John Holbrook R.I.P.

Just got word from Woodstock of the very sad passing of Bearsville Studios legend John Holbrook, a fellow Brit whom I first met when I lived up there in the 1990s – and whom I subsequently interviewed for my Woodstock/Bearsville book Small Town Talk in 2013. This is the transcript of the great interview he gave me over lunch up in Hudson that year. There’s a particularly good Isley Brothers story in there…

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I was in a band in France, an Anglo-French band in about 1969, and the French ringleader of the group was Jean-Yves Labat, who had married a Korean-American whose mother had a summer cottage in Woodstock. She said, ‘You guys can go live in the cottage for a while’. Jean-Yves wound up washing dishes at the Bear, and everyone was going to the Bear at that point, so he met everybody. And he called me and said, ‘There’s all this stuff going on here and I’ve met Albert Grossman and Todd Rundgren, you’ve got to come over…’ So I came over, but Jean-Yves had sold me to Albert as, like, ‘the new Glyn Johns’ when I had done one recording session in my whole life! So it was a bit awkward, because they quickly realized I didn’t know what I was doing. But at least I was there.

Bearsville was running a p.a. system for artists like Todd and Butterfield, so my gig for a number of years was doing live sound for Butterfield and Utopia. That’s how I managed to hang in there. I had this sort of Spinal Tap experience of touring America with rock bands in the ’70s, and after I’d done that for a few years I came back to Woodstock and got into the studio thing.

The very first Utopia was Todd with the Sales brothers and Jean-Yves, but they never recorded. And just before that, I think, Jean-Yves did the M. Frog thing. When I came over, we did work on some of that. Jean-Yves’ personality meant that he could somehow steamroll. He got people like Todd, and Danko and Hudson, to play on the record. I don’t think anyone knew what the hell to make of him. It had nothing to do with the earthy Band aesthetic. He was there for a good few years. He’s back in France now. He went through several years of addiction and alcoholism, and he wasn’t a good drunk. Eventually he went back to France and got hooked up with some religious organization, dedicated to bringing art and religion together. He was going round Europe recording church and choral music, and that’s what he’s still doing now. He recently re-released the album we made.

You’d walk down the main street of Woodstock and there’d be bar after bar of people playing. And it seemed like there were more big-name people. You had your Jackie Lomax up there, and The Band was still there. Dylan and Van had moved on. You could go to the Joyous Lake on any night and hear amazing people – jazz people, funk people. Stuff was an amazing band. That’s where I first met Jack DeJohnette, who asked me to record a gig at the Lake. Karl Berger had his Workshop: Mike Manieri, Warren Bernardt. Carla Bley put a studio in her house in Grog Kill.

Once I came back from being on the road and started engineering, somebody would say, ‘We’re recording up at Carla Bley’s, can you come up and do that?’ And it mutated into the thing with Todd when he put his Mink Hollow thing together. Basically my life was driving from one studio to the next, but primarily I was a Bearsville employee.

I was intimidated by Albert. There seems to be a general view that he was a bit of a bastard, but he was a lot more complicated than that. He was great with kids, loved kids. You could see he wasn’t just all about being the badass rock manager. The frustrating thing was that he wouldn’t commit to anything. He wouldn’t give you a straight answer. It was always like, ‘Well, you know, we’ll have to just see… I don’t know, y’know?’ At first I was like the junior guy, but as time went on I kind of expanded my role and went on to produce several albums on the label, including my own Bryan Briggs stuff.

Around 1979 we got so tired of being in the claustrophobic Studio B. Here they were in the middle of a forest, and they didn’t even put a skylight or a window in. Studio A was basically a concrete shell that Albert was using as a storage space for restaurant furniture and other stuff.We had already done Randy’s second album, recording it in Vermont and mixing it in New York, and Albert said, ‘Why aren’t they using my studio?’ So I think he was amenable and said, ‘Okay, I’ll move my stuff’. The acoustics of Studio A became legendary, and I was partially responsible for it because I had read some textbooks on acoustic treatment. Somebody said, ‘What about packing blankets?’ So literally a truck full of packing blankets showed up one day and we hung them up piecemeal on the wall. Within a few days Paul Cypert put in these diffusion things I had designed on a napkin, sort of like a boat, and it was just luck that it worked out good.

