Friday, March 28, 2008

Dirtbombs At Grimey's

A week after the fact, but I wanted to add Day Four of the Nashville trip in tribute to the non-country side of the city’s music scene. Apparently, it comes in after LA and New York in terms of the number of bands looking to make themselves a name, and there are more rock and pop than C&W acts here. Tip to up-and-coming groups: relocate to Murdo, South Dakota to ensure yourself a larger share of the local market before you try and move on up.

Because in the ‘local bands’ section at Grimey’s record shop on 8th Avenue South there’s a three-tiered rack full of CDs (and tapes) made by city artistes, which is not necessarily a good thing if you’re in one of the bands (I’d not heard of a single one). “In the end,” said Layne Ihde, the lead singer of Nashville-based three-piece The Ides, “you end up performing to the same 30-50 people every time you play live. And every one of them is in a band too.”

Layne moved to Nashville 12 years ago, “for the music”, and you can judge for yourself how good his band is from its MySpace page. They’ve released an LP and an EP, and have had respectable sales in Japan, which once lead to a Japanese girl inviting them to play at her birthday party…in Italy. They couldn’t make that, and neither have they been able to make it beyond the stage where they play to the same 30-50 people. Not that this means they’re unhappy, or would even consider giving it all up for ‘proper’ careers.

We met at Grimey’s on Layne’s recommendation. It’s not just the best record shop in Nashville (the three-mile walk from the town centre down a long and faceless street making it feel like you’ve earned the right to shop there), it’s possibly the best record shop in the world, run on love and independence. The almost faultless selection of both new and “preloved” CDs are generously priced in the listener’s favour, while bands play live in the second hand section, and the staff hand out free beer.

Last Saturday it was The Dirtbombs, featuring a punk-soul singer, two guitars, two drummers and a fuzzbox bass to shake the shop and the eardrums of all the patrons, most of whom were too young to take advantage of the beer giveaway, or to have heard this kind of music in most of its early incarnations. It was an anthemic, string-grinding six o’ clock warm-up for the evening ahead - perfect grime-time music.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nashville, Day Three - The Moon And The Songbirds

I was staggering back to my hotel well after 2am on day three when I heard something odd coming from a tree on Church Street – a bird singing. I thought it might be another Nashville downtown gimmick, like the piped country music that seems to come out of the sewers, and the pedestrian crossing beepers, which sound like a sparrow being squeezed to chirp in rhythm. But it was in fact a real live American Robin, not known for being a nocturnal bird, perched on a branch and singing up at the almost full moon.

“There’s a full moon hanging over Nashville/And an empty heart that’s singing down below,” the robin was probably singing. Even the birds are inspired by the moon to be country and western singers here. And although country’s always been dominated by males, it’s had its fair share of songbirds, my own particular loves being Sara Carter, Bobby Gentry and Kitty Wells. And my favourite of them all, who just brought out a four-disc boxed set called ‘Songbird’ that I got for Christmas.

And so I was sitting at the bar of the Station Inn last night - a shack stuck at the end of a dark street, but that’s not a surprise location for a music venue in a city of such fragmented layout. And sitting at a table a few feet away there’s this white-haired older chick who looks distinguished and beautiful and vaguely familiar, but I don’t think any more about it and start to read my recommended Tennessee book, Nick Dawidoff’s In The Country of Country. And 15 minutes later a woman sits down next to me just as the support act, Fayssoux McLean, is about to play and says, “Did you see Emmylou’s here?”

“Oh yes,” I say, all nonchalant. “I saw her earlier.” Because we all know Emmylou on a first-name basis here in Nashville. And when McLean, who looked like a worried soccer mom but who used to back Harris and Linda Ronstadt in the 70s, did perform, the songbird came on stage and did backing vocals on four numbers. Which made it all worthwhile, because neither McLean nor the main act, Peter Cooper, did as much for me as the raucous country bands playing standards for free in the bars on Broadway.

Cooper told us that it was exactly eight years since he’d moved to Nashville. It’s a tough town to impress, and I didn’t think the crowd really warmed to him. His voice sounded too smooth, and his songs awkwardly structured. If it hadn’t been for Lloyd Green on the pedal steel, I’d have ducked out early (Emmylou, wisely, didn’t stay after she’d done her bit for Fayssoux).

