Monday, August 11, 2014

Under 'Re-construction'

Stick with us, folks. The best is yet to post.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Staying Strait... A Conversation with Chris White of the Straits

Maybe you can’t go home again, but thankfully, there is always the opportunity to revisit great music.  The Straits, featuring two members of Dire Straits, are keeping the music of that legendary band alive and well, and adding to the legacy with some new tunes.  Although Dire Straits has never fully reformed, the interest in their music has never seemed to wane.  Some members of the band put together a few benefit gigs, and to their delight, discovered the chemistry of the band remained intact, and that the magic present when they played live was still working. After a great deal of encouragement from friends and fans, including founder Mark Knopfler, and a catalog of songs that  reflect a virtual soundtrack of the era they were created, "The Straits" are embarking on a tour that showcases the music of “Dire Straits.” Current band members from the original eighties and nineties family include Chris White, the sax player and keyboard player Alan Clark.  They are joined by some of the best side players in the music world. 

White is quite emphatic that “The Straits” are not a “tribute band.”  He’s right. Having helped to create the sound, Clark and White have skin in the game. And heart.

“Really, this is a ‘different band’ than the original Dire Straits. We’ve got a number of new musicians joining us, great musicians. Because they are so good, it’s brought a renewed energy to the music. From the reaction we’ve been getting from audiences, it feels a lot like it did the first time, through.”

The music of Dire Straits sold well over 30,000,000 albums at their peak, winning four Grammy awards. It is deeply embedded in the American music scene, though they hailed from Britain. White thinks he has some insight into that phenomenon, and isn’t immune to it himself.

“I really think that music serves a purpose for people because it ‘locates.’ I’ve got tracks that ‘locate’ people in my life in certain times and places. Just about everyone remembers where they were when they first heard ‘Sultans of Swing.’ For me, I remember driving in the cart, and hearing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the first time- my mouth was hanging open!”

It’s more than that, he feels. There is a historical context.

“I also think that the Dire Straits stuff was quite different than what was going on in England at the time. It was non-punk. As things progressed with the band, so did technology.  There were more sounds available. Mark (Knopfler, founder, lead guitar player, and main songwriter for the original band) really embraced that.  Some of the later arrangements have quite a large and classical feel. In that regard, the music really stood out to people.”

It still does.

White has great respect for the music he and the band will be playing in Salisbury, and is grateful for the freedom it gives him as a player.

“I started with Mark as a sax player, working on some film stuff with him.  He asked me to join the band. Mark knew me as a solo player, and not really for ensemble work.  As a result, I got a lot of freedom to try things, and work stuff in. I’m not really a jazz player; I’ve been pretty much in rock and pop my whole career. What I was able to do with the songs has been really great for me, I’ve grown a lot.”

The repertoire of the “Straits” covers much of the history of “Dire Straits.”  They are planning on laying down some original tracks in the fall, to see where it takes them.

“That will be music that this band, this group of people will create. We think we have some of our own music in us as a band.”

While the songs in the Salisbury set are going to be familiar to fans, “The Straits” bring something extra to the stage.

“These guys are really great musicians in their own right. Some of the best.  And they bring a wealth of experience and their own unique style to the music, while playing within the fabric of the song. We can do that because these are very good songs. Steve Ferrone isn’t able to join us on the tour- he’s the drummer, and he has some things to do with Tom Petty, the band he mainly plays in. We’ve brought in a drummer from the UK, Andy Davis.  So where Steve might have taken us one place, Andy tends to bring us back to the more original Dire Straits sound, which has also been great.”

“And it’s been great having Terrence Rais out in front of the band on guitar- without even trying, he is able to sound like Mark.  For example, last night, in Portland, Maine, he took off at the end of ‘Sultans of Swing,’ in a way Mark would not have, but was totally in keeping with the song. We were chasing each other in ways we hadn’t before, and then Andy was able to bring us back again.  As a musician, that’s a fantastic opportunity.  That’s given so much new energy to the rest of us, and kept the music fresh. “

White points out that the band reformed as a result of a charity concert in London two years ago.

“Yeah, we got a fantastic reaction, more than we imagined.  So we did a few gigs, and few more, then got serious about doing this. So far, American audiences have been every bit as enthusiastic as the ones we’ve seen in Europe.  We’re playing much smaller venues for this tour, and have been having a great time connecting with the audience.”

Because of their time and place in pop music, that connection has become multi-generational.

“We got an email the other day from a guy who said ‘my father took me to see Dire Straits in 1992, and last night, I took him to see you guys. Thanks for making that possible.  And the other night, two guys hung around after the gig, and came up to us and said ‘thanks for holding on to this music, it’s wonderful.’  We’ve just been knocked out by the response.”

I Feel So Good- Richard Thompson So Far

When Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, one of rock music’s most iconic writers, anointed him one the top 20 Greatest Guitarists in contemporary music- (actually #19), and then punctuated that selection by noting that Thompson is the ‘Greatest Guitarist in British Folk Rock,’ the singer-songwriter didn’t spend a lot of time wondering what it would take to move up a notch or two, or break into the top 10

Thompson is aware of the honor, but keeps his own perspective on it

“Yeah, it’s nice, but it is also kind of silly.  I mean how do you really make a decision like that? Where is Segovia on a list like that- obviously, if he isn’t Number 1, than it doesn’t really get at the point, does it?  How can Les Paul even be given a number like 37?  It sells a lot of Rolling Stones’ but it isn’t really an accurate reflection of the state of musicianship. It s kind of futile to compare musicians working in different genres.”

His career began in the mid-sixties in his native England; Thompson is barreling through his fifth decade as a ‘working musician’ with no indication of slowing down creatively. He is rooted in a remarkable period of British pop music, the mid to late sixties; when he and his band-mates in Fairport Convention forged an entirely new style and sound, blending English and Scottish folk music with rock, Cajun and American folk traditions, along with world motifs like gypsy, middle-eastern sounds- all played on electric instruments. A measure of Thompson’s and Fairport’s influence was their being tagged with as “the English version of the Byrds.” a simplistic, shorthanded label that actually undervalues their contribution.

Bristling with Thompson’s trademark keen and mordant wit, his eclectic musical taste, and stunning guitar chops, the songs he wrote and recorded more than 45 years ago retain a timelessness that a lot of music of that era simply does not have. How has that music managed to stay so fresh, and transcendent?

“Well, it does have a lot to do with how we recorded it. Working with a great producer, Joe Boyd, and a classically trained engineer, John Wood, we intentionally avoided a lot of the studio effects and touches of the time.  We did the songs in a very ‘neutral’ way, straight-ahead- drums in the center, guitars and vocals by the guitarist ‘miked’ in the same place- we created a real visual in the mind of the listener- any listener could ‘see’ the band as we played in the studio.  That, and not a lot of those ‘psychedelic’ sound effects, make the music sort of timeless, I think.

Thompson has recorded more than 40 albums.  While that is a considerable amount of work, it has reflected a lifetime as an artist.  And that sort of longevity has advantages and disadvantages.

“Well, an advantage to longevity is that I don’t have to build an audience on the back of hit records.  My audience, over time, has come from word of mouth.  I suppose the disadvantage of being around so long is that it is impossible to get your CD’s reviewed. The reviewers just seem to say ‘oh look, yet another package from Thompson.’ It is a bit frustrating, when you work hard, and are coming up with new things to say, to not be able to get your materiel reviewed.”

Though Thompson has unearthly chops on guitar that have made him a highly desirable collaborator, his skill as a songwriter has lead to an astonishing range of artists covering his music.

Thompson is a bit circumspect with regard to his body of written work.

“Well, I’ve never really had the time to get frustrated with whole idea that I should have a bigger audience than I get.  The music I play doesn't deserve a big audience.  I’ve always written for a more selective group of people, with ideas about the world, and as a result, I’ve always known I was never going to have a huge crowd of followers.”

Those who know Thompson and have long admired him might disagree.  Marblehead-based Dave Mattacks, an accomplished drummer who has partnered with Thompson repeatedly since first joining Fairport in 1969, uses him as a benchmark when speaking with others about the art of songwriting.

"As a musician, I'm always having people tell me about great songwriters and/or guitarists who I 'need-to-hear.' My response is usually positive, as I genuinely am interested.  But I usually respond with  ‘so, what do you think of Richard Thompson?’  If I get a blank stare back, well, I'm afraid you've just lost ten points. To put it frankly, if you don't know about Richard, and you're telling me about songwriters and guitarists...”

Another measure of Thompson’s pre-eminence among the songwriters of his generation is the extraordinary number artists, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, covering his songs. The list includes Robert Plant, Allison Krause, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, John Doe, Shawn Colvin, Nathalie Merchant, Mary Lou Lord, The Pointer Sisters, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, Los Lobos, David Byrne, Dave Gilmour, the Neville Brothers, Don Henley, Bob Dylan, Shawn Colvin.  For starters. "

Yeah, well the covers are a nice surprise,” says Thompson, in a characteristic understatement.  He is less surprised about the number of ‘country’ artists who find his work compelling.

“There is a strong tie between Appalachian music and Scottish music, so the connection with artists who do country seems a natural one to me. Country is a pretty tight genre, so I guess it does say something that a number of those folks like the songs. Then again, I can remember listening to ‘Prairie Home Companion’ once, and they proved that just about any song ever written can be done in a bluegrass version.”

His peers have covered Thompson classics like Wall of Death, Dimming of the Day, Turning of the Tide, I Misunderstood, Where the Drunkards Roll. Thompson’s evolution as a songwriter- from his early, traditional-folk influenced tunes, to the searing and powerfully self-revelatory work with his former wife Linda, on through to his narrative and character-driven story songs provide a veritable banquet of choices for other musicians. His song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning- a melding of the outlaw ballad tradition with modern biker culture, fueled by some of the most incendiary and intricate finger-picking extant, continues to seduce artists up for the challenge of telling a great story, and embellishing it with high-order instrumental chops. 

These days, Thompson occasionally plays with his son Teddy, born of his earlier marriage to Linda Peters Thompson- the extraordinary vocalist. The younger Thompson is not joining the elder Thompson on this tour.  The elder is, of course, understandably proud of his son.

“It’s been great fun to collaborate with Teddy. It’s wonderful to make music with family, because you share a lot of the same sensibilities.  You’re on the same page.  Your voices sound similar, so you can sing great harmonies. It’s been great to see him become a musician, someone I enjoy and admire. Of course, as a parent, it can be frustrating.  He’s good; why don’t more people listen to him?”

Given the length and arc of his father’s career, I suspect that Teddy will be adding luster to the family legacy for a long time to come.

photo credits: Ron Sleznak

photo credits: Ron Sleznak