The Vortex,11th March 2012
Who knows where the time goes?
Last night I went to a gig. Nothing unusual about that as I generally get to hear live music more weeks than I don’t. However, this was a special gig. It wasn’t the fact that it was a great band in a small venue or, even that the material was consistently excellent, well-chosen and performed by a group of talented musicians. What really made the evening special was the vitality of the atmosphere that was engendered as much by the level of engagement between artist and audience as by the music itself.
When she first hit the scene in 1969 as a member of a band called Delivery, Carol Grimes was touted as the British Janis Joplin. To me that doesn’t even begin to do Carol justice. In looking at this comparison I must immediately declare that I was never much of a fan of Janis. Emotion is a key ingredient of music and Janis had plenty of that; I just didn’t care for the sound of her voice. There was little in the way of light and shade with Janis who, to me, did the same thing on pretty much every record she made. This isn’t helped by the fact that nearly all of what she left behind was blues oriented rock and little else.
Perhaps the comparisons are unfair. After all Janis Joplin was dead at 27. Who knows what she might have gone on to achieve had she lived longer? Carol Grimes is now in her late sixties and, if last night’s performance is anything to go by, she still has plenty of life left to live and lots more music inside her. Carol slips easily from blues to jazz and from soul to straight ahead rock. While employing a musical vocabulary drawn from a wide range of American styles, the difference between the two is also highlighted by Carol’s quintessential Britishness. Carol imbues her material, particularly her self-penned lyrics, with humour as well as gritty realism. Humour was absent from Ms Joplin’s oeuvre.
On stage at the Vortex last night with a group of talented jazzers led by pianist/arranger/composer Dorian Ford, Carol Grimes played two sets to a packed house. Had there been chandeliers, undoubtedly more would have been hanging from them. The low-key ‘Snake’ kicked off the first set – an alluring number replete with unsubtle sexual innuendoes; more subtle were the harmonies of versatile drummer Winston Clifford. There were arrangements of contemporary songs that were not originally written as jazz by the likes of Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, the latter’s ‘Shipbuilding’ proving particularly potent. A beat-poet like recitation of Grimes’ own observations of London, ‘Blues for Louis’, closed the first set. Throughout the evening, the four piece horn section punctuated and blew and soloed, with altoist Dave Bitelli and trombonist Annie Whitehead outstanding. But before finishing off with a raucous reading of Allen Toussaint’s evergreen ‘Shoorah Shoorah’ a less obvious cover caught my attention.
‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ was written by Sandy Denny. It was recorded by Sandy when she was with folk-rock pioneers, Fairport Convention, and released on the ‘Unhalfbricking’ album in 1969. The album itself and that song in particular were sixth form favourites. I have continued to play it ever since. Hearing Sandy’s plaintiff lament for the passing of time performed as a jazz-ballad 43 years down the line was poignant.
When I first heard the song it was a nice tune with interesting lyrics about the passage of time. As a teenager, one has limited appreciation of how time may play with your life. Last night, listening again in the company of 100 plus strangers - many now nestling in middle age - the experience the song addressed connected in a different way. Instead of the original being performed by a youthful chanteuse looking ahead and who then ‘(didn’t) count the time’, here was someone with extensive experience able to look back and to invite us to do the same thing.
Contrary to the song’s message, it was hard not to count the time since I first listened to it and to think of the contrasting lives led by Denny, Joplin and Grimes. Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Denny is said to have been a heavy drinker and cocaine-user. In 1978, she fell down a staircase and cracked her head on concrete and died a few weeks later from a brain haemorrhage. She was 31.
I never saw Janis Joplin perform live. I have watched her on film and video. She put a lot of herself into her performances - raw power and edgy. The songs she sang – a few self-penned – were vehicles for the outpouring of pure emotion. The level of contact with audiences was fevered and frenetic. It’s hard to know from this distance whether those audiences were moved by Joplin’s music and its message or purely by her performances.
I was fortunate to have seen Sandy Denny perform on at least six or seven occasions, including her last ever London show at the Royalty Theatre, in November 1977. Sandy beguiled audiences with her unique phrasing. She had the ability to let a note hang in the air and bend it before letting the import of the language it conveyed apprise the listener with the meaning of a lyric. As her career developed, so did her songwriting and the complexity of the feelings that she articulated. Notwithstanding the serious side of her compositions, Sandy Denny had a bubbly and effusive stage personality that endeared her to audiences and which made the manner of her death and its surrounding circumstances all the more inexplicable.
Carol Grimes has matured in a way that neither Denny nor Joplin were able to in the relatively short time that life had allowed them. Both as a woman and an artist, Carol has experienced much, learned more and conveys what she knows in a manner that genuinely connects. Her music betrays eclectic influences - jazz, blues, soul and rock. The lessons of the songs she sings and the music that conveys them are easily digestible. That much is as true for both teens and twenty-somethings embarking on adult life as for those who have lived through the entirety of the times that she chronicles. It is unfortunate that so much of that time was missed by both Janis Joplin and the delightful Sandy Denny and that neither of them will ever know where that time went.
Fairport Convention’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’, ‘Unhalfbricking’ & ’Liege & Lief’ (all 1969) feature Sandy Denny and are all vinyl albums released by Island Records. I have the CD reissues of all three, each with bonus tracks. ‘Fotheringay’ (1971) is a vinyl album released by Island Records; ‘Fotheringay 2’ (2008) is a CD released by Fledgling Records; Fotheringay was a band formed by Sandy Denny after leaving the Fairports at the end of 1969. The second album was abandoned for over 35 years before being completed by guitarist and producer Jerry Donohue. Denny's ‘The North Star Grassman and the Ravens’ (1971) is an Island Records release on vinyl as is the 4 album boxed set compilation ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ (1985). ‘The Essential Janis Joplin’ (2003) is a 2CD compilation released by CBS/Legacy that was given to me as a present by a friend who thought, correctly, that having some Janis was an important addition to my collection. I am embarrassed to admit that I own no records by Carol Grimes, something I plan to rectify very soon!