FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: DEATH OF A LEGEND
Musicians truly lost one of their own this week with the sad news that The Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts had died at the age of 80. The word legend is passed around all too frequently but Charlie, the beating heart of the band since 1963, fully lived up to the label. Many a fine word has been written in tribute to the iconic drummer over the past days and few more telling than the affectionate recollections offered by music writer and broadcaster Paul Sexton in the i-newspaper on Tuesday, which I commend to you.
It took me till 2013 at Glastonbury to see The Stones play live. I always thought my best mate’s sister beat me to it by 50 years but checking back it was The Beatles who played the Pavilion Gardens, Buxton in 1963, not The Stones. I was only 10 then so wouldn’t have got past the doorman anyhow. I did see Charlie Watts in 1984 at a swish nouveau Indian restaurant on the New Kings Road when I took my girlfriend, now my wife, out for a meal to impress her at this cool establishment. Sitting at a corner seat, armed with a deadpan yet oddly friendly expression and classically attired, he looked very much like he did when seated behind those drums. RIP Charlie.
From a lifetime in music next to a passion energised by midlife just last year. Discovering the music creation studio app, GarageBand, in her mid-fifties opened a world of writing and recording to Helen Meissner, who previously worked in music promotion for others. I was introduced to Helen’s recordings, which she puts out under the apposite aegis of Helefonix, in the spring, including a snippet from her future debut album in the shape of “Song Thrush Serenade” in April. This featured recordings of her garden visitor over a criss-crossing electronic backing track. That album, titled Nature’s Grace, is about to land very soon – out on 5 September, in fact.
Opening with “Dawn Chorus” and fittingly closing 10 tracks later with “Evensong”, the album is a celebration of the natural world and features a range of ambient found sounds, most notably phrases of bird song which weave seamlessly in and out of the instrumentals. Birdsong though takes a back seat when “The Little Things”, a warm-hearted tribute to her grandparents, Herbert and Gladys Davies, arrives midway through the record. Here Helefonix employs spoken word samples over a lush string-driven backcloth highlighted by a melodic repeated motif and soft-shoe percussion. The little pearls of wisdom dispensed in the gentle Teesside accents of her grandparents sum up a simple yet perfectly voiced philosophy: “It’s the little things in life that really count.”
Photo of Sarah Proctor by Ashlea Bea
Native North East Englander, Sarah Proctor, has been a regular in these columns since we first highlighted her beautifully refined single, “The Breaks” in February. The singer-songwriter’s output is increasingly prolific with her fourth single this year released last Friday. Her story is particularly inspiring for many who struggle to branch out from their roots to reach a wider audience. Signed to Geffen Records and now based in Los Angeles, Sarah Proctor projects an intimacy in her music and persona which balances vulnerability with a growing confidence in her own sexuality.
Sarah Proctor’s latest single “Tired” is a perfect showcase for her emotive reflections on the ups and downs of finding true love. “It’s about noticing when someone’s making you more sad than happy” as the singer succinctly puts it. This is all-too familiar territory for many a songwriter yet “Tired” is somehow elevated from the simple piano accompaniment and string-driven embroidery by the tenderness of her vocal style. Her words come across with a sincerity that will resonate with many others and she has a voice that actually few would ever tire of hearing.
Next, an artiste new to me who made a big impression when I came across her latest single, “partner”, ahead of her second album due out on 24 September challengingly titled one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden – yes, all in lower case and with playful word play on sew and sow. Montreal’s Alexandra Levy trades as Ada Lea and comes across as one who richly observes and will offer an original take on most things she encounters. Her new album is set in Montreal and the songs reference the places and experiences of city life, embracing a symmetry played out across the four seasons.
“partner” opens with hollow-sounding drums and noirish guitar and piano chords. Ada Lea’s delicately fractured vocals chew and spill out her words in a cascade of consciousness. She takes a rear-view mirror look at a wild party night out, channelling memories and regrets in equal measure. The song has great dynamics that shape and shift it and enough killer lines to paint an abattoir. The singer mixes things up so you not sure if it’s first or third person tale, or whether that matters, and the song is resolved by a fitting stroke of insight: ‘She’s a dancer with no partner / That’s what they call her.’
Photo of Nadia Sheikh by Rita Gratacos
From Montreal back to the UK now for news that British-Spanish indie pop songstress Nadia Sheikh will be back on tour this autumn after Covid put paid to further live work in 2020. After an appearance at the Wilkestock Festival, Hertford in September, she will be headlining venues in London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds during October. She released her eclectic EP Everybody Hears But No One’s Listening in 2020 and has a follow up planned for 2022. The strength in her writing is how she combines anthemic rock with troubadour lyricism while she’s no mean vocalist and guitar player either.
Nadia has just shared her first release of 2021 with the single “IDWK (I Don’t Wanna Know)”, displaying the vulnerability of a confessional in the slow build with a genuine rock-out in the second half of the song. “‘IDWK’ is about that difficult conversation you don't want to have with yourself. Sometimes it's easier to ignore what we're going through internally than to face and process it, but once you do, things do get better” she says. There’s something cathartic about her soaring guitar solo as the song reaches its conclusion and a strong feeling that this is an artiste you must see live.
We should end today with Charlie Watts. This is one of the finest Stones songs, “Gimme Shelter”, written by Jagger & Richards and featured on the band’s 1969 classic album, Let It Bleed. Musically, there’s so much to admire in this song from the ominous build to the signature guitar sounds while lyrically it seems to sign off the 60s hopes of peace and love with the dark realities of war, politics and crime.
Charlie Watts holds the song together quite brilliantly, instigating the change of pace as the vocals kick in, playing a little behind the beat and opting for simple pounding fills which amplify the song’s menace far beyond anything a flashier drummer might have conjured. “Gimme, gimme shelter / Or I'm gonna fade away”: though I doubt if Charlie and indeed the remaining Stones will ever quite fade away.