Friday, May 29, 2015

If Blatter won't be voted out, perhaps FIFA's sponsors will vote with their cash


(C) Getty Images
And so the cesspool of shame that is FIFA's corporate governance rumbles on like a leaking solid waste pipe spewing excrement into the street, with Sepp Blatter, its embattled president, stubbornly defiant that he could have prevented any of the alleged corruption that happened on his watch.

Today, FIFA's annual Congress will make a vote that could see Blatter installed for a fifth term. Blatter himself maintains that, while he doesn't have eyes everywhere, only he can bring about change in the culture at FIFA.

This, we all seem to agree, is ridiculous. The US Department of Justice's indictment stretches back over 24 years of corrupt behaviour in, mostly, CONCACAF, the Americas football body; Blatter has been FIFA president for 17 years. It strikes me that, either those who were up to no good within CONCACAF and elsewhere must have been extremely brilliant at disguising the swimming pools and cash that came their way, or that Blatter was extremely useless at noticing any wrongdoing, or showing the leadership to ensure that FIFA's ethical reputation was spotless from top to bottom.

Blatter's defiant proclamation last night that he has no intention of resigning flies so blatantly in the face of even common sense, let alone executive accountability, that it is almost laughable. And, yet, there is nothing to laugh about. The reputation of football - not just its governing body - is at risk of being ruined by one arrogant, puffed-up individual and his Mugabe-esque hubris.

Perhaps, then, those who hold the real power at FIFA - the corporate sponsors and partners - might be more successful in affecting much-needed regime change within sport's biggest governing body, which is currently experiencing sport's biggest reputational crisis.

Money talks, clearly (as, obviously, that's how FIFA found itself in this mess to begin with). Last year's World Cup in Brazil generated almost $5 billion in revenue for FIFA, of which $2.4 billion came from television rights, $1.6 billion from sponsorship ("marketing rights"), and just $527 million from ticket sales alone. Given that it cost FIFA $2.2 billion to stage the tournament, FIFA earned a profit of $2.6 billion from the tournament as a whole.


FIFA could stage a World Cup in your local park and people would pay money to pass through the turnstiles. But would big-name corporate sponsors like adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonalds, Budweiser and Hyundai still be interested? And would broadcasters fork over another $2.4 billion to screen it? I doubt it.

Now, however, these same companies need to think long and hard about their association with an organisation branded by the US Department of Justice as being infested by "corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted". Actually, these companies shouldn't do any more thinking at all: they should act.

Not unexpectedly, all of FIFA's corporate "partners" have issued statements expressing varying degrees of concern: Visa said they would might "reassess its sponsorship" unless FIFA took "swift and immediate steps" to address the allegations. Coca-Cola said more strongly: "This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations".

Adidas said that they were "...fully committed to creating a culture that promotes the highest standards of ethics and compliance and we expect the same from our partners" while Budweiser, Hyundai and McDonald's issued somewhat less committed statements confirming that "they were monitoring the situation closely".

Branding expert Anastasia Kourovskaia of the agency Millward Brown says that the scandal is "disastrous" for the core group of FIFA sponsors. "For them, this is a major issue. The idea of sponsorship is to transfer the goodwill that supporters feel for the sport, to the benefit of a brand's equity."

The World Cup, in particular, is a much-coveted "property" for marketing. Last summer's tournament in Brazil attracted almost three and a half million fans to the stadia hosting matches, while TV figures broke new records - the final itself drew close to a billion people worldwide. These are numbers that marketing departments can only dream of, which is why they spent $1,6 billion making their dreams become reality in 2014.

For any of the main FIFA sponsors to walk away would be a brave decision. But in times of reputational crisis like this, the damage from being associated with as toxic an entity as FIFA could be felt for years to come. And while it's true that if adidas or Visa, or Coca-Cola walked away, there's no doubt that Puma or MasterCard or Pepsi would be keen to fill the gap.

But for any corporate interest considering or currently sponsoring FIFA, until a new leadership can take over that organisation and clean it up from the top down, the association is really not worth it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Maybe now the stinking pile that is Blatter's FIFA will be brought down


From a professional point of view, I have great sympathy for Walter De Gregorio, FIFA's director of communications, who had to front a news conference this morning following the dawn arrests of seven FIFA executives on charges that they received bribes totalling $100 million.

FIFA clearly drew from the crisis management playbook by addressing the media so quickly, applying the rule of getting your arms around the problem as soon as possible in the hope of seizing some control over a story before it runs away from you. The trouble is, the anti-FIFA message has been running away now for too long, and the smell surrounding Sepp Blatter's organisation has grown ever more rancid.

