Monday, November 16, 2009

Rachid Taha and the Dilemma of Seating

Taha's new album, Bonjour, has divided the critics. Actually, to be honest, it has divided me from most (if not all) of the other critics. But more of the new album in the next post. This is all about the live event.

Rachid Taha live is a subject that, generally speaking, most people are in agreement on. Live he is in his element; it's just that pretty much every time this spiritual heir to Joe Strummer appears on a London stage it's in the hallowed halls of seated venues. You could argue that the trade off lies in the quality of the sound against the space to seriously get down to his luscious groove, and the presence of seats didn't seem to impede the dancing feet of the hundreds of beautiful women who can usually be found at this bad boy's concerts.

Unfortunately I missed the opening set from co-headliner Vieux Farka Touré and walked into the cavernous Royal Festival Hall one verse into Taha's opening number, Ila Liqa, taken from Bonjour. Now band wisdom usually advises opening a show with a crowd pleaser, a well known number, that gets the audience behind you from the off. Taha doesn't seem to need this on the evidence of my own eyes; as I walked into the hall it seemed that the entire venue was already on its feet with people cramming down in front of the stage. With a drop of the shoulder and a tip of the hat the band slipped into Shuf and the crowd went nuts.

As always at Rachid's gigs there's a weird cross-section of London; from stately looking mature Levantines to fabulous beauties dancing like professionals, to bohemian grannies to wild freakin' raver dudes, they are all represented. They would probably be at a Clash gig were they ever to have reformed. That said Rachid is a rock act and he ought to be at the Empire or Brixton Academy, he should be playing somewhere where the sweat drips down the walls and the sound distorts and speaker stacks wobble disconcertingly as a packed pit bounces dangerously. The fact that he can pretty much conjure up this experience in the polite Royal Festival Hall says something about the power of his performance.

Aided and abetted by long term band mates Hakim Hamadouche, Guillaume Rossel, Rachid Belgacem, and Yves Aouizerate with Didier Thery on bass Taha tore the place up. Having seen him whenever I can, whenever he's in London, and being accused of being a too forgiving a fan I can honestly say that Stephan Bertin is the best guitarist I've seen appearing with him. His wild lead playing, behind Belgacem and Rossel's solid percussive groove, reminded me of Material in early-80s New York. It was no surprise to see the young long hair up on the balcony throwing himself around in almost rock-acid house ecstasy as these kings of future punk said how it was to be.

Through Je t'aime Mon Amour into Bent Sahara into a blistering Barra Barra (Black Hawk Down indeed), take a breather for Ecoute-Moi Camarade and on to Ya Rayah the crowd soared and dipped and the ladies went woooooo. I did too. The love flowed. Over the years there has occasionally been an almost Shane MacGowan moment with Taha at times; was he so fucked up that he'd collapse, or just mumble incoherently, would he be able to perform at all? But these days he seems to be happy with the moment and whether he was refreshed or not he was completely in the moment, centre stage and dominating. Slipping between English, French and Arabic depending on his mood or excitement. By the time he brought Vieux Farka Touré back out for Rock the Casbah and a stunning closer Garab, where Farka Touré played blistering guitar over one of rock's tightest rhythm sections, you thought the roof was going to come off.

This isn't world music, this is, like his compatriot Manu Chao, the natural heir to the original punk rock movement when young musicians sought wider roots to the rock music they wanted to play. The purer world music fraternity often dismiss Rachid's version of Rock El Casbah as "turgid" but I think they're mistaken. If reports are correct - read here - then Taha may well have more right to play Casbah than he's given credit for. All I know is that every time he plays he delivers. I have seen many bands over the years but Rachid Taha is in an elite group of maybe four or five in that he continues to offer us a different view.

Thanks for keeping the flame alive.

(The poster of this got the date wrong but check the young guy on the balcony!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mark's great talent

Mark and I wrote together a lot. From the start we kind of clicked and his huge musical ability somehow allowewd him to understand my incoherent descriptions of what I heard or meant. He played, wrote and programmed everything so quickly that, for me and many others, working with others always seemed so fucking slow!

This song sums up something. I miss him.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Mark Alexander Smith - one of the greats.

I just found out today that one of my dearest friends, Mark Smith, died yesterday. I cannot begin to say how much this has hurt me and left me feeling bereft and adrift.

I've known Mark for more than twenty five years and in that time we've written songs, produced, played, drank and caroused. For much of it I was the one who did the drinking and carousing being as Mark was never one to drink or whatever. His big vice was cigarettes and coffee and many of his friends worried that these would not be good for him. As yet we don't know if we were right.

Mark was one of the best of us. There will be many times in life when you hear that expression and it will be said as a cliché or as a platitude; in this case it was a true evaluation of the man. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever met or had the honour to play with. He was best known for his prowess on the bass guitar but once you'd spent sometime in a studio with Mark you soon realised that his knowledge of composition, his skill with keyboards and arranging would add a lustre to any run of the mill project. Perhaps the greatest compliment was that if anyone could polish a turd, as the musical saying goes, Mark could.

In his personal life he was self-effacing. Always quick witted and humourous he had an ability to calm any tense situation, smooth over difficulties in recording studios making other singers and players feel that they were really happening, even when they weren't. As a friend he could always be relied upon to offer moral support, good advice and some sensible interjection; he was the first person I told when my wife told me we were having a child. We were in Stockholm at the time working with a dreadful band but it was always good times.

The last time I spoke to Mark was this weekend; after many years of not playing or creating any music I had been persuaded to put something together. I called Mark and asked him if he would be up for trying something a bit different, but still diamond. We had songs we'd written years back that still sound fresh; other friends who were class acts were all up for it, particularly if Mark was involved. Mark was enthusiastic about the idea, and I knew, thanks to him, it stood much more chance of being special. Now I'll never know.

Mark Smith was a very common name for a very uncommon person.

I loved him and I miss him more than I can express.