Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beth Hart - War In My Mind

Okay Beth, you got me. I surrender.  Ain’t no denying that War In My Mind is a winner.
Y’see, since I’ve been doing this malarkey over the last few years, I’ve largely resisted Beth Hart's charms. Never been entirely convinced. Oh, there’s been some stuff I’ve liked, particularly on Fire On The Floor.  But I’ve found the persistent banging on about her personal demons tiresome at times. And more significantly, I’ve often found her vocal style irritating – too much of that vibrato, and letting her power reach foghorn proportions.  Though I daresay that at times her singing hasn’t gone down either of those roads, but I’ve been bracing myself for one or the other to kick in.
"You talking' to me?  Well, there ain't nobody else here."
Well, maybe Beth has learned to control these tendencies better, or maybe I’ve just become more attuned to her style.  Either way, there’s no war going on in my mind – this album is the best thing I’ve heard from her yet.
And it’s a singular affair too, because while a few tracks offer shifts in tone, the album leans primarily on Hart’s piano and vocals, delivering ballads of various hues.  ‘War In My Mind’ itself, the second track in, is not only typical, it may be the best thing here – though it does have some competition.  It rests on the kind of classical piano motif you might find Muse deploying, but gives their pomp and circumstance a body swerve in favour of something dark and reflective – but not negative – played out via an excellent melody delivered with gripping dynamics.
And if that’s top dollar stuff, so is the closing ‘I Need A Hero’, on which a rippling piano line ebbs and flows, mirrored by the vocal melody, and if it’s a bit Steinman-esque then it’s more in the vein of ‘I Would Do Anything For You’ than ‘Holding Out For A Hero’, but self-effacing and personal rather than theatrical, and with a striking ending.
Meanwhile ‘Sister Dear’ is tender and dreamy, underpinning Hart’s vocal, and some great melodic moments, with little more than a rolling piano line and cello, and ‘Let It Grow’ is indeed a song that swells assertively before a dying ending, with some typically impressive backing vocal arrangements along the way as Hart sings about being “Just a penny in the stream, working on a dream”.
If all this sounds very deep, the album is set on its way by the funky R’n’B and stop-time riff of ‘Bad Woman Blues’, with its big, glossy sound featuring some real heavy bass and piano chords echoing Toto’s ‘Hold The Line’, and Hart declaring that “Got the lips, Got the legs, I was born to drive a man insane” like a veritable fatal attraction.  ‘Spanish Lullabies’ brings further variety with a controlled Latin vibe over a salsified rhythm, and a Hispanic-style classical guitar solo, and ‘Sugar Shack’ makes use of a throbbing motorik synth and stomping beat in pursuit of some dance floor action.
But there’s also a haunted European vibe at work at times, as on ‘Rub Me For Luck’ (really, Beth?), which edges out of the shadows like Radiohead without electric instrumentation, with Hart singing about “waves of ee-mo-shunn” before surging into a Bond-theme chorus courtesy of a soaring melody and dramatic piano riff.  ‘Woman Down’ is one of the less remarkable outings in evidence, but Hart still manages to make like Edith Piaf as she delivers the bitter lyric.
Who knows, maybe credit is due to producer Rob Cavallo for bringing out the best in Beth Hart on this record.  But however all the pieces have fallen into place, War In My Mind is a collection of fine songs from a highly individual artist, that justifies her reputation as something special. To quote ‘Bad Woman Blues’, Beth Hart just stuck the cherry on the chocolate cake.

