Friday, 28 June 2013

Uncle Sam: Iron and Wine

'Pon rep, it's been a while, stap me if it ain't. One glorious holiday in Northumberland later, my 'sabblogtical' (not sure that'll catch on) comes to an end, and I'm posting what must be one of the most nonchalantly late reviews ever. Special occasion back at the end of May - seeing Iron and Wine play the Barbican, with not only Mrs Specs but also my excellent friend Jules.

Jules is an encyclopedia of indie and alternative rock (I believe PJ Harvey phones Jules up if she needs to know anything about PJ Harvey), so she and I were rather excited about finally catching up with Iron and Wine live. Mrs Specs was just generally happy once she'd established the venue was seated.

Those of us with long-ish indie memories might remember I&W - known to his mum, and I daresay a few other people too, as Sam Beam - when he started out. Home recordings. Somewhere in there was a hushed breath of a voice and a guitar its owner could presumably barely lift. Something akin to the early Palace/Will Oldham records, although perhaps more peaceful, less spooked. However, over a run of increasingly polished albums and EPs, he's arrived at a full band sound at the halfway point between chillout music and, well, funk. He still sings like you could knock him down with a gentle poke in the ribs - a bit like the late Elliott Smith but after a handsome breakfast - yet the insistent groove buoys him up and gives him strength. It's as though he could always sound like this - but before he was a long distance away, and since then he has been moving closer and closer.

With this in mind, I wondered which I&W we were going to get tonight and the answer was: all of them. As we took our seats, we exclaimed to each other at the number of seats and microphones there seemed to be on stage. Embarrassingly, we kept losing count so our initial estimates of the band's size were wildly inaccurate and required a healthy margin for error. In the end, when the show began, there appeared to be about 12 of them. Twelve! Or thirteen! The last band I saw with that many people was Roxy Music, for pity's sake. (I should emphasise that was the Roxy reunion tour, by the way. *shuffles in front of stairlift*)

Amid his stage patter - which was warm, funny and above all constantly appreciative of the heroic reception he was getting - Beam casually dropped in the fact that the band had only been playing together for a couple of weeks. This seemed impossible to reconcile with the gorgeous noise they were making. Arranged a bit like the nerds versus the cool kids, a string ensemble were demurely seated on Beam's right, while a horn section (who, like horn sections often do, kept larking around like circus clowns who'd woken up in a suit holding a trumpet) occupied stage left. I thought of Lambchop, not simply because that terrific band also marry folk and soul, but also because they show how a large band need not equal a loud band; everyone played with delicacy and modesty, working around each other, knowing when to stretch out and when to shut up.

The set ranged across old and new, so some of the band left the stage for some of the quieter songs. A particular highlight was 'Monkeys Uptown', where picked acoustic guitar and cello lines played tag with each other, gently and oddly percussive underneath one of Beam's most beguiling melodies. During a completely solo section, Beam was also game enough to take requests and pluck a fan's favourite number out of his memory.

It was also great to hear 'Jezebel', a highlight of the 'Woman King' EP. If I were to send you away to buy one perhaps hidden gem by this band, it would be 'Woman King', one of the few examples - I believe - of when the short format can be perfect: a concept EP, no less, about powerful females - totally hypnotic songs in themselves, but also a fascinating 'transition' record between the style he started with and the one he has now.

In fact, here is the title track of that EP and you are VERY welcome.

While I'm here, I want to draw your attention once again to my pal Jules, who shares her indie know-how not just with me, but also the Entire Nation, through her Indie Wonderland radio show. You can listen on ARfm between 7 and 9pm on Thursdays, or play catch-up whenever you like by listening to the podcast of the show on Mixcloud. The most recent edition (27 June 2013) is here, but every single show is archived as a nourishing source of maximum indie goodness. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Caravan of love: Terakaft

Terakaft are one of my all time favourite bands. In a way, this makes them rather difficult to write about. It's very tempting to just attempt the blog equivalent of placing my hands on your shoulders, looking you in the eyes and solemnly stating, "They are incredible. Go and buy everything they've done."

However, I think they are so good that I was originally planning to write a post about them just to get it off my chest and hopefully introduce them to a few more people. There was no sign of them playing live over here and they were quietly releasing brilliant albums to seemingly little fanfare. I would see other bands from Mali I also love, like Tinariwen (Terakaft began life as two Tinariwen blokes leaving to form their own band) and Bassekou Kouyate's Ngoni Ba, have their moments in the sun - or what passes for it in the UK - with gigs at Koko or the Barbican, but no sign of my personal heroes.

Until now. When my friend Maryam e-mailed me the news that Terakaft had a few UK gigs, it did cross my mind that she was winding me up. Then I thought that she might have just keyed in the wrong band - there's also Tamikrest, Toumast and Tartit, after all. But no, it was definitely Terakaft.

But then - apart from reminding myself that Maryam was, of course, extremely trustworthy and efficient, and not the typographic jackanapes I seemingly imagined she was being - the story did seem to be falling into place. Creatively, the band are on a roll: two really majestic albums in quick succession on the World Village label testify to that. 'Aratan N Azawad' from 2011 recently made Songlines magazine's 'Top 25 Mali Albums' list (at a mere no.23? Get a grip, Songlines) and the latest release 'Kel Tamasheq' (2012) is equally captivating.

And now we had an Actual Gig. Brilliantly, this was at Electrowerkz. If you've read my post about a recent dark folk gig at the same venue, you may recall my mentioning the, er, 'Spartan' feel of the place. It would be easy to imagine the nomadic band (the word 'terakaft' means 'caravan') camping in the desert with tents offering more luxurious facilities.

But none of that mattered. Yes, Electrowerkz is tiny but the stage is high up so sightlines are good. Also, free of the South Bank or the Barbican's ultra-respectful atmospheres, we had a chance to really MOVE to this music. I don't think anyone in that room was still - it would have been impossible (especially if, like me, you had over-affectionate couple Ms Elbows and Mr Shoulders on your immediate right, leading me to build 'limb dodging' into my limited repertoire of dance moves).

Why do I love Terakaft in particular so much? Well - if you know and like Tinariwen, you can probably call to mind the way their guitars launch into action, a phenomenal wall of rhythmic sound that locks you in whether that particular track has a blues or funk feel. Terakaft are much sparser but equally powerful, and that is what I like. They do as much with the space as with the noise. They can achieve a 'desert blues' mournful intensity, while at the same time they are nimble enough to hit a groove of such sprightly delicacy that you bob up and down in your own space, grinning, not wanting it to end. On some of their tracks you can hear traces of reggae or surf, just hints of sting or bounce for the sinewy guitars to wrap themselves round. Untiring, the band pumped the room full of energy for around 1hr 45mins.

I had waited some years for this gig. It should say something that it was even better than I expected, rather than failing to live up to the gig in my head. On the way out, Maryam said, 'That must have been good - you were dancing. You never dance.' I think I replied, '*wheeze, cough, pant*'.

They are incredible. Go and buy everything they've done.

A couple of mentions. If you like this music, you should definitely visit Maryam's YouTube channel for sundry delights,  including this track from the London gig:

And if you are interested in the current state of affairs in Mali and how it affects its musicians, you should start reading the work of Andy Morgan. I've mentioned his great website, Andy Morgan Writes, before but it's particularly pertinent now as he has published an analysis of the crisis called 'Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali'. You can find details here: