Monday, July 22, 2019

Porretta Soul Festival - Rufus Thomas Park, Porretta Terme, 18 July 2019

It’s one in the morning in Rufus Thomas Park, the open air amphitheatre in Porretta Terme that’s home to the Porretta Soul Festival, and Don Bryant is just about done for the night. The 77 year old, possibly best known for co-writing hits like ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ for his wife Ann Peebles, is winding up the opening night of the festival with an energetic set of classic soul, backed by Memphis stalwarts the Bo-Keys.  And the crowd are lapping it up.
On one level, Don Bryant is just a little ol’ fella whose knees and hips are maybe a bit
Natty dressers Don Bryant and Hubby Turner
rickety nowadays.  But put him onstage with a band who know their soul stuff, and he has an immediate impact, strutting his stuff in a floral jacket and natty white hat, and working the crowd as he belts out ‘Nickel And A Nail’ with an authentic soul voice. Right out of the gate there’s dancing going on either side of the stage, and it doesn’t let up when Bryant and co follow up with the driving funkiness of the upbeat ‘Set My Soul On Fire’.
Even these crackers are eclipsed by ‘I Got To Know’ though, first released on his 2017 album Don’t Give Up On Love but a classic slice of Sixties soul, with a swaggering guitar solo from Joe Restivo, and great harmonies from some of the Bo-Keys.  Then on ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, written by Bryant’s mentor Willie Mitchell, ‘Hubby’ Turner rips out a blinding organ solo that seems to send drummer Pee Wee Jackson – who often seems to have a curiously alarmed expression - into a happy place.  The fact that Turner was part of the legendary Hi Records rhythm section in Memphis, recording with the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, is a key indicator of the pedigree of this band – and at 73 years old he cuts an impressive figure, dapper in his suit and fedora as he stands at his keyboards.
They go on to knock out ’99 Pounds’, the upbeat hit Bryant wrote for Peebles, while Bryant also finds time to produce a Howlin’ Wolf impersonation that’s improbably good given his stature, while Turner gets busy on organ again, and Jackson has some fun rattling around his kit.  And at the end of the set Bryant receives a portrait of himself in recognition of his work, indicative of the love felt for old soul legends in these parts.
Bryant’s set is preceded by the Bo-Keys (minus Tuner on Keys) backing Scott Sharrard,
Scott Sharrard revs up the R'n'B with Pee Wee Jackson
one-time lead guitarist and musical director for Greg Allman, with whom Bo-Keys trumpeter Mark Franklin and sax man Kirk Smothers also played.  They duly open up with a Sharrard song recorded by Greg Allman, ‘Love Like Kerosene’, a danceable chunk of Memphis-style R’n’B on which Sharrard whips out a cracking solo that seems to race with the vibrant bass of Scott Bomar and Jackson’s drums, while Franklin and Smothers beef up the sound with their horns.
Sharrard delivers a enjoyably varied set, ranging from the funky soul with blues roots of ‘Everything A Good Man Needs’, on which he produces a nimble and skittish finger-picked slide solo, to the dreamy soul a la Al Green of ‘Words Can’t Say’, with Sharrard essaying some tasteful falsetto vocals.  ‘High Cost Of Loving You’, from his 2018 album Saving Grace, is a swinging thing, punctuated by the horns and with a great sax solo from Smothers to fit alongside Sharrard’s own biting solo, and some serious kit pounding from Jackson.
Sharrard closes with the Memphis classic ‘Precious Precious’, on which Turner appears to join his Bo-Keys compadres and deliver some swinging piano and organ.  It’s an enjoyable end to a strong set, at its best to these ears when Sharrard veered to R’n’B with his guitar a key component. All the same, it’s noticeable that when the Bo-Keys put aside the music stands for the arrival of Don Bryant, their playing acquires a more natural zip.
Re:Funk play their trump card - special guest Pee Wee Ellis
Earlier on, Switzerland’s Re:Funk got in a polished groove with a brand of soul-funk that often brought to mind the Average White Band, not least on ‘Show Us What You Got’. They’re a tight nine-piece outfit, capable of pulling off a stuttering dance rhythm with ease, crisp drumming from band leader Dario Milan providing the base for some Stevie Wonder-ish clavinet from Luca Fraula and a fluid guitar solo from Mad Mantello, while Maqs Rossi
provides energetic lead vocals.  ‘Roxette’ is neither the first nor the last big fat groove they deliver, with the rhythm section lock-tight and Francesca Morandi’s bass bubbling busily, while their fun horn trio do their thang.
Re:Funk also have a trump card, in the form of special guest Pee Wee Ellis, the sax player who came up with ‘Cold Sweat’ for James Brown.  And with Ellis safely ensconced front and centre they’re all set to, as the song puts it, have a funky good time.  Ellis’s ‘Chicken’, a piece recorded by Jaco Pastorius among others, is a veritable horn fiesta, Pee Wee showing he’s still got it on his solo in combination with the Re:Funk horn section, complemented by a simpatico organ solo over great drumming and counter-punching bass.
Their bumping and grinding take on ‘Cold Sweat’ is right on the money, and they close with ‘I Feel Good’, much to the satisfaction of the audience.  And just for good measure, Pee Wee is presented with a lifetime achievement award, reflecting his stature. 
Opening the night were Sweethearts, a troupe of schoolgirls from Geelong in Australia,
Aussie Sweethearts get into a 'Cold Sweat' with Pee Wee Ellis
aged between 13 and 16 years old.  This is the sixth time that a Sweethearts party has visited Porretta, and it’s clear that they’re worth the invite.  With over 20 girls in the company, there can be up to 19 of them onstage at any one time, including 3 backing singers, drums, percussion, two guitars, keys, and – wait for it – six saxophones!  Unsurprisingly, they create a big sound on Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher And Higher’, and continue to impress as they work their way through a succession of classic covers, a variety of vocalists doing justice to the likes of ‘Shake’ and ‘Mr(s) Pitiful’ – and they do shake the house, especially on ‘Kind Of Girl You Can’t Handle’ (I think), with its choppy rhythm and controlled wah-wah solo.
They get a bit of a leg-up mind you, when Pee Wee Ellis comes on to guest on, yes, ‘Cold Sweat’. They cook it up nicely, and what a thrill it must be for two of the sax players to trade licks with the big man, which they do with gusto.
They close with a belting take on ‘Soul Finger’, segueing via a ‘Peter Gunn’ riff into an equally strong reading of Etta James’ ‘Tell Mama’, and receive warm applause for an impressive exercise in sisters doin’ it for themselves.

