I’d been looking for.
“Jane Egan talks to Nigel Charleson, Fortrose Bros Media Manager about curating the stores’ Christmas playlist that this year includes everything from Joni Mitchell to Sufjan Stevens, Mary J Blige, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Gauthier, Benjamin Britten, Jonas Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone …” they went on to say how you wouldn’t hear The Darkness, Slade or Jona Lewie at Fortrose Bros, and that some songs weren’t Christmas but evoked a feel for family and warmth and get togethers.
– like that was going to happen!
Christmas Eve last year – when we had first opened doors and stepped into the dusty mothballed studio. How the neighbour had eyed us up suspiciously when we called to pick up the key. I had heard them furtively make a call, presumably to the owner in Barbados, to confirm that these wild-eyed vagrants really were the young professionals that the caretaking had been entrusted to.
That night , once we had established ourselves in the studio, heated the place up and cracked a few beers he had opened up a little to me – one of the first things he had told me was a tale about why he had left Canada.
It all started with an incident when he was driving on the highway somewhere north of Edmonton heading to his work. It was around Christmas the landscape was flat and it was a long drive– at one point, he had glanced across the wind-blown snow fields and caught a glimpse in the distance of what looked like someone dressed as Santa Claus, carrying a sack on his back “Dude comes up to this building, like a log cabin type thing, opened the door and last thing I saw was he went inside- he definitely went inside”
“OK – I had said “So was it one of these sad Christmas attractions that farmers build to try and generate some income over the Christmas-”
He had interrupted me “ Yes my thoughts precisely, man, it never troubled me again, until I was heading up on the same highway at the end of summer the next year- I was tired and I had pulled over into a gap at the entrance to a field. I sat on the gate and had a cigarette- looking across the field I saw that same building. I guess curiosity got the better of me and I jumped the gate and strolled across the field -to the cabin. It was much bigger close-up, but yes, definitely the same cabin. Back across the field I could see the highway. Open, flat farmland I would have had a good view of it for a few minutes driving north. I tried to prise a little crack in the door to see what was inside. Then there’s this dude behind me saying “Can I help you sir”. Like a farm worker or somethin’ out of nowhere. I guess he assumed I was up to no good. “Sorry man, was just stretching my legs – I’m heading up to …. -was there a Christmas thing here a few months back”. He locked eyes on me “Nothin’ in here worth poking around – filled it up with bales of hay a year ago and forgot about them – he opened the door and there was just this solid wall of hay. A solid wall – no way in for Santa”
I was waiting for more….
“Dude, I had just turned nineteen, I had no college, but I had landed my first job, most people would think I had fallen on my feet but I had started even then worrying about my sanity – I had to get out of there”
To what though? To come to here and end up living in a subway I had thought, who really was this guy? and should I be worried about getting him involved in my project? But he seemed to have guessed what I was thinking and he had smiled at me reassuringly, his brown eyes darting as he held me in an embrace. “You’re the best kind of person man, you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”
And on that note we had ended a non-descript 2019 and headed into a 2020 that would see some of the worst times, but also some of the best. Andre had delivered his promise to me and more.
The playlist was set to random and out of the blue our track came on. I blushed slightly as I stood at the magazine rack shiftily glancing around to check for reaction. A woman with two young children in tow started nodding her head to it, and elderly man’s finger tapped the side of his basket handle and Adesuwa, on the check-out, straightened her back and seemed to be energised on hearing it.
I heard them before I saw them. A couple in conversation strode around the corner, both dressed in expensive looking camel coats, I noticed her first, then I saw him point to the ceiling and say “Hey. this is the guy I used to work with”
I recognised him – Darren –, tall and broad shouldered. a project manager who had sat a few desks away from me, but moved in higher circles – I nodded across to him, and he looked straight through me – then I realised , why would he recognise me? – shaved head and facemask and it had been a year. I was about to pull my mask down , when he came over and stood beside me – picking up the same publication and quickly found the page, as though he had checked it out before – he rapped the page aggressively with his middle finger and spoke to the woman, “– there he is, strange guy , we had to get rid of him, just didn’t fit in, you can see why”
“We had to get rid of him” it felt like a dagger in my side. This guy was my age, we had come through the same graduate development programme, in fact I had helped him with a load of his assignments.
