Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds

Rare Birds cover art

Jonathan Wilson is a (non-native) Californian who makes extraordinary music – not just for himself, he also has some very cool producer credits including critically acclaimed albums with Father John Misty and Karen Elson released in 2017 alone. His own music manages to cherry pick sounds and grooves from the last fifty years of popular music without ever feeling derivative or anything other than contemporary.

His last album Fanfare felt rooted in the acoustic guitar and harmony vocals sound of the 1970s Laurel Canyon sound – to the extent that Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and David Crosby contributed harmony vocals. His new album, Rare Birds, has got much more of a 1980s Peter Gabriel/Talk Talk feel, synthesizers and all. There’s still lush orchestration and great guitar playing of course, and there are plenty of outliers like the delicate Loving You or the early Pink Floyd sound of Miriam Montague. The latter is clearly influenced by the fact that his main gig at the moment is guitarist, vocalist and ‘resident hippie’ on Roger Waters’ Us + Them world tour. He also contributed guitar, keyboards and studio skills to Waters’ recent album is this the life we really want?.

Anyway, NPR have kindly made the entire of Rare Birds available to listen to a couple of weeks before it’s released so it would be rude of you not to listen to it.

And here are streams of Wilson’s own first album plus the Karen Elson and Father John Misty albums from last year.

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Alan Parker, guitarist and composer

[You can listen to all the tracks in one go on this Youtube playlist]

I heard a song on the radio this morning and in quick succession was struck by, and then wanted to know who played, the guitar solo that starts at the four minute mark and is basically the track from then on. It’s linked below, I’ll wait while you listen to it.

That’s John Walker on the video pretending to fingerpick the solo on a (rather beautiful) unplugged Fender Stratocaster, back in 1975 while promoting the Walker Brothers comeback album which did nowhere near as well as the No Regrets single taken from it.

The actual guitarist is Alan Parker, an English musician who has written or played a huge amount of music I’m sure you’re familiar with, although his face is unfamiliar and won’t appear on these videos barring one grainy still as a Youtube thumbnail.

After training at the Royal Academy of Music under Julian Bream in the mid Sixties, Parker became an in demand session guitarist on the London circuit. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame was musical director for Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man album sessions and brought Parker in to play electric rhythm and lead guitar on the title track, Hurdy Gurdy Man. It’s often been said that the guitar is played by Jimmy Page – he did play acoustic guitar on some of the other tracks at the sessions but not this one.

Around the same time as the Donovan sessions, Parker met Jimi Hendrix when they were both working at Olympic Studios in Barnes, west London. They hit it off and, a couple of years later, Jimi gifted him his 1951 Epiphone FT-79 acoustic guitar. This had been bought for $25 in 1967 with money earned from the Monterey Festival appearance and had been Jimi’s main home guitar while in London, used for practice and composition.

Parker played the guitar on sessions and at some point sold it along with the hard case (stencilled with “A. Parker”) that he’d found for it. That original sale may have been The Jimi Hendrix Auction at Bonhams in 2001 – it was certainly sold there. It’s been auctioned again a couple of times since then, still with the A Parker case, most recently in 2016 when it sold for £209,000.

A group of session musicians got together in 1969, at his instigation according to Big Jim Sullivan, with a view to forming a band. Big Jim soon went off to play with Tom Jones for a few years leaving Parker as the sole guitarist but the remainder became Blue Mink. The bass player was Herbie Flowers, later a David Bowie stalwart and member of Sky, but Blue Mink’s pop success was driven by the vocals of Madeline Bell and Roger Cook. Cook was also a talented songwriter, having credits on “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” and “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart” amongst many others. Anyway, here’s a Blue Mink instrumental from their first album which shows off Alan Parker’s chops.

All of Blue Mink carried on with their session work and other bands. They formed the nucleus of the musicians on Elton John’s first album in 1970. Parker and Flowers formed a heavy blues band called Rumpelstiltskin, whose two albums are well worth checking out.