"This is good for FIFA," De Gregorio maintained this morning. "It hurts, it is not easy, but it confirms we are on the right track." If he meant that FIFA had begun to self-investigate long-standing claims of corruption, then the resignation last December of Michael Garcia - who'd been commissioned by FIFA to carry out the investigation - saying that his report was altered before being published, suggested that there was still much doubt as to what the right track actually is.

Despite De Gregorio's insistence, this morning's arrests at Zurich's Baur-au-Lac hotel will have done nothing to sweeten the air around the FIFA, especially so close to the start of this year's FIFA General Assembly on Friday, at which delegates will vote on giving Blatter a fifth term in office.

Given that US investigators are, according to the New York Times which broke this morning's news, looking into allegations of money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud going back more than 20 years, with more FIFA figures likely to be charged, I find it incredible that the organisation should even consider holding an election. Defiantly, FIFA says it will go ahead as planned, with Blatter now only facing the challenge of Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein. Depressingly, it looks like the 79-year-old Swiss will retain the presidency. Blatter's Teflon-armoured position must, however, surely be untenable, but that is just wishful thinking on my part, although I'm pretty sure I'm not alone,.

Today's arrests came after the US Department of Justice announced an indictment covering 47 counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies in a 24-year scheme. "The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted," said New York's Attorney General. "It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks" adding that the charges related to actions "between the early 1990s and the present day".

Although the crux of the indictment focuses on alleged corruption around match and tournament media and marketing rights, the US investigation is said to also involve claims surrounding the bidding process to stage World Cup tournaments themselves. For the US to stage a criminal investigation into events which, let's face it, only enjoy passing interest in that country, this must count as significant.

"We're struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did," an unidentified US law enforcement officer told the New York Times this morning. "It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.”

It's not the first time this sort of sentiment has been expressed, but never before has it come so explicitly from the law enforcement community. Time, though, will tell whether today's arrests lead to convictions, but there is certainly no doubt that FIFA's already sullied reputation has been damaged still further.

And while it is clear that today's dawn raids had nothing to do with either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup Finals being awarded, respectively, to Russia and Qatar, the suspicion and notable fattening of the evidence dossier against FIFA must surely call into question the next two tournaments. If nothing else, perhaps pressure on corporate sponsors like Adidas, Gazprom, Hyundai, Kia, McDonald's, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Visa over the labour conditions - and deaths - of immigrant workers brought in to build the stadia for the Qatar World Cup might force a change of venues and, who knows, even a change of leadership culture at the very top of FIFA itself?

That must lie in the hands - and ballot papers - of those who will vote on Friday. All the talk is that Sepp Blatter will be re-elected without contest. One might hope, however, that with - now - criminal charges hanging over past FIFA practices in the Americas, the reputational stain must spread to the previously and apparently immune president who has overseen the organisation for the last 17 years.

"He has had 17 years to improve governance at FIFA," Eric Martin, head of the Swiss branch of the anti-corruption pressure group Transparency International told the BBC today. "I'm sceptical whether he will ever do it now".

Those who know Blatter say that he lives and breathes football and FIFA, and that his passion for the organisation is genuine. I don't doubt that, but when facts emerge as to how FIFA seems rotten to its core with the culture of corruption, any genuine immunity Blatter has is now useless. Reform of FIFA is needed, but clearly, too, so is regime change. As James Comey, the director of the FBI, no less, said this afternoon: "This may be the way things are, but this is not the way things have to be."

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Will José's juniors ever get to shine?

Picture: Chelsea FC

I don't wish to go on about Chelsea's victorious season (and I realise that I just have), but it should be pointed out that the club has won not one, not two, but FOUR titles in 2014/15.

The Barclays Premier League you know about, and the Capital One Cup (which still sounds more impressive as, simply, the League Cup) you may vaguely recall from the first weekend of March. But what almost slipped past unnoticed five weeks ago was the club's much-vaunted and, lavishly-equipped 'Development Squad' winning both the FA Youth Cup and the UEFA Under 19 Youth League.

While Roman Abramovich's largesse has been mostly seen to have won senior trophies (Champions League, Europa League, four Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Super Cup and the Charity Shield), there has been plenty going on in building up the supposed next generation. Except, much-deserved silverware notwithstanding, there hasn't been much to show for it in terms of the Chelsea Academy breaking into the first team, surely the purpose of developing young players.