War In my Mind is released by Provogue Records on 27 September.
Beth Hart is touring Europe in November/December, and Britain and Ireland in January/February.  Check tour dates here.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Geraint Watkins - Rush Of Blood

So this Geraint Watkins fella.  How come I’ve never heard of him till now?  Who forgot to send me the memo?
First I’ve heard of him is when this guy I know who does some PR work sends me this Rush Of Blood CD, with a geezer even older than me on the cover wearing a buttoned up white shirt and a baggy jacket, looking like he’s forgotten where he put his car keys. Given that said PR chap has a penchant for stuff in, shall we say, the more outlying post codes of blues’n’roots music, I’m asking myself how oddball this album is going to be.
Geraint Watkins - he plays piano and accordion
So it kicks off with ‘Rush Of Blood’ itself, and first impressions from its loping rhythm and country stylings are, well, the theme from Rawhide maybe – you know, that thing the Blues Brothers do for a few hours solid in a redneck bar?  A bit off the wall maybe, but only a bit.  And then a sizzling rockabilly-esque guitar break kicks in, and I sit up and start paying attention.
Which is good, because what follows is no kinda weirdo shit.  This is cool and mellow roots music, worldly wise and matured by musical experience in the best of company.  It sounds like, it sounds like . . .
Ry Cooder doing some authentic stuff, like Ry Cooder does, while keeping an eye on Dylan who’s looking into the distance hearing the rumble of distant thunder in the mountains and pondering what Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ would sound like if it were accompanied by a Fender Rhodes piano, and wishing that Van Morrison would stop rehearsing that cool thing with a sax in the room next door so he could think straight,  ‘cause he’s also trying to remember that dream he had last night when Frank turned up in this bar next to him – yeah, Frank, with the fuckin’ trilby hat an’ everything – and started doing that whole schtick about one more for my baby yadda yadda yadda, ‘cept next time Bob turned round in his dream it wasn’t Frank at all it was that Tom Waits bastard who’s too good for his own good, grinning at him like a loon and getting all romantic about a new coat of paint. Like, Lord knows I can write a lyric about any old shit, thinks Bob, but paint, fer chrissakes?  And not even sounding like Tom Waits, but like that limey, whatsisname, Nick Lowe, that did that song about the folks who live on the hill – shit no, that was Frank too – sump’n about shakin’ on the hill – and hey, didn’t he write that ‘Beast In Me’ choon Johnny Cash did, how’d that go?  Well if you gotta have country then Cash is your man, ‘n’ some a’that Def Jam stuff was cool, like when he did sump’n with just some piece o’shit acoustic guitar.   Whatever, there goes Van doing some Leadbelly thing now, well what’s new?  But hey if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – and why is Cooder staring at me like that, and what’s he playing now, some zydeco mixed in there?  Sounds pretty darned good, hafta say, with that accordion, maybe some harp too.  An’ I know what you’re thinkin’ Cooder, you’re thinkin’ how about some violin here and there, an’ keep them drums just whisperin’ along, and stand-up bass, an’ – shit, wish I could sing like that dude Van’s got in with him now, sounds like that Springbean kid doing his beautiful reward thing.  Ah, fuck it – “Hey Ry, wanna jam for a while?  Kinda dig that stuff you’re working on, by the way.  You know that Neil thing ‘Harvest Moon’?  Let's play that - you do the vocals, huh?  I'll get on this Fender Rhodes over here.” 
And little wonder that Rush Of Blood sounds like the above.  Geraint Watkins, it turns out when I get round to reading the PR bumf, has been a sideman to some of the names mentioned above, like Van Morrison and Nick Lowe, and others big names besides. Multi-instrumentalist too, I’m surmising.  And Welsh, by the way.  And what he's done with Rush Of Blood is bloody marvellous.
Don’t hang around waiting for some track-by-track analysis from yours truly.  Check out the wacky Youtoob video of the title track, and see what you reckon.  And here’s a live version of the excellent ‘Hold Back’ – pick the bones out of that.  And I’ll be generous and point you towards ‘Heaven Only Knows’ for good measure.  And these aren't necessarily the best tracks!
Now excuse me, I need to go and do some more homework on this Watkins fella.  Did you know he played with Dave Edmunds?

