Album review by Eric Sandberg
Mike Scott used to make music so big that the first three albums by his band The Waterboys are collectively referred to as "The Big Music." The fiery young Irishman wrote passionate, powerful songs about important things and delivered them, with key band mates multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger and saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite, in a manner that is required listening.
Wallinger, a gifted songwriter himself, departed to form World Party, after which The Waterboys broke through with "The Whole of the Moon" from their third album This Is the Sea. After this success Scott decamped from London back to Ireland with a huge batch of new songs that veered away from rock toward folk. The addition of fiddle/mandolin player Steve Wickham enhanced the charm of these songs and Fisherman's Blues is regarded by many as the band's high watermark.
After a fine follow up, Room To Roam, their final album of new material for Chrysalis Records, Scott signed a deal with Geffen, moved to New York City, put together a whole new Waterboys and made some not so big music. After the relative failure of Dream Harder Scott made two low key albums under his own name before resurrecting the Waterboys moniker permanently, ably restoring the name's reputation with two strong albums A Rock In the Weary Land and Universal Hall which boast appearances from both Thistlethwaite and Wickham.
Scott continues to deliver a steady stream of Waterboys product including unreleased material from the Fisherman's Blues sessions, live albums and several albums of new songs backed mostly by session musicians. Lately, perhaps aware of his own mortality, Scott has ramped up the band's activity releasing three new albums in five years including the double album Out of All This Blue in 2017.
Though this must be heaven for a Waterboys "Mike can do no wrong" acolyte, it has been a bit of a strain on the discerning completest that is this writer. On Fisherman's Blues Scott wrote a song called "And a Bang On the Ear" an ode to to girlfriends past which, though lovely, established Scott as a bit of a rake. In the late era of The Waterboys many of Scott's songs fall into two categories:
1) name-dropping famous people and,
2) past girlfriends
Late, iconic musicians pervade Scott's dreams. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis have all appeared to him and gotten a song out of it. Out of All this Blue is a twenty-three song litany of women he has loved and left, or have wised up and left him. This, coupled with Scott's new fascination with already tired hip-hop beats, renders the entire affair a bit ponderous.
Only two years later, Scott and The Waterboys have released yet another album with ten all-new songs Where the Action Is. Oy vey! But wait...from the opening power chords of the driving title track, this album sounds like it might be fun. Tasty organ fills — check, wickedly distorted fiddle from Steve Wickham — check, some really decent songs that aren't all about girlfriends — check.
Track two "London Mick" is the inevitable name-dropping song but, this time, The Clash's Mick Jones isn't appearing in a dream — apparently they saw This Is Spinal Tap in a theater together. Track three is the title track from the previous album Out of All this Blue which has some very nice Matthew Fisher style organ from Paul Brown.
Tracks four and five present a pair of songs that are among the best Scott has written in years. "Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love)" is inescapably catchy while "In My Time on Earth" finds Scott looking back on his passionate youth and recapturing quite a bit of it.
"Ladbroke Grove Symphony" continues his reminiscing but "Take Me There I Will Follow You" is drenched in faux hip-hop with a programmed drum loop, rap backing vocals and [ulp!] scratchin'. "And There's Love" is another old girlfriend song which comes off as sincere but is again steeped in a hip hop vibe that just doesn't suit the song. "Then She Made the Lasses O" is also marred by loops and beats but is ultimately rescued by Steve Wickham's georgeous fiddle.
The album closes with "Piper At the Gates of Dawn" a compelling recitation of a passage from The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame over a beautiful piano melody reminiscent of mid period Rick Wright and Wickham's ethereal electrified fiddle.
Taken all in, Where the Action Is represents a tentative return to form and further verification of the old adage less is more.
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A Musician Profile by Eric Sandberg
Michael Lee Wolfe grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Point Breeze in the 70's, graduating from Taylor Allderdice high school [the school that gave the world Marty Allen and Wiz Khalifa, among other luminaries] in 1979. An avid music fan, Mike embraced what is now called classic rock, jazz and jam bands like the Allman Brothers and The Grateful dead. He took up guitar in his teens, playing with friends taking a year of lessons from Pittsburgh jazz legend Ken Karsh but...
"I wasn't a very good student so I mostly taught myself."
Mike's parents wanted him to become a lawyer but he felt there were enough of those already. After finishing his studies at the University of Michigan he spent the summer "Eurailing" where he eventually met up with a school friend living in Leon, Spain, a classical guitarist named Cy Williams.
While there, he was introduced to some people from Oviedo, the capitol of Asturias in northern Spain, who invited him to come up and party like it was 1984. Within minutes of stepping off the train in Oviedo Mike met Monica, the woman who would eventually deign to marry him. He wrote a song about it for one of his many musical projects Maraya Zydeco.