You can watch the full 18 July show from the Porretta Soul Festival here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Allman Betts Band - Down To The River

Heritage and ancestry are double-edged swords.  They can bring name recognition, but also the burden of expectation.  You can be nurtured by the reflected glory from a famous parent – or you can struggle to emerge from the shadow they cast. 
It might not always be easy, being Devon Allman or Duane Betts.  Right now though, may well be among the better times, because Down To The River is a pretty damn good album.
The seeds of The Allman Betts Band were sewn in the coming together of Allman and Betts for the tribute concert the former organised for his late father, Greg, and were then cultivated when Betts went on the road as support act to the Devon Allman Project. New material began to emerge from their association, with additional input from songwriter Stoll Vaughn.  And having recruited a few other honchos to the band, they installed themselves in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios for a week, with producer Matt Ross-Spang and a couple of guests, and proceeded to come up with Down To The River.  Easy, really.  And did I mention that it’s pretty damn good?
The Allman Betts Band - clearly bassist Berry Duane Oakley has a different stylist
The album is suspended from two impressively tall tent poles, in the form of ‘Autumn Breeze’, the fifth of the nine tracks and the centrepiece, and ‘Long Gone’, which is a fittingly strong note on which to close matters.  ‘Autumn Breeze’ is a suitably evocative title for a slowish affair that begins with guitars and drums circling, looking for an opening, before gathering up strands of acoustic, electric and slide guitars, over swells of organ from Peter Levin (one of the guests), push-pull bass from Berry Duane Oakley (son of Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley), and minimalist drums from John Lum.  The result is a patiently developed tapestry that’s the backdrop for the best of Duane Betts’ vocals on the album, and which is first lit up by a quintessentially Allman Brothers-like guitar harmony passage, and then further embroidered by a very good extended solo, I’m guessing also from Betts.  ‘Long Gone’ is a similarly slow song, producing an archetypal Southern rock epic of a finale.  With both Allman and Betts contributing vocals, it has an air of Drive-By Truckers as it progresses in dynamic fashion, halting at an acoustic guitar passage before setting off again en route to another quality guitar solo with Celtic hints probably rooted in the mists of time, and occasional shooting stars of slide crossing its horizon.
But if those songs are the twin peaks, there are other pleasures too.  Opener ‘All Night’ makes for a strong calling card, with a ringing riff that gets embroidered in a higher pitch, over strutting beat and bubbling bass, before a declining motif leads into a classically sweet Southern solo before mounting drums and guitars crash through.  There’s more of those ‘Jessica’-like guitar harmonies on both ‘Shining’ and ‘Try’, and very nicely done they are too, and the former is also peppered by slide fills to good effect, leading to another solo of quality. In fact slide guitar decorates much of the album in style, and if it’s not the work of either Allman or Betts then the credit is due to fellow guitarist Johnny Stachela, recruited from the Devon Allman Project and by all accounts a slide player of note.
The title track works well too, acoustic guitar and bobbing bass creating a laid back vibe, accented by chiming chords again over restrained drums, with good vocal delivery from Allman and a measured, sparkling solo from one or other of the guitar pickers, ahead of nicely judged long fade.  And ‘Southern Accents’ brings some variety with its piano foundation, courtesy of the guesting Chuck Leavell, its simplicity and more of those slide accents, which are more satisfying than the lyric – “Young ‘uns call it country, Yankees call it dumb/ I got my own way of talking, where everything is done/ With a Southern accent/ Where I come from.”  Sentimental schmaltz is the phrase that springs to mind.
But such transgressions are few, and if ‘Melodies Are Memories’ is borderline country filler I’ll forgive that too.  Down To The River may simply be new growth from an old vine, but on the whole it is, like I said, pretty damn good.

The Allman Betts Band are touring Europe until 3 August.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Robert Randolph & The Family Band - Brighter Days

