Monday, 21 September 2009

The Phil Ochs tribute show

I was surprised how many people just didn't know who I was talking about when I said I was going to a Phil Ochs tribute show, even some of the London folkies. It seems sad if he's slipping away from the collective memory, though I can't really believe that's true. Certainly hearing a whole series of his songs on this evening I was struck anew by what a great songwriter he was, and how cheated I feel that he's been gone so long.

There's a tragedy about his story; he's the one they couldn't save; and a sense of if only. If only he hadn't been too fucked for them to risk asking to go on the Rolling Thunder Revue. If only he'd somehow got through that darkness in Spring 1976. One can't help feeling he'd have found a new lease of life as punk days flowered. He'd surely take pleasure in Grant McLennan's 'Get outta the car, Ochs' t-shirt.

The reason this happened now, aside from the fact that Martin 'Hungry Dog' Dowsing and Ed Baxter of Resonance FM are big Ochs fans, is that Bob Rafkin is in town. Bob played with Phil at the infamous Gunfight At Carnegie Hall in 1970 and he's on various of the albums. A regular visitor to London he's a direct link to the man. Some years ago I conducted an interview with him, trapped now on a busted hard drive I believe, in which he talked at length about Phil, Eric Andersen, and others of the Greenwich Village fraternity.

It's an evening of joy and reverence but not too much of the latter. At one point Rafkin quips "His and my lives ran in parallel, but when I tried to hang myself the rope broke". Everybody chooses excellent songs and everybody's nailed them. It's certainly not a night where people dash off a half-learned version of something simple and then go on to play three of their own songs.

Ed Baxter handles the compering with an easy, informal intelligence. He recalls the slogan of the Yippies 'Abandon the creeping meatball', reminding us that Phil was there in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in 1968. He talks about his decades-long obsession with Ochs and music, recalls Henry Cow who did an intriguing cover of 'No More Songs' in 1976.

Hungry Dog opened proceedings with the Broadside song 'If I Knew', 'No More Songs', and 'When I'm Gone'. He was followed by a brace from Onions; 'You Can't Get Too Stoned' and 'What Are We Fighting For' the latter embellished with glorious 12-string. Then came Ellen Mary McGhee with what's perhaps my personal favourite Phil song, 'Flower Lady', in a magical rendition. She followed this with an unaccompanied version of the traditional song - sometimes called 'Molly Bawn'- about the boy who shoots his sweetheart thinking she's a swan.

Bob Rafkin then came up and as well as playing 'There But For Fortune' and 'Changes' he told the tales about Phil, Greenwich Village, clubs like The Dug Out and The Tin Angel, David Blue, Eric Andersen, and eventually told the Carnegie Hall story. Still Innocent gave a lovely rendition of 'Days Of Decision' and then 'In The Heat Of The Summer. Bravely and entirely rightly Suzy Almond sang 'The Highwayman' Phil's adaption of the tender, tragic poem of Alfred Noyes.

It might have been then that the evening would wind down but quite the opposite it took off in another direction. I've noted AJ Dehany before, but here with three monstrous guitar assaults he took on 'I Aint Marchin' Anymore','The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns' and 'Crucifixion' and made something new and wild out of each of them. It seems that he's about to take a sabbatical, and projects like The Edgar Allan Pogues are currently on hold but on form like this I want to hear more. Same can be said for Glassglue; the Teutonic vocals of Marcel Stroetzler certainly offer a very different gloss on 'Love Me I'm A Liberal'.

So an excellent, worthwhile evening. A salute to Martin for putting it together, an hoorah for the ensemble for all taking it seriously, and a glass raised to the memory of one who is gone.

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