There were two guys who had a remote truck: Aaron Baron, David’s dad, and Larry Dalstrom, who I think had put together the original board for Studio B.

I did three albums with the Isley Brothers. At that point I said, ‘I’d like to get a bit more of the action’. Forget it, it was a brick wall. You’re dealing with a family business, and you’re not family. Mark McKenna took the reins for the next album or two. I think they liked Bearsville because they could doodle around and nobody would be any the wiser. Another reason was that they had a winter cabin further upstate someplace they could go shoot their guns. I seem to remember Storyk bringing them up. They were always five hours late. First time we worked with them, we got there at noon and set things up, and eventually seven at night they showed up. The three young guys were the rhythm and they had worked out the tunes. So we would record with them and get the basic tracks, and then the older brothers would come in and argue and mess around the lyrics, and then Ronald would sing and they’d do some backups. At times it got pretty heated within the family, and they’d be yelling at each other. They were big scary guys. Rudy was the giant and kind of intimidating; I was never quite sure what he was even really doing there. Over the course of time we noticed that he had this briefcase and would occasionally flip it open. And once we saw that there was a shiny revolver in there. We said, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ And we’d heard a story through the grapevine that Bob Margouleff had done something to piss Rudy off, and the gun had come out. So it was like, ‘Woah, that’s the gun!’ So one time they’re working at Bearsville and there’s a big family row, and we can see them really going at it. And then we see Rudy storming into the control room and going for the briefcase. And he opens it and takes out… a cassette!

It was a great experience for me too, because I always had one foot in the R&B thing. It was in the same period as Parliament-Funkadelic, so there was that polyrhythmic funk between the drums, the popping bass, and the guitar and keyboard parts, and it was interesting to see what they went for. [Interesting white material…] For me the thing was to keep the impact of the rhythmic attack, so my approach was to keep everything super-clean so you didn’t get mush. It even went as far as discovering that the input channels on the Bearsville board were not so clean. We realized we got more impact running the mics through an outboard thing.

Butterfield was obviously a great player, but he was a bit of a handful. It was that period where Albert was doing stuff with Willie Mitchell. They’d record the stuff down there but we’d end up mixing it up here. There was also a Butterfield album produced by Henry Glover that I engineered. I think it was Mark Harman that produced the Muddy album. I did go on the road with the Better Days band, at least for one tour. Amos Garrett was an amazing player. Butter could be quite annoying. It was sad because he just didn’t take care of himself physically. He lived on Coca-Cola, tequila and potato chips. I think he got a hole in his stomach. I remember going to see him in hospital in New York, and it was just depressing. There was nothing anyone could do at that point.

We recorded part of the last Band tour, at the Academy of Music in New York, with a simultaneous FM broadcast.

The Woodstock Mountains Revue. When we figured how many people were going to be there, we put out a circle of chairs with a mic for every chair. But in the course of a few hours, mics and chairs got moved and as I went to each fader I realized it didn’t correspond anymore. Artie and I used to joke that we could part of the new thing – the Cyber-Folk Movement! They were all good players. I did an album with Sebastian that John Hall produced.

I didn’t know that much about Todd, though I’d heard things on the radio. When I first met him, he was doing overdubs on Something/Anything? in Studio B. Jean-Yves brought me in. Turned out what he was recording was that “Sounds of the studio” thing. Subsequent to that I think was probably on the road, though there were a few things he was producing at Bearsville, like Patti Smith. On tour the first time, I travelled with the crew. Second time I went with the band. Susan Lee was running the show, Bebe was around. Todd must have gotten Mink Hollow by this point. I got along with him okay, but I never had any big conversations or a deep friendship with him. With some people he could be quite cutting and sarcastic. When Moogy was in the band, he was the butt of everybody’s jokes. I remember talking briefly to a couple of the Psychedelic Furs and they were like, ‘That fucking guy, we’re never going to work with him again’. With Todd it was like, ‘That fucking sucks, let me do it’. The [Utopia] crew had t-shirts made up that said, ‘Fear and Loathing in Utopia’.

Utopia obviously wasn’t a commercial proposition. The albums weren’t flying off the shelves.