For strange reasons Rumpelstiltskin adopted pseudonyms, so Alan Parker became Andrew Balmain. That’s how Andrew Balmain came to be credited as guitarist on Ballade de Melody Nelson from Serge Gainsbourg’s landmark 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, the rhythm tracks for which were recorded in London in 1970 with Rumplestiltskin providing the core of the band.

The Herbie Flowers connection was probably responsible for Parker being brought in to play the electric guitar on Rebel Rebel, David Bowie’s farewell to glam rock. Bowie wrote the riff on an acoustic but Parker dirtied it up and added the three notes at the end of each riff (Ab, D, E) that allow it to loop so hypnotically for almost all the song. Parker was also possibly being used as a gentle two finger salute in the direction of the recently departed Mick Ronson, showing that Ronson was by no means the only guitarist with a Les Paul and an overdriven amp. Alan Parker also played the Shaft-style guitar on 1984 which appeared together with Rebel Rebel on Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs.

Parker continued to play on many well-known and plenty of obscure tracks, such is the life of a session guitarist. But he was also establishing himself as a composer and performer of library music. The key thing about library music is that the composer assigns all copyright to the publisher, so the publisher can easily license it to film and TV companies for use as soundtrack and incidental music. Library music would also be released as albums by labels such as KPM, DeWolfe and Themes. It’s very difficult to trace what use the tracks were put to, this one however is known to have been used on Sesame Street back in the day.

Session contacts led to library music contacts and those in turn led to theme music and soundtrack contacts. By 1977, Parker was scoring the high profile television dramatisation of the “Philby, Burgess and Maclean” spy scandal.

He pretty much seems to have not looked back since.

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Bedsit Disco Queen and Jeff Buckley at Glastonbury

Bedsit-Disco-QueenI’ve just finished reading Bedsit Disco Queen, the music memoir by Everything But The Girls’ Tracey Thorn. I’m not really an Everything But The Girl fan but I have a fondness for random bits of their catalogue and even knew Rob Peters, the drummer on their 1986 album Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. But as soon as I saw the book in the library, I knew it was going to be a fascinating read for anybody who lived through the era. The paperback is released on January 16 and I heartily recommend it.

There’s one story from the book I’d like to share, which concerns Jeff Buckley. Thorn was a fan of Buckley and in April 1995, EBTG played a low key gig at Sin-é, the New York café where he had recorded his 1993 mini-album. Ben Watt (other half of EBTG) randomly met Jeff while they were having their hair cut at an East Village salon, they discovered they were both playing the Glastonbury Festival and Jeff suggested they do a song together. This is all forgotten until an hour before Everything But The Girls’ midday Glastonbury set.

And now, without warning or preamble, at eleven o’clock in the morning here is Jeff Buckley standing in front of me in my workman’s hut of a dressing room, and he has come to remind me that we have agreed to do a song together. We are due onstage in about half an hour.

‘Bloody hell, isn’t it a bit late now?’ I ask. He doesn’t think so. With a kind of gauche enthusiasm that makes him seem like a spectacularly gorgeous younger brother, he produces a guitar and begins to throw ideas at us.

They decide to cover The Smiths’ I Know It’s Over and the peformance is chaotic but enjoyable. Fast forward to late afternoon when Jeff Buckley is playing the main stage and Tracey and Ben are watching from the wings.

At the end of one song he looks over to us, catches Ben’s eye and starts beckoning him onstage with furious jerks of his head. It’s the scene at the end of Spinal Tap when the band reunite onstage! Ben picks up a guitar, gamely ambles on and plugs in.

‘OK,’ yells Jeff. ‘ we’re gonna do “Kick Out The Jams”. One-two-three-FAWH!’

Now Ben may well be the only guitarist in rock music who had never heard MC5’s punk anthem, let alone played it. Still, he’s nothing if not a quick learner, and after about eight bars he has sussed it and is off and running.

And that’s why, at the end of the song, Jeff Buckley says ‘Uh, thanks Ben.’