But on the encore a well-lived female singer came on to do backing vocals on a cover version (can’t recall what), and she sounded like Bonny Tyler after three packets of cigarettes. I wished she’d been singing all night. Songbird or song-bloke, you’ve either got country or you ain’t.

For me, it’s a case of ain’t. I never made it to the Nashville Star auditions yesterday due to a lingering hangover. I did get as far as taking the travel guitar out of my car and carrying it up to my hotel room, but I haven’t taken it out of its case yet. I’ll just have to come back next year.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Nashville, Day Two - When Music City Became Soccer City

Any sceptics who think that soccer will never catch on in the United States should have been at LP Field here last night, when 69,000 flag-wavin’, gun-totin’, neck-wobblin’ home fans shunned college basketball and cruising around town in a pickup truck to pack the stadium and fanatically cheer on the US Under-23 team. Traffic was blocked in the downtown district for hours as the patriotic homeboys celebrated sending Uncle Sam’s fledgling kickers off to Beijing in August to take on the might of the totalitarian Communist state in the 16-team Olympic tournament. If there’s one place where Tibetan independence will be achieved, it’s on the soccer field. Woeful Canada, destroyed by three goals to nil, could only complain that they hadn’t been allowed to play on their favoured surface of snow.

If you don’t believe the effect that soccer fever has had on Nashville these past two days, then here are just a handful of the song titles I’ve picked up while walking down the street and hanging around the bars:

I Saw You Cheatin’ On Me At The Guatemala-Honduras Game
God Is My Referee (And Jesus Is My Coach)
Daddy Couldn’t Buy Me A Ticket To The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament
That 4-5-1 Formation Left Me Lonely On The Bench Again
Hard Player, Soft Heart
Where Were You When My 10-Dollar Cleats Split At The Seam?
While I Was Playing Soccer, You Were Scoring Goals With Another Cowboy
Jesus Stopped Me Simulating
Honky-Tonk Full Back
It Ain’t Right Watching Chris Albright Without You At My Side
The Things We Used To Do Before You Met Freddy Adu

Speaking of Freddy Adu, I spotted the young US midfielder together with striker Jozy Altidore checking out the footwear in Boot Country on Broadway yesterday lunchtime, taking advantage of the shop’s offer of buy one pair of cowboy boots, get two free.

“Jozy and I have always had a bit of a country thing going in the locker room,” Adu said as he tried on a pair of tan Nocona Kangaroos with a medium round toe. “I’m more into the raw early mountain stuff and the post-war honky-tonk deal. Little Jimmy Dickens’ Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait) always reminds me of sitting on the bench at DC United hoping for playing time. And it’s a big comfort for me again at Benfica now.

“As for Jozy,” Adu confided as his team-mate went to the back of the store to try on a Montana Silversmith belt buckle, “he’s really into The Judds and Tammy Wynette. You know, that soapy commercial stuff from the 70s that sent Nashville’s reputation down the pan? He says Stand By Your Man is inspirational in helping him pick up his mark when he comes back to defend on corner kicks…”

Altidore returned at this point and there was an awkward silence, and the pair was last seen heading to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop where Adu planned to pick up a Merle Haggard boxed set. No one can deny that placing the Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament here has been a huge success on every conceivable level. Soccer City Nashville will never be the same again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nashville, Day One

There’s a five-piece band on the tiny stage of the Full Moon Saloon on Broadway, meaning that there are more people in the band than there are in the audience. They seem to be playing power country. That’s not an actual genre, but on the ten-hour drive to Nashville I thought about a few things, and one of those things was that every band in the world should have its own unique category, even if it just means juggling around the concepts. Because southern soul gothabilly is a genre waiting to happen. To someone.

The lead singer is the kind of bloke you’d want stepping out of his pick-up truck to help you fix a flat tire when you’ve broken down on a rural road. He’s reassuringly country, with a deep voice and an approachable face. The pedal steel player is the youngest in the band, and leans moodily over his instrument – maybe it hurts to be good on pedal steel and only have four people come to watch (three of whom are clearly connected to the band, making me the only genuine, in-off-the-street punter). He looks like the quiet, surly kid brother a team-mate would bring along to make up the numbers on a Saturday afternoon. Then during the game he starts yelling at his team-mates and the referee, and gets sent off for fist-fighting an opponent.

