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Bob Dylan: My Back Pages

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Songs Of The Week 2020

January 12, 2020


Like I Used To: AJ Lee & Blue Summit 

If you're an admirer of I'm With Her and Lula Wiles, you'll enjoy the music of AJ Lee & Blue Summit. The Californian band, who play a blend of bluegrass, country, western swing, jazz and folk, provide Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com with Like I Used To. Mandolin magician AJ Lee is a songwriter of growing stature. 


This love song of regret and yearning, a plea for a second chance, is the title track from their below-the-radar debut album of last year. Lee wrote all 12 tracks and is backed by Molly Tuttle's younger brother, Sully, fellow guitarist Jesse Fichman and bassist Chad Bowen. Lee's rapport with flat-picker Sully in particular was honed by her regular stints with The Tuttles family ensemble, led by guru Jack.


Lee's voice has a honeyed purity, a pleasure to hear and harmonise with. She plays guitar, fiddle and banjo too and can probably do without predictions such as 'Is this kid the next Alison Krauss'. Like I Used To, with its lovely chord changes and shifts in tempo, creates a mood of nostalgia but this mature twentysomething is giving the old genre a thoroughly modern makeover. Here's an acoustic live version of the song.


AJ, Aissa Joelle in full, has been singing since she was four and played in her mother Betsy Riger Lee's old band, the whimsically named Granny And The Skillet Washers. To emphasise the importance of musical lineage, grandad Lee was a jazz piano player. 'Whatever it is, she's got it,' says mum. 'And you can't teach that.'


Lee has been named Northern California Bluegrass Society female vocalist of the year an extraordinary nine times. She talked to Bluegrass Today about her writing regime: 'Sometimes a little melody or rhythm will pop into my head and I’ll reach for my phone to record it. Sometimes it will become part of a something, or nothing at all. Sometimes a whole song will get written in an hour. It’s a waiting game. I’ll catch myself thinking about love, or friendships, or nature, or having a good time, and that always helps inspire me to write.'


Lee's alliance with fellow Santa Cruz natives Blue Summit began in 2015. The band enjoyed a short UK tour last year and are planning to revisit in May and June, joined by brilliant fiddler Jan Purat. No doubt they'll treat us to the lush Crossing The Blue Skies and the moody Misty Rays. The vocal interplay is divine and emphasises the point about a broader mission than just making bluegrass bigger on the West Coast even though Lee has so far resisted a move to Nashville.


Chris Thile, the mandolin master of Punch Brothers, hailed I'm With Her as the best band in the world on his influential Live From Here show. Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, stellar songwriters all, have long been heroes for Lee, but there is every indication talent can take her to a summit of her own. 


Conundrum: Robert Vincent 


If last year made us aware of how serious the climate change threat was, this year must be when we start tackling it. Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Conundrum, a powerfully simple message from Merseyside-born songwriter Robert Vincent, which was premiered by Glide Magazine.


A popular visitor to Nashville, where he signed for the Thirty Tigers label, with his intelligent country rock built on universal themes, Vincent questions our self-destructive attitude to Earth's welfare in an advanced track from his new album In This Town You're Owned, produced by Ethan Johns and due out in February. The Americana devotee explains: 'We are faced with a conundrum about whether or not to remain as consumers and continually take from the world we live in, or to start looking after our planet, to try to fix the damage we are doing.'


Conundrum's refrain is succinct and memorable...


There's no turning back

We take love from this world

Try to leave some when you go

There's no secret plan

You're born into this world alone

Try to leave it better off when you go


We were given a first taste of the album in October with the single release of the title track, abbreviated to This Town, whose video showed scenes from Vincent's hometown of Crosby, particularly the art deco-style Plaza cinema of his childhood escape, blended with images from American shrines whose music has touched him, from Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee to Buddy Holly's Lubbock in Texas.  


If Holly was a past influence (there's more than a hint in the uptempo My Neighbour's Ghost), Jason Isbell sounds like a current one, in the beauty and cleverness of his balladry. The title song expresses Vincent's frustration with the manipulation of people's views by social media. 'The old days of small-town talk have gone, it is now a global town. Sadly it has created division, in this town and everyone’s town.'


Conundrum – I love the banjo interlaced with acoustic, steel and electric guitars – is further evidence why Vincent won the inaugural Emerging Artist accolade from Bob Harris at the Americana Music Association UK Awards in 2016. It is a worthy addition to our Save The Planet playlist which includes Jackson Browne's Before The Deluge, Tracy Chapman's The Rape Of The World, The Rails' Cancel The Sun (Hello Armageddon), New Model Army's Ballad, Melissa Etheridge's I Need To Wake Up, Jimmy Cliff's Save Our Planet Earth, Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), The Beach Boys' Don't Go Near The Water, Cat Stevens' Where Do The Children Play, Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi and Neil Young's After The Gold Rush. Young updates his classic line 'Look at Mother Nature on the run' for his live shows live shows from the 1970s to the 21st century.


Our second grandson was joyfully welcomed into the world on Friday, sharing the birthday of the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, as fires still raged in Australia and US-Iran tensions were frighteningly heightened. Let us hope hawkish leaders, who take out enemies and create a million more in the process, tone down the macho rhetoric, talk more of peace and empathy and abandon their denials that it is we who are imperilling the planet. For the sake of future generations.




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