Albert still kept his hand on the tiller. He’d say, ‘Why are we working with this act?’, and he had people like the Paul Fishkins and Ian Kimmets who could answer that question.

I think Albert managed to put the whole studio together with his Ampex deal, when they thought they were going to get into the record business, and when they still had money. ‘OPM’ – ‘Other People’s Money’ – was a sort of mantra to him. So he maintained an interest, especially in things that were happening in the studio. He liked to be able to drop in and say, ‘Everything okay?’ [Keeping a paternal eye on things…] But there was more concern about decoration for the restaurants: ‘Do we have the right lights?’

The stuff that I produced was a weird mixture of things: my own Brian Briggs records, Randy Van Warmer, Nicole Wills – who was one of the gang from Woodstock and had a nice voice, but the record was a little bit saccharine – and some mixing for Tony Wilson and the Willie Mitchell stuff. Ian and I went down to Memphis, but I can’t remember what we went there for…

Re: Randy – Albert would have said, “Well, I dunno, y’know? But if you think he’s good…”

Randy was a funny guy, with a great dark sense of humour – which was good, because otherwise the music would have been too sweet.

I think Suzy Blosser is still in Nashville.

Nick Jamieson [sp?] was the one that made Foghat happen. The sound on those records was all him. They sold more records than Todd.

Vinnie Fusco was a character. All of a sudden he was on the Bearsville scene. He was a brash salesman kind of a guy.

[Story about Joplin’s siblings turning up to get Janis’ Porsche.] I actually worked with the Full Tilt guys. We had this rhythm section for a minute consisting of me, Richard Bell, Billy Mundi, Roly Salley, who’s been playing with Chris Isaak for years. We thought we could be an in-house rhythm section, but all we ended up doing was some songwriting demos for someone. Richard was a great guy. I get Facebook things occasionally from his ex, Susan.

Sally was always in India or Mexico. In the wintertime she found any excuse to go somewhere warm. They had a place in Mexico, and I think they had a place in Palm Springs.

Albert would go and see boxing with Barry Feinstein. There was this group of regulars at the Bear Café, some pretty shady characters. In those days there were lots of trips to the bathroom for mysterious purposes. I had my brush with that. It was hard to avoid. When the Stones came to rehearse, they were producing Peter Tosh – which I worked on. So we were recording Tosh in Studio B while the Stones were rehearsing in Studio A. We had to bring in extra woofers so we could get more bass in the studio. They had an expression: ‘Maximum bass at all frequencies.’ Mick and Keith would stick their heads round the door, since they were nominally producing Tosh’s album. At one point Keith came in with a big bottle of pharmaceutical cocaine and dumped a little mountain of it on the table. ”Ere, that’ll keep you going…’ The rastas weren’t too keen, though. They didn’t really approve.

There was a lot of rich French food. I remember going with Albert to the Bearsville market, and he buys a Sarah Lee Pound Cake from the freezer. And he said, ‘You have to eat it while it’s still cold’. So he took it back to the office to eat it.

As far as I remember I got there in 1973, though I had a pre-visit in ’72. And I was there through ’80-’81 and then moved to the city for the ’80s. And then early ’90s I got married and moved up to Stuyvesant, and now we’re not far from here in Hudson. Brian Briggs came out in 1978. The saving grace of the ’80s for me was TV-commercial gigs, when I made really good money until I couldn’t stand it anymore. When I moved back up here, you couldn’t send mixes by email so I had to overnight things to people, which meant other guys had an advantage. Also, I was not that into it.

The late Milton Glaser on Woodstock, N.Y.

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I WAS SAD to read of the passing of the great Milton Glaser, even if he had reached the august age of 91. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview for my Woodstock/Bearsville book Small Town Talk, so I thought I’d post the salient quotes I extracted from our conversation back in 2013. He was a lovely man and had some valuable insider insights into that “strange man” Albert Grossman

“Woodstock always had a kind of modest cultural history. It had a population of modest artists, some more credible than others. In those days the artist colony was a glamorous thing, but only at a distance. As you got up close it was just like any other poor town in the Catskills.

“We started going up there because it was a cheap place to go and because there were occasional art galleries and things to see. We first went up about fifty years ago, mid-to-late ’50s. We stayed with friends who’d bought a barn, and we used to sleep in the corncrib. It was always an attractive place that never quite got chic, for reasons that we didn’t fully understand. It was the kind of anti-Hamptons. Certain people at the extremities of the arts felt an affinity for the place and would go up there, but it hadn’t quite coalesced into anything discernible.

“We used to drive up in a little yellow Volkswagen. We started renting over the summer for a couple of years, and then one year I tried to see if we could operate the studio from Woodstock. Push-Pen Studios. There’s even a picture of us somewhere. And then a year or so later we found our present house on Lewis Hollow Road, which we bought for $18,000. And it came with 80 acres of land, but the land was considered so worthless in those days. It had belonged to an artist named Bruno Zinn [Zimm?] The area was known for having rattlesnakes, so no one wanted to be up there. Friends would come up from the city. Most of our friends were weekenders. This kid in the local supermarket told Shirley about the Striebel house, and we didn’t know a single person that had $50,000 except for Albert [Grossman].

“Albert had seen or heard of my work, and he called and asked if I would do some work for him. The first thing he did was ask us if we would like to go to a concert in a club. He had just spoken to a group that he was considering putting together, and he wanted our opinion. So Shirley and I went to the Café Wha?, I think, and it was Peter Paul & Mary’s first appearance, and shortly after he signed them as a group. Peter moved into the same building where we lived on West 67th Street. And then we started working regularly for Albert. We got to know The Band and Janis.

“Albert was a strange man, but I genuinely liked him and we had a very intimate relationship compared to most professional relationships. He was a curious mixture of aggression and shyness. In some cases he was so withdrawn, and in other cases he would just bully people into submission. Sometimes when people come from Chicago they feel very intimated by New York, and with him there was certainly a kind of estrangement. He was not adept at social occasions, even though he was always in the midst of hundreds of people and organizing things.

“Shirley also heard about the house that Dylan bought on Camelot Road, so you might say she’s totally responsible for everything that happened to Woodstock.

“We drove up to Woodstock on the night the festival began, and there were at least fifty people walking up Mill Hill Road looking for the festival site.

“Albert started the Bear, which is still one of the few decent places to eat anywhere in that area.

“It’s interesting that the town never became self-conscious about the musical component, or about the fact that so many famous musicians of the time were there either regularly or from time to time. There was no sort of cool place to be, no gathering spots, unlike in the Hamptons. The town is very dissipated. You can live in that town without knowing anyone. There’s no social scene of any kind, no group of cool people. There were all these artists, but they always lived at the extremities and they were there because it was so cheap and they were not part of regular events that were occurring. There was no sense of a weekend calendar like you had in the Hamptons. That’s what has saved the place for us – that there’s nothing to see and nothing to do! It was a place where people could do their work, as opposed to benefiting from your notoriety and money wanting to be part of a visible community for whatever egocentric or financial gain there was. Also, there was no class distinction. If you had money it was irrelevant because there was no way to display it. If you had a big car you kept it outside like everybody else. Most people went there to disappear, and that’s why we went there. Something preserved that town so that it was never really transformed.

“Albert was essentially reclusive. He came up to disappear too. Every once in a while, he used the house to entertain, but mostly he used it to isolate himself. Of course, he was carrying out some business, because a lot of people like The Band were up there.

“John Court would often come by this office with something Albert had given him to bring.

“I was always very touched by Albert, partly because he always had this reputation of being a tough guy and a big power in the music world, whereas on a personal level he was always very kind and sweet to me.

“I did albums after albums, and some nice work that I’m pleased with.

“Albert had no direct reason why he would be interested in Bearsville, outside of the fact that people often called him bear-like. The fact that the Bear still exists, and that the theatre was built, is really impressive. As a place, neither the restaurant nor the theatre are really appreciated.

“There was a period in the artistic community where hard drinking and that kind of ruffian-like artist behavior existed, but it sort of disappeared.

“There’s still an unspoiled bucolic sweetness about the place. We always compare it to our friends in the Hamptons who are busy all the time and where the idea of a protective enclave doesn’t exist anymore. I think that’s one of the reasons Albert went there. He hated that kind of social activity, it wasn’t natural for him. And he was not impressed by people who had a lot of money.”