“Cowboys add class to barroom brawls,” says a sign on the wall. Yet a lot of people in Nashville shun cowboy hats for the turned around baseball cap – that all-pervasive head accessory that doesn’t keep you warm, doesn’t keep you dry, but lends you the special demeanour of a human being whose brains have been shaken out of his ears. Our audience is trebled when several college students walk in donning this unique headwear, adding the sweat shirt with a college name in block capitals (UNIVERSITY OF STUPIDGRIN), baggy jeans, and a perpetually operated cell phone to take pictures of everyone with their arms around everyone else, holding bottles of beer. Yes, they bought bottles, even though Shiner Bock was on tap.

They swell the numbers, but ignore the band. A heavy gal in a top that’s showing me more than I want to know comes round with a bucket for tips, because there’s no cover charge in this joint. “Any requests, put them on the back of a hundred-dollar bill and we’ll see what we can do,” quips the singer. Their CD costs five dollars, but I have two dollar bills, so can decently avoid having to take it home.

On the bar is a flyer for Nashville Star, the televised open audition for the C&W version of American Idol. “One dream. One country. One Nashville Star.” I just have to show up with my travel guitar tomorrow between 10 and 6 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, the country and western theme park built on the edge of town. And I’ll need to write a country song in the next 24 hours. “I’m Britpop indie-country, actually,” I’ll explain to the judges. “This song’s about how I quit my job, but because there was no refund on the hotel I’d pre-paid to come to Nashville for the CONCACAF Olympic soccer qualifying tournament, I ended coming anyway to try and become a country star instead.”

That will have them weeping so hard they’ll forget to listen to the song and I’ll make the callback stage on the strength of hotel heartbreak alone. Before long I’ll be packing them in at the Full Moon Saloon and starting a classy brawl with anyone in a baseball cap drinking beer from a bottle.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sticker Sickness

When I was nine years old, I would occasionally be granted the massive privilege of a sleepover at the Harcourt Brothers (names changed to protect the virtues of a small town dynasty), who were as close as you could get to pre-pubescent hip in early 70s Lincolnshire. They were the first to get Chopper bikes, and they had rich half-sisters in Canada who’d send them money that they accrued in a savings account. We would regularly hear from the brothers how many hundreds of pounds they were racking up, with interest, and be scorned for suggesting that they might blow some of it on, say, a mass visit to Arthur’s Tuck Shop. They may not have actually used the words ‘retirement fund’, but they were definitely implied.

The Harcourt Brothers didn’t just collect money. Another benevolent relative would send them valuable coins which, they assured us, had never been touched by a human hand. These coins were locked away somewhere in case some non-believer in the importance of limited edition currencies took it upon themselves to slap a fingerprint on a virgin surface. A wise move, because I must admit that I would have been severely tempted. Meanwhile, we could see their stamp collections, but they had to be handled with extreme care, an earnest expression, and the odd declaration of spurious awe. But what I liked best of all among their hoarded treasures were the stickers.

Some of us find it hard to save money (we spend it), or collect stamps (rather than soak them off the envelope, dry them out, then carefully fix them in to a designated book, we chuck them out). Some of us also find it hard to see a sticker without peeling off the back and sticking it somewhere, as the inventors of stickers intended. ‘Stickers stick’ is the centric principle of stickerdom. Especially for a nine year old. But the Harcourt Brothers possessed the strength of character to resist that temptation. They coveted piles of unstuck stickers. They’d let me look through them, but although I begged pleeeeease, they wouldn’t let me have any spares. They weren’t a charity. These boys were investors in adhesive-backed futures.

Every year I went to the Lincolnshire Show and ran from tent to tent collecting free stickers. I didn’t care if they advertised tractor tires, pig feed or the benefits of five portions of potatoes a day - I’d grab them and run, and when I got home I stuck them down, mostly on to a cupboard in my bedroom, which was eventually covered entirely in stickers, with neither theme nor form. The idea of preserving them in a stack and keeping them for some unknown future purpose was as unthinkable as being given a tube of Smarties and being told to keep them until my fortieth birthday.