“Still it’s a nice song” she said.
“anyone can write a nice song babe, I’ll write you one if you want – he threw the magazine towards the bottom shelf where it slipped down onto the tiled floor. As they strode away I bent down and picked it up. I muttered “anyone can be a project manager, jerk!”
“Oh, if I could give you a hug I would right now, it is you isn’t it?”
I stood up. Adesuwa was standing behind me arms outstretched – I pulled my mask down for a millisecond “yes it’s me-it’s good to see you”
“I LOVE your song Alex”, and then she turned and hurried to her position at the checkout, apologising to those she had kept waiting.
I smiled and went back to reading the article about the Christmas playlist. There were a hundred songs. No one would get bored, the music was eclectic, but, it said “this year we have a particular emphasis on country, blues and roots music including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlile ”, and so on. I got to the last paragraph, “ ..and on this theme, finally we would like to introduce a band of young musicians who we found working here right under our noses in one of our flagship branches, the trio, Alexandre Appolonia and their song Christmas in July.”
And there it was – the little black and white picture of us. Andre at the front at the drumkit– his locks caught mid-air with Venetia and me pulling our best moody faces behind him.
The face of the company.
Except by the time the article had been sent the printers in August, Andre was already gone.
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
Colorado based David Starr was all set up to promote his latest album, Beauty & Ruin, when Coronavirus brought everything to a halt. That album, produced by John Oates, was inspired by Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, a novel written by Starr’s grandfather in 1972 and Starr’s last live gig was the album release show in Nashville in March (a show which turned into a benefit concert for those affected by the tornado which whipped through Nashville days earlier). As so many others did, Starr then turned to social media for a series of live streams to play the songs from the album accompanied by readings from his grandfather’s book but, when time and safety allowed, he returned to Nashville to record a new project called Touchstones where he covers some of his favourite songs from other writers, an immersion into what he has called, “musical comfort food”.
Blabber’n’Smoke caught up with David for a Zoom chat to discuss the project. He’s keeping his selection of songs kind of secret so we haven’t mentioned any song names but the more astute might guess at least one from the clues scattered. We started off by asking him why he had decided to record a bunch of cover songs.
The idea was really to try to keep the creative juices flowing while all this pandemic stuff has been going on. It was so soon after Beauty And Ruin and I didn’t have enough original songs to put together a new project. I’ve always enjoyed playing songs which I like and which have had an impact on me, like when I recorded Elton John’s Country Comfort on my South And West Album. Anyhow, the idea of recording a bunch of covers had been going around in my head for a while and I thought that this was as good a time as any to actually go ahead with it.
I believe that all of the songs have been recorded, but rather than release them as a collection you are going to issue them one at a time digitally.
That’s the plan for now, a digital release each month. I’d love to press them up and go out on the road to sell them but that’s not going to happen for a while. So, for the meantime I’ll release a song a month, for a year and I hope that folk will join me on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube as I release these songs and the stories behind them. I’m hoping that people will join in on the online conversations and we can share our thoughts on the songs. It’s also a way, hopefully, to keep up interest as if I released all of them at once it would be up and then down in a very short time. It was all recorded in Nashville, in the same studio I recorded my last three albums. It’s a studio that John Oates introduced me to and although he hasn’t produced any of these songs he came over to sing on a few of them. It’s a good band with a couple of guests coming in.
You released the first song, Robert Palmer’s Every Kind Of People a few weeks ago and it generated some conversation. I didn’t know that it was written by Andy Fraser, Free’s bass player, so that was new to me. Obviously, you know what’s coming next but you’ve said that you’re keeping the song’s identities close to your chest until they come out one by one.