A long conversation about The Band

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Calling all Band fans (I know there are a few of you out there). A smart young guy named Matt Lodato asked me some great questions about Robbie, Levon, Garth, Rick & Richard… and we ended up having a pretty cool conversation. This is it...

Bearsville 1971

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From my Small Town Talk:

Less supportive [of Todd Rundgren] by this point was Michael Friedman, who was nurturing a new Bearsville artist named Jesse Frederick. “Todd didn’t appreciate anything, and I’d really stuck my neck out for him,” Friedman says. “I think he felt that I’d deserted him for Jesse, but I stopped being interested because he was pissing people off and I was putting my name on it. He was a good engineer, but I preferred John Simon’s productions. With Todd, everything was sort of molded after the Who and the British sound, which was a much harsher sound than the funky Southern blues style the Grossman artists were involved with.”

More appreciative than Rundgren, Frederick moved into Friedman’s house in Shady and began rehearsing for an album made at the same Nashville studio where Great Speckled Bird had been recorded. 1971’s Jesse Frederick—rootsier and more soulful than The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, though hardly as original—was the first Bearsville album released under the label’s new Warners deal, while the second was a soft-rock effort by three long-haired Christians calling themselves Lazarus, produced at Bearsville by Peter Yarrow.

The third in the Reprise 2000 series—not counting reissues of Rundgren’s first two albums and of Jesse Winchester—was by eccentric Los Angeles duo Halfnelson, produced by Rundgren after he’d been introduced to them by Miss Christine. When Grossman suggested they rename themselves the Sparks Brothers, Ron and Russ Mael reluctantly compromised on Sparks, though success only arrived when they later signed to Island in London.[1]

[1] Following the 1971 release of Halfnelson, Miss Christine left Rundgren for Russ Mael, the more conventionally handsome of the two Maels. She was the subject of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ unflattering “Christine’s Tune’ and a member of Frank Zappa’s protégées/nannies/groupies Girls Together Outrageously. In November 1972 she died of a heroin overdose.

John Niven’s Band classic: A foreword

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Bloomsbury are publishing a new edition of John Niven’s brilliant 33 1/3 novella about The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink. I was very honoured by John’s asking me to write a foreword for it. Here it is…

THE FACT THAT John Niven was just two years old in 1968 – the year in which The Band’s Music from Big Pink was released – only makes his 2005 novella about the album’s inception and germination the more remarkable.

As someone who’d not only been obsessed by The Band since 1973 but had moved a young family to Woodstock largely on the strength of that obsession, I read Niven’s boldly unorthodox contribution to the excellent 33 1/3 series in a state of mesmerized disbelief that a thirtysomething Scotsman could, with such uncanny accuracy, catch the heady geist of that late ’60s zeit.

It was as if the former Wishing Stone – and future author of the caustic Kill Your Friends, the bestselling novel about his coke-crazed days as a London A&R man – had time-travelled back to Woodstock’s Tinker Street and infiltrated the “scene” that coalesced around the demurring Bob Dylan and his musical henchmen the Hawks. What supernatural deal had he struck to pull this off, and which literary devil had he struck it with?

A prosaic answer would point to the telling of The Band’s near-tragic story through the eyes and ears of drug dealer Greg Keltner. This device instantly demystified the curated sainthood of the Hawks/Band as forefathers of back-to-the-land Americana – mystic bumpkins with Homburgs and mandolins. From the moment we first meet Rick (Danko) and Richard (Manuel) in Niven’s story, there’s no mistaking their priorities: drugs, girls, and music, in that order. Which takes nothing whatever away from the magical music they made.

Keltner, who hails from Ontario like four-fifths of the Hawks/Band, is a somewhat feckless but endearingly poetic soul. True, he scores his dope from “Fifth Floor Dave” in the scuzzy East Village, but he quickly gets the point of Woodstock, the tiny Catskills town to which so many dropout boys and girls are beating a path in the summer of 1967. He also gets the point of the Hawks/Band, responding sensitively and meaningfully to the lovely songs he hears in the squat West Saugerties box known as Big Pink – as he does, still more incredulously, to the soulful woe and funky exhilaration of Music from Big Pink itself.

