Greetings from Shippenburg PA… It looks like we’ll be lucky to find a decent restaurant in this neighborhood- live music, on a Tuesday? Highly doubtful. BUT, I tell ya what… Eight hours in the car gave my son and I a chance for some serious chat and quality listening-time. We started with Doug Hewitt’s two newer (post- Zen Cats) CD’s, critically considering how the tracks might be sequenced for best effect on the first-time listener or potential patron of such arts (venue owner). Then we listened to a brand-new, as-yet unreleased, hard-rockin’ blues album, sent to me by the artist for review at said artist’s request. Pardon my getting puffy; but it tickles me tremendously to think that I am the very first human being apart from the band and the production crew, and my son, to ever hear this music, ever! This will soon become routine and even chore-some I realize, but right now it’s really quite flattering, and an honor and a privilege. Stay tuned for more on that. We broke for lunch at Dickey’s Barbeque Pit and then resumed the ride down I-81. The second half of today’s trip was taken up with a Mike Oldfield double-disc set I had in the car from a couple of weeks ago, and oh boy was I (were we, in fact) glad that it was there… You know how a thing is just right sometimes? This package was what I call Oldfield’s “Second Set,” the stuff he recorded after those first three albums. You will remember, of course, that Tubular Bells, an extract of which was used in the soundtrack for The Exorcist, was the first side-long LP track of a career that would foreshadow New Age Music as a genre and give a sudden start to Virgin Records, the small label that would become an entire empire. Oldfield had been shopping around the demos for some months to no avail until Richard Branson took him and them in and commissioned further recording for Side Two. Following that with two more, similarly-structured LPs cemented the artist’s standing as viable and respectable (at the least); he then lay quiet for a year or two before releasing a double album with four side-long tracks, Incantations. This and the next two albums make for a tremendously engaging and entertaining listen.
When I first started on Mike Oldfield’s Virgin catalog, with a patient friend’s help in sorting through archival material and box-set bonus tracks, I found that the old albums divided up very nicely into trilogy-phases, such that Sides One would all fit on one compact disc and Sides Two on another, with just enough room for bonus tracks on each. Each double-disc compilation makes for an internally consistent set, with shifts in the artist’s development between phases held up for purview. In the case of this “Second Set” trilogy, all of Oldfield’s earlier experiments away from the initial ‘tone poem’ -type format and before his attempts to combine extended compositions with shorter, radio-friendly and Fairlight-laden 80’s vocal tracks are captured in the one collection. The differences between each of the albums are more apparent here than in the other sets, and this variation makes it that much more stimulating. 1978’s Incantations, as the name suggests, contains vocals in good measure, with beautiful chanting and chorale, and lovely singing by sister Sally Oldfield on Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” Platinum (1979) and QE2 (1980) would likely be considered transitional works, as the artist begins to move toward more mainstream sounds and shorter compositions, but placed as they are here, in counterbalance to the earlier, longer pieces with their gradually developing musical concepts, the listening experience “au-entiere” becomes variously and interestingly paced, with a wide array of moods included and all to enhanced effect.
Much could and should be said of the personnel involved in these productions, both musical and technical, as well as Oldfield’s own virtuosic and diverse instrumentation, but really… how far can we go, here? Let’s just bring up percussionists: Pierre Moerlin, Morris Pert, and Phil Collins who, even as his own double career was peaking, maintained a full schedule as a busy session player. And yes, there’s more… much more. In fact, we might have a go at Oldfield’s “Eighties Phase” tomorrow, which is possibly my favorite. Things get tight, real tight and shiny, with super-strong songwriting and vocals on top of a fairly stable band for a few years. But I also brought along my Stevie Wonder catalog- you know, his Motown releases from his artistic assertion up to Songs in the Key of Life. Classic stuff! And good education/inspiration for the capable keyboard player who is my son, Tarl.