Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark RIP

If there was ever a better screen villain than Richard Widmark as the giggling killer in 'Kiss of Death' I have yet to see him. Sad to hear that he's died, albeit at the age of 93. A final link with the golden era of Hollywood perhaps. Here's an obit I picked up from the web.
There aren't many actors you can say this about, unless you're looking to start an argument, and I'm not: anyone who doesn't like Richard Widmark hasn't watched Richard Widmark.Widmark, who has died aged 93, is most famous for his screen debut in Kiss of Death (1947) as Tommy Udo, a fabulously cruel psycho killer and one of the great movie villains. It's a testament to Widmark's many qualities that he went on to achieve a splendid 44-year career despite the long and terrifying shadow cast over it by Tommy. While his was an always welcome face - he was one of those valuable actors who make even poor work watchable merely by appearing in it - he has stuck in my mind for two films in particular: Night and the City, and Madigan. In both films, curiously, he delivered a first-rate leading performance but arguably was not the star. That accolade goes to the cities in which they were set.Night and the City (1950), the title of which sums up the essence of film noir, is an extraordinary movie. It transplanted a thoroughly American genre (albeit one pioneered by European émigrés) to post-war London, without in any way compromising the style of the picture or the authentic feel of its setting. This is a London out of Dickens, viewed through the darkest of prisms, and it remains an effective antidote to nostalgia - a kind of anti-Ealing. As a definitive depiction of a ruthless, perilous and seedy time and place, it rivals the Vienna of The Third Man.There cannot be a subsequent movie portrayal of London's underworld (or at least, not one worth sitting through) that isn't indebted to Night and the City. And while you might applaud director Jules Dassin for that, Widmark's contribution is no less crucial. A lesser, or vainer, actor would have tried to wrest the film back from its milieu. As the luckless, half-bright hustler Harry Fabian, around whom the inexorable whirlpool slowly turns before consuming him, he is superb precisely because he allows the character to be small, deluded and ineffectual. It's hard to imagine how the role might have been played better.Two decades on, and back across the Atlantic, Widmark took the title role in Madigan (1968), which would exert an influence on big-screen New York comparable to that of the earlier film on London. The small screen, too; a TV series of the same name was one of many based on the template. "Madigan strips a city and its people right down to their naked lusts!" slavered the trailer. Well, sort of. It was certainly gritty, brutal and lavish with the ladyflesh; but between the bedrooms and the shoot-outs, it delved into questions of loyalty, virtue and justice, coming up with no simple answers, and confronting topical issues - including racism and police brutality - without flinching.Seen today, everything in Madigan looks familiar to the point of cliche. But back then, the idea that the good guys look good only when compared to very, very bad guys was relatively novel in police thrillers. The combination of Widmark and director Don Siegel was ideal; each had a gift for expressing the complex and the nuanced in the most streamlined and gripping fashion. While Madigan was in some ways a dry run for Siegel's most famous movie, the vigilante cop classic Dirty Harry, it veers more towards Sidney Lumet than, say, Charles Bronson.Again, Widmark deserves a great deal of the credit - as an actor who, typically and perhaps instinctively, chose to serve the film rather than himself. Indeed, I can't recall a single Widmark performance of which that isn't true.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Sonics live

Here's a clip of The Sonics at The Forum playing Strychnine.

The Sonics at The Forum

They’ve been called the first punk rock band, and influenced Iggy and the Stooges, Nirvana and many others, but the Sonics are much more than that. Making their UK debut at The Forum in North London and selling the place out not once but twice, the band that is credited with creating the Seattle sound in the mid sixties showed that they were and are a highly professional rock and roll band.
The Sonics are probably best known for the Range Rover TV ad which featured their original track Have Love – Will Travel, but they undoubtedly enjoy cult status. The audience at The Forum was mostly young and trendy, with a few rockabilly fans and punks making up the rest. The distorted guitar sound of lead guitarist Larry Papyra set the scene for a set which was exciting, fast moving and quite exceptional and featured three of the originals (Larry Papyra, keyboardist and lead singer Gerry Roslie and sax and harmonica player Rob Lind - pictured) from the original Tacoma, Washington, line up plus Ricky Lynn Johnson (of The Wailers) on drums and Don Wilhelm (of The Daily Flash) on bass and vocals.
Having broken up in 1967 to go their separate ways (Rob Lind was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War), the Sonics reformed in 2007 and their great performances have clearly enhanced their cult status still more. The band tore into a string of high energy numbers including fantastic originals such as Psycho, Strychnine, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Hustler and The Witch, along with some excellent covers, including Lucille (the band recorded several Little Richard sings in their heyday), Money, Walking The Dog and one of their trademark numbers Louie Louie.
All in all, the Sonics exceeded my expectations and the crowd didn’t seem the least upset that a promised appearance by Pete Doherty failed to materialise (surprise, surprise). The support act, a goth-garage band from Southend called The Horrors, lived up to their name. Larry Papyra is quoted as saying: “We were nasty. Everything you’ve heard people say about us is true.” Nasty they may be, but hell they’re good.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Earl Thomas at Dover Street

Dover Street Wine Bar, in the heart of Mayfair, is not a venue where you would expect to see a top American bluesman. It's a favourite of my girlfriend and a good place to visit if you're a tourist. on a hen night or on a night out with colleagues from the office. The food is good, if expensive, and there's always live music. But the clientele tends not to be discerning. I've seen some quite decent British soul bands there, but if the band sounds OK and the customers can get up and dance it's usually good enough.

