One of the things that we fetishise, possibly too much, when we talk about music is artistic growth. Musicians are supposed to be restless, always looking for the next big thing, never trying to settle for the same thing they’ve been doing all along. They’re meant to always be on the bleeding edge, stretching themselves, trying to break new frontiers in sound.
And yet… when was the last time someone did that and it was actually, you know, good?
I mean, it happens occasionally. I wouldn’t want Scott Walker to have kept singing “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More”, and to have not moved on to Jacques Brel covers and songs about Bergman films, and from then to the indescribable stuff he’s done over the last couple of decades, which has no parallel in recorded sound that I know of.
But for every one Scott Walker there are a thousand Stings, musicians who start trying to incorporate world music and record albums of lute music and go so far up their own arse you forget that they ever actually had the ability to write a catchy pop song, while still never actually doing anything remotely artistically valid.
Duane Eddy is the anti-Sting. He hit upon one thing that he could do really well, sixty years ago, and hasn’t changed it since.
But the thing is, there’s an immense power to one thing done very well, as Duane Eddy showed on Tuesday night at what was billed as his final *ever* UK show (athough towards the end he hinted that he might come back, saying “I’m not ready to hang up my rock and roll shoes just yet”).
Eddy was playing the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, as his last stop on a three-date UK tour, and while I obviously had to go and see him (I’ve seen far too few of the great fifties rockers, and he’s basically the only one still alive and touring) I was a bit dubious about the venue. The Bridgewater Hall is the best venue in Manchester — for classical or acoustic music. It’s a specialist concert hall designed specifically for that, and the acoustics are so good that you can hear every note played by an unamplified instrument from the back of the balcony with pinprick accuracy — and with a handful of exceptions, every time I’ve heard an electric band there it’s been a horrible mess of booming bass, inaudible vocals (though that’s not such a problem for Eddy, one of the few great rock stars to have built his career on instrumentals) and muddy reverb.
Luckily, as soon as support act Robert Vincent started up, I knew I was in for a good night. The sound mix was, for once, excellent — and Vincent himself was far better than he had any right to be.
I can’t actually judge him very fairly, because his songs were, for the most part, the kind of songs which take several listens before you decide whether you like them or not. That’s not a criticism of them — but they’re the kind of subtly melodic song that you get on, say, mid-period Squeeze albums like Frank (and indeed Chris Difford is one of the people quoted on Vincent’s posters), and that kind of song just doesn’t work particularly well when heard for the first time in a live setting.
But he was precisely the right support act for this crowd. Even if the songs don’t grab you, they’re what most of the audience would undoubtedly think of as “proper music” — and more to the point, the *performances* were definitely good enough to grab you. Vincent himself has a voice that was naggingly familiar for the first few songs before I figured out who he reminded me of — he sounded spookily like Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers.
And he and his band were musicians. This is actually a rarer quality than you might imagine from people who make their living playing music, but there was an attention to detail in the arrangements that one rarely sees. In particular, there was lovely interplay between the two solo instrumentalists — this was a five-piece band, with Vincent on acoustic rhythm guitar, plus electric guitar, stand-up bass, drums and pedal steel. The lead guitarist was playing a nice reverby hollow-body guitar, which is appropriate for a Duane Eddy show, and had a simple country-infused melodic style which is very rare these days, with elements of Chet Atkins, James Burton, maybe a bit of George Harrison in there, nothing fancy or flashy, just playing right for the song. The pedal steel player was similarly good (there were a few very Red Rhodes sounding moments, which is a high compliment) — but what was really interesting was that the two players were playing in the same sort of range, and with similar levels of reverb, and they’d occasionally do a solo where it would start as the guitarist playing, but somewhere in the middle it would transition into the pedal steel player, and I’d miss exactly where the transition took place.
They were good enough that I’d happily watch them again, and good enough that there was a reasonable-sized queue afterwards to buy their CDs, and neither of those things is normal for a support act, especially a support act for a legacy act whose fans want the hits. Like the sound engineering, and like the choice of music in the interval (a collection of good classic blues and soul records by people like Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Wilson among others) it was the kind of thing that complements the main act without overwhelming it. Just that little bit better than they needed to be — surprisingly good without making you want them to stay on instead of the headliner, which is about as good a compliment as you can pay to a support act. (No, really, it is).
But it was the main act everyone had come to see, and the audience seemed to thrill with anticipation as the stage darkened, and then the band walked out. And after they got ready, out came a white-haired figure, who picked up a guitar, and the crowd went wild.