The Staple Singers. Fantastic Negrito.  Pink Floyd.  The Black Keys.  These are not, as a rule, names you might associate with pedal steel guitar.  Pedal steel guitar is not, come to that, an instrument for which I usually have much of a hankering – its sickly sweet, swooning contribution to a heap of country music lingers in the mind.
In the hands of Robert Randolph however, pedal steel guitar becomes a whole different proposition. For one thing, he ain’t no proponent of the schmaltzy Nashville sound, he’s a black guy who took up pedal steel because of its use in gospel music.  And for another, he plays that thing like he’s a modern day guitar slinger, pedal board and all.
Robert Randolph - just a sedate young pedal steel player
So if The Black Keys had been in the mood to add pedal steel to the mix for a song on their latest, guitar-driven album ‘Let’s Rock’, for instance, there’s every chance it might have turned out sounding like the opening track on Brighter Days, ‘Baptise Me’.  It’s a big, chunky soul/gospel sound, with a vaguely retro riff, great gospel backing vocals, funky bass – and Randolph’s weapon of choice squealing away like Dan Auerbach has just unearthed some new effects pedal.
There’s a heavy gospel angle to the following ‘Don’t Fight It’ too, a stop-start choon that combines passages of ra-ra-rapido rhythm with slower, anthemic sections of “Na na a na” vocals that drag it into some kind of less screwed up Negrito-ish domain.  Not sure what the business about “If you want some lovin’ take the biscuits in the oven” in the middle eight is all about, but whatever, it packs a whole heap of energy into three and a half minutes. There’s a Negrito undercurrent to ‘Second Hand Man’ too, with a hip hop sensibility to Marcus Randolph’s drums – and a second hand piano motif that recalls Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘It’s Your Thing’, while Danyel Morgan’s bass alternates between deep groove and syncopation, and Randolph chucks in handfuls of squelchy licks.
Bearing in mind the gospel roots, it’s scarcely surprising to find echoes of The Staple Singers, and sure enough they’re there in ‘Simple Man’, ‘Have Mercy’ and ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’.  ‘Simple Man’ is a Staples cover, and a slowie with a good tune, but this is an instance where the ‘sacred’ nature of the lyrics eventually leaves me cold.  “Watch where you’re going, remember where you’ve been” is an okay line, but when Randolph comes out with “Tell you what’s wrong with the world today, people done gone and put their Bible away”, I head for the secular hills.  ‘Have Mercy’ though, is a cracking soulful affair with marvellous ensemble vocals, and Randolph producing a reflective, Dave Gilmour-like intro over chiming piano chords.  And ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’ is something different, a great little song with a tough, assertive sound that brings to mind ‘Respect Yourself’, and a slithering, sliding bobsleigh ride of a solo from Randolph.
It's a Family Band affair
There are a couple of lightweight moments in the fuzzy, helter skelter ‘Cut Em Loose’ and the smooth, Commodores-like ‘I Need You’.  But there are two other peaks to compensate, in the forms of ‘Cry Over Me’ and the closing ‘Strange Train’ respectively.
‘Cry Over Me’ opens with weeping pedal steel tones from Randolph, bluesy and soulful, as a prelude to a terrific vocal from his sister Lenesha Randolph, delivering a classy melody. And then it takes off, with soaring, choral harmonies aspiring to anthemic levels, until delicate piano lays the foundations for Randolph to deliver an exemplary, ‘Layla’-esque solo. ‘Strange Train’, meanwhile, closes the album in boisterous fashion, with a rattling bluesy riff from Randolph, and rhythmic “Hey you” vocals creating a shoutalong refrain if I ever heard one. There are bursts of speeded up Bo Diddley drums, and a neatly funky slow section, before it bolts for the finish in runaway fashion.
Full credit to Randolph and the Family Band for delivering such a rounded ensemble sound, and to producer Dave Cobb for capturing it – especially those vocals, and especially those of Lenesha Randolph.  I do believe Brighter Days is an album that could make pedal steel guitar cool – as long as Robert Randolph is playing it.

Brighter Days is released by Mascot Label Group on 23 August.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Eric Gales and Robben Ford, Pistoia Blues, 7 July 2019

All day the weather forecast was predicting thunderstorms arriving sometime tonight.  But thankfully the only thunder and lightning that strikes the outdoor space of Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo is the stuff produced by Eric Gales and his band.
It’s not being lazy to say that Eric Gales has an affinity for Jimi Hendrix.  Sure, the fact he plays left-handed, with an upside down Strat, is just a coincidence.  But whereas many guitarists have learned how to ‘do’ a Hendrixy wah-wah effect, with Gales you sense the Hendrix sound is flowing through his fingers.  Hell, even tuning up a fresh guitar he contrives to sound just like Jimi.
So he comes on stage and essays a Hendrixy preamble as the band take their places, but
Eric Gales - boogie chillin'
what follows is by no means a tribute act.  For much of his set Eric Gales is, well, Eric Gales, kicking things off with a ‘Big Boss Man’-like R’n’B riff – and a busted string on the first of the night’s fit-to-bust solos.  Undaunted, he launches into a bout of 21st Century Chuck Berryism that has the crowd boogie-ing along all the way to the climax.
He follows that with something that may or may not be called ‘Read All About It’ – titles not being hugely relevant to an Eric Gales set, in which songs are generally a platform for his guitar explorations – though not, it should be noted, of the meandering, solo-all-night variety.  But whatever this tune is called, it features another frenzied solo, over a whipping backbeat laid down by his missus LaDonna on percussion, alongside drummer Nick Hayes.
They follow that up with a Hooker-esque slice of boogie that in due course goes all Jimi, and then just plain bonkers, with Gales whooping it up to the crowd from the front of the stage. Needless to say, a battalion of guitar nuts are down the front by now, getting all steamed up by this frenetic fare, so that when the song finishes some admin honcho takes the mic to tell ‘em to sit down.
Gales takes a breather to relate the tale of having left Lithuania at six this morning after last night’s gig, and being diverted to Bologna because of rain storms, making them three hours late arriving at tonight’s venue.  But tonight’s the last night of this European jaunt, he says, so no matter how tired they are, he’s going to give the show his all.  And they then proceed to funk it up in very modern fashion, bass player Byron Carter adding some keys on the intro, before they divert into soulful territory for a spell, with Gales demonstrating his vocal
"Who needs six strings anyway?"
capabilities – something he should do more of, to my mind, given that with some backing from his lady wife he produces a pretty fine Stevie Wonder-ish sound.  But even as I’m thinking this he’s off again, the band holding down a menacingly steady groove, while Gales lets rip with a hummingbird-quick solo before winding up the crowd like Will Smith seeking some goddamned appreciation for blasting away a bunch of aliens.
‘Southpaw Serenade’ kicks off mellow, and with him singing about feeling so alone stays restrained until a solo that has him on his knees, along the way recalling a touch of Stevie Ray Vaughan in reflective mode.  ‘You Got Me Crying’ has a downbeat opening with a bass sound like rolling thunder really has arrived, and stays moody as it grooves towards a slowed down grind through the ‘Purple Haze’ riff, before the kind of solo in which, as a guitarist acquaintance of mine once put it, “he plays a lot of notes”.
He closes with ‘Voodoo Chile’, insisting that “while I don’t want to disrespect anybody’s rules” he ain’t playin’ unless the crowd get on their feet – and naturally, we oblige. Of course, his time-served reading of ‘Voodoo Chile’ is really an excuse for him to hop from stop-start funk to some Blackmore-style neo-classical picking and the riffs to ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Back In Black’, en route to a final bout of wild soloing.  It’s the kind of “give ‘em what they want” trick plenty of artists deploy, but none with as much chutzpah as Gales.  It may not be art, but the Eric Gales show sure is a shit-load of fun.
Whereas I’ve seen Eric Gales before, this is my first live encounter with Robben Ford, and having thoroughly enjoyed his recent albums Into The Sun and Purple House I’m looking forward to it.
He kicks off with the offbeat funk of ‘Down The Road I Go’, including brittle-toned soloing that’s full of the unexpected, before ‘What I Haven’t Done’ from Purple House shows off a ‘less is more’ approach, the notes he doesn’t play as interesting he does, if you catch my drift.  A brief take on ‘Tangle With Ya’, also from the new album, is all tangled up riffs and dulcet fills, while the following ‘Midnight Comes Too Soon’ features floating, mellifluous guitar that fits the song, before he throws in some jazzy chords as he varies the pace and
Robben Ford - 'Sideways'
comes at things from unexpected angles.
‘Indianola’ is a tribute to BB King with a high-stepping riff, on which Ford delivers some chord work that BB himself would undoubtedly have left to a sidekick, while ‘Bound For Glory’ finds the band producing some neat harmonies, and Ford conjuring up some spangliness worthy of Steve Hackett.  Around this point the thought occurs to me that if you wanted to describe them in elemental terms, Eric Gales is all fire and earth, while Ford’s lightness is that of air and water.
Freddie King’s ‘Sideways’ is attacked sideways, as it were, and has immediacy and swing to spare, while ‘Crazy For My Baby’ features tough, ringing chords.
And then . . . things just start to peter out.  The blues of ‘Black Night’ could be bluesier, though it improves as they slow it down, but it’s followed by a jazz fusion outing that really ain’t my thang.
By the time they’ve knocked out yer typical bass’n’drums showcase, and embarked on some anodyne funk in the form of ‘Oh Virginia’, my feet are leading me towards the exit, feeling like the show has suffered a slow puncture.  If Eric Gales’ heat can be a bit manic, there’s no doubting his entertainment value.  Whereas Robben Ford’s cool intelligence somehow doesn’t seem enough to sustain his set to the end, on this occasion at least.
But if I’m left feeling a bit disappointed by the end of Ford’s set, Pistoia Blues – now in its fortieth year - is still a captivating setting for live music, in the shadow of the Duomo on a warm Italian night.  A return visit may well be required next year.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Curse Of Lono - 4am And Counting