Maraya Zydeco: Flechazo [Love]
Despite only taking one semester of pass/fail Spanish 101 at Ann Arbor, a connection was made. It wasn't long before Michael Lee Wolfe started making other kinds of connections in Asturias — musical connections. In 1991 Wolfe founded Michael Lee Wolfe Productions and began a career as a successful concert promoter.
"I brought over a bunch of American jazz, blues and gospel acts and ran a bunch of festivals," Mike wrote to me from his home in Spain. "I worked with a fair number of European artists: Celtic musicians from Ireland and Scotland, Fado [a traditional form of folk and popular music] singers from Portugal and even a terrific songwriter from France who writes in Yiddish and surrounds himself with incredible players.
I never had to worry about ticket sales. Like health care, the government picked up the tab for everything. I was really just an organizer and tour manager. This lasted until the economic crisis in 2013. I still promote some events here and there."
But Wolfe wasn't just promoting concerts and festivals, he was proving himself a capable musician who was able to adapt his skills and play with the folk and jazz musicians of Asturia.
"Being a musician with "a Jazz mentality" musical associations began to form naturally. Music is a wonderfully promiscuous endeavor. If you stick at it, you get much better at it and it turns out I'm a natural producer type. So, if the idea is clear, it's not hard to get a new repertoire going."
The preceding is an unquantifiable understatement. The wealth and breadth of music that Lee Wolfe [his professional name] has produced in support of and in collaboration with other artists and on his own is simply staggering. Over the past thirty-five odd years Wolfe has parlayed his love of music — playing, composing, producing and organizing, into becoming a historic figure in Asturian folk music.
Wolfe's first band in Spain, Xaréu, had made a couple of records for the small label FonoAstur, but after a falling out with the label over promotional support [a tale as old as time] the band became an indie act, with all the pitfalls that come with it.
"Our first indie record was made with my old friend Carlos Pinto. He said he had a studio and a label but the studio was really crappy. He had one studio monitor with a busted cone and someone had to keep his finger on the multi-track recorder to keep the tape from spooling on the floor, which it inevitably did anyway. A lot of songs had to be spliced back together so it took a grueling six months of endurance and patience to complete our third album which was the first to be issued on CD."
After this experience Wolfe became determined to take control of the recording process for his work and utilized the experience he had acquired over the years, going back to making living room recordings with friends back in Pittsburgh, to become a producer. Through his concert promoting connections and his own musical efforts, Wolfe built a reputation as an efficient, reliable and knowledgeable project director with an elite musician's ear and skill.
Over the following twenty-five years Wolfe became a driving force in the music scene in northern Spain as a promoter, a producer and a musician. He has played with and produced albums for Asturiana Mining Company, Ubiña, Astura and Anabel Santiago, the premier neo-folk singer in Asturias.
Asturiana Mining Company
In addition to adapting his skills to the folk music of his adopted homeland, Wolfe promoted his own brand of traditional roots music, blues and singer-songwriter styles as a solo artist and in a series of newer bands including Maraya Zydeco with accordionist Maria Alvarez, The Pink Rangers and the "Don't call us jazz" outfit De Miguel, Wolfe & Quintana featuring the gifted pianist Jacobo De Miguel and brilliant scat-singing percussionist Mapi Quintana.
The trio's one album Xota Pa Tres [Dance With Three or, if you go with the Portugese translation -- With Three Vaginas], co-produced by Wolfe, is an astonishing musical work that transcends labeling and description.
During his career Wolfe and his various compadres have played in Cuba, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Corsica, Algeria, Venezuela and Chile, as well as all over Spain.
"Since the economic crisis we still get out and travel a bit — play some festivals, but it's mostly a bar club life now for me."
Wolfe embraced and added to the culture of Asturian music but is also a bluesman and a jazzer at heart — music that figures prominently in his many projects. Rather than delve into a complex timeline of Mike's career in the limited space we allow ourselves here at Knock and Knowall, I want to share as much music with you as I can, sprinkled with comments from this amazing and humble musician.
"Tielve" [the name of a Parish of Asturia] is a traditional song from Patrimoniu by Asturiana Mining Company, produced by Michael Lee Wolfe and issued in 2000 by Lochshore Recordings, Glasgow, UK. Wolfe: "We are an Asturian folk band. We did the theme song "Trova del Mineru" [Mining Ballad] for the movie Pidele Cuetas al Rey." [a film about a miner who walks from Asturias to Madrid to petition the King for miner's rights].
