The Old Market, Hove
Sunday 29th January 2012
Support: Omar Velasco
This was a short five song set, and economic because he’s part of the main band too. It was voice plus acoustic guitar and his voice is clear and the tunes were good enough on one listen for me to buy the five track EP. His closing number was Sam Cooke’s Nothing Can Change This Love, for which he used electric guitar. That is a hard song to sing, and he sang it perfectly. His EP has full arrangements on (I listened coming home) and I always feel sorry for singer-songwriters who have to reduce carefully arranged tracks from a record to one guitar in support slots.
I got into Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit album via Desert Raven, on a magazine cover disc and bought the album. You see, cover samplers do work. Wilson had produced two albums for Dawes, and played with Dawes and Robbie Robertson on TV sessions for How To Become Clairvoyant. All the links and downloads from Wilson’s site come via Robbie Robertson’s site too. Wilson also performed with Roy Harper, Jackson Browne and Crosby & Nash, and is a guitar-maker.
Desert Raven took my attention because the guitar sound and melody reminded me powerfully of the first Supertramp LP, Supertramp, (1970 … four years before they became megastars with Crime of The Century). Jonathan Wilson has said he wanted to catch the sound of 1970, and somewhere in there he’s channelling the Steve Miller Band (non-blues stuff, right up to 1973’s Recall The Beginning- A Journey From Eden), Buffalo Springfield, Pink Floyd and CSNY. It seems unlikely he’s heard the 1970 Supertramp album, but if not, he should get a copy to see what I mean. Gentle Spirit is hypnotic, that’s the Steve Miller influence, driven by thirteen songs on the album, all of them excellent, twelve originals plus a Gordon Lightfoot cover. It’s a long album (a double album on vinyl), around 75 minutes, but the songs need time to build that hypnoistm.
Hove was the first gig of a short European tour. I think we got the whole album. It’s hard to list stuff because unusually I know very few song titles … I’ve listened a lot in car, and the tracks are only listed in minute print size below the plastic insert. There are no sleeve notes. and foolishly, I think, no title on the spine of the CD.
The overall sound was very good… I thought Wilson’s mic had a lot of echo added, but that is the sound of the LP too … the vocal sound was clean and clear in Omar Velasco’s opening set. The band was Wilson on guitar, plus bass, drums, second guitar and keyboards. The bass player and second guitar added vocal in some numbers to good effect. I call it second guitar, not rhythm, because there was a lot of interplay and ambient effects from the second guitar. In a couple of numbers, Velasco joined the keyboard player and did synth. In Desert Raven, the keyboard player played third guitar (acoustic) as well as putting touches of Hammond into the mix between strumming. We got several pieces of classic Hammond playing and sound during the show.
The first three songs had both guitarists on acoustics, but after Gentle Spirit’s title track, the Telecaster was strapped on and we had the clear ringing sound of guitar on Desert Raven, which functions as a quasi-single because it got an immediate recognition cheer. Wilson is an outstanding and interesting lead guitar player and stretches out on stage. That’s very 1970 too. I was amused by Natural Rhapsody, which developed into a ten minute plus lead guitar extravaganza. Just before embarking on it, Wilson swopped his Telecaster for a Stratocaster. That exchange represents a piece of guitar history in itself. Many guitar fans maintain that solos always get way longer and the playing more complex (and show-off) when guitarists tire of the clean sound of a Telecaster and buy a Strat. To maintain the connection, fans of The Band say just that about Robbie Robertson. It was an object lesson in the difference in sound between them. He went back to the Telecaster for the rest of the evening, including the equally long guitar solo in the main set closer, Valley of The Silver Moon.
There was one new number, Illuminations. The obligatory cover (which all new bands should have ready) was obscure … Just for Love from Quicksilver Messenger Service, the title track of their fourth album, and the right year exactly, Wilson’s 1970.
Jonathan Wilson has the songs and he has the band. Fifteen years ago, he would have easily been able to get himself into (at the least) a Flaming Lips / Mercury Rev level of exposure and attention. Gentle Spirit got the accolades in the rock mags end of year summing-up issues. He drew a decent crowd for a Sunday night in Hove, and was well-received. I don’t think the crowd represents the number of fans in Brighton though. I’d driven a hundred miles, and the people I spoke to when I was parking didn’t know the area either. I wondered in the current state of the music industry how easy it will be for him to emulate the successful bands of the mid to late 90s and get the profile and sales he deserves. He should be a major star, as should Simon Felice, coming from a similar starting position. I hope they both manage in the 2010s.
Appendix: The musical instruments.
Wilson is fascinated by the sound of 1970. He says the album was recorded on Shelter Records old 1972 gear … that would be the stuff used for J.J. Cale’s classic albums. The hair styles of the band even look 1970, though the clothes didn’t. A real 1970 band would have had some frightening sartorial choices on display. They’d gone to town on the equipment of 1970 too. Wilson had an acoustic, a Telecaster and a Stratocaster and a big vintage Fender amp. Second guitarist (and support act) Omar Velasco had a Gibson SG and a Vox AC30, and the bass player had an Orange stack and a Hofner violin bass. They also had a portable Hammond keyboard, electric piano and synth. The non-musicians have just switched off to read something else, but there is a point; this vintage gear was deliberate. The only bit that surprised me amid the choice retro gear was the violin bass, as played by Sir Paul McCartney. Jonathan Wilson talks on his website about using a Hofner bass for Gentle Spirit (presumably he played it). I still recall the early 60s when a Hofner violin bass cost £50 compared to £136 for a Fender Precision Bass (PB), and the PB’s nearly triple price reflected the quality difference accurately. I see that a reissue violin bass costs a whopping £1285, reversing the 1962 price differential. McCartney has to use one for image, and I’d assume it’s highly modified, though I’m told with the care with which guitars can be set up nowadays, they should all play well. The bass player was excellent, but the characteristic Hofner softness was too apparent a few times. You can go too far with retro. Note that virtually no one at the time copied Paul’s choice. On the record the bass on Canyon in The Rain sounds just like the bass on Here Comes The Sun King from Abbey Road (but I wonder whether Paul wasn’t using the Hofner … there are studio pics with a PB and a Rickenbacker). It didn’t sound at all like that Abbey Road sound live.
I was surprised to see the Telecaster for Desert Raven, as Wilson also talks about using a Gibson E345 for the album, though doesn’t say for which tracks. The venue made a deal on their site about him using seven mics on drums. That’s pretty standard, I would have thought. The drums were great, accenting in interesting ways, but the amplification and mix on them was definitely a mid-eighties sound.