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” as baseball legend Yogi Berra once said.
Which is by way of explaining that new album 4am And Counting, from London’s Curse Of Lono is primarily a set of stripped back, live-in-the-studio recordings of songs they’ve previously released on their first two albums, Severed and As I Fell.  The end result is something with a more intimate vibe than those earlier records, and with a handful of guest appearances to add some extra embellishment to their sound has its own distinct attractions.
Now, Curse Of Lono’s sound tends to attract labels of an American bent –, Americana, Southern Gothic, that sort of thing.  And not without reason.  But they’re still, you know, English – okay, main man Felix Bechtolsheimer was actually born in Germany,
Curse Of Lono - they ain't from Austin, Texas you know
but let’s not complicate matters – and they sure as hell don’t go singing in any cod-Southern drawl à la Jagger.  The main characteristic of their music, in fact, is subtlety.  Slap-bang-wallop is not the order of the day – except in a line from ‘Welcome Home’ that features those words.
Typical of their oeuvre is ‘Valentine’, which is rooted in a dark, hypnotic groove, coloured by restrained keyboard notes, and vocal harmonies delivering a lyric in which the protagonist declares “I got a dagger for your lover’s heart”.   A cheery little ditty then – and with a melody that just begs you to join in.  It also features a top-notch, perfectly judged little guitar solo from Joe Hazell, who has a gift for playing with what seems like weightlessly clear tone.
These characteristics are carried along through several of the tunes here, but with a range of little twists that provide variety and keep a grip on your attention.  So you get pattering rhythms on both ‘London Rain’ and ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, for example, but whereas the former evokes The Doors via some very Ray Manzarek piano, the latter has a folkish feel to its acoustic guitar and melody.  And if ‘London Rain’ recalls The Doors, I also have a soft spot for the gently chugging ‘Wild Thing’ riff that drives  ‘Blackout Fever’, a relaxed affair with a catchy chorus on which neat harmonies are punctuated by splashes of cymbal.
Contrastingly there’s a relentless forward motion to the rhythm of ‘I’d Start A War For You’, like seeing white lines disappear underneath a car.  It’s also one of several songs to benefit from some pedal steel decoration from special guest B.J. Cole, not least the excellent ‘Way To Mars’, a very Alabama 3-ish country style choon on which Cole’s shimmering efforts are augmented by harp from another guest in the form of Nick Reynolds from – well, Alabama 3, as it happens.  ‘Mars’ is also home to another grabbing hook, on which the gang rouse themselves vocally, plus a delightfully Stones-y guitar solo from Hazell - who I have to say becomes something of a scene-stealer as the album progresses, not by showing off, but by serving the songs beautifully.  So ‘Welcome Home’, for example, features more sparkling guitar, including one very Robbie Robertson-like fill, in addition to an on-the-money back porch harp solo from Reynolds to close.
There’s one song not previously released by the band, namely Tom Waits’ ‘Going Out West’, and a damn fine job they do of it too.  Ticking over with brooding, intertwined fuzzy guitars they capture the mood perfectly, Bechtolsheimer even conjuring up a hint of Waits-like gravel as he plays out the cocky lyric.
Curse Of Lono’s first album Severed was predominantly recorded by Bechtolsheimer and producer Oli Bayston.  What 4am And Counting demonstrates is how much they’ve now come together as band, their sound knitted together with ease.  If you haven’t heard them before, this album is a real good place to start.

