Paul Weller – ‘Stanley Road’

Following Weller’s musical resurrection with his debut solo album in 1992, his follow up the next year further enhanced his status. Wild Wood was a stunning album, a notable step up from Paul Weller it was heavier and more soulful, blending folk and psychedelic bluesy jams. Steve Craddock was in and adding the perfect musical foil to Weller’s swank and vigor.

For five or so years from ’94 I saw Weller live more than a dozen times, and he was never less than totally captivating. His passion completely dominated his live performances, riding as he was on the crest of adulation from not just the new wave of Britpop admirers but also his original Jam and Style Council fanatics. Weller’s devotion to his art is unquestionable and his influences are celebrated through his music, never better than on his classic ’95 release, Stanley Road.

Musically, those influences are all over the back of Peter Blake’s album cover: Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane figurines, Artetha Franklin, John Lennon, a dude on a scooter plus mod and Stax iconography. You know where he’s at. For me, Weller’s influences are right at home in my record collection and on Stanley Road they shine magnificently. That said, this is a Weller album through and through; heavy and soulful with a groove that has attitude pulsing at its heart. Changing Man is just a classic Weller single and with Porcelain Gods and Dr. John’s Walk On Gilded Splinters the voodoo groove is blues swamp perfection.

The groove becomes more soulful through Stanley Road and Broken Stones before the intensity returns on the glorious Out Of The Sinking. It’s all there; a rock and blues stomp with Yolanda Charles and Steve White’s rhythm matched by Carleen Anderson’s stunning gospel vocals. The slower, piano lead tracks are great, but for me it was all about the full band at full tilt, and that was at its peak on Whirlpool’s End, a live classic that showcased the skills of Brendan Lynch and rhythm king, Steve White.

Ten years later Paul Weller said: “Stanley Road was one of those perfect moments when everything slotted into place naturally. It was a dream… Initially I wanted to call the album Shit or Bust, because that’s how I felt about it. I put everything into it, emotionally and physically. It was the culmination of my solo career to date. I knew it was special. We had a playback and I could sense the excitement among the people listening to it.”

To me, in over 40 years over making music Stanley Road is Weller’s best ever album. He was idolised by two generations, he’d just split from his wife DC Lee and he was partying with much gusto. His creative juices were fully fuelled, no doubt stimulated by his contemporaries who looked up to him for inspiration, and boy did he deliver.

The Jayhawks – ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass’

By the summer of ’95 and over a year into my MVC career I’d claimed the lofty title of assistant manager. Check me. The previous management team were big on country, and whilst Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks did little for me, and Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus even less (nothing), there were other artists who the more alt or folk side of that road who grabbed my attention. Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne I’d enjoy, but the album I fell for was Tomorrow The Green Grass by The Jayhawks.

From the first minute of the opening track Blue, the appeal of Tomorrow The Green Grass is all there. Glorious harmonies, stunning melodies and a mellow, rootsy guitar-based groove on top of reflective and introspective lyrics…

“Where have all my friends gone
They’ve all disappeared
Turned around maybe one day
You’re all that was there
Stood by on believing
Stood by on my own
Always thought I was someone
Turned out I was wrong”

The constant highlight is the perfect vocal harmony between Mark Olson and Gary Louris. I’d love singing along, alternating harmonies, partly because they sounded so gorgeous and also because the songs were so goddam good; downbeat but uplifting and perfectly produced with piano and strings accompanying the orchestra of guitars. The producer was a dude. George Drakoulias was an A&R man for Def Jam, discovering The Beastie Boys and L.L Cool J. He signed and produced The Black Crowes as well as Primal Scream, Tom Petty and a lengthy list as eclectic as they come.

The guitar solos are another standout, particularly on Miss Williams’ Guitar and the rousing closer Ten Little Kids; distorted and soulful but never overdone. But as is my way it was the more lyrically melancholy and heavy-hearted that grabbed me the most. Blue was great opener, but Two Hearts is the album’s emotional peak if only for the sad as hell ‘I’m lonely, I’m lonely, I’m lonely too.”

The album’s predecessor Hollywood Town Hall and its follow up Sound Of Lies come close to matching Tomorrow The Green Grass, the latter just missing the perfect harmonies following Olsen’s departure. Would I have ever heard The Jayhawks if I wasn’t working in a record shop? Almost certainly not. It almost (definitely) makes the hat-trick of redundancies worth it.

Jeff Buckley – live at the Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth

Like any music fan I have been to my fair share of gigs. Hundreds became thousands once I started putting them on for a living. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Who, Elvis Costello, Santana, R.E.M, Booker T & The MGs, Paul Weller, The Specials, The Flaming Lips were good, great or utterly glorious, but one name stands head and shoulders above these as the best live performance I have ever witnessed: Jeff Buckley at The Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth on 5th March 1995.

The Mystery White Boy tour took Buckley around the world, with the Wedgwood Rooms being his last UK date. An MVC collective travelled up en masse having discovered Grace towards the end of ’94, tingling with anticipation. The album was clearly beyond brilliant, but could Jeff Buckley do it live? Now, if trying to sum up his album Grace using words alone is tough, attempting to chronicle this gig with the articulation it deserves is an impossibility. But, after twenty-five years there are many things I remember, so I’ll do my best.

The Wedgewood Rooms was busy but by no means full, and I was stood literally two metres from the front of the stage, so five metres from Jeff Buckley. That sounds a bit creepy, like I wanted to touch or smell him, but his presence was so mesmerising I was riveted to the spot. He looked as cool as fuck rocking a drenched white vest and I was most likely drooling. Again, not creepy. Starting with Dream Brother, the set was most of Grace and included a few covers including a full-throttle version of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams and ended with the most jaw-dropping version of Hallelujah.

Searching for a video of Jeff Buckley performing around March ’95, this performance and set list from Chicago is as near as I remember, all available on YouTube…

My over-riding memory of the set was its overwhelming intensity. On Grace, the exquisite Lilac Wine and Hallelujah are beautiful beyond words. Performed live the depth of emotion, helped by absolute silence other than Buckley’s vocals and guitar, was something I will never forget. Again, words can never be enough but that was the closest I’ve ever felt to a spiritual reaction. His band were stunningly good, being able to follow Buckley’s creative flow and as with the album, the musical contrasts were immense. Eternal Life matched Kick Out The Jams for opulent, mind-blowing ferocity.

When a brilliant album is played live you want the performance to do it justice. You don’t want to leave feeling like the band just couldn’t do it on stage. With Jeff Buckley that worry wasn’t just dispelled, it went way, way beyond my expectations. With his utterly tragic loss just two years later, I feel so unbelievably lucky and so blessed to have the privilege of seeing Jeff Buckley perform live. His beauty and aura shone as bright as his lustrous, prestigious talent.