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St Cuthbert’s Way: Part 4 – Yetholm to Lindisfarne

This is part 4 of useful information gleaned from our extended 110 mile St Cuthbert’s Way walk from Peebles to Lindisfarne in September 2012. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

The third section of the St Cuthbert’s is across the northern Cheviots from Yetholm to Wooler – up then down, up then down. There are no facilities on the route but it’s all very beautiful. Wooler is a sizeable town with plenty of pubs, cafes and shops. There also a Cooperative store on the main street open till 11pm most days. The Tourist Information Centre is the place to get your next stamp, but it closes at 4.30 so don’t be late. There are quite a few campsites in and around Wooler but we ended up staying in one on the Chatton Road that is so small I can only identify it by its Landranger coordinates – NU003286. But on a wet night, we were very happy to get the use of a static caravan with heating, shower, kitchen and a proper bed for £15.

The final section takes you through lovely Northumberland countryside with occasional tantalising views of Lindisfarne, but with no facilities until you get close to the A1 near the coast. We crossed to Lindisfarne over the sands on the Pilgrims Way. Despite the unavoidable stinky mudflat in the middle, this was a highlight of the journey. Just make sure you understand the tide times table and try to start your crossing as soon the table says it is safe to.

Even if you only have time to stay until the tide comes back in, Lindisfarne is a very deserving pilgrimage destination. You can get your final proof at the post office, and the 477 bus runs back to the mainland just before safe crossing ends – only on Wednesdays and Saturdays from September to May. But if you can stay overnight when the island is much quieter, the experience is even better.

We stayed at the Lindisfarne Hotel which has nice rooms for a very reasonable (for Lindisfarne) price. The proprietor Sean is a mine of information and something of a character (in a very helpful way). As the walk was to mark a birthday with a zero at the end, we celebrated with dinner at the Beangoose Resturant which serves lovely food even if the local lobster isn’t available. Of the many, mostly tourist oriented, shops we found the Lindisfarne Scriptorium to be interesting and genuine.

Holy Island causeway safe crossing times

477 bus timetables

Lindisfarne Hotel
Marygate, Holy Island TD15 2SQ
Telephone: 01289 389273
Email: info@thelindisfarnehotel.co.uk

Beangoose Resturant
Market Place, Holy Island TD15 2RX
Telephone: 01289 389083
Email: enquiries@beangoose.co.uk

Lindisfarne Scriptorium
Farne House, Marygate, Holy Island TD15 2SJ
Telephone: 01289 389269
Email: mary@lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

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St Cuthbert’s Way: Part 3 – Melrose to Yetholm

This is part 3 of useful information gleaned from our extended 110 mile St Cuthbert’s Way walk from Peebles to Lindisfarne in September 2012. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

The St Cuthbert’s Way starts at the Melrose Tourist Information Centre. You can get your proof sheet stamped here but bring your own, their printer wasn’t working very well when they last printed a batch. After crossing the Eildon Hills, which you’ll be able to see until the start of the Cheviots, the Way drops into Newtown St Boswells where there’s a Coop, public loo, bank and the Lunch Box sandwich shop. Which is fine for cheap fuel, but if the budget allows and your stomach will hold out then wait until St Boswells. Here you’ll find the Main Street Trading Company, which combines an award winning bookshop with a very nice cafe. After finally leaving the banks of the River Tweed, the Way follows the Dere Street Roman road – a surprisingly wiggly route – to the Harestanes Visitor Centre. You can get your next stamp here but it’s only open between 10 and 5. Even the toilets are locked out of hours. We wildcamped on the other side of the Teviot.

The next stretch goes through some lovely woods, rolling farmland and past the ruins of Cessford Castle but the first place with facilities is Morebattle. Here there are public loos, a shop (closed weekend afternoons) and the Templehall Hotel pub, which serves food and has accommodation. From Morebattle, the Way climbs steeply up to Wideopen Hill, the highest and halfway point of the route. This section has some viciously steep ladder stiles over walls and we met a Norwegian the next day who had hurt his knee coming down one, so be extra careful.