4am And Counting is released by Submarine Cat Records on 12 July.
Read the exclusive Blues Enthused interview with Felix Bechtolsheimer here.
You can also find live reviews of Curse Of Lono supporting Samantha Fish, starting here.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Black Keys - 'Let's Rock'

In a sense, this is where Blues Enthused began.  About ten years ago, my love of music was rebooted, I opened up to new artists, and began to develop a fresh interest in the blues, after a friend shared The Black Keys’ debut album with me.
It’s been five years since their last record, Turn Blue, took a left turn into dreamy soundscapes after the smash’n’grab glam rock hits of its predecessor, El Camino.  So where are Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney at now, exactly?  And wherever it is, is it any good?
Pat Carney has been quoted as saying that ‘Let’s Rock’– a title referencing the apparent last words of electric chair victim Edmund Zagorski in Tennessee last year - is “like a homage to electric guitar. We took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat like we used to.”  Which sounds a bit disingenuous to me, because while there’s certainly guitars aplenty on the album, it’s a long way from the North Mississippi hill country driven raunch of, say, their 2003 second album thickfreakness.
The Black Keys - Grooving outside the usual boundaries
Both Carney and Auerbach have honed their production skills over the years, and on ‘Let’s Rock’ what they’ve done is mesh a welter of squonking, bleeping, slithering and grinding guitar sounds with buffed up vocals from Auerbach, further enhanced by excellent contributions from backing vocalists Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson – the only other musicians appearing on the album.
You want hits?  You got ‘em.  On third track ‘Lo/Hi’, a juicy ascending guitar line gives way to a fuzzed up riff à la El Camino, like they’re imitating Marc Bolan having a bash at ‘Spirit In The Sky’.  On a Stylophone.  The chorus dishes out the strongest hook yet, while Auerbach adds a typically scratchy solo and the backing vox could have been parachuted from Motown.  ‘Get Yourself Together’ is ass-shakingly hooky the second the chorus kicks in, with Carney finding a delicious pocket, and you’d swear there was a Fender Rhodes in the mix, ‘cept they tell us there ain’t no keyboards on this album, Jack.  In fact I think I’ll give it another spin right now, just to hear the guitars squabbling all over the ending.  ‘Go’ is two and a half minutes of very Carney-esque chug-a-boom drums driving sublime vocals from Auerbach on a very retro melody, before guitars start charging in from all angles in competition with crashing cymbals.
Sounding retro but at the same time state of the art is a Black Keys speciality, a bit like their contemporaries White Denim.  So ‘Every Little Thing’ has a distinct air of Beatle-ish Sixties pop, breathily ‘Penny Lane’-ish before teetering on the edge of collapse with a blazing guitar solo underpinned by riff that echoes ‘All Along The Watchtower’.  Meantime ‘Sit Around And Miss You’ would fit in perfectly on K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The Seventies while Michael Madsen does unspeakable things to some unfortunate officer of the law - though their own video is rather more charming.  By the time we get to ‘Under The Gun’, squarely in ‘Stop Stop’ El Camino territory with its simple, gritty riff laying the foundations for yet another swish pop melody, like Sixties garage rock with David Cassidy singing ‘How Can I Be Sure’ over the top, I’m starting to dig out stuff like the Nuggets compilation of ‘Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era’, and Runt by that other rock alchemist Todd Rundgren.
In the space of just 39 minutes, ‘Let’s Rock’ demonstrates not only that The Black Keys have still very much got it, but that they’re still blurring lines, still finding new grooves outside genre boundaries.  This is Power Pop for 2019, people – let’s get it on!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Danny Vaughn - Myths, Legends & Lies

A change is as good as a rest, the old folks say.  And on that basis I’m rather nicely refreshed by this effort from Danny Vaughn.
Got to be honest, I know not the Danny Vaughn fellow.  Nor Tyketto, the melodic rock outfit for which he’s apparently well known as front man. Well shit, I never said my knowledge of all things rock was encyclopaedic, did I?  Check the small print on the left!
Whatever, Vaughn touches quite a few bases on Myths, Legends & Lies, and to good effect too.  Right out of the gate there’s a swarm of acoustic instrumentation on ‘The
Shadow Of King John’, with fiddle, accordion and acoustic guitar combining over a rattling Celtic rhythm from Rhys Morgan, leading to a boisterous stomp of a chorus as paints a picture of modern day – Limerick?  Now, I’m quite partial to a bit of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ style jiggery-pokery, but lest you’re worried this sounds like an over folk-ified Aran sweater jamboree, rest easy that this opener, like the rest of the album, sounds fresh and modern.
Danny Vaughn checks out the recipe for Irish Stew
There’s more of this ilk with the brief and to the point ‘Man Or Machine’, which welds some contemporary subject matter about sodium skylines and the blind watchmaker to mandolin, acoustic strumming, and paradiddles.  ‘Last Ride Of The Sunset Men’ mines a similar seam, but with an electric guitar lick at its core and wafts of harmonica for variation, and is good enough to overcome a rather corny spoken interlude.  This stuff peaks with the maritime storytelling of ‘Seven Bells’, which runs to seven minutes, and is worth it.  Announced by the ubiquitous acoustic guitar, it grows by way of a swaying melody and lush, impressively arranged strings, into something with an epic sweep that reminds me happily of Jethro Tull circa The Broadsword And The Beast.  Well, a bit at least.
At this point it’s worth saying that across the fourteen tracks on offer, Vaughn’s vocals are top notch – clear-toned, with an excellent range and clever variations, but always capturing the mood and never going over the top.  The man is the real McDeal.
There’s some jazzy bluesiness too – or should that be bluesy jazziness – in the form of ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Something I Picked Up Along The Way’.  The former is a dynamic affair that builds from a subdued opening until a rousing chorus hoves into view, underpinned by blasts of horns.  The latter is even better, in a very ‘New Coat Of Paint’ kinda fashion, with smoochy horns curling over Nigel Hopkins’ piano like cigarette smoke in some late night basement bar.
The other big highlight is ‘Monkeys With Money And Guns’, a much funkier affair founded on warm electric piano, organ, and electric guitar, while Vaughn weighs in with an appealing vocal, neatly double-tracked at times, laying out some caustic lyrics.  And for good-measure there’s a nimble guitar solo, and a smile-inducing bridge full of soulful harmonies and handclaps.
Sure, there are a few songs on here that are of a modern country oeuvre that might ordinarily make me wince.  But Vaughn and co even deliver these in such a fashion that I can’t bring myself to dislike them.  Honest. Whether it’s the bright and breezy ‘The Good Life’, swingingly celebrating simple pleasures with an organ solo and a squelchy electric guitar break, or ‘Kelly’s Gone’ with its fiddle filigrees and rippling piano as the lady in question packs up with “Whatever the Toyota could hold”, Vaughn and chums put some fizz into what could have been dull vin de table in other hands.
I liked Myths, Legends & Lies.  I’ll listen to it again.  I might even go so far as to find out what this Tyketto mob sound like.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Out Of The Darkness - Felix Bechtolsheimer of Curse Of Lono talks the talk

