Full confession: when I went to this concert, I had no idea who Jason Molina was and I was only interested in Ron Sexsmith because I’d been given one of his albums, played it once, liked it a lot then promptly lost it. So that was a good start.
However, alt.country gigs in southern Spanish cities like Granada, where I was living at the time, were (and probably still are) as rare as hens’ teeth. Its thriving indie rock music scene of the 1980s and 1990s, which gained the international music media’s attention when various members of The Clash briefly took up residence there, had all but shrivelled up. Equally though, some of the biggest names out there – Dylan and Springsteen among them – used to venture south of Madrid to play in cities like Granada. By the mid-2000s as the Spanish economy crumbled into its worst crisis in decades, international stars, let alone less commercially successful ones, were mostly sticking to the more well-off northern side of the country where people could still afford expensive concerts.
As a result of this serious lack of options, I’d taken to going to anything that sounded vaguely interesting and americana related, so long as it was not too expensive. As the Spanish like to say, if you don’t buy a ticket you won’t win the lottery and given a seat for this particular concert cost about eight euros (six pounds) I didn’t feel it was taking a huge punt.
So much for me. A much bigger question was why Jason Molina and Ron Sexsmith, two of alt-country’s best-known artists but – I’m hazarding an educated guess here, with an extremely limited following in Spain, somehow ended up playing a gig somewhere so far off the well-beaten concert circuit as Granada.
But after trawling through back numbers of Granada’s local papers on the internet last week, prior to writing this article, it turned out that back in 2007 or so a nameless civil servant in the Andalusian regional government’s Culture and Arts department had somehow convinced his bosses to cough up a subsidy for a travelling international music festival called Rock en el Centro – Rock in the Centre.
It’s hard to work out the exact formula from the media reports, but it seems like one week the festival would take place for three days in Andalusia’s capital city, Seville, then it did the same over the following weeks in the region’s next biggest cities, including Granada. Rock en el Centro’s only criteria for invited artists, according to Granada newspaper Ideal, was that they did not form part of the usual Andalusian pop/rock music circuit. This was definitely the case for most of June 2007’s line-up.
Prior to Molina and Sexsmith on the Saturday night, fans had already been treated to a performance on Thursday by Stuart Staples, ex-mainstay of Tindersticks, while a Seville-based alt-rock band, Southern Arts Society also, and slightly mysteriously given the criteria for invited groups also, made the grade. Then on Friday the line-up featured Arizona’s Howe Gelb, he of Giant Sand and only recently described by AUK as “an indie legend”, together with Isobel Campbell, onetime member of Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian. So the line-up was, to say the least, improbable for southern Andalusia but, for fans of off-beat music in the area, extremely welcome.
If a concert in Granada makes you think of trilling flamenco guitars in sunlit stone-paved squares, think again. With the planned city-centre venue, the Alhambra theatre, closed for repairs organisers had gone for the Teatro José Tamayo, a satellite building to a local civic centre in La Chana, one of the grimiest (and liveliest) working-class neighbourhoods in Granada, as a replacement.
This was way off the beaten track, even by Granada standards which has caves and a former sugar plantation factory as concert venues as well. Hemmed in by the Madrid-Granada railway line on one side and a pollution-choked four lane arterial highway on the other, and having briefly lived nearby, I knew only too well that La Chana was a sprawling mishmash of terraced housing and huge, ugly blocks of flats, livened up by some incredibly noisy, mostly friendly, bars. It was also a long way from the city centre, so that evening, a very hot June night, the organisers would have been pushed to get a huge crowd, and maybe a hundred people at most filed into the all-seater auditorium to hear Sexsmith and then Molina play.
The reason for giving all of this background to the concert would be to say that even if the music had been terrible, getting to an alt-country performance in such an improbable context and surroundings already ticks several boxes to make it a night to remember. But in fact, the music was spellbinding.
My initial appreciation of Rox Sexsmith’s performance was completely (and, with hindsight. unfairly) totally eclipsed by Jason Molina and his band of the time, Magnolia Electric Co. It was like nothing I’d heard before. Huge, wonderfully sculpted, slabs of crunchy electric guitar-based songs owing something to country, something to grunge rock, a little to folk, but from the first chords it was clear it wasn’t in any way designed to show off musical virtuosity for its own sake. It was more to create a kind of intensely melancholy mood music, with a heavy, but relentlessly steady rock beat at its heart. Thanks to whichever genius was running the sound system that night, the whole concert was cranked out just a few, deeply pleasurable, decibels short of ear-splittingly loud. Molina’s voice was never the strongest, but here, with his bleak lyrics floating atop these amazingly intricate yet muscular electric sound gardens, its half-busted fragility was heart-rendingly effective.
Diedhard Magnolia Electric Co. fans should probably stop reading here, but hand on heart, and I am aware how lucky I was to see Molina play given his painfully short life (and how close he was, by 2007, to stopping playing live altogether), I can’t remember the names of any particular songs from that night. I don’t recollect anything like introductions either, but from subsequent listening, I suspect he wheeled out some tracks from one of his best-known albums ‘Songs:Ohia’. There’s an interview somewhere where he says that he’d often write songs in the morning of a tour, practice and perform them with the band the same day and if they didn’t like them they’d drop them again, though, so maybe not. But in a sense, it didn’t matter. I’ve very rarely been to a concert before or since where you could lose yourself so deeply in the music itself.
Credit to where credit due, for all they were playing in a tiny, shabby theatre in one of Granada’s most neglected neighbourhoods, both Sexsmith and Molina didn’t hold back at all. We got full sets and encores, and my last memory of Molina is seeing him come down off-stage afterwards to chat and have a smoke with fans.
I have tried, kind of, to reproduce that night. I bought about half a dozen Molina albums, played them alone and at the kind of volume that would probably get you arrested in Britain for bothering the neighbours, but which rarely sparks recriminations over the metaphorical garden fence in Spain. Either way, it’s never brought back the magic. As the saying goes, you had to be there. I couldn’t have been more privileged.
Nb: Here is a live recording from the same year: