“Those Blue River Skies”
A lazy day, laying back in a hammock on a front porch somewhere with a cold beer and the Yankees game on the radio, trying not to drift off to sleep with the Yanks two runs down in the bottom of the seventh is one pleasant way to spend a summer day. Well it would be if I lived somewhere with a porch, a yard, a hammock or a portable radio for that matter instead of a cramped New York City apartment. Such is life though, so those lazy summer days are actually spent with the air conditioner cranked to the max with the Yankees on the TV and some electronic distraction device in my hands and a fear of melting if I actually do venture outside for so much as a pint of milk from the store. Curiously enough the beer remains part of the equation however. As I write this in early March with winter dragging interminably on, I will admit to longing for a little dose of that summer heat right now. Of course as a friend of mine pointed out to me recently, when summer is at its height, and the Sahara Desert sounds more inviting than a descent down into the NYC subways to head somewhere, the mind will switch gears and think, wouldn’t it be nice to have some cool weather right now and be able to wear a jacket? Such is human nature I suppose, but in any case, summer has been on my mind recently. As usual with me, it is aided by both music and photography.
When I am actually able to escape the city and get out for a vacation, a long weekend visiting friends or camping, or even just a daytrip it always involves those two things together inevitably. The photography side is because I always take my cameras with me in a continuing quest to find interesting things outside of my normal routine. The photographs in this installment are but a small example of that. The one constant in all of them is that they were all taken in the summer and taken on trips just as I describe. The music because well, it accompanies me everywhere I go as I mentioned in Part 4 and there is nothing like getting out on the road with some good music. It is another aspect of summer I enjoy, along with laying back in that hammock. Thinking back, I think I know where that all must have started for me, and it goes back to my youth.
“Playing on a tree where the rope swings tied around, like most kids, just like most kids”
As I was preparing this installment I suddenly had a fleeting memory of growing up in Demarest, New Jersey in the 1970s and riding my bike to school when the weather was good. After school we would ride to the candy store in town for a coke and some candy usually. Later that changed to a coke and a slice of pizza, using the change for the heady days of video games like Pac Man, Space Invaders, or Astro Blaster. Slightly later still that changed once again to the humble beginnings of my working life with that most noble of professions, the paperboy. Though the distances travelled on that bike to these places seemed great at the time in reality it was at best never more than a mile or two at any given point, especially in the small town of Demarest. But there was one accessory that was de rigueur on a bike in those years- the transistor radio. I seem to recall the bright red Radio Shack transistor radio with such superior technology features as “On/Off Volume Dial”,” Convenient AM/FM Tuning Selector”, and of course the coup de grace “Handy Vinyl Wrist Strap Securely Attached.” Actually the wrist strap did come in handy when you only had the actual transistor radio and not the “Bike Mounted Transistor Radio” that the rich kids had, which clipped either on that bar on your BMX bike between the handlebars where a numbered plate usually went (thereby making your bike look like a motorcycle in some off road race in the mud) or on the crossbar. For me though it was that plain old red transistor radio with the vinyl strap slung over the “racing style” grip that the BMX bicycles had, which when no one was looking you pretended was a real motorcycle, and you clutched that grip as if you were on a motorcycle, changing gears and making the potatopotatopotato motorcycle rumble sound in your head. Admit it, you did it. Anyway, you would tune the radio to your station of choice, which in the 70’s was still AM mostly I seem to recall, sling the strap over the grip on your bike, and be on your way with your musical accompaniment of a tinny mono speaker blasting out the hit records of the day.
But all joking aside about the technology, I think that is where I started getting that sense of requiring music for a journey. It felt like an adventure when you got on your bike to go across town to a friend’s house or to the woods where we really did have a tree with a rope swing on it, or when I was a paperboy the route seemed about as long as that of a long haul trucker. So it made sense to have some tunes to go along with you for the ride as you flirted with breaking the law by riding alongside your friends rather than single file on the main roads, popping wheelies, not using hand signals and riding one handed because you were usually carrying something and you did not want to look like a wuss and have a basket mount. And though we actually were required to have yearly registration stickers on the front of our bikes that the cops did actually check from time to time we never ever wore bike helmets. We did not need them in the 1970’s; we were me…. check that, we were BOYS!