Geraint Watkins’ album Rush Of Blood is released by The Last Music Co on 13 September.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Diana Rein - Queen Of My Castle

One of the side-effects of 2019 having been a stonkingly good year so far for new albums of a blues/roots rock complexion – and it really has been – is that when you come across an album that doesn’t really cut the mustard, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Which I’m afraid is the case with this third album by Southern California based singer/guitarist Diana Rein. Another time, and it might have slid by with me saying, “Well, it’s okay, y’know.”  But it’s not another time, and I'm not going to.
Diana Rein - nice flares
The other week the YouTube video of the title track from Queen Of My Castle was posted in a Facebook group, and someone commented “Nice voice”.  Hmm, nice.  Sounds like a compliment I suppose.  But “nice” doesn’t really fit the bill when you’re singing the blues.  Doesn’t really suggest passion, grit, despair or sex, does it? Being honest, I’d describe Diana Rein’s voice as “ordinary”, or maybe “pedestrian”.  Oh, she hits all the notes, but she spends most of this album singing in the same register, without much variation on the melody, or in her phrasing – or at least not enough to seriously get my attention.  Then I take a glance at her website, which refers to “her sultry and powerful vocals reminiscent of Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt”.  And I gotta tell you folks, that comparing Diana Rein’s vocals to those two ladies is downright blasphemous.
Her website then goes on to talk about “a guitar style that has been compared to the likes of BB King with the tone of Stevie Ray Vaughan”.  And I think to myself, “What the actual fuck?!”
Alright, an SRV influence is discernible here and there on this album.  But that’s as far as it goes.  Let me tell you, I listened to Queen Of My Castle the other day, and then as I sat down at the keyboard I stuck on In Step, and any comparison between those two albums is distant in the extreme.  I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to the distance between Diana Rein and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  (And yes, discerning readers will spot that I nicked that line.  But I wouldn’t have the gall to compare my writing to the guy who originated it.)
But hey, what about the songs?  Well yeah, most of ‘em are okay.  A few are even quite good.  But there are fifteen of ‘em.  Did Diana Rein and her producer Michael Leasure – yes, Walter Trout’s drummer – really believe that they all deserved to be trotted out here?  A key competence for any recording artist, I reckon, is being able to kill their babies – to recognise when that song they’ve laboured over really isn’t up to snuff and needs to be binned.  So yeah, ‘The Midnight Line’ is an okay chunk of 12-bar chug-a-boogie, apparently inspired by Magic Sam, and with some Stevie Ray chordings in the intro, while ‘One Foot In’ has a decent revolving riff.  But there’s an awful lot of filler across the first half of the album that should have been trimmed.
Thankfully Rein finds some other clubs in her bag thereafter, peaking with the swinging, ringing retro-bop of ‘Get Down’, on which she employs a lower, huskier vocal pitch and discovers her wah-wah pedal to good effect.  The heavier groove and layered guitar licks of ‘Heat’ also deserve mention, and the closing instrumental ‘Zoe’ is a seriously good affair, reflective and chiming and evocative.
Queen Of My Castle isn’t actually a bad album.  It’s just not really a good album.  And that needs to be said, even if one takes no pleasure in doing it.

Queen Of My Castle is available now from Gulf Coast Records.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Laurence Jones Band - Laurence Jones Band