I thought it would be good to try and keep it a secret so that each release is a bit of a surprise. However, that makes it just that little bit more difficult to talk about in public as we’re doing now. Maybe the best way is to just mention a couple of the artists I’ve covered and people can try and guess! Anyhow, I can say that the next one will be a Bob Dylan song and then later on there’ll be one by Jackson Browne. It’s either artists who have really meant a lot to me or songs that I’ve sang in the past and really enjoyed doing so. There is one original song in there which I did just to make the selection an even dozen so that the release schedule spans one year.
So, have you thought the sequence out?
Well I’ve already released Every Kind Of People and I know what the next three will be, but beyond that I’m not sure what order they’ll come out in. I can say that we recorded a John Prine song and I’m going to release that one on the anniversary of his death. I’ve been trying to look at making some rational of when to release each song. The first one, Every Kind Of People, seemed to me to be a good place to start what with all the discord and trouble we’ve had over here. It seemed like a nice sentiment you know. Most people associate Robert Palmer with his glossy pop videos with the girls playing guitars but to me he’s the guy who recorded with Little Feat and that makes him cool as far as I’m concerned.
How did you choose the songs?
Well, I made a list of about thirty and then I started to whittle away at them. Like I said, I thought that some of them just seemed more appropriate for these times, like Every Kind Of People, and the Dylan song I’ve picked seemed to me to be about choices and because we’re all being asked to make choices, like here we just had a very divisive election, it suits what’s going on right now. The Jackson Browne song is just a song I love, the words, the melody, the fact he wrote it when so young which tells me that if you dig deep you can write a song which lasts throughout the ages. There’s also a well-known blues song which I’ve always just found great fun to play. So, essentially the final list is a bunch of songs which all speak to me somehow. The funny thing about cover songs that I’ve always noted is that when I was playing my own songs solo, if people started to look as if they were drifting a bit then I’d play a cover and that would kind of bring them back into the fold. That Jackson Browne song always worked because if the audience didn’t like me then at least they liked the song.
Where did the project title, Touchstones, come from?
I was trying to think of a word which kind of spoke to the idea of things you pick up along the way. I toyed with the idea of calling it Breadcrumbs, you know like Hansel and Gretel, how do you find the way back to where you came from. And then, someone suggested Touchstones and that just stuck with me.
Is there any one particular song which stands out for you.
I have to say that it’s the Jackson Browne number. An interesting thing happened. I used to sing that song years and years ago but then left it behind, but a couple of years ago I was in Nairn, up in the highlands, and this guy came up to me and asked me if I knew that Gregg Allman had died that day and did I know any of his songs. I didn’t but I told him that I knew a song Gregg had covered and so I sang it that night and since then I’ve sang it at most of my shows. It’s a song that I connect with for whatever reason, there’s a sort of melancholy that goes with it although it becomes more hopeful towards the end and I just love the act of playing it. On our recording of it, Garth Brooke’s fiddle player, Jimmy Mattingly, added a lovely fiddle part and I was really pleased that he was able to do so.
So, while we’re all waiting for this miracle vaccine to come and save us, what are your plans for the future?
I’m writing all the time. I note down words and phrases as they come to me, like, in the middle of the night, I’ll think of something and write it down because, you know, by the morning it will be gone. I’ve got some songs started but, as I said earlier, not enough to be putting anything out so that’s why I’ve done these covers. I feel that I really haven’t finished with Beauty And Ruin as I’d just started to get off the ground with that before everything came crashing down. So, once we’re able to get back out on the road I’d like to pick up on that just where I left off and add in a few of these covers. I’d really like to get the whole band together in Nashville and play a big show just to get these songs out of our system when it all blows over. I’d love to get back to the UK but who knows when that’s going to happen again.
Will you be doing any more live streams?
I haven’t done one for a while. It seemed like all of a sudden everybody was doing them and it seemed like too much. Most of the ones I did were based on my record and the book where I sang a song and read from the relevant chapter but I also did a couple of others like the ones with Martha (Healy) and Al (Shields) and they were fun things to do and probably more therapeutic than anything else. But this has been a strange time and we’re all trying to find new ways of getting across to people.
Touchstones will be added to monthly with the second song coming this Tuesday. The songs will be available to stream and buy on digital platforms and David will release a video to accompany each song on his Youtube channel which you can subscribe to here.