“I can take you higher than a lightnin’ bug, lower than you’ve been before”
One of the sounds I liked in those early years was termed ‘country rock’ back then but would I suppose be called alt-country now. The very first album I bought for myself (not counting those K-TEL pop compilation albums which I admittedly owned a few of) was the Eagles first album. Before the slick and polished sounds of the Hotel California era Eagles caused the Big Lebowski so much consternation, the Eagles in their early stages were a country rock band, and that first album started off with a statement, as Don Henley and Glenn Frey later recalled. First album, Side 1, Track 1 was the country inflected sounds of Take It Easy. I was hooked right away by the tight harmonies, string bending country guitar licks, and towards the end that bit of banjo. Though I shunned whatever country music my dad had at the time (and yes, Dad I am putting it in public that I now love Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline so you were right!), this was far more tolerable to my ears because of the rock part of the formula. I began exploring some of the other similar bands as well-The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Pure Prairie League, and the Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album by The Byrds. Though that music has always stayed with me, and in fact Take It Easy and Fallin’ In And Out Of Love/Amie by Pure Prairie League remain up there as two of my most favorite driving songs of all time, I came across a band a few years ago that somehow merged the elements of a song that was good for cruising down the road mixed with the feel of classic Americana. Somewhat surprisingly though, they happen to be from Great Britain. Which begs the question, how the hell did a couple of guys based in Hackney, London come up with that sort of sound and how do they manage to write lyrics that sound like they grew up in America?
The band is called Ahab, or sometimes Ahab Hackney or Ahab UK to distinguish them from a German metal band of the same name. You can read their official history here http://ahabofficial.com/ I heard about them 4 years ago when they played at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival. When the video’s from the 2010 festival started making the rounds on YouTube I checked them out and was very impressed. Though they have not been prolific in the making albums department, they are more about the live performance and tour constantly. In 2011 I was extremely fortunate to make it to Cropredy myself for a long overdue first time. That will be a subject for a future installment of this blog, but the good news in 2011 for me was that Ahab was playing at the Fringe portion of the festival, so I had my own chance to see them live. They did not disappoint I must say. The first and most obvious thing that sets them apart in their sound is the harmonies. There are very few acts utilizing harmony like they are and it ties them in with CS&N and the Eagles before them. Musically it is very much of an alt-country sound because it never veers fully over to the country sound and is grounded in acoustic music, but it is more melodic than a full tilt, hard rocking sound. Lyrically, the songs together with these elements are what really make the difference. Lots of heartbreak and songs of relationships ending on a bad note, for example in the song Joanna-
“Joanna, Joanna she left me
Joanna, Joanna don’t matter no more
She smiled at the moment she met me
Then left me a veil of tears at the door”
Getting past that heartache and heartbreak it is the overall ‘American’ approach to their music that brought me in to their world and made me a fan. Songs like Lucy, Rosebud, Lightnin’ Bug, Neighbours (ok, that one is a giveaway to their identity I suppose being spelled the “British” way) are ripe with that sort of front porch Americana feel I opened this blog with. In the end though it does not matter where they come from that is important. What is important is that it is the type of music that makes me want to get into a car travelling down some back country roads singing along and not giving a care about the looks you get from the passing cars.