If it’s Thursday, it must be Amsterdam, which means Samantha Fish’s tour of Britain and Europe is entering its last week.  Having reviewed three earlier gigs on the tour, I’ve decided to indulge myself with a quick trip to the Netherlands to catch another.  And as an added bonus, I’ve managed to arrange a chat with Felix Bechtolsheimer, the front man of support band Curse Of Lono, who have received warm receptions for their blend of at each of the shows I’ve seen.  And so here we are, settling in outside the café of tonight’s venue, Q-Factory, to shoot the breeze for a bit before the soundcheck.
Now, Felix Bechtolsheimer isn’t yer common-or-garden monicker.  And if you Google him, as I did by way of some research before this chat, you’ll find that his biography isn’t common-or-garden either.  You’re liable to trip over references to drink, drugs, minor royals, Paula Yates and, er, dressage horses.  But if that kind of gossip is what floats your boat then you’d better drop anchor somewhere else, because we’re here to talk about the music - well, mostly. And it has to be said that Bechtolsheimer makes for a genial interviewee, ready to give considered answers, but often with a twinkle in his eye.

Raising the curtain
This isn’t the first support slot Curse Of Lono have occupied this year, having hit the road with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes back in March.  So what have they got out of these outings with headliners who are both stylistically different from the Southern-Gothic-out-of-London offered up by the Lonos?
Felix Bechtolsheimer - under the spotlight
“I think we’re picking up fans in lots of different genres,” says Bechtolsheimer.  “And we need to capitalise on that.  We’ve been pigeonholed a little bit in this Americana genre, mainly through getting this award from Bob Harris at the beginning of the year, the Emerging Artist Award from the UK Americana Association.”
He recalls though that recently they’ve also done a lengthy stint opening for Chuck Prophet, who he suggests “is much more of a rock’n’roll sort of thing.  I don’t think he’s Americana – although I think Exile On Main Street would be Americana if it came out now, probably.  So we’re testing the water with different audiences.  With Southside Johnny it was great to play Shepherds Bush Empire, it was great to play some of these bigger venues.  We got a really, really good reaction out of his crowd, and a lot of people who saw us in March with Southside have come back to see us with Samantha now.
“And stagecraft on a bigger stage – we got some extra practice with that with Southside Johnny. It’s different to a festival thing, you have an engaged crowd –if you play a big festival at our level you probably play in the middle of the afternoon, when people are trying to come down off whatever drugs they were taking, trying to figure out what’s in their sandwich. They’re not that bothered about the music.  Whereas with Southside we did get that.
“With Samantha Fish – it’s a very long tour.  It’s 21 dates in 23 days.  For her that’s nothing, they do over 200 shows a year. So I think with Samantha, to go and do this every night, with no real days off, gets you in a real groove, and gets you to the point where you’re very comfortable with your material, and you can just work on – how are you going to perform the song tonight?  Is it going to be a bit louder, a bit quieter?
“It’s also a very quiet audience in many places,” he says, much to my surprise.  “In Edinburgh and Glasgow that wasn’t the case, they went for it. But a lot of the gigs we’ve had, they stand there and they look at you, and they don’t really do much! And we’ve come off stage at a few of the shows going, ‘I’m not sure how that went’.  And then we get mobbed at the merch table, and stuff flies out, and we get e-mails, and messages, and Facebook requests the next day, so we’ve obviously connected to some degree! And we need to pick up as many fans as we can now – we’ve got a headline tour in October, so we need to convert as many of these fans as we can, and drag them out again in October.”
From what I’ve seen though, at some of these shows they’ve had their own posse of fans who have come particularly to see them – which must be encouraging.
“Yeah, it is,” he laughs.  “We just need them to multiply!”

Stripped back in the studio
Before then though, they’ve got a new album coming out in July, 4am And Counting - Live At Toe Rag Studios.  I say new, but it’s actually a selection of songs from their first two albums, reworked in a more stripped back mode and recorded live.  How come, I ask?  From Felix’s description, it was a bit of an organic process.
“I saw a video of The Cordovas, who we toured with, recording at Toe Rag Studios, and they did it all live in an afternoon, did a couple of tracks.  So I went down to see the place, and saw the set-up, and I just thought it would be interesting to see what we come up with if we spend 3 days in the studio, and give the songs a reworking.
“And then we thought it would be cool to get a few guests in, so BJ Cole came down for a day to play with us [adding pedal steel to 'I'd Start A War For You'], Nick Reynolds [from Alabama 3] was meant to come for half a day to play some harmonica, I think he was there for an hour and a half – turned up late and had to go early! And we just had a bit of a jam, and wanted to see what we could come out with.  And I thought if we can get a video out of it, or an EP, I’ll be happy. We ended up doing fifteen tracks in 3 days.”
The thought naturally arose to create an album out of the material, but Bechtolsheimer was wary of negative press reaction to an album of re-recorded tracks.
“So we said right, Record Store Day only.  Limited edition, translucent red vinyl, we’ll make very little money on it, but it’ll be fun.”  But the positive response to the limited release suggested a genuine demand for a CD. “And then the few reviews that came out weren’t that damning about the fact that it wasn’t new material – we made it very clear that wasn’t what it was – so we decided to put it out properly.”
The album is released on July 12, and reviews are evidently lined up in a host of publications.
“I haven’t seen what the reviews are going to say yet,” he laughs.  “They might say exactly what I feared!  But so far it’s going alright.”
Given that these were re-recordings, I wondered how much thought had been given to the arrangements before they went into the studio.  Bechtolsheimer indicates that although some thinking was done in advance, it wasn’t the usual pre-recording boot camp with their producer.
“Here we didn’t want anyone else in the room, it wasn’t about that. It was meant to feel loose and how we do it.  So it was really nice for the band, just everyone tried some ideas out, we did it ourselves, and we put some thought in but there wasn’t any pressure on it, because it wasn’t meant to be ‘This is the big album,’ or whatever.  It was just some fun.  We just did two or three takes, and then said which was the best one, and that was it.”