John Terry was the last Chelsea youth product to break into the senior squad and stay there. He's 34 now and while having just completed a season in which he played in every Premier League game (despite having been written off by both Rafa Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas), he is clearly now the club's sole elder statesman, with Didier Drogba joining Frank Lampard in gentler climes.

Benitez and Villas-Boas were, infamously, charged with the task of bringing down the average of Chelsea's squad, a strategy coupled with the club's policy of only offering players over 30 single-year contract extensions.

That certainly has been achieved: the core of the team that last weekend lifted the Premier League trophy is clearly the basis of Chelsea's mid-term future - Eden Hazard (24), Thibaut Courtois (23), Willian (26), César Azpiliqueta (25), Nemanja Matic (26), Diego Costa (26).

But with the still youthful (relatively) Gary Cahill turning 30 this year, the outstanding Branislav Ivanovic 31, and Petr Cech - if he stays - now 33, opportunities for Chelsea's youth product to break through must surely be in the offing.

© Simon Poulter 2015
To give José Mourinho some credit, he has promoted Academy players like Nathan Ake, Isiah Brown, Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the first team squad this season, and while they have largely been warming the bench, they have occasionally been given their chance. But these have been the exception.

This last season, Chelsea loaned out as many as 25 young players - enough to form two full teams with three to spare - including much-admired prospects like striker Patrick Bamford (14 goals for Middlesbrough and almost helped them to promotion), right back Todd Kane (Nottingham Forest), the highly rated defensive midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, the Czech wunderkind Tomas Kalas, and Marco van Ginkel, the talented young Dutchman who was dispatched to AC Milan before even getting a chance to pull on a Chelsea shirt.

Somewhere out there, too (Vitesse Arnhem, actually) is Josh McEachran, the 22-year-old midfielder seen at one time as the successor to Frank Lampard, and who is also actually very good, but must wonder what he's got to do to get a game at his parent club, one that keeps buying midfielders.

With all his apparent contentment, a notable lack of any friction with the club hierarchy, and talk of extending his contract to 2019, Mourinho must now start thinking about building a legacy at Chelsea. Youngsters like Loftus-Cheek, Brown and Solanke have been awarded cameos in the most recent campaign - though notably the job of winning the Premier League was more or less over by Christmas, making appearances for them somewhat risk-free. Loftus-Cheek has, in particular, shown encouraging promise. Bamford, at Middlesbrough, has shown plenty of self-confidence in front of goal.

Surely it is time for these young players to enjoy a bigger part in what Chelsea has built over the two seasons since Mourinho returned to the club? Or is his refusal to accept anything other than winning blanking off the potential for the club's expensively built Academy to do no more than serve as a nursery for talent that can be sold on to other clubs for a premium?

Picture: Chelsea FC
The prospect of Mourinho extending his contract at Chelsea is the kind of stability its fans have dreamed of, as managers have come and gone like Ryanair jets at an airport terminal. We used to look enviously at Manchester United and even Arsenal, with Ferguson and Wenger putting down roots that maintained those clubs as perennial winners. Even now, you never know what the capricious Mourinho will do: he has never stayed at a club for more than three full seasons.

For now his challenge is to defend a title, with opponents coming back from the summer break not only more determined to take that title from him, but with fresh ideas of how to do it. Could youth be the opportunity? Could the Under 21, Under 19 and Under 18 players who are pulling in trophies form a nucleus of youth to sustain Chelsea for years to come, much in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson did with the Beckham/Scholes/Neville/Neville/Butt/Giggs group?

The trouble is that for all of Mourinho's seemingly token promotion of youth, it's clear that this has not been his priority. The club can afford to buy whichever senior players it wants, and unless given an ultimatum to realise its investment in the Academy by playing more of its product, Mourinho has no actual need to play them. A shame, really, as England and the other national teams already represented within Chelsea's youth set-up, could only benefit from more frontline experience in the Premier League.

Mourinho himself, however, claims that promoting Loftus-Cheek to the first team this season has been an achievement as great as the Chelsea Academy producing two major trophies. He has also hinted at more opportunities for Chelsea's youngsters next term.

It would be nice to see, but Mourinho's win-at-all-costs mindset will always decide. Just a few weeks ago, with Costa and Drogba injured and Loic Remy yet to really prove himself as a first-choice, Dominc Solanke was denied the chance to even sit on the bench against Liverpool, with Mourinho instead choosing a three-man midfield attack.

José: from parking the bus to riding it
© Simon Poulter 2015
He is, though, adamant that Loftus-Cheek, Brown, Ake and other contemporaries are in the first team squad to stay.