I didn’t. I just got confused. I wasn’t sure what Duane Eddy looks like now (almost all the photos of him I’ve seen are of him in the 50s), but I was betting that he didn’t look exactly like the great country guitarist Albert Lee, and also that he wasn’t going to be playing a Telecaster, which is the guitar that Albert Lee plays.
Indeed, a few seconds later, another white-haired figure walked out, this time wearing a cowboy hat and not having Albert Lee’s face, and picked up a far more Gretsch-like (and thus far more Duane Eddy-esque) guitar.
This was, of course, your actual Duane Eddy, and frankly he looked far more like Duane Eddy should look than those fifties photos do. Eddy’s music is rugged, and thick, and precise, like it’s carved out of granite. It shouldn’t be played by a young man who’s not yet turned twenty, with a quiff and a smile. It should be played by an eighty-year-old man with a white beard and a cowboy hat.
The band opened up with “Movin’ and Groovin'”, and instantly it was apparent that this was a band that could do this music justice. And it was also apparent that Eddy has lost none of his skill. Duane Eddy is an odd type of guitar hero, really. He doesn’t engage in the fast twiddly histrionics of most successful guitarists — instead he plays sparse statements of the melody, on the lowest strings of the guitar. There’s nothing technically difficult about it, it’s all about the feel and the groove, rather than about showing dexterity.
And that means that he’s one of the few instrumentalists who can continue to get better as he ages. By the time you’re eighty, it’s difficult to play a thousand notes a second or whatever ludicrous number the Joe Satrianis of this world can now play. But you can still play “Movin’ and Groovin'”, if you can feel it. And Duane Eddy clearly can feel it.
For those of you who don’t know Eddy’s style, it’s a simple formula that’s summed up in the titles of early albums of his like Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel and The Twang’s The Thang. Each song is a simple set of chord changes, usually a blues, over which Eddy would play a melody on the bass strings of his guitar (or sometimes on a six-string bass), which would be reverbed to hell. Add a skronking sax to play a solo, and you’ve got almost everything Duane Eddy ever did.
But as I said at the beginning, doing one thing really well is something that’s definitely worthwhile, and Eddy definitely does that. “Movin’ and Groovin'” was excellent, and the band (put together by Richard Hawley) proved themselves to be perfectly in tune with Eddy’s particular style of playing.
After the song, Eddy introduced a couple of band members, including confirming my suspicion that the Albert Lee-looking bloke with Albert Lee’s face was, indeed, Albert Lee, saying he’d “just happened to be in the area”. That may have just been a joke, but I didn’t see any mention of Lee being at the other shows on the tour, and he *did* play a solo gig in Stockport not that long ago, so who knows? Maybe he really did just turn up and join in.
Hit after hit followed, often accompanied by little anecdotes. After “Detour” and “The Lonely One”, Eddy tried to explain Captain Marvel to his audience, and how much he, as a ten year old, had envied nerdy little Billy Batson changing into a superhero. The surprise from the audience when he said the word “SHAZAM!” to introduce the song of that name suggests that there weren’t many comic fans in the audience.
Rather more recognition greeted another name, as he told a story about playing a gig and not getting there in time to see the support act. The support act, a black man, then came and said how much he loved “3:30 Blues” and gave him a hug and kiss. After Eddy asked who the man in question was, he got the reply “B.B. King”, and Eddy said “it should be *me* hugging *you*” and did just that.
A few songs in, the latest incarnation of the “Rebelettes” were introduced, to provide vocals on Eddy’s handful of non-instrumental hits, all of which had been recorded with girl-group vocals. “Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar”, “Dance With The Guitar Man”, and “Boss Guitar” are all, if you haven’t heard them, songs with very similar lyrical themes, mostly about how great it is when “the guitar man” “plays the boss guitar” and how everybody should “listen to the guitar man”. This is as close to a variation on the theme as Eddy has ever come, and some might see it as slightly watering down his sound, but it’s still twangy guitar, dance beat, and honking sax.
Eddy slightly messed up the timing on his solo on “Boss Guitar”, with the singers being about to come in but then noticing he was stll going, but I doubt any of the audience would have noticed had he not made a joke of it afterwards — the band were tight enough to catch it and go with it, without any interruption to the musical flow.
After the three songs with “the Rebelettes”, Richard Hawley joined the band on stage — and around the same time Eddy switched from his Gretsch guitar to a custom-made Gretsch six-string bass, which he said had had to be made for him to replace the Danelectro basses he used to use. Eddy played this in much the same way he played the guitar, as a lead instrument, and it had an absolutely stunning tone. I want one now.
Richard Hawley produced Eddy’s most recent album, in 2011, and has acted as de facto musical director for his UK tours since then, and he took the lead vocals on a mini-set of cover versions of songs by Eddy’s contemporaries. They ran through spirited versions of “Memphis Tennessee” and “Keep A Knockin'”, and while Hawley is no Little Richard, his vocals were perfectly fine.