So it’s goodbye to Laurence Jones, solo artist, and hello to the Laurence Jones Band.  And there they are, on the cover of their eponymous new album, looking moody and meaningful, with LJ himself out front with a new layer of face fuzz, arms folded and staring straight at the camera.  It’s all very assertive - looks like it should mean something.
I’ll tell you what it means. It means that after his last album The Truth, a soul-pop kinda thing that was okay in its own terms but felt constrained and emasculated, young Laurence and his band of brothers have decided to have some goddamned fun, that’s what it means!
I could be talking bollocks – what’s new about that, says you – but I reckon Laurence has found some inspiration by going back to the Sixties for some of this stuff, be it Swinging Sixties R’n’B or soulful funky business.
Laurence Jones Band - three parts facial hair, one part quiff
Pic by Rob Blackham
Take the opening track ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, fr’instance – which itself sounds like a statement of intent.  You know how the Dandy Warhols’ ‘Bohemian Like You’ sounds like a Stones out-take? Well, this kicks off with a piano riff from Bennett Holland that’s straight out of ‘Bohemian Like You’, underlined by some ringing chords from Jones.  Do I care if they’ve lifted it?  Nah, the main thing is that it’s loose-limbed and rocking, and it’s got a chorus that’s a rush of energy, plus some “wooh-oohing” female backing vocals courtesy of Di Reed, a nifty little guitar solo, and some more rinky-dinky piano on the outro.
In similar fashion ‘I’m Waiting’ has driving guitar and surging organ competing for attention like a modern-day ‘Hush’, over racing drums and bass from Phil Wilson and Greg Smith, to which Jones adds a wig-out wah-wah solo.  The following ‘Stay’ emerges from some blues guitar twangery to encompass more boogie woogie from Holland, and more Di Reed backing for Jones as he hollers lines like “Gimme Some Lovin”.  (Ms Reed, in fact, does sterling work across most of the album.)  There’s some organ chucked into the mix too, and even a few Sgt Peppery twiddles in quieter moments, and by the end I can visualise Phil Wilson doing some Ringo-like head-tossing as it swings along.  Oh yeah, and they do a decent cover of ‘Day Tripper’ too, which on one level seems pointless, but hey – it fits.
Does all this represent a new musical frontier?  Nope. And I’ll tell you this too – the lyrics are mostly pretty banal.  But I don’t care – ‘cause it’s fun!
The same goes for the soulful and funky ‘Wipe Those Tears Dry’.  It’s a decent little tune that captures the desired mood nicely, with understated licks and riffs hither and yon from Jones, and an appealing arrangement epitomised by the middle eight.  In a similar vein, ‘Quite Like You’ is a bit of relaxed funkiness with a lazy rhythm, bluesy little licks and soulful organ.  At times it hints at Royal Studios in Memphis in the Sixties – doesn’t hint that hard, to be honest, but you get my drift.
Even better is the utterly simple soulfulness of the mellow ‘Beautiful Place’, which is a salient reminder that Bennett Holland also played keys on King King’s Standing In The Shadows album.  So here we have a somewhere-down-the-lazy-river rhythm, spot on vocal harmonies, and even a cheeky little bass turnaround from Greg Smith.
There are some bluesier moments too, as on ‘Mistreated’, for example – no, not that one, Purple fans. Restrained blues guitar picking over deep, deep down bass, leads into a tasty, tumbling guitar riff, and if Jones’ solo starts off measured, it shifts into overdrive as Phil Wilson’s shuffling drums gain intensity.  Meanwhile ‘Long, Long Lonely Ride’ is based on even more back-porch style guitar picking over a simple beat, with a suitably bluesy vocal and solo to boot.
There’s other good stuff too, and only one instance of real filler in the humdrum ‘Low Down’. Producer Gregory Elias brings a modern polish to the sound without stifling the energy, and he continues to get better vocal performances out of Jones than in days of old.
Look, I’m not gonna tell you that Laurence Jones Band is some consciousness-expanding classic. But as I sat on a warm afternoon giving it a proper listen, I found myself being seduced by its good vibrations – and yes, even excitations.

Laurence Jones Band is released on 27 September by Top Stop Music.
For tour dates in Europe and Britain from 14 September check the band's website.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Give Me The Truth - Blues Enthused looks for answers from Sean Webster

Notalotta people know this, as Michael Caine imitators like to say, but Sean Webster has followed in my footsteps.  See, although he’s now based in the Netherlands, the soulful singer and guitarist grew up in a Nottinghamshire mining village called Elkesley.  He probably went to school in nearby Retford, as I did myself for a couple of years back in the late Seventies.  He may even, like me, have enjoyed gigs at semi-legendary local music venue the Retford Porterhouse, which at one time or another hosted bands like Def Leppard, Saxon, Dr Feelgood, and even Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers.  Or maybe he didn’t, because he’s younger than I am and may have missed its heyday.

But that’s where the resemblances end.  Because Sean Webster grew up to be a very gifted guitarist and singer of soulful blues, whereas I – didn’t.