Former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair believes that Chelsea must match the words with deeds when it comes to developing Academy players into first team regulars. "For John Terry to be the last regular to play in Chelsea’s first team is a concern," he told TalkSport recently. "They probably got the best academy in Europe and they should have more players playing in the first team.”

The issue is how much they will play. Chelsea will surely come in for one or two of the bigger names on the market this summer, and as has been the case for a long while, you must question how youth players will develop if they're missing out on playing time because there is always someone bigger and more expensive before them in the squad.

One thing Mourinho is clearly conscious of is avoiding the Raheem Stirling situation at Liverpool. "In modern football, because of the agents and the parents, when the players are in the process of being almost there, they think they are already there," Mourinho said recently. "They make the players think they have arrived when they haven't. They think about money before the career starts and everything gets very, very confused. That doesn't help the players. They need stability. To be in a big team and to reach the level to be playing regularly for the first-team, you need time and stability. We try to give that to our boys."

The question for me is how much time?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Over and out: the 2014-2015 Barclays Premier League season

© Simon Poulter 2015
So that’s it. 2014/2015 over, more or less. Cue, then, three full months of transfer speculation and managerial rumours, interspersed with pointless pre-season friendlies, with it all heaving off again 75 days hence whilst most fans are working on their sunburn in the Mediterranean.

This has hardly been a vintage Barclays Premier League season, and I even say that as a Chelsea fan still dusting off the celery leaves after today’s victory parade.

Obviously, I’m extremely happy that the Blues won the league. Because it’s what we watch football for. I genuinely don’t care that Chelsea have at times been - like every other football team when they need to be - liberally pragmatic. I don’t care that other football fans have had the temerity to call us boring. Because we, not they, got to enjoy the carnival at Stamford Bridge yesterday and in the streets around it this lunchtime.

© Simon Poulter 2015
I know there are footballing perverts out there who ponce on about how football should be like a Borough Market artisan cheese rather than a box of easy-peal Darylea triangles, but Chelsea simply did what they had to do and those who follow them wanted them to do: win.

Not our fault if Manchesters United and City, Arsenal and, at various points, the likes of Swansea, Southampton and even, ambitiously, West Ham couldn’t mount a full challenge.

That sounds arrogant. It’s not meant to be: the reason this hasn’t been a vintage season is because in the first half no one could catch up with Chelsea, and when they had the chance in the second half, didn’t seem able to. Or bothered to.

The last word, possibly, I’ll say on Chelsea is that even if they are far from being the most popular team in the world - a status forged of a variety of self-made and tribal factors - you’d have to be terminally blinkered not to raise a hat to the tactical nous of Mourinho, the brilliance of Hazard, the inspired signings of Costa and Fabregas, and the resilience of a back four which included a John Terry written off by Rafael Benitez almost two years ago. The football writers and the players themselves have voted their acknowledgement of Chelsea’s achievements this season by awarding accolades on Mourinho and Hazard. Perhaps the boo-boys will now take respectful note.

Despite the somewhat averageness of the Premier League this season, it hasn’t gone short of bright spots elsewhere: who’d have thought that a Southampton denuded of so many of its players last summer would have remained so wonderfully competitive? Hats aloft to Ronald Koeman, that pedigreed Dutchman who, like so many of his compatriots now in management must surely fancy his chances one day at one of football’s ‘royal’ clubs.

Hats off, too, to Gary Monk, who turned on its head the idea that, as a newbie to management he would be a lamb to the slaughter. Not only that, but he also managed to hold down a part-time job as lead singer of the Kaiser Chiefs. And at risk of sounding as patronising as everyone else when praising Sean Dyche at Burnley, an honourable mention must go to the unfancied promotee who played with determination and style, and did more to deserve staying up than some who have remained.

Which leads me to Newcastle: everyone in football knows about Newcastle. Once the very essence of a football club happy enough to turn up and enjoy themselves, even to the extent that they didn’t seem to care about titles. However, the dysfunction and toxicity that has surrounded Newcastle United for too long - and it’s been fairly obvious where the blame has laid - doesn’t show any sign of abating. Which is why it brings a certain bittersweet pleasure to see Alan Pardew doing so well at Crystal Palace after just a few months in charge at Selhurst Park. And the club he left behind? Let’s just say that if you don’t get your arms around dysfunction, it will bite you on the arse, and leave teeth marks for a long time.