(A sidenote on this — I heard a few people talking afterwards complaining about Hawley’s vocals and suggesting that they should have brought Robert Vincent back on instead to sing the vocals on these songs. No. Hawley was, quite deliberately, understating his vocals because on a Duane Eddy performance the vocals aren’t the things that matter. The vocals here were roughly equivalent to the rhythm guitar — something necessary for the performance, but not something that should dominate).
Like many older musicians do, Eddy seems to regard himself as something of a caretaker of his dead or incapacitated contemporaries’ legacies, and to regard performing their songs as something of a sacred obligation. It’s something I’ve seen from a lot of elderly musicians — a way of keeping the music they loved alive. Before this mini-set Eddy named a few of his contemporaries — mostly the expected names, though he also threw Bobby Darin in there, who I wouldn’t have expected to be mentioned in the same category as the others — and joked about how the audience was probably too young to remember any of them.
Richard Hawley’s later joke, though, that there were so many mobility aids in the audience that he’d had to double-check whether he was in A&E rather than at a gig, was probably closer to the mark. If I wasn’t the youngest person in the audience (and I may well have been), I was certainly in the ten or so youngest, and I’m forty — this was an audience that was at least seventy percent male, at least ninety percent over sixty, and one hundred percent white. The queue for the urinals at the interval stretched out of the gents’ toilet door, down the corridor, and round a corner, while the ladies’ was queue-free. This was an audience of old white men, come to see an old white man, and while in some ways that’s a very good thing — old people deserve to have nice things for themselves, too, and the cult of youth is one of the more pernicious in modern culture — it also seems rather a shame that this preservation aspect of the performance doesn’t really do much as there are no younger people around to watch and remember.
But still, the performances of those two songs were worthwhile for those of us, of whatever age, who love this music — and for whatever reason I found myself far more moved by the utter sadness of the lyric to “Memphis, Tennessee” than I ever have been before. It’s always been a sad lyric, obviously, despite the cheerful, upbeat, melody, but for some reason it just got to me in a way it never had before. I think it’s the line “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks that trickled from her eye”. On odd occasions over the last few days I’ve found that line coming back to me, and found myself starting to cry. Very odd to be so moved by something that’s so familiar to me.
And then there was something that was a surprising highlight of the show — something that I hadn’t expected, and which on paper sounds like it would be less than wonderful. Hawley mentioned that they were going to do something that they had done together in Nashville at a Bob Dylan tribute, and they brought out a harmonica player. They then proceeded to do “House of the Rising Sun”, with an absolutely bizarre combination of instruments for that song — Hawley on lead vocals, wailing blues harmonica, Duane Eddy playing the melody on a reverbed-to-hell six-string bass, and a keyboard (which for most of the show was providing either piano, organ, or string pad parts as you’d expect) playing a very realistic harpsichord sound.
I’ve found footage of the Nashville performance — this has the great Charlie McCoy playing the harmonica, and it’s the same arrangement that I heard on Tuesday.
That’s something really quite special, and something I’d never in a million years have expected from this show. It’s the furthest the show got from the Duane Eddy formula, but it’s also, very clearly, a Duane Eddy performance, isn’t it?
That was undoubtedly, for me at least, the highlight of the show.
There followed two instrumental covers of Fats Domino songs — “Blueberry Hill” and “My Blue Heaven” — before we headed into the home stretch with another run of hits, ending with “Peter Gunn” (a song that somehow typifies Duane Eddy even though the only thing he does on it is play an eight-note riff while the saxophone does all the real work) and “Rebel Rouser”, plus an encore of sorts (one that didn’t involve actually leaving the stage, because Duane Eddy’s too old for that crap) of “Some Kinda Earthquake” — a song which he pointed out was the shortest ever song to reach the top forty in the US, but which they were going to play for longer than its normal one minute seventeen, to give Albert Lee a chance to solo a bit too — and “Hard Times”.
This was the last stop on Eddy’s farewell tour of the UK, and Hawley and the band were clearly emotional, with Hawley giving a little speech about how much working with Duane Eddy has meant to him over the years, and how much he and the band had learned from him as a person as well as as musicians.
I can well believe it. If this *was* his last ever UK show, he’s certainly going out on a high. The Bridgewater wasn’t quite full (it’s a big venue, and as I said most of Eddy’s audience is old now) but it seemed pretty close to it, and there was a long, well-earned, standing ovation. It was a far more emotional night than I had expected, and a far better gig than I had any right to expect. If he does come around again, make sure you take the chance to see him when you can.
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