I was reminded of my free-sticking habits last week when reading ‘Swap Yer! The Wonderful World of Football Cards And Sticker Albums’ by Rob Jovanovic, a compact and delightfully pictorial history book that delivers on its title. It had me reaching for my still incomplete Panini sticker albums of the late 1970s. And the reason for their incompleteness? Instead of using my doubles for swaps, I would just stick them somewhere else. On my pencil case, on my cupboard (which started to acquire second and third layers), on my radio, on my school bag, or on any available surface that wouldn’t garner me a crack around the head for spoiling the paintwork.

I looked on EBay to work out the chances of getting the last eight stickers I need to complete my Football 78 album. It seems that the Harcourt Brothers weren’t the only hoarders. There are people who have been sitting on their swaps for 30 years, resisting for nigh on three decades the urge to peel the back off and stick them. This is of course good for my chances of eventually filling the Football 78 album, but a pitiful reflection on the characters of the EBay vendors. Upon discovering the items in an old shoe box they should have ripped off the backs and slapped them on to the nearest desk top or household item. That is, if they had been even half way human.

But no, like some seedy pornographer, they lined them up on a table side by side, took photographs of them, and then put them up for sale on the internet. And they didn’t even have John Hickton (Middlesbrough, Football 78 sticker number 258) or Irving Nattrass (Newcastle United, 265) for sale. Bloody sticker sickos. As Captain Beefheart would have told them - lick my decals off, baby.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Back To The Kitchen Of Obscurity

No doubt to the dismay of my multi-million readers, this blog’s been living a white lie for the past year. Its title gives the impression that I am a stay-at-home Dad who cooks, irons, shops and does the kids’ homework for them while they pretend to understand my (Queens of the) Stone Age method for calculating long division. But until last Friday I was something different – a stay-at-home journalist.

After an eleven year career break, I resumed the perennially dubious career of hackery-pokery, as editor of and contributor to a football website. The conditions suited me well – I could work from home, setting my own agenda, writing about something I think I’m supposed to love, tied to colleagues only by a Monday morning conference call, during the course of which I usually swept the floors while saying “yeah” and “uh-huh”.

However, in my zeal to make up for eleven years out of the business, I took it all too seriously and achieved burnout after just 13 months. Also, something got broken that couldn’t be fixed, and my previous professional verve evaporated overnight into a hollow existential void wherein echoed the question, “Exactly why the fuck am I writing a piece about the Colorado Rapids’ off-season signings?”

Some people have expressed surprise that I quit my job. That’s because they didn’t realise I’d gone back to work in the first place. When I told them I’d quit working, they assumed Frau Indie-Pop had thrown me out. “Were you so bad at the shopping?” Having to explain that I’d actually resumed my career and now I’d jacked it all in again somewhat blunted the impact of my dramatic decision to get back in slack.

Frau Indie-Pop was suspicious too. Was this going to be like my recent decision to retire from playing football that lasted exactly two weeks? On top of that were all the grand proclamations last year about how happy I was to be working again. Followed by all the declarations this weekend about how happy I am not to be working again. Given this time scale and my history of vacillating enthusiasms, I should be taking up a 90-hour-a-week CEO position at a top blue-chip company in around 24 hours (offers notwithstanding).

“My stepson’s worried because he’s 16 and he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life,” a friend told me on the phone today. How we laughed. Wait until he’s 42 and still hasn’t got a fucking clue. How could you ever trust someone who thinks they have a clue what they’re doing with their lives?

And another question, in counter-response to those who have asked me why I quit. Why not? Who in their right mind doesn’t want to quit working? Never mind walking the streets in your underpants barking quotes from Leviticus in Latvian dialect – the only true rule of an individual human’s insanity should be his or her willingness to stay in the job.

So it’s back to slouching around Safeways at a decent pace instead of muttering curses at pensioners standing in the middle of the aisle peering at the instructions on the soup cans as they try to work out if cream of broccoli will knacker up their intestines for a day. “Out the frikkin’ way,” I’d seethe before. “I’ve got to get back and check my e-mails to see who Real bastarding Salt Lake picked up in the waiver draft.”

Now it’s: “Cream of broccoli? One of my favourites too, sir. Beautiful out again, eh?” Which it is.