That, inevitably, is the cue to consider Liverpool. For all the wrong reasons, this will be a season to remember. A season when last season’s promise was never fulfilled; when last season’s heights were never repeated; when this season’s early potential, despite lacking the bite of Suarez, was exemplified by Brendan Rodgers ambitiously going for a three-striker attach of Sturridge, Sterling and the bravely acquired Balotelli, and ended so ignominiously with 6-1 hosing at Stoke City. Part of me feels genuinely sorry for Steven Gerrard’s 17-year tenure at Anfield to end so gloomily. But then ungraciously, part of me isn’t that sentimental about the miserable Scouse git.

I could go on about Liverpool, especially the misplaced sense of entitlement that still labours in and around Anfield Road (Gérard Houllier may not have been the best manager in Liverpool’s recent history, but he was spot on, 11 years ago, when he identified a lingering obsession with wanting "to go back to the '70s and ‘80s”). The tragedy of all this - and to be fair, it’s not all Rodgers’ fault - is that Liverpool has simply become a commodity, a famous name passed around like a party favour from one corporate entity to another, to the extent that no one anymore knows whether the problem lies with the owners, the club, the manager, the players (and their agents…), the fans or a combination of all of them.

Other clubs have pulled themselves out of a similar mire this season: Aston Villa, in particular, have done so simply by appointing a can-do manager. Tim Sherwood hasn’t completely turned Villa around, but he’s done enough to put smiles back on faces in Birmingham. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who doesn’t say the same thing about Sherwood - that he’s a born leader and a born communicator in equal measure, and those two factors alone are enough to suggest that he could do great things more at Villa Park. I’m a big fan of anyone who can transform club, not necessarily with a large transfer kitty, but by being able to instill - or even reinstall - a sense of purpose, pride and self-belief in a club. You can see that Sherwood has done just that at Villa, just as Pardew has done the same at Palace. We all know there have to be winners and losers, those who stay up and those who go down, but it’s always pleasing to see a manager parachute in and not only transform the playing capabilities of a club, but also its spirit.

And what of Tottenham, who unceremoniously rejected Sherwood in favour of Mauricio Pochettino? As a Chelsea fan I am permanently poised to go “Ha-ha!”, like The Simpsons’ Nelson Monte, whenever the chance arises (the same applies, in varying degrees, to Liverpool, Manchester United and Rafa Benitez).

So, I have been periodically chuckling away at Spurs pocketing 100 million euros for Gareth Bale and buying, well, basically bugger all with it. And, yet, Spurs have this season finished a decent fifth, were Capital One Cup finalists and worthy league winners at home over Arsenal and, in a brilliant performance, Chelsea. It shouldn’t be forgotten just how young this Spurs side are. When Harry Kane is considered one of the ‘older’ players at just 21, there is much to come from Tottenham, as long as its own history of corporate tinkering doesn’t get in the way again.

I promised not to go further on Chelsea, but I can’t end without mentioning the teams that should have challenged the eventual champions: first up, Manchester City. Last season’s champions were, simply, a disappointment. Chelsea may have come out of the traps like a rare gas in August, and City at least showed the intent to keep pace with them, but when given the opportunity to exploit their London rivals’ weaker post-Christmas form, as they lost Costa and Fabregas to suspension and injuries, they simply couldn’t find the gears. That Sergio Aguero’s 26 league goals earned him the Premier League Golden Boot belies the fact that behind him slouched a comparatively moribund team of title defenders. Blame will surely fall on Manuel Pellegrini - it’s not like he didn’t have the players who’d won the league just the season before. It was a genuine surprise that they failed to ignite a serious challenge this term.

No matter how much gloss is applied, City’s neighbours Manchester United can only be so-pleased with this season. It was clearly a marked improvement on the last one. United may still be a work in progress, and Louis van Gaal’s blowhard management may have returned some of the club’s missing mojo, but there was still too much rough with too little smooth. And the ludicrous pre-season splurge only really seemed to be an attempt at throwing money at the problem of man management that had clearly plagued United under David Moyes. Still, a fourth place finish and a return to Europe, with last summer’s signings having a full season to settle in could raise the potency of van Gaal’s side next term.

And while we’re on the subject of lobbing dosh about, I can’t neglect Arsenal. Not that Arsène Wenger exactly went nuts with the chequebook last summer, but by his standards, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy and (inspiringly) Danny Welbeck, on top of Ozil 12 months before, was like a Wenger remake of Brewster’s Millions by comparison. Only the most rose-tinted spectacles would suggest that this has been a season of major progress for Arsenal.