Asturiana Mining Company performing live on Spanish Television
The hilarious "[I Put Your] Pussy on Facebook from The Last Day I Got Laid by The Pink Rangers, a splinter group from Asturiana Mining Company which performs American roots music.
"La Islla de Brasil" and "Tabaco de Pipa" [Pipe Tobacco] Two remarkable live television performances of tracks from Xota Pa Tres by De Miguel, Wolfe & Quintana. Wolfe: "We got great feedback from the biggest jazz guys around Spain and yet my partners didn't want to see what we did as jazz, which pretty much stopped forward progress on this project."
Wolfe performing "Ay un Galán d'esta Villa" on Spanish television with Anabel Santiago "The female voice of Asturian folk" from the Wolfe produced album Desnuda.
"Louisiana," from Lee Wolfe's 2003 solo album Corners of the World, shows off his instrumental chops and versatility while the next video for "Reunion" presents Wolfe in fine singer/songwriter form.
In 2009, Wolfe released the compilation album Lee Wolfe: Xotes Asturianas 1984-2009 which featured highlights from his twenty-five years of shepherding, supporting, producing and playing Asturian folk music.
Now in his late fifties, with two grown children, and seven years into the era of government fiscal austerity, Wolfe has slowed things down a bit, but he continues to play music live regularly, most recently in partnership with Puri Penin as the roots music duo Hoot 'N Holler and still takes on the odd project with any number of the horde of people he has worked with over the decades. His unlikely musical journey is far from finished.
Michael Lee Wolfe
A Select Visual Discography:
Eric Sandberg reviews David Lindley live at McCabes Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, CA 5/4/19
What better place to watch maxi-instrumentalist David Lindley perform than a guitar shop. In fact the packed house was rife with guitar enthusiasts. it was a long running joke for former McCabe's emcee Lincoln, while introducing the show, to ask the audience members to each grab a guitar on the way out in case of a fire. My Knock and Knowall partner Mike killed the time before the show by rating the guitars on the wall on their extraction worthiness with the guy sitting behind us.
At 8:00 PM sharp, with little fanfare, the seventy-five year old Lindley ambled down the creaky wooden stairs and tiptoed through a minefield of exotic and expensive looking stringed instruments strewn about the floor.
Except for his brightly colored shirt, which he claimed to be Christian Dior, Lindley looked like a long haul trucker who never saved a dime — with requisite cap and billowy white sideburns. From his perch Lindley scanned the floor around him. "Looks like shit!" He mentioned that it had been a while since he'd been here and that he took a year off.
"I've been on tour constantly since I was sixteen. I decided maybe I should [sotto voce] slow.....down. My father's mother — I called her grandmother — had a hernia from moving a couch. Her philosophy was just keep movin.' keep liftin."
With that, the former sideman for Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan and many others bent over and retrieved a Turkish oud that was perched precariously on a flight case and began plucking a mesmerizing raga which finally resolved into "Ain't No Way" from Lindsey's brilliant first solo album El Rayo-X.
With each song Lindley bent over, laying one instrument down and picking up another: Ouds, bouzoukis, Weissenborn acoustic lap slides, but he never touched a traditional guitar — that would have been boring. He paid homage to the late Warren Zevon with two songs, "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me' and the exquisite "The Indifference of Heaven."
"When I heard Warren Zevon had written a song called "[Beneath] The Indifference of Heaven" I said 'ooh...I've got to hear that. That sounds good...and it was."
After Praising Danny O'Keefe to the rafters, "If he's playing, cancel what you're doing and go," Lindley performed O'Keefe's humorous ode "[He Would Have Loved You] More than Eva Braun," a song O'Keefe himself has performed on the same stage.
The hour and a half set included many more stories, instrument switches and Lindley's unique singing voice which occasionally channeled deepest Appalachia. Lindley wrapped things up with a funny story about Ry Cooder receiving a phone call as they were about to begin a rehearsal one day.
"Ry listened to the caller with a concerned look, occasionally saying 'that's too bad.' After a while he began rocking back and forth on his heels. He held the phone away from his ear and made a face. He finally told the person he was in rehearsals and people were waiting for him and he'd call back. Ry told us 'That was a fella who is in the self-meat grinder.' I thought 'Now there's a song!"
After performing his wry and lengthy concert favorite "Meat Grinder Blues" Lindley thanked the audience for coming but stayed seated as he received a standing ovation.
"Okay, Okay," he said and played us one more song. When you're seventy-five you get to perform encores without actually leaving the stage. It was just another sublime evening with a charming, witty and talented man who, I can only imagine, has been a joy to tour with for all these years.
If you live in Southern California, be warned that David Lindley continues his guitar shop tour, bringing his stringed menagerie to The Fret House in Covina Saturday, May 18th.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.