“Westward bound, with the radio on and the windows down”
Two summers ago, after I had seen Ahab perform my wife and I did a road trip vacation throughout New York State, stopping at several different places along the way. We were heading to the Adirondacks to do some camping and as we set out that day and I opened the CD case to pick some music for that leg of the journey, I knew it had to be the day for Ahab. But, and my wife thinks I am crazy for this, for me it had to be at a fairly precise time that it went in the CD player. It had to be that moment when we left the highway, and the car traffic was lighter, when the strip malls disappeared, replaced instead by fresh air, clear blue lakes and trees everywhere. It had to be where roads are usually unmarked, where roadside stands offer fresh produce and firewood for sale, and signs appear for moose and bear crossings. It had to be that moment when coming from a hectic place like New York City, you can take a second to take a deep breath and feel alive and have clarity. It had to be that moment where what you left behind and thought was important actually means nothing, replaced instead by where you are heading towards because it is a reminder of everything you should have. So it was at that point, when we had left the highway and knew we were heading in the right direction that I put Ahab on as we cruised down the winding Adirondack roads. It certainly helped that transition, from hectic to calm the minute those jangly guitars and harmonies came through the speakers, and pretty soon we were singing and tapping along with them. For me that is such a palpable thing about music. If the right combination is found, it can aid the emotion. Sure you can put on any old thing and sing along to it as well, but certain times and situations feel like you need something that fits better, and for me that day it was Ahab.
“The sun, moon, the stars above”
The odd thing is when I began this blog and thought about doing an installment on Ahab, that story was the first thing I thought of relating. The more time I have spent going once again through my back catalog of photographs, I began realizing that the music of Ahab was acting as a soundtrack for much more than one little camping trip to the Adirondacks. Suddenly in terms of the photographs it became the soundtrack to photos I have taken over the years visiting my in-laws in Alabama. It became the soundtrack to photos I have taken on warm summer days all over the place and it made me think in some ways if Ahab had become The Soundtrack Of A Photograph for every photo I have ever taken in the summertime! Well not quite as it turns out, for I am finding as this blog evolves and I get a little deeper into matching my photographs with the music I love, there are themes stirring in my head that I never dreamed of when I began. But for a certain kind of photo taken during the summer, Ahab has fit the bill nicely.
It was hard for me to pick just one song of theirs to use as a soundtrack for these photographs though, for there is much to choose from. I do not have their newest album Beautiful Hell yet so it would have to be something older and which I am familiar with. So I wondered if it would be best to use one of their most popular songs such as Rosebud, Lightnin’ Bug or Like Roses. I decided against all of those, much as I love them. What I realized as I was writing this installment was the answer was in front of me the entire time. The last song on their KMVT EP which I had picked up at Cropredy is called Where’s The One You Love and it just about froze me in my tracks the first time I heard it. The second verse has a harmony part on the line “with your blue river skies” that is delivered so perfectly, so stunningly, it gave me chills. Arguably, the harmony they reach on that part is the focal point of the song. It is that moment when their voices ascend to a singular note, as the music dissipates around them broken only by a slight drum roll as the song continues. If you had not been paying attention at the start of the song, then that is the point you would certainly notice.
It does not matter that the song has nothing to do with any of what I just wrote of course, because as I mentioned in the last blog, lyrics are often elusive to the listener. It is what you take out of them that is important and the way they sang that line made me think about why it affected me. When I was struggling to decide what song to choose I remembered back to that car ride through the Adirondacks. It was in fact the song I most wanted to hear on that beautiful morning on our way to go camping because it summed up every feeling I had about being there in that line, ‘blue river skies. That imagery, especially as a city dweller just grabs you when you are in a place like that and makes you want to freeze time and disconnect from it all. As I have described before, because both music and photographs are good aids for sustaining memories and feelings, Where’s The One You Love by Ahab is The Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this installment since it helps me remember those moments of clarity and calmness that happen when you are most in need of them. Those times when your job is so frustrating that screaming will not suffice. When life seems to close in around you and you need help. Music and photography do that for me, and what I have found is that Ahab’s music has been a big help in getting me through those kinds of days, as well as even the most cursory glance at a photograph I took. Whatever gets you there is what really matters. Once I am there in my head, it is an easy step to switch gears and begin thinking about when that car trip is over how nice it would be to sit back in a hammock on some front porch and turn the Yankees game on with a cold beer…….
Where’s The One You Love, Like Roses, Lightnin’ Bug, Joanna, Lucy, Hate & Love written by Adamson, Burn, Llewellyn, Price
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.