It wouldn’t be churlish to say that their season has been mediocre, even if they did end third, with Saturday’s FA Cup Final to come. The trouble with Arsenal is that we’ve been there every season for as long as I can remember. Close-but-no-cigar. Showing promise, but no product at the end of it. Even those who maintain that Arsenal are steadily growing in potency must accept that such growth has been at a tectonic speed. Yes, top three; yes, the Champions League again; yes, a shot at silverware. But, Arsenal fans, are you really where you should be? Here’s to August 8, when we start to find out, all over again.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the doghouse: Seasick Steve at Le Bataclan, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2015
Some years ago, there was a brief flurry of amusement about Big Daddy, a band that produced ‘50s doo-wop versions of contemporary songs like Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark under the pretence that they were an actual band from the late 1950s, captured during a USO tour of south-east Asia to be rescued in the 1980s to make “old versions of new songs”.

Nobody, for one moment, was taken in by the creaky plot, but that didn't interfere with the band's brief season of patronage by metropolitan musos in Britain.

A similarly arbitrary hipster fad could be attributed to Steve Wold - aka Seasick Steve, he of the colourful backstory and unlikely, late-in-life fame which came out of bemusing the pants off festival-goers with his itinerant blues traveller act.

While Wold's initial flourish of fame may have come from the semi-ironic appreciation of wigged-out Glasto punters (those who turn up for the Foo Fighters and end up digging Dolly Parton), his subsequent progress has rightfully installed him in the spectrum of performers dutifully interpreting the music of the Mississippi Delta in their own sweet way.

Of course there is some degree of caricature in Wold's stage persona: the John Deare tractor cap, the improvised guitars and a never-far bottle of something to swig from does suggest schtick to frame the whole hillbillyness of it all.

But with seven albums since 2004 and countless more festival appearances under his belt, you'd have thought the novelty would have worn off. It hasn't.

You only have to stroll down Beale Street in Memphis to Handy Park to see pretty much the same concept being relayed throughout every authentic hour of the day of that living museum of the Delta blues.

And while Memphis affords tourists a genuinely engaging nod back to Beale's origins, Wold's version of the blues traveller is increasingly playing a vital role in keeping this chapel of Americana alive.

It's hard not to mention BB King at this point. He may have become ever-more cabaret towards the end, but his status as the last of the original bluesmen, with the dirt of Southern cotton fields still beneath their fingernails, placed him at the apex of a movement keeping this vital piece of American culture alive. Clapton, Buddy Guy, Tedeschi and Trucks, the mighty Popa Chubby, and Wold are its remaining custodians, authentic patricians of blues heritage and guardians of its legacy in equal measure.

If there’s one misunderstanding about blues music, it’s that it is maudlin. True, distress of the human condition has always been a lyrical mainstay of the blues, but much of that was tongue-in-cheek. Moreover, the blues is at its most joyful when expressed with the warmth and richness that Seasick Steve applied last night at Le Bataclan, spending much of the evening grinning as widely as most of the vocal Parisian audience (“we love you Sea-sick!” hollered one beer-soaked punter, failing to see the irony of such nautical malady).

Accompanied by the thunderous drummer Dan Magnusson, Wold rattled through the 13-song, 90-minute set, getting the crowd stomping furiously from the get-go with My Donny, the bottleneck blues workout that did so much to endear him to festival crowds to begin with, before easing into Bring It On, which doffs a trucker cap to Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks (and for a former hobo, the choice of Ramble On, amongst an assortment of Led Zeppelin songs, seemed eminently appropriate to warm up the yappy crowd). Indeed, Wold makes it easy to see how the hypnotic rhythms of the Mississippi Delta had such an effect on the British Blues movement and the likes of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham.


Over the Tennessee chugging, Wold gets to talk about the places he has drifted from and to: Summertime Boy references his own West Coast history (at one time living under the roof of abusive father in Oakland) as he painted an idyllic picture of surfing off Californian beaches, and the drive north on PCH that I can personally vouch is one of the greatest, life-affirming experiences one can have. Barracuda ’68, much later in the set, casts the same effect, a seemingly effortless stomper for the ultimate road trip soundtrack.

With Walking Man, Wold strays into Bono territory by pulling a blonde from the crowd in order "to sing you a love song”. It is indeed a beautiful blues ballad, evoking a southern porch with fireflies jigging about. The warmth and tenderness of both Wold's vocal and his slide guitar never surrendered to schmaltz.

The pace is cranked back up again with Roy’s Gang, on which Wold breaks out a guitar made from a washboard and a banjo neck and played with a thimble. At this point you might question whether this is too much humility, but the earthy grind that Wold and Magnusson concoct is every bit as inventive as Jimmy Page and his violin bow, or Hendrix playing with his teeth.

© Simon Poulter 2015
With the audience now frugging in unison, Wold piles into the standard Baby, Please Don’t Go (popularised by Big Joe Wiliams, immortablised by Van Morrison’s Them), which takes the crowd along with its infectious repetition.

“Play the blues Steve!” shouts someone in a crowd noticeable for the number of plaid shirts and John Deare tractor caps. "I ain't playin' no blues, man, I'm a hillbilly!” is the response, as Wold grinds into Keep On Keepin’ On, which says everything you’ll ever need to know about Seasick Steve and his professional ethos.

After the briefest of breaks, Wold re-emerges on his own to cover John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind, a countrified ballad about life on the road, and again, another example of Wold’s delightful balance of chugging blues and a gentler take on the genre.

We end with another Seasick Steve signature, Dog House Boogie, another rousing, growling, floor-thumper that provides a consolidating demonstration of why, playing this old, weather-worn, venerable form of music, live audiences were so bowled over by Wold to begin with.

It wasn’t about his sorry tale of life on the road, of seeking out a living and sleeping in hedgrerows, it was the fact that with a guitar made out of the barest of components, Seasick Steve was able to - and continues to - demonstrate that music, proper music, isn’t created on a computer, or in a TV studio - but by soul. Simply wonderful.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mojo still working: Paul Weller's Saturns Pattern

When the late James Brown was handing himself titles like "The Godfather of Soul", "Soul Brother Number 1", "Mr. Dynamite" and "The Minister of Super-Funk" (in much the same way as Idi Amin, who made himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, Victoria Cross", and, of course, "King of Scotland") - the only sobriquet that could be questioned was "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".

Not that Brown lacked the work ethic to justify the description, but it would have been hard to prove, given that any one of a number of stand-up comedians, singer-songwriters, film and TV extras and, of course, Michael Caine, could mount a serious challenge to the description. Even the now-dear departed BB King averaged up to 300 shows a year well into his 80s.

However, we're not here to debate the industry of entertainers at large, but instead give regard to Saturns Pattern - incredibly, the 35th album to be released by or involving the current Hardest Working (or Woking) Man in Show Business, Paul Weller. Just think of that: 35 albums - including 12 under his own name post-Jam/Style Council. That is, by any stretch of the imagination, prodigious.

In 2004, though, the covers album Studio 150 suggested an easing up on the creativity. Faithful, but not particularly inspiring versions of the soul classic Wishing On A Star, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Mornng Rain and even All Along The Watchtower made many question Weller's career path at the start of his fourth decade in the business. There was talk of writer's block, tabloid whispers about his lifestyle, and sundry other diversions from what what should have been the discussion, about one of Britain's most consistent artists.

While All Is Now, featuring the delightfully rambunctious From The Floorboards Up, suggested that Weller's mojo was back, it was 2008's 22 Dreams that suggested - no, insisted - that whatever had been holding him back had been well and truly exorcised, delivering a deluge of expression, experimentation and unrestricted avante garde.

Since then, the albums have come - relatively speaking - thick and fast, each one pushing at the notions of what the so-called Modfather should be doing. Because no-one and nothing can or will dictate what Weller will commit to record.

Hippy-dippy psychedelic woozeouts? Fill yer boots. Ray Davies-nodding stompers? 'Ave some. Gentle, Laurel Canyon-esque ballads? Be our guest. Although you'd never guess it, given his famously stoney expression (which always reminds me of De Niro), the nine tracks of Saturns Pattern suggests a Paul Weller having fun. 

There is a striking ease to it: songs like Phoenix recalling long hot summer soul boy days (and Dusk Til Dawn on the Deluxe Edition brings back memories of The Style Council's Down The Seine); White Skies, the album's opener, kicks in with eviscerating guitar and distorted vocal without so much as a by-your-leave; and These City Streets harks back to the gentle white soul of Remember How We Started on Weller's solo debut, an album which, like its mega-selling follow-up Stanley Road underlined his remarkable ability to combine tone, texture and melody without either selling out to mainstream pop, while remaining totally faithful to the cause. And then there's the title track, which sups from Weller's original source, The Small Faces, with its rinkly-tinkly piano and carefree giddiness (so carefree Weller clearly wasn't bothered by the heinous titular omission of a possessive apostrophe...).

Weller doesn't stand still, and I don't just mean from the propensity of his output, but from his seemingly restless desire to expand and explore, to mix it up and try this and try that. Take In The Car... for example: bluesy acoustic guitars, bottleneck slide electric guitars - instruments you would struggle to associate with the younger Weller - are blended together with splashes of psychedelic Hammond organ, providing solid evidence that this 56 year-old (he turns 57 next Monday) refuses to adhere to any conformity of expectation.

It's always possible that Paul Weller will, one day, produce a dud. A real stinker. He could so easily descend into self-parody, or head off, Spinal Tap-like, into the realms of jazz-rock experimentation, or reinvent himself, sort of, as a Neil Young tribute act.

But on current evidence, there's little to no danger. Saturns Pattern is, like it's most recent predecessors, another solid sleeper lying across the railway line of Paul Weller's solid career trajectory. OK, a convoluted analogy, but you know what I mean. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A 99 cone please: Blur's The Magic Whip

Now, I'm not going to drag up all that Britpop brouhaha because it was 20 years ago and the world has moved on. But to hear a brand new Blur album, 13 years after their last studio release and a massive 16 years since they launched one as a fourpiece, messes with the head.

Because there is much about The Magic Whip, released last week, which seems unaged, timeless even. And yet, for the rest of us, the difference between the salad days of Britpop and now is the distance between carefree abandon and the burden of mortgages, middle-aged spread, grey hair and random bladder-related ailments.

20 years is, though, a long time in any rock band's history. Imagine how The Beatles might have sounded in 1986, twenty years on from Revolver? Would it have been, like so much of that period, a cacophany of over-production, Fairlight samples and Simmons drums? With added Jeff Lynne for good measure...

Thankfully, then, Blur have managed to bridge the decades effortlessly with The Magic Whip. It's opening track, Lonesome Street, harks back to the bop-a-long past - a chugg-a-chugg Country House rhythm coupled with Damon Albarn's maudlin take on modern life (which is rubbish, in case you weren't aware) and the mundanity of taking the "5:14 from East Grinstead". Perhaps disingenuously, it has even earned the nod of approval from one time bête noire Liam Gallagher. How times change.


In reality, so much has passed since Messrs Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree were last a recording fourpiece. Albarn has pursued polymath offshoots in Chinese opera and smartarse collaborations with street artists and old punks, Graham Coxon has honed his somewhat underrated skills as an exquisite guitar-based singer songwriter, Alex James took up being a posh farmer and Roundtree returned to his criminal legal practice.

Given all this, it was hard to predict what The Magic Whip would deliver, especially given the somewhat accidental way it came about - the result of a Hong Kong studio jam session two years ago during a tour, with Coxon resurrecting interest in the recordings at the end of last year and Albarn adding lyrics to complete the album.

Improvisation led to 13 and Think Tank - their previous studio albums - but The Magic Whip has the air of a relaxed, Sunday afternoon day-off, Coxon in particularly delivering fluid, understated guitar riffs, if aimlessly plucking out motifs while kicking back on a settee.

Picture: Facebook/Blur

The album is a mix of the joyful and the warm, contemplative and the cold, with frequent lapses into the reflective mood of Albarn's introspective Everyday Robots, released a year ago to the week. All of which gives us gems like the understated New World Towers, Thought I Was A Spaceman and the standout My Terracotta HeartOng Ong returns to singalongaBlur, while Mirroball - nothing to do with Elbow, you may like to know - is another wonderfully woozy afternoon of a song, with beautifully expressive guitar work from Coxon.

Pyongyang mixes the dystopian sparsity of Bowie and Brian Eno's Warszawa, with Albarn recalling a visit to North Korea to create, it must be said, a beautifully bleak postcard. The subject of There Are Too Many Of Us won't come as any great surprise, either - literally, too many of us "living in tiny houses" (in the country and elsewhere). Not exactly uplifting, but somehow, Albarn's hangdog outlook doesn't grate as much you'd expect.

Picture: Facebook/Blur
Lightening the mood, Ghost Ship is a playful piece of blue-eyed soul, seemingly cast in idyllic waters with James plunking away at an ice-cold glass of Chardonnay's worth of summer bass, redolent of nu-soul one-hit-wonder Omar's There's Nothing Like This.

Ice Cream Man might be comparable with the sort of whimsy of Ernold Same, The Great Escape's nod to Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, but in trying to be quirky, it tries too hard and misses. That, though is probably the only miss on the album.

While The Magic Whip throws up few real surprises, it certainly isn't the comfortable pair of mail order drawstring trousers it might easily be. Blur aren't pretending to be the the 20 years-hence version of their younger selves, even if photographic evidence doesn't suggest much of an ageing process.

But everyone - Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree contribute with an assuredness, as if returning to an artisan hobby that had been packed away under a spare upstairs bed.