We stayed at the recently reopened Youth Hostel in Kirk Yetholm, which is also the place to get your next stamp. This is closed between 10am and 5pm, getting your proof is always a challenge. If you want to cook at the hostel, there’s a very good shop a few minutes walk away in Town Yetholm, which is open 7am till 6pm except Sundays when it’s 9am till 4pm. Otherwise it’s The Plough in Town Yetholm, which reputedly has good straightforward food, or the Border Arms Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, which is overpriced and over fussy.

Next time: To Lindisfarne

Main Street Trading Company
Main Street, St Boswells Scottish Borders TD6 0AT

Templehall Hotel
Main Street, Morebattle TD5 8QQ
Telephone: 01573 440249
Email: info@templehallhotel.com

Kirk Yetholm Youth Hostel
Kirk Yetholm, Kelso, Roxburghshire TD5 8PG
Telephone: 01573 420639
Email: kirkyetholm@thefriendsofnature.org.uk

Yetholm Village Shop
High Street, Town Yetholm TD5 8RA
Telephone: 01573 420366

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St Cuthbert’s Way: Part 2 – Southern Upland Way

This is part 2 of useful information gleaned from our extended 110 mile St Cuthbert’s Way walk from Peebles to Lindisfarne in September 2012. Part 1 is here.

At St Mary’s Loch, we picked up the Southern Upland Way for a couple of days. This is a well marked route which we really enjoyed. After a few miles along the loch, there’s a 13km section from Dryhope Tower to Traquair which is quite remote feeling, boggy upland with a bit of forest thrown in. It rained a lot this day so we were very grateful for Pat and Brian Hudson’s hospitality at the Quair View guest house in Traquair, all for a flat £25 pppn with breakfast. We ate that evening at the Traquair Arms Hotel just over a mile away in Innerleithen. There are a lot of pubs and hotels that will happily serve you very average food for £10+ a plate. The Traquair Arms serves very good food for a similar price so treat yourself there instead.

We took a break the next day and went back to Innerleithen. The Whistlestop Cafe is a very good daytime cafe with especially nice soups. Open on Sundays too. The Alpine Bikes shop might help you stock up on energy bars and there’s a good sized Coop opposite. Innerleithen has a few good secondhand book shops and is generally a more interesting place than it had been made out to be.

The next day was a long section of Southern Upland Way from Traquair to Melrose. It starts with about 400m of ascent and then continues along an east-west ridge with fantastic views. Then you drop through forest to the Tweed at Yairbrig (the Airy Fairy B&B is here but we didn’t stop so I can’t comment). So far so fantastic. I wish we’d left the marked way here and followed the Tweed to Melrose. But we continued up and down to Gala Hill above Galashiels. I wish we’d left the marked way here and skirted around Gala Hill before dropping towards Melrose. But we didn’t, we followed the way down into Galashiels and then back up the other side of Gala Hill before arriving at Melrose around 7.30. A long day. But the Old Bank House B&B made up for it – very good accommodation, right on the (quiet) main street and the best breakfast of the whole trip.

We took another break day in Melrose. Although it’s a very tourist oriented town with shops which cater to that, there’s still enough practical stuff to get by. A small Coop, a Spar and a Boots are about the extent of the chains but there are also fishmongers, butchers, bakeries and a good deli – the Country Kitchen – where we stocked up on porridge oats, dried fruit and a few treats. The Bakehouse sells cheap sandwiches and hot snacks. Between Monday and Thursday, the Station Hotel currently serves main courses for £6 with accompanying starters and desserts for £2 each – perfectly reasonable food and keenly priced. There are lots of other places to eat in Melrose including a fish and chip chop and an expensive looking Italian place in the old station – worth visiting the station to walk up onto the platform to watch what is now the town bypass – weird feeling. We chose the Kings Arms Hotel because we were late on the first night and it was still serving – turned out to be nice food.

