Sean Choolburra and Akmal Saleh
A Bit of a Chat with Philip Glass

There’s no mess in here; there’s David Messer, and a Messiah, but no mess…

Messiah3

David Messer, from Richard Grayson Messiah, 2004 (video still)

David Messer is a regular customer at Egg Records who shares a love of the Beatles – and also the Rutles, I recently discovered. However, he has a passion for country and western and bluegrass all of his own. He has been working on a country and western version of the Messiah for the last little while and brought me in a copy knowing that I’d immediately offer him the opportunity to talk it up on air. I did even better than that: I liked the concept so much, I bought an additional copy for a family member who should go for it in much the same way as I kind of want to give it a bit of a wide berth – after all, the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord, no matter how you dress it up. But I’m impressed with the authentic-sounding country and western and bluegrass stylings. And just for the record, there is actually truth behind that vintage Blues Brothers joke, “we got both kinds of music – country and western.” Before the genres were conflated (no doubt for marketing purposes), the cowboy songs of western music were distinct and separate from the Appalachian folk songs that include southern gothic murder ballads and the ‘yugg-dugga-dugga-dugga’ banjo pickings of hillbilly country. The Midnight Amblers, (“‘Midnight Ramblers’ with a silent ‘r’,” David admits) has it all. Hopefully this will go to air in the ABC NewsRadio Music News slot on Saturday. But why wait until then? Listen to it now.

Soundbite: ‘Sinfony’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: David, how on earth did a country and western version of Handel’s Messiah come into being?

DAVID MESSER: Well the Midnight Amblers were basically a band that was playing parties and stuff like that, doing covers of old Hank Williams and Chuck Berry songs, that kind of thing. And then, just through sheer coincidence, one of the band members was friends with an artist called Richard Grayson. He asked us if we’d be interested in recording a country and western version of Handel’s Messiah as his next artwork, it being a DVD recording us performing what we had played.

Demetrius Romeo: So the actual artwork was the recording of the artwork.

DAVID MESSER: Yes. In a sense, we have become part of the artwork. The band itself is part of the artwork. This interview, I suppose, as far as he’s concerned, is still part of it.

Demetrius Romeo: how do you go about re-writing the Messiah for a country and western band?

DAVID MESSER: That was something we were wondering about at first. I wasn’t too keen on trying to do a direct cover version of Handel’s music, following all the classical arrangements, the melodies. People have tried that sort of stuff in the past with African Sanctus and the Electric PrunesMass in F minor and that sort of thing and it never quite works for me. So I asked Richard, and he said, “Just pretend you’re in a parallel universe where Handel’s music never existed, and follow the libretto,” which is by the now-forgotten Charles Jennens. The words themselves, he took them from the King James Bible and arranged them for Handel. Quite quickly, I think; in a couple of weeks. Handel himself composed it in a few weeks. So we re-arranged the libretto into a structure that would work with country and western songs – verses and choruses and so on – and basically just divided the songs amongst band members and started strumming away on our acoustic guitars, writing little country and western and bluegrass songs that happened to use the same words as Handel’s Messiah.

Soundbite: ‘There were shepherds abiding in the field’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: Okay, so you’re using the words of Handel’s Messiah. Why does Handel get a mention? Why isn’t it Charles Jennens who’s mentioned in the title?

DAVID MESSER: Well, we are traditionalists, and Charles Jennens has always been forgotten so we thought that he should stay forgotten. Also, there are a couple of tunes that take something from Handel’s music. Although that wasn’t our original intention, one band member just happened to sit down with and acoustic guitar, he just put on the CD of Handel’s Messiah, got out his guitar and worked out chords that worked with that. So you’ll find that song – I think it was the track ‘Behold A Virgin Shall Conceive’ – follows the structure of Handel’s original piece, has essentially the same melodies, except in this case, has banjo and mandolin and that kind of stuff.

Soundbite: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: I notice also that the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ makes an appearance in the country and western version.

DAVID MESSER: Yeah, we just couldn’t resist that. I mean, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ is probably the only thing that most people would recognise from the Messiah. I mean, it’s one of the most recogniseable parts of a classical piece of not just Handel, but anybody. So, you know, we needed a hookline, something that people would recognise immediately and spark their interest in the thing. It’s just a catchy tune, too. And works very well in a crazy bluegrass fashion, I suppose.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

DAVID MESSER: It just works. When you think about the kind of music we’re doing, it’s based on bluegrass and the old-time music from Kentucky and Tennessee. That goes quite well together with the religious lyrics. When you think about the kind of people who play that kind of music, they were into the Old Testament, New Testament, whatever. That’s what they were inspired by. So it does actually go quite well together in a strange kind of way, if you ignore the fact that this dead German guy was somehow involved.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: What would the next project be for the Midnight Amblers, given the success of their version of Handel’s Messiah?

DAVID MESSER: This is a very difficult question. I was having a drink with Robert Scott, who plays bass and mandolin and sings in the band, last night and I was asking him that same question and he just shook his head and said, “We’re going to be playing Handel’s Messiah for the next ten years.

Demetrius Romeo: Well, you may be playing Handel’s Messiah for the next ten years; I think we’ll listen to it for the next few minutes. David Messer, thank you very much.

DAVID MESSER: Thank you, Dom.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

The Midnight Amblers launch their version of Handel’s Messiah Sunday 19 December at the Alexandria-Erskineville Bowling Club, Fox Avenue, Erskineville, from 5 pm - 8 pm.

comments powered by Disqus