Thursday, 20 October 2011

TV review: Singer-Songwriters at the BBC 2

 BBC4 are in the midst of another trawl through their archives from the 60 and 70s, with Singer-Songwriters at the BBC 2, with many rare delights being dusted off from both well-known performers (many of whom had little in the way of chart success in the UK) to more obscure artists (who, as you might expect, had even less chart success in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter!).

Sometimes the compilers’ desire to include a particular artist means they have to resort to including mimed ‘performances’, which jar against the majority of clips featuring real musicians playing real music (ah, them were the days...). While it was great to see Stealers Wheel in back to back episodes it was a pity that we didn’t get to see them deliver a genuine live rendition of something from their catalogue, and the fact that it was Stealers Wheel at all suggests Can I Have My Money Back?  from series 1 was all they have of Gerry Rafferty solo. Ah well, at least we got to see Rab Noakes in his own post-SW days.

Phoebe Snow fared even more poorly, as her one and only appearance on the BBC was a mimed cover (Paul McCartney’s Every Night), so didn’t really fit the concept of the show, but they clearly wanted to include something to mark her passing earlier this year (which I wasn’t even aware of until they mentioned it!). Indeed the number of these artists who (as revealed by brief unobtrusive notes mid-song) have died tragically in the last couple of years is staggering, although probably no larger than the list of those who died tragically decades ago – or indeed, the list of those who are thankfully still with us.

Minor quibbles aside though, this has been another excellent series – possibly even better than the first -  containing innumerable highlights (and only a mere handful of duds), so three episodes in (and with only one left to be screened) here are my top 10 favourites so far:

10:  Ralph McTell - When Maddy Dances.  Like many people, I suspect, I know McTell only for the perennial favourite Streets of London, but this proved there’s more to him...must investigate further...

09:  Cat Stevens - Father and Son. The original’s brilliant obviously, but Cat lets rip here, and the intensity (particularly during the ‘Son’ parts) is incredible and makes the studio version seem positively tame by comparison. The first of many songs on the list to bring at least one tear to my (admittedly all-too-soppy) eye...

08:  John Denver - Leaving on a Jet Plane. One of my earliest memories involves this song, and I was always disappointed that it wasn’t included on otherwise-perfect live album An Evening With John Denver. This clip was from 1972 when Denver’s star was very much on the rise, although his performance isn’t half as assured as those he’d be giving a couple of years later when he was at the height of his superstardom.

07:  Paul Simon - Homeward Bound – Never one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs, this solo reading proves yet again how much better Simon is without Garfunkel (yes, that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it!), and highlights his superior guitar-playing skills (of all the artists in this genre he must rank second only to James Taylor for his ability with an acoustic).

06:  Seals and Crofts - Summer Breeze – Another selection that is hardly a favourite, but what a delight just to see these guys (who split the year I was born and have only had a couple of very brief reunions since) performing during their peak, or at all for that matter! This was quite stripped back when compared to the lush studio version, with Crofts playing the musical hook on his trademark mandolin, and an unidentified pianist hiding at the back (but it wasn’t David Paich...right??)

05:  Joni Mitchell - A Case of You – Mitchell’s moving paean to Graham Nash, written shortly after their breakup, made me question why I didn’t own anything by Joni (beyond her appearance on The Last Waltz in any case). This is now rectified, although it hasn’t done much to dent the overall paucity of female performers in my collection!

04:  James Taylor and Carly Simon - You Can Close Your Eyes. Gorgeous. The then very-happily-married couple (just look at the adoration on Carly’s face when she looks at hubby and sings ‘and I still love you’ – he doesn’t notice...) sing one of JT’s greatest songs, and as with every version of this (mercifully short) tune it set me to blubbing thirty seconds in...

03:  Gordon Lightfoot - Early Morning Rain – Last series featured a clip of Gord singing If You Could Read My Mind from a 1971 concert that BBC4 later screened in its entirety. I’d have been happy with a repeat of another song from that show, but this was an earlier performance, introduced by Rolf Harris, of all people, who irritates by being there in the first place (so what if it was on his own show!) and then making a couple of attempts at naming bassist Rick Haynes and still managing to fluff it. That aside, this was a wonderful opportunity to see Lightfoot in an appearance from the days when he was known as a song-writer, but not really as a performer in his own right outside of his native Canada (IYCRMM changed that for good the following year).

02:  Clifford T Ward - Home Thoughts from Abroad – Sandwiched in between my two long-term favourite singer-songwriters comes the late Mr Ward. I’d never heard of him before, but this song grabbed me instantly and his big sad eyes drew me in even further. To paraphrase the man himself, ‘I like the words he uses – and I like the way he uses them’. Even if some of them do make me prone to the odd bit of ‘weepy eye’.

01:  Harry Chapin – Mercenaries. Harry’s best song from his best studio album (Dance Band on the Titanic, lest there be any doubt) and the biggest treat I could have hoped for. Indeed, I’ve been dying to see this song in full since a clip was included on last year’s documentary about Elektra Records. It did not disappoint, but did still leave me crying (but only out for more in this case!).


The archive material isn’t all that’s on offer on BBC4 for singer-songwriter fans at the moment, a second series of The Songwriter’s Circle is also underway, which offers brand new performances from tunesmiths of a range of eras. The premise of this show is simple: 3 notable songwriters share a stage and take turns in performing their own material, occasionally with a little help from the others, but mostly with them just looking on in approval.

The highlight for me so far has been the appearance of Allen Toussaint in the first episode. Toussaint’s material has been covered by truckloads of people, including Boz Scaggs, Warren Zevon and Gerry Rafferty, none of whom made a habit of recording covers (although Boz has in recent years, sadly – still, better than dying like them other two I guess...!), which just goes to show the esteem he has long generated amongst his peers. It also went some way to making up for missing his solo gig in August, which sadly took place in the same week as the London riots.

The final episode is set to feature Neil Finn, Janis Ian and Ryan Adams, so should be an absolute cracker. As for the final of the ‘oldies but goodies’ who knows what’s in store? Most of my top 10 above didn’t rate a mention in the Radio anything is possible!

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