Quiet desperation is the English way
It’s been a long and winding road for Bechtolsheimer to get to where he is now with Curse Of Lono. Although he’s London-based, he and his siblings were born in Frankfurt, into a very well off family, and came to Britain because their parents wanted them to go to English boarding schools.  But by his late teens Bechtolshiemer had thrown himself headlong into the dark underbelly of the music world.  Never mind the associated drink and drugs, music was “definitely not the plan,” he confirms.  So what happened?
Pink Floyd - not really "Ooh baby baby" music
“Well, I went to a boarding school and I absolutely fucking hated it,” he explains, and it’s clear he’s not kidding.  “I went to state school in Germany, everyone in Germany goes to state school, and I was really happy there.  And my parents worked very hard to come over here, and they put me in this school, and I found it incredibly elitist.  And there was a bad timing issue – Germany had just won the World Cup, knocking England out in the semis, and for the first term at secondary school I had the living shit kicked out of me every day. So I started drinking, and I bought a guitar. I had a room-mate who was bullied very badly as well, and he bought a bass and I bought a guitar, and we told them all to bugger off.”
Okay, so this was the start of a downward spiral, but what was he listening to that turned him onto music?
“I remember there was a senior,” he recalls, “and he was quite an eccentric guy, and he saw that I was upset - I’d just been beaten up.  And he took me to his room and he said, ‘Right, listen to this’.  And he had a quart of vodka, so he gave me a shot of vodka, and he put on Never Mind The Bollocks.  And we listened to it from start to finish, and then when it was done he put on The Final Cut by Pink Floyd.  And he said, “It’s the other side of the same coin.” And it was the first time in my life that music wasn’t just about melody, and ‘ooh baby baby, you’re so pretty’, or ‘oh dear, you dumped me’.  These people were actually saying stuff.  And he used to come into my room with this nylon-strung guitar, and play ‘Pigs On The Wing’ by Pink Floyd, and stuff.  And I thought, “That’s what I wanna do. That’s really cool!”  

Down and out in London and Miami
You couldn’t find bands much more English than Pink Floyd and the Pistols, but it’s bleedin’ obvious that there are also American influences on the Curse Of Lono sound.  So I start to explore whether Bechtolsheimer feels a particular affinity for America.  Yes, he agrees, he does.  There’s more than one dimension to this though, it emerges.  For one thing, there was his sojourn in a Florida rehab clinic to kick his various addictions.
“I moved to America when I was . . . pretty sure I wouldn’t be alive for much longer.  I went out there to clean off heroin – I was on heroin, methadone and crack at the time – and it was so bad that the rehabs in the UK wouldn’t even take me any more.
“So I went out there, and I got clean out there.  And I shared a bungalow with a guy – they called them bungalows, but it was like a shed - who was a lot older than me, and he played the guitar.  And he was telling me all these stories, how’d he played with Little Feat, and he’d played with Gram Parsons, and all these amazing people.  And he introduced me to the real country stuff, the John Prine, the Kris Kristofferson, the Jerry Jeff Walker, all that stuff.  And I fell in love with that form of – not the music so much – but the form of songwriting, the lyricism in it.  And when that guy relapsed, and disappeared into the sunset, I realised he was far too young to have actually played with any of these people – it was all bullshit!”  He laughs. “So I fell in love with it then, and when we toured in America with Hey Negrita it was like being in the movies, you know?”
The influence is more subliminal than that though, I suggest.
“It’s . . . “ he reflects for a moment.  “I love slide guitars, and it’s a very cinematic genre, the Americana genre. It just lends itself very well to building the soundscapes to the words that I write.”
Not Steve Earle's autobiography - read it!
Which brings us to the subject of books.  Although a lot of Curse Of Lono’s lyrics explore very personal themes, but Bechtolsheimer is also a big reader – hell, Curse Of Lono are actually named after a book by Hunter S. Thompson.  Currently on his reading list is a collection of Steve Earle’s short stories, and I mention having read Earle’s novel I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, a great story about a bunch of losers, set in San Antonio in the early 60s.  I bought it, I say, thinking it was Earle’s autobiography.
“So did I!” he says, bursting out laughing.  “It’s almost like Steinbeck.  It’s like a couple of his books I love, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.  It’s that portrait of people who are really - not doing great, you know?  They’re sort of skid row, but the goodness in them comes out.  You’ve got this lovable heroin dealer, and these lovable pimps and stuff running around, and I just love that.  And I wish I’d read that before we played with Steve Earle, before I met him.  Because I just wish I’d had that extra appreciation – I love his music, but I’ve attempted to write a book, and it’s really hard.”
And again, it strikes me that we were talking about America earlier, and here’s Bechtolsheimer describing a particular penchant for American fiction.
“Yeah.  I love Bukowski,” he says.
Given that Charles Bukowski (actually a German-American) was once dubbed “a laureate of American lowlife”, this scarcely surprises me. But I wonder whether the appeal of this strand of American writing is also that it’s got more – distance, imaginatively speaking?
“Well, your imagination’s got more room,” he says.  “I made this film in 2008, called We Dreamed America, and it was about the British roots scene and my band Hey Negrita was in it.  And there was something that Matt Ord our guitarist said – he said, ‘Look at The Band. They were Canadian.  They had a really great dreamof what this Americana thing was.’  And he said sometimes someone who’s not American can have a better dream of it, because we’ve got more room in our imagination to picture that stuff, you know?
“So yeah, I suppose I am drawn to that.  And it’s just the voices that they use – I love the lyrics of Tom Waits.  And for me Bukowski is the literary version of Tom Waits – it’s gritty, and I like that.”
That “attempt to write a book” that Bechtolsheimer mentions came before the advent of Curse Of Lono. What was that about?
“That was a memoir. And I got shortlisted for the National Biography Awards for best unpublished biography.  And they said now you’ve got to start talking to agents – and the book just wasn’tgood enough.  That’s what I thought.  And I’d rather never do another album, than put out some crap.
“But I needed to do it,” he goes on, “because . . . it defined me, until that point.  I spent a couple of years on it, and I wasn’t hanging out, and occasionally doing a bit of writing.  I was writing 7 or 8 hours a day.  I was miserable doing it, I went through a horrible depression, my band was gone, I didn’t want it back but I didn’t know what I wanted. And it was re-living the worst parts of your life over and over again.  But afterwards I was like, “Well that’s done, let’s start another band!”  And I was ready to have a good time.  But I needed to get it out.  But it still comes in.  When you’re trying to visit a dark place in a song, that’s my dark place.” 

