The irrepressible musical gift of Huddie Ledbetter

Huddie Ledbetter, better known by the prison moniker Lead Belly, was a musical genius born in the southern United States just as Jim Crow laws were starting to bite. He fell foul of an unapologetically racist legal system and ended up serving on a chain gang in 1915, later doing time in state penitentiaries in Texas (1918-25), Louisiana (1930-34) and at Rikers Island in New York (1939). Sheila Curran Bernard takes as her focus the years 1933 to 1935 when, after years of imprisonment, Ledbetter took an academic, John Lomax, to be his manager and organise his entrance into the larger musical world of northern America. She reveals for the

Tenderness and menace: Bob Dylan, at the London Palladium, reviewed

Bob Dylan has always toyed with audiences. He plays what he wants, how he wants, letting his mood dictate tempo and often key (sometimes switching songs to the minor). On Dylan’s return to London for the first time in five years, he summed it up early. ‘I ain’t no false prophet/ I just know what I know,’ he gruffly sang. Dylan spent the night at the Palladium doing what he knows best, singing songs of love, loss and immortality. Covid temporarily ended his ‘Never-Ending Tour’, which had seen Dylan play more than 3,000 shows since 1988. Now it’s billed as ‘The Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour’, with the strapline: ‘Things

How I fell in love with the blues

I was never into the blues that much. I listened to a bit of Roy Buchanan and Rory Gallagher but only as accidental overspill from rock. I knew the Rolling Stones’s sound came out of their love of the blues but what they added was more important (to me) than what they took. And then there was Eric Clapton. In common with a discerning portion of the British population, I loathed Clapton after his drunken endorsement of Enoch Powell’s rivers-of-blood speech. Even if I’d somehow let that slide, I could never forgive him for ‘Tears in Heaven’ which was like having a bucket of oversweetened bilge water poured over one’s

Banal and profound, bent and beautiful: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis at Edinburgh Playhouse reviewed

Nick Cave has always been drawn to parable and fable, but more than ever these days he is engaged in the necessary work of mining magic from the base metal of day-to-day existence. The key lines in this show came early, during ‘Bright Horses’: ‘We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,’ Cave sang in that hollow, sorrowful baritone. ‘This world is plain to see/ It don’t mean we can’t believe in something.’ Cave’s recent songs have a terrible and powerful context: the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015. As an artist he has confronted this personal tragedy side on, acknowledging its profound impact

Could she be the new Sade? Celeste at Union Chapel reviewed

Some years ago, when I was the music editor of a newspaper, I called a number of historians of black music asking if any of them could write about why the audience for new music made in the styles of classic soul, blues or jazz was almost entirely white. The people I asked, some of them august commentators on African-American culture, offered a few suggestions: black music was historically co-opted and deracinated by the white music industry so comprehensively that black artists just didn’t want to go back there; black music has always been about progression rather than revival, and it is simply of no interest to look back; the

Jason Ricci is my mentor, guru and anointed one

A second week recovering in bed in this pleasant south-facing bedroom. If I sit up, my back resting against whitewashed rock, I can look out of the window across 30 miles of oak forest to the Massif Des Maures, a coastal mountain range. As the day progresses, these indistinguishable mountains are altered by the changing light until finally and dramatically the softer evening rays reveal the folds and valleys in topographical detail. The revealing doesn’t last more than five minutes and I try to remember to look out for it. Then the mountains darken and, after a last commemorative glow, vanish. Last week there was a violent electric storm and

The dazzling, devious, doomed sound of James Booker

Dr John called James Booker ‘the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced’. Booker died in 1983 at 43, ruined by drugs, drink and madness. Though he appeared on plenty of other people’s records and stages — Dr John, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King — Booker recorded only three studio albums in his lifetime. Classified, recorded in October 1982 and now re-released on vinyl, was the last of them. It might not be the best of them, but it shows why Booker was one of the greats. The studio was booked for three days, but Booker had a breakdown the week before and couldn’t get a

Ranges from the slight to the first-rate: Neil Young’s Homegrown reviewed

Grade: B+ Neil Young has been mining his own past very profitably for a long time now, disinterring a seemingly endless catalogue of stuff which, at the time it was recorded, failed to see the light of day. And people like me fork out each time. I remember looking forward to this album in 1975 — but just before the release date he shelved it in favour of Tonight’s the Night, easily the finest rock album of the 1970s (or, to my mind, since). This doesn’t come close but, as it’s from Young’s most rewarding period, it holds a certain interest. Five songs have been released elsewhere, including the lovely

Contains the loveliest new song I’ve heard in decades: Bob Dylan’s new album reviewed

Grade: A ‘Rough’ in terms of the mostly spoken vocals, but only ‘rowdy’ if you’re approaching your 80th birthday, which of course Dylan is. This is a sometimes playful and often self-deprecating Nobel Laureate at work, the lyrics (like the vocals) carrying a whiff of late Leonard Cohen, the arrangements of some of the slower, if not funereal, songs a nod to Tom Waits. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, the grizzled old boomer has given us his best song since ‘Idiot Wind’; like many on here, the delicate melody is implied by the chord changes rather than explicitly stated. But what a pleasure to hear wit and articulacy in a pop