Next time: The St Cuthberts Way itself

Quair View guest house
Traquair, Innerleithen, Scottish Borders EH44 6PL
Telephone: 01896 830 506
Email: hudson.b@btinternet.com

Traquair Arms Hotel
Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, EH44 6PD
Telephone: 01896 830229
Email: info@traquairarmshotel.co.uk

Alpine Bikes
Neidpath Church Building, Peebles Road, Innerleithen, Borders, EH44 6QX
Telephone: 01896 830880
Email: innerleithen@alpinebikes.co.uk

Old Bank House
27 Buccleuch Street, Melrose TD6 9LB
Telephone: 01896 823712
Email:  info@oldbankhousemelrose.co.uk

Kings Arms Hotel
High Street Melrose TD6 9PB
Telephone: 01896 800335

Station Hotel
26 Market Square, Melrose TD6 9PT
Telephone: 01896 823147
Email:  info@stationhotelmelrose.com

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St Cuthbert’s Way: Part 1

St Cuthbert’s Way is a 62 mile waymarked walk from Melrose in Scotland via the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland to Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island. Theo and I walked an extended St Cuthberts Way in September 2012, starting in Peebles and using a couple of sections of the Southern Upland Way to connect us in at Melrose. I’m not intending to blog the whole thing, but just to share some of the places we used and liked along the way in the hope that this might help others doing the walk

We started off at the Old Mill camp site just off the A1 and with our end point of Lindisfarne in sight a few miles away. This is a clean and tidy site with excellent facilities which mostly caters to motorhomes but will take tents by arrangement. The owner, Teresa Smalley, was very helpful, let us store our car at the site until we got back ten days later and even gave us a lift to the bus in the morning. The only thing to bear in mind if you’re on foot is that the camping area is about a half mile from the road.

We took three buses to get from the Beal crossroads to Peebles. It all worked out fine but I would suggest using Traveline Scotland‘s phone helpline to plan a route like this as my internet searches had failed to track down some services that would have made life simpler if I’d known about them earlier.

From Peebles, we took a section of the John Buchan Way over Cademuir Hill and into the Manor Valley. This was a really great short walk. We really wanted to be in the Manor valley so we could walk south over the hills to Meggett Water and the Southern Upland Way, but accommodation in this dead end valley is relatively hard to come by. The best place is Castlehill Knowe B&B but their rooms were fully booked. However Sue and Roger kindly made space for us to camp in their garden, gave us access to indoor facilities and cooked us breakfast, all for the price of a tent pitch. It would probably be possible to wild camp further up the valley, but a lot of it is owned by a very large egg producer who didn’t sound too co-operative.

The walk from Manor to Meggett is only signed at either end but isn’t difficult to follow and has great views of Dollar Law, one of the highest hills in the Borders. We ended the day at the Tibbie Shiels Inn campsite on St Mary’s Loch. This is in a lovely location but facing three valleys running from SW to NW so it gets a lot of weather. And did while we were there. The facilities are basic and it was feeling a bit end of season, so we decided not to spend a rest day there and continued on after one night.

Next time: the Southern Upland Way

Old Mill camp site
Garden Cottage, West Kyloe, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, TD15 2PF
Telephone: 01289 381279
Email: teresasmalley@westkyloe.demon.co.uk

Traveline Scotland
Telephone: 0871 200 22 33

Castlehill Knowe B&B
Castlehill Knowe Bed and Breakfast, Kirkton Manor, Peebles, Scottish Borders, EH45 9JN
Telephone: 01721 740218
Email: sueroger@onetel.com

Tibbie Shiels Inn campsite
Tibbie Shiels Inn, St Marys Loch, Selkirk TD7 5LH
Telephone: 01750 42231
Email: info@tibbieshiels.com

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Ashford Traveller – grand opening

It’s not a present if it’s not wrapped, right?

Green note: the wrapping paper is back on the roll ready for next christmas. :)

OK the photo might be slightly staged, but the delight is genuine. Especially at how many people had contributed, which was much more of a surprise than the fact that I’d been building a spinning wheel in the cellar.
The accompanying card had a felt handpuppet goat on the front. Seemed appropriate.
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