Keltner may be a rock’n’roll parasite but he is not a heinous dude. Plus we know he’s going to wind up broken and desolate in 1986, the year of Richard Manuel’s wretched death. The loose stoner flow of his narrating voice is the perfect medium for depicting the unsteadiness of Woodstock’s bucolic dysfunction in that 1967-69 period, hinting strongly as it does at Niven’s saturation in the more gonzoid strains of 20th Century American prose from the Beats to Pynchon to the so-called “Noise Boys” (Bangs, Tosches, Meltzer) of ’70s rock journalism – and snaring the disorienting vibe of a time and place in which everyday hedonism is evolving a little too rapidly.

I have no idea whether Rick or Richard would have recognized their lives in these pages, but then nor do I have any idea whether Robbie or Levon or Garth even read Niven’s novella. I do know that Greil Marcus, whose chapter about them in his sacred Mystery Train (1975) framed and explained most of what I felt about The Band, was as astonished by the book as I was, rightly acclaiming it as “an amazing piece of work”.

Keltner, in a sense, speaks for every besotted Band fan as he seeks to understand how these five men – these musical brothers – transcended their rather quotidian apprenticeship with Ronnie Hawkins to craft two of the most special records made in the name of “rock”. Espousing half-hearted songwriting aspirations of his own, Greg swiftly abandons them on hearing an acetate of Music from Big Pink. Like Al Kooper and Al Aronowitz in their early Rolling Stone pieces about them – and like the group’s entranced British disciples Eric Clapton and George Harrison – he understands instinctively that The Band has tapped into something altogether deeper than rock bombast or singer-songwriter over-sensitivity. “Now I knew, I really knew,” he confesses, “that Richard – and Rick, Levon, Robbie, Garth – they were a different order of human being from me.”

If there’s something Zelig-like about the novella’s serendipities – the chance encounters with Dylan, his crony Bob Neuwirth and his manager Albert Grossman, even with Lou Reed – they permit perfect cameos from these enigmatic characters. The drawling Arkansas poetry of Levon Helm’s speaking voice is expertly replicated; so is the aloof coolness of guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson. There’s also the gauzy presence of love interest Skye, a bewitching sprite who distils the appeal of so many liberated late ’60s girls – and who is bedded by the insatiable Rick before Greg can even get near her.

It should be no great surprise that Niven’s next work of “fiction” was the lacerating black comedy of Kill Your Friends. Certainly he was under no illusion that late ’60s Woodstock represented any kind of valid countercultural utopia.

“It seems to me it went fairly quickly from being the hippest place you could go to being almost Touristville,” he said when I talked to him for my Woodstock/Bearsville history Small Town Talk (2016). “It was already becoming a caricature of what it had been. A lot of the people were quite troubled, so there was this notion that ‘If I put myself in some kind of bucolic surrounding, things will get better’. But changing your locale doesn’t change what’s going on inside you.”

Yet Niven’s remarkable book is a testament to the fact that Woodstock’s “locale” did change the Hawks/Band – just as it profoundly altered the course of North American music.

Small Town Talking in the Black Country

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“Popular rock author set for talk at Bewdley Book Week” (Weds. 6th Sept)

Yes, I’ve finally made it into the pages of the Redditch Advertiser! So it’s been worth all the aggravation… especially if you’re in the area and want to toddle along to the RIVERSIDE CHURCH HALL in Bewdley (England) next Weds 6th Sept at 7.30 pm and hear me small-town-talking about Woodstock/Bearsville/Dylan/Bobby Charles (and, yes, local heroes Led Zeppelin too).

Three festival readings this summer

THREE DATES for your diary, if you happen to be in the relevant vicinities:

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• I’ll be discussing Never Enough: A Way through Addiction at the Margate Bookie (Turner Contemporary) on Saturday 19 August at 2.0 pm.

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• I’ll be Small Town Talk-ing about Woodstock, New York, and about Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bobby Charles, Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman, Karen Dalton and the whole gang at Bewdley Book Week (Riverside Elim) on Wednesday 6 September at 7.30 pm.

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• I’ll be returning to the theme of Never Enough (while also Small Town Talk-ing) at the Appledore Book Festival (St. Mary’s Hall) on Sunday 24th September at 8.30 pm.