I don’t listen to music on the radio any more. I think I wrote about that recently but suffice to say that the days when I would listen to Kenny Everett, Johnny Walker, Andy Kershaw and John Peel have long gone. However, a few months ago, my musical guru pointed out to me that Spotify automatically generate something called “My Release Radar” every Friday. This is a playlist which they populate with new releases based on the sort of stuff they have detected that I have been listening to. This normally works brilliantly although there was a day a few months ago when I went deliberately retro and played lots of Cliff Richard songs and that screwed me up for a few weeks. But generally the stuff that I find in there is very interesting and often artists release singles a few months before they release an album so it’s a great way to find out what albums about to be released.
Last week’s release radar included a song by Neil Young from the long awaited “Homegrown”, an unreleased record from 1974. There was a song from the new excellent Jason Isbell record. Also, a song by Willie Watson who used to be in Old Crow Medicine Show – it’s very good song but I did buy one of his records a few years ago and couldn’t get on with it. There’s a song by Rose City Band and that’s a band I need to investigate. Also included is a song by the forthcoming Steve Earle record which I’m eagerly anticipating. There are also songs by Mary Gauthier, Todd Snider, Gillian Welch and Jaime Wyatt who Paddy and I saw a couple of years ago at The Prince Albert in Brighton. Best of all is a version of “Helpless” by someone called Molly Tuttle.
When I played this yesterday morning, Roo heard it and asked whether it was Ketch Secor playing fiddle. I was astonished that she recognised him. Roo is a huge fan of fiddle music and she does love the playing of Ketch Secor. He is a member of Old Crow Medicine Show and in shows he often appears “plugged into the wall” (as Paddy used to say about James Hunter). The answer was yes, it is Ketch Secor playing fiddle and, in fact, the whole of Old Crow Medicine Show are backing Molly Tuttle on this song. (To complete the circle here, Paddy’s next door neighbour used to be in an Old Crow Medicine Show tribute band and they were great).
I’d never heard of Molly Tuttle before yesterday but her Wikipedia page informs me that she was the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s guitar player of the year in 2017. She has released one EP and one record. She has a lovely voice and she has picked an excellent song to cover. “Helpless” by Neil Young.
One of the best rock films of all time, in my humble opinion, is “The Last Waltz”. There are so many reasons for this, not least Rick Danko’s vocal performance on “It Makes No Difference.” But a highlight is when Neil Young joins The Band to play “Helpless”. Levon helm is quoted as saying “He performed with a good-size rock of cocaine stuck in his nostril. Neil’s manager saw this and said no way is Neil gonna be in a film like this. They had to go to special-effects people, who developed what they called a ‘traveling booger matte’ that sanitized Neil’s nostril and put ‘Helpless’ into the movie.” A more heartwarming story is when Neil is introduced by Robbie Robertson. He says “Thank you man for letting me do this.” Robbie replies “Shit, man. Are you kidding? ARE YOU KIDDING?” See if you can hear it here.
One of the coolest boys at the grammar school I went to was Jamie Reid. Everyone gathered round him to listen to his opinions and only a special few were allowed to join his inner sanctum. Just once, he praised me because I had made a maze (not a real maze – just using a pen and my rough book). I can still remember the warm inner glow when he singled me out for praise for my maze. How pathetic. I think I was 17 at the time. Anyway, one day he was letting us all know about a record he had at home with the best cover of all time. He said that all the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were shown without their instruments which had been airbrushed out of the photo. Along with the cocaine, presumably. I’m not sure about this but it was the first time I had heard of the group.
I have the record now because my good friend Alex gave me his copy when he wanted to get another copy for himself. It is a great cover. Sepia tinted. Crosby holding a gun and he’s the only one looking at the camera. Neil Young sitting apart from the others. Dallas Taylor looking like a stoned Beatle. Greg Reeves looking super cool in a painted waistcoat. A lovely dog. It folds out into a double sleeve with 19 black and white photos by Henry Diltz who was the official photographer at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals and also played on some of the early Monkees recordings. Art direction by Gary Burden who created album covers for Neil Young for 35 years.
The record is full of great songs but it is arguable whether these are group songs. Crosby, Stills & Nash had released a sublime coherent eponymous record in 1969 but when they wanted to start performing live they decided they needed another guitar player. Stephen Stills suggested Neil Young (after Stevie Winwood had declined to join) even though their relationship in The Buffalo Springfield had been fractious.
The first album had been recorded when Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were in love, Stephen Stills was in a relationship with Judy Collins (for whom he wrote the gorgeous “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) and David Crosby was in a relationship with a beautiful girl from Laurel Canyon called Christine Hinton. By the time “Deja Vu” was recorded, Graham and Joni had split, Stephen and Judy had split and Christine Hinton had been tragically killed in a car crash. Stephen Stills is quoted as saying that “getting that second album out of us was like pulling teeth, there was song after song that wouldn’t didn’t make it. The track, ‘Déjà Vu,’ must have meant 100 takes in the studio.”
Despite that, there are some fantastic songs on this record. “Carry On” and “Deja Vu” feature some of the remarkable harmonies that made their first album so warm. “Woodstock” was written by Joni Mitchell, even though she didn’t go there and it is a much more up tempo version than her own version on “Ladies Of The Canyon.” Apparently, there was a storming live version cut which Neil Young was particularly happy with but Stephen Stills insisted on trying to perfect every aspect of it until he finally even re recorded his vocal. Maybe this epitomises the difference between Neil Young and Stephen Stills with the former preferring the energy of a live cut even if there are some imperfections.
Most people love Graham Hash’s two songs “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”. I am not most people. I remember going for a meal at the house of the Head of Maths Department at Ledbury Grammar School where I did my first teaching practice. He was a really great guy. He put this record on and when “Teach Your Children” came on, I expressed my negative opinion of it and he looked quizzically at me and told me that this song was the reason he had become a teacher. Oh well.
“Helpless” is a beautiful song with Neil Young’s voice at the fore with the others’ harmonies giving a wonderful empathy. On “The Last Waltz”, Joni Mitchell sings backing vocals but she is hidden from the audience by a curtain as she hasn’t yet performed. Many different versions of the song were tried by CSN&Y before they decided on the slow version here. Neil Young still sings the song in live performances. The words are another of Neil Young’s songs about the passing of time and memories of what used to be. Other examples are “Sugar Mountain”, “Time Fades Away”, “Don’t Be Denied” and “It’s A Dream”. The opening lines are “There is a town in north Ontario, with dream comfort memory to spare and in my mind I still need a place to go. All my changes were there.” Stunning.
There is a wonderful film called “Celebration At Big Sur” which features Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. In the film, some drugged up guy starts berating the band and Stephen Stills shows that all is not peace and love beneath the surface of the son of a military officer. He then talks about his behaviour and subsequently performs a fantastic version of 4+20 which is easily my favourite song of his.
This is an excellent record. Thank you “Release Radar” for helping me rediscover it.