Let’s start another band!
Bechtolsheimer and drummer Neil Findlay were both in the aforementioned Hey Negrita.  But how did Curse Of Lono as a whole come together?
“We finished with Hey Negrita – everyone drifted, but we were all still on really good terms so we decided to call it quits while we were still mates.  And I had an album’s worth of stuff, and nowhere to put it. So I got very depressed - I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  And then
Curse Of Lono get all hocus-pocus-out-of-focus
I bumped into an old friend of mine called Oli Bayston, who was just starting to produce bands.”  He and Bayston, a multi-instrumentalist, then came up with a batch of demos, and between them went on put together most of the first Curse Of Lono album, Severed, with some minor contributions from Findlay on drums and another guitarist.
“And when we finished it was, like, ‘Well, now we need to do this live.’  So Neil was in straight away, and then I put some online ads out – it’s almost like dating!  I’ve never done online dating, but it’s like that – “Hey man, I like the Stones.” “Yeah, me too.  Can I hear your demo?”  It’s that kind of thing.
“So, I got Charis [Anderson, on bass] in first, and Joe Hazell auditioned on piano originally, and he’s an amazing piano player.  And that was great, but then I couldn’t find the right guitar player.  So then Joe put the guitar on, and I was ‘Jesus Christ, he can play!’  And then, we looked for a keyboard player, and Dani [Ruiz Hernandez] came in, and straight after the first jam I went, ‘Right, you’re in.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got one problem – I’ve got a job.  I’m a journalist, and I can’t go on tour.’  And I said well let’s see, and then when the first tour came along he said, ‘I’m in!’  And it’s worked really well.”
One thing I’ve noticed from the band’s live shows is that they have a liking for ending songs on a solo from Joe Hazell, rather than coming back to the song for a chorus or a coda.
“Yeah, you mentioned that before in a review,” says Felix, “and to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it!”
I’ve counted at least three songs where he does a nice solo – and he is a good guitarist, with great tone - and then you’re done.
“Yeah,” he agrees, nodding and counting the tracks on his fingers, “There’s ‘And It Shows’, there’s ‘No Trouble’, ‘Send For The Whisky’ . . . ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ . . . .”  He’s laughing now.
So what gives?  Are they deliberately denying the audience a bit of easy gratification?
“Yeah - I don’t know!” he says.  “Larry Love from Alabama 3 always said to me, ‘You’re doing it wrong, man.  You need to get the chorus, and at the end you need to milk it – do it five times!’  And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I want ‘em to want to hear it again.’  But maybe he’s got a point.”

Noir and noodling
When we met I was in the middle of reading the autobiography by Mike Scott of The Waterboys, who half the time seemed to be grasping for some fresh soundscape in his head, then the other half puzzling over how to realise it.  I wondered whether Bechtolsheimer had some kind of grand vision for the Curse Of Lono sound.
“Definitely.  I do think about that stuff much more.  I think the rest of the band . . . wait for me to make the first move.  And then they’re very instrumental in things.  Although to be honest the next album we’re working on we’ve agreed that we’re going to go about it the other way round.  The band gets to do it first, and then the producer gets to come in. And I’ve already had demos from Joe of riff ideas and song ideas, on piano and on guitar, and some of them are really, really good.
“I want to create something new and interesting,” he goes on, “otherwise I don’t really see
Bassist Charis Anderson - a better guitarist than Felix Bechtolsheimer?
the point. I’ve got an idea of a sound that I’m working on at the moment, that won’t be the whole of the next album, but there’ll be elements of it, which I’m calling ‘Surf Noir’,” he grins.  “If you imagine you lock Nick Cave in the room with Dick Dale, and then you get some harmonies on top of that . . . I’ve got some ideas for that!
“I’m always grasping for a new sound, and new ideas,” he continues.  “But a lot of that comes from playing around.  I sit down – I always say, in our touring party of six, I’m probably the second worst guitarist!”  Cue more chuckling.  “Danny the keyboard player can play the guitar better than me.  I only recently learnt the names of the strings – but I can write.  I then need help to get the song from here,” he says, indicating a spot on the table in front of us, “to here,” pointing at another.
“But I get the sound and the ideas from noodling around on the guitar.  Because the instrument is so – I don’t understand it properly, I have no mastery of it.  So playing around with it, and the different sounds, for me is really exciting – I’m like a kid, ‘Ooh, that sounds really cool!’  And the band will go ‘What key are you in?’  And I go ‘I’ve no idea!  You tell me – I don’t even know what that chord’s called!’”  His animated manner underlines his enthusiastic naivety.
“But that’s how I write, you know?  Put a capo here and see what happens.  Yeah, sometimes I need someone to throw in a different chord or something, to polish it, but that’s how I get the initial sound.  And it’s fun!  I love nothing more than sitting down with my guitars, and just playing.  I feel like my daughter when she’s playing with her toys – I’m just playing, I can’t control the thing!”

Time’s up. Bechtolsheimer needs to go and soundcheck.  He’s an interesting character.  Curse Of Lono are an intriguing band.  If you’re intrigued, go forth and multiply, and go see ‘em in October.

The new Curse Of Lono album 4am And Counting - Live At Toe Rag Studios, is released on 12 July.

Details of their October tour dates can be found here.