Sean Webster - cool or what?
So with his band's new live album Three Nights Live coming out on 2 September, I swapped some questions and answers with Sean, to find out about his musical journey.

How did you get started in music, Sean?  Who were your early influences?

Music was always a feature in the house as I was growing up. My Grandma bought me my very first guitar at the age of 3 I think. Sadly she died when I was about 8 yrs old so she never saw me even take much interest in it. I actually got started at school at the age of 14. My early influences were Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits. The usual I guess.

And how did things begin to develop for you as a professional musician?

I think they are still developing!!! I’m not quite sure when things got better, but I do remember filling in for a band on the main stage at Burnley Blues Festival back in maybe 2002 or so, and that jumped me ahead quite a bit.

You’re based in the Netherlands nowadays.  How did that come about?

I was touring The Netherlands back in 2008 for the first time, and I played a few festivals. One happened to be in Giethoorn where I met my wonderful wife. After a shaky start between us, I finally moved to Holland in 2010. After a short stint in Australia in 2012, my wife and I moved back to Holland and now live in the village we met in.

Being based on the Continent, how widely do you tour in Europe?

I’m always looking to broaden my touring and pushing to get into more countries etc, but so far I’ve played in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg.
Next year I already have a 3-week tour of Czech republic booked and will hopefully tour Spain and possibly parts of Russia too.

The new album includes a cover of John Mayer’s ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’, and I’ve also heard you perform his song ‘Gravity’ live. What attracts you to his work?

John Mayer just has it. He is one of the world’s best guitarists, he writes great songs, has a cool vibe, and is one of the very few crossover artists that attract all ages. If he wants to, he will be around for a very long time. 

Which may all very well be true, but let me say this, dear reader. John Mayer isn’t half the singer that Sean Webster is.  So if you want to hear an imaginative John Mayer song like ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’ delivered with real emotion, go listen to Sean Webster singing it.

And speaking of emotion, I’m reminded that Steve Van Zandt likes to introduce his song ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’ by saying that he wrote it for David Ruffin of The Temptations, who he says was “the King of Despair – your girlfriend left you, David Ruffin was your man.”  Well, due respect an’ all Stevie, but if you’re looking for the King of Despair, then Sean Webster is my man.  

So what’s it all about Sean?  I’ve joked in previous reviews, about so many of your
Dwelling at the dark end of the street
songs being about relationship pain and misery.  But I don’t imagine that’s entirely representative of your life, so how does it come about?

Actually it is quite representative. Perhaps not any more as I’ve finally found true happiness, but still I sometimes think how my life would be if it all turned black. 

To quote Billy Crystal's character in When Harry Met Sally, "That, my friend, is a dark side."  Okay Sean, but do you ever start off writing a cheerful song, only for it to take a left turn into something dark?

Erm . . . . No. My wife always says why can’t you write a happy song. I joke saying, when I find happiness I will. But like I said, I am happy . . . .  Maybe I’ll try . . . . I doubt it - but maybe.

What’s the song by someone else you really wish you’d written, and why?

I think Etta James's ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, because it’s such a great song that speaks to me every night I play it. I don’t believe in faking it, so if I stop enjoying playing it I’ll just stop. But each time I play ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, it speaks to me. I guess I think about what it would be like if my wife left and some nights I’m on the verge of tears. I guess that’s why every night someone in the audience is in tears. They feel it.

Conversely, what’s the song you’re most proud of having written yourself, and why?

Tough question. I think if I’m allowed two, they would be ‘The Dream’, which I wrote directly for my wife quite a few years ago, and ‘Leave Your Heart At The Door’ the title track of my last album. I don’t tell many people but it’s a song for my daughter about growing up. She’ll understand when she gets a bit older.  She’s only 4 now.

Are you going to be touring in Britain and Europe to promote the new album?

Definitely!!!! We have a 2-week tour planned in September for the UK finishing up at Carlisle Blues festival, and then we’ll be touring the album into next year in Europe. 
I start a 9-date theatre tour in The Netherlands with some high profile Dutch guys the day after Carlisle, so I’m pretty tied up for a while but I am writing a new studio album and will keep popping up with my band.