Earl Thomas, though, was different class. Stopping off on his way to the Burnley Blues Festival he put in two blistering sets of top quality soul and blues backed up by the excellent Paddy Milner band. A native of California, Earl has been around for nearly 20 years and has recorded a number of albums. He's a slim, lithe performer with a great soulful voice and is equally at home with soulful Al Green style material as with Muddy Waters blues. He sang several numbers from his latest album Soulshine - the title track and an excellent song - including Last Train to Paris which, like several others on the CD, he wrote himself.
Altogether a very enjoyable evening, even if the meal that my girlfriend and I enjoyed was rather pricey. Dave Carroll got the best deal: he arrived before 10pm and got in for nothing. But then he's an Earl Thomas afficianado, with three of his CDs in his collection.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Stompin' USA

Still a month to go until the Stompin' USA 2008 music trip, but it seems that there's a growing anticipation among those going on the trip. I'm going with my girlfriend and will be dropping in and out of the main tour, but we're looking forward to getting to at least five music festivals and getting to a good few music clubs as well. We kick off in Memphis where I'm hoping to see one or more of the real blues clubs as well as the more touristy places around Beale Street. Then it's off to the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, the home of the blues, for a rather more down home experience. We'll be staying in converted plantation accommodation so I'm not sure what to expect. Then it's a bit of meandering around Mississippi, Louisiana and/or Arkansas for a couple of days before getting to Shreveport. We hope to see the original Louisiana Hayride and meet a few local legends, including Margaret Lewis (pictured at the 100 Club recently), before moving on to Lafayette for a couple of days ahead of the Festival Louisiane. The Blind Boys of Alabama are a must see act there, but we'll soon be heading off for New Orleans for the first weekend of Jazzfest, with Irma Thomas and Al Green among others, and the Ponderosa Stomp, with an amaxing line up of obscure half forgotten fifties and sixties acts. After a week in the Big Easy it's back to Memphis for a couple of days, including one day at the Beale Street Festival.

It's a pretty action packed two and a half weeks and I'll report back in due course. It will be great to get some sun on my back, not to mention all the music, Cajun food and New Orleans atmosphere.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Jimmy McCracklin at Porretta 2007

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Blues and blue movies

The Final Word says goodbye to two very different personalities. One was from the world of blues and the other was from the world of blue movies (well soft porn anyway).
Jeff Healey was only 41 and enjoyed success with his brand of blues/rock in the late 80s and early 90s. He was not my cup of tea but made quite an impact, later moving towards jazz. Blind, he had a distinctive guitar playing style, holding the instrument on his knees. His premature death from cancer ended a short but impressive career. Here's the story in the New York Times
There's an obituary of Jeff in today's Times (March 5) and also one of Arkansas rock and roller Bobby Lee Trammell who died on February 20 aged 72
Paul Raymond was aged 82 and was one of the richest men in England, his wealth built on strip clubs and soft porn magazines. I went to Raymond's Revuebar in Soho only once and found it just a bit too unsleazy for my taste. It was expensive, the girls were very glamorous, but it was not very exciting - rather like some of the flashier 'gentlemens' clubs' that one finds in the States. When I was younger (ie back in the 1960s) I went to one or two of Soho's many strip clubs. There were at least a dozen of them in those days but today only Sunset Strip in Dean Street remains. I remember when I was about 16 two friends and I visited one of these down market strip joints on Boxing Day. We were the only customers in there and the strippers took these three shy young punters to their hearts and gave them an especially personal show. On the way back a lady of the night approached us and asked us if we had seen old Bill. We had no idea who old Bill was and it was only later that we worked out what she was talking about. Soho remains a place full of character and the demise of at least some of the clip joints has to be an improvement. But I must admit that I miss the sleaziness of Soho in the 60s, with the strippers dashing from club to club (they were expected to strip off at six clubs every two hours) and mini-skirted tarts plying their trade. Paul Raymond was the undisputed porn baron of the area and his death marks the end of an era.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Mike Smith RIP

If any group summed up the sterility of the sixties UK beat scene it was the Dave Clark Five. The band enjoyed enormous success both in the UK and across the world yet they never for a moment displayed originality or creativity. Yet as a Crystal Palace supporter I can't dismiss them altogether. Back in the 60s when I went to home matches regularly they adopted Glad All Over as their anthem. And although I no longer go to Selhurst Park (too bloody far and out of the way) it seems that they still play the record when the team takes the field. So, despite my reservations about the band as a whole, I raise a glass to Mike Smith, vocalist and keyboardist who died the other day. As a Palace supporter through thick and thin (mostly thin) I salute you.