As I wrote in my review of Three Sides Live, more people should be listening to Sean Webster. More people should be going to see him. It’s as simple as that.  So now’s your chance – get hold of the live album, and catch him on tour wherever you can.

Go to the Sean Webster Band website to order Three Nights Live and check their tour dates.
Read the Blues Enthused review of Three Nights Live here.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Odds Lane - Lost & Found

So here we have a guitar’n’drums duo in the form of Doug Byrkit and Brian Zielie respectively, and we all know what that kind of line-up sounds like, don’t we?  It’s right there in the primitive boom-thump of opening track ‘Don’t Give It Away’, with its spiky guitar licks – the latest manifestation of that back to basics blues sound style that gave us The White Stripes and The Black Keys.  ‘Nuff said.
Actually, no.  Odds Lane are a rather more eclectic outfit than that two-man band stereotype.  Sure, there are various shades of blues offered up on Lost & Found, but this St
Odds Lane - "Shit, I've dropped a contact lens!"
Louis pairing have got more than just that going on.  They may have started out as Mike Zito’s rhythm section back in the Nineties, but they played jazz in college and over the intervening years their songwriting partnership has absorbed a broader range of influences.
But let’s begin with the bluesier sounds.  ‘Seven States’ is Feelgood-ish, scratchy, rhythm’n’boogie and if Byrkit’s clear-toned vocals don’t come near to conveying the same kind of grit as Lee Brilleaux, it’s still a good tune with a neat little rollercoaster of a riff.  And there is more of an edgy vibe to ‘Blood On The Van’, which on one level seems like a straight-up twelve-bar blues, with a chugging riff a la ZZ Top.  But with its growling rhythm section and a intriguing lyric suggesting a violent event, as well as a strong slide break courtesy of the aforementioned Zito – who also produced the album – it’s more than the sum of its apparently simple parts.
‘Spare Change’ is bright, good old-fashioned R’n’B too, cantering along with a snappy rhythm and more scratchy guitar, garnished by more of Zito’s slide licks, and the closing ‘White Castle Blues’ sounds like the kind of British blues that emerged out of the Sixties Beat Boom, fashioned into a paean to the vintage Mid-West fast food chain White Castle, and its idiosyncratic square burgers.
There are more edges and corners on the likes of ‘Moth To A Flame’ and ‘Hard Rain’ though, the first a jolting shuffle pushed along by bobbling bass, and featuring more of Zito’s slide fills – rather begging the question of how they deliver this stuff when he’s not around – while the latter is a staccato mid-tempo affair, downbeat and mellow on the verses and punchier on the chorus, that perhaps outstays its welcome a bit.
But elsewhere they draw on a broader palette.  'Lost & Found' itself is best described as a catchy slice of bluesy jangle-pop, very nicely done. ‘What’s Your Name’, meanwhile, has a twitchy flavour, courtesy of a most Police-like deedle-eedly-dee guitar riff (pardon the technical terminology) over funky bass and an offbeat rhythm, added to interesting wah-wah like guitar tones and appealing key change leading into the guitar solo.  The mellow funkiness of ‘A Little Too Late’, on the other hand, contrives a Latin tinge in its rhythms to go with hints of Santana in its guitar sound.
Lost & Found is a refreshing album, like an inventively mixed blues cocktail – reassuringly familiar but infused with enough spice to give it a bit of extra zing.  Odds Lane may not have the heft to embed themselves permanently in your brain, but they’re sophisticated enough to make a positive impression.

Lost & Found is available now from Gulf Coast Records.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Nicole Smit & Blueswater: Queens Of The Blues - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 18 August 2019

Introducing the final number of this show, Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, Nicole Smit says that it was suggested to her last year by guitarist Charlie Wild, but she said to herself, “There’s no way I can sing that – Susan Tedeschi’s way too cool.”  Aye right, as we say sarcastically in these parts.  On this evidence, Nicole Smit is capable of singing any damn thing she likes.
Queens Of The Blues is one of a suite of shows presented each year on the Edinburgh Fringe by local band/collective The Blueswater, but this is the first time I’ve managed to catch it.  Which is, undoubtedly, my loss.  Backed by a tight band of  two guitars, bass,
drums and keyboards, Smit leads a show delivering great songs by both famous and scarcely remembered female blues singers.  Apparently this was the first time her dad had seen her perform.  Hopefully he’s now retrieved his socks, because I imagine his daughter blew them off big time.
Smit does a terrific job of selling the material, bopping around on the likes of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and the foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll of Mary Knight’s tongue-twisting ‘I Told You Not To Tell Him’, and getting a sassy groove on for bump’n’grind R’n’B like Betty James’ ‘Little Mixed Up’, on which Charlie Wild delivers a wang-dang guitar solo.
But it’s her vocals that are the real centre of attention.  You want to get some idea of what she can do?  Well, her take on Billie Holliday’s ‘Tell Me More’, covered by Nina Simone, is as emotional as it gets, while her bending and stretching a cappella version of Ma Rainey’s ‘See See Rider’ reduces the audience to stunned silence when she finishes.
But both of those are topped, I reckon, by her rendition of a Janis Joplin song.  She introduces it by saying that she hadn’t been much of a Janis fan until a woman told her about witnessing Joplin’s Woodstock performance, and feeling that she provoked a 
tremendous sense of freedom with her “don’t give a shit” performance style.  After which Smit and the band go on to deliver a blazing, foot-stamping performance of raging soul on ‘Kozmic Blues’ that’s so intense we all need a breather when she’s done.
They show a bit of imagination too, by creating an excellent R’n’B mash-up of Helen Humes’ ‘Real Fine Daddy’ and Sean Costello’s ‘Talk To Your Daughter’, on which Jed Potts lets rip on guitar.  And there’s more fun with scrappy Sixties R’n’B that is Etta James’ ‘It Must Be Love’, and Frances Burr’s ‘I Say No, No More’, which they embellish with an organ solo from Rob Harrison, a rollicking guitar duel between Wild and Potts, and a false ending – “No no, not yet!” Smit teases before calling them back in.
Which brings us back to their set closer of Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, a torch song with a Fats Domino style groove, which needless to say Smit nails good and proper, wringing all the emotion out of the song with all the presence, range and power in her locker.
This isn’t just my opinion - at the end my other half announced that she’d been blown away.  Sitting in the front row, more by luck than good judgement, we got a close-up perspective on all of the humour, energy and musicality brought to the show by Smit and the whole band.
You’ll be hard-pressed to get a ticket for the one remaining performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year’s Fringe.  But if you decide to visit to Edinburgh for next year’s Festival, book your tickets early.

The last performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year's Fringe is on Friday 23 August at 5.30pm.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Danny Bryant - Means Of Escape

Danny Bryant’s blues are often pretty heavy, man.  Heavy but, it has to be said, often heartfelt.  And when he gets it right, this can result in something emotionally truthful both lyrically and musically.
The prime example here is ‘Skin And Bone’, which follows on from some of the songs on his last album Revelation in contemplating the death of his father. Low key and built on the simple strumming of acoustic guitar, it’s painfully honest about loss.  It’s up close and personal stuff.  And I can tell you from experience, it hits the emotional mark.
"Say cheese, Danny!"
Pic by Rob Blackham
Nothing else reaches that level, but ‘Where The River Ends’, written some time back for a friend who lost his daughter, features some lyrical, Clapton-like guitar in places. Meanwhile the closing ‘Mya’ is an instrumental exploration that benefits from being a bit more laid back, and less tense than yer typical Bryant arrangement, giving his guitar space to soar more freely as he builds a theme in – again – a Clapton-like fashion.  I’m reminded that on Revelation some of the best moments, for me at least, were those when he began to mine a Clapton seam, such as ‘Shouting At The Moon’.
In a different vein, the title track ‘Means Of Escape’ benefits from revisiting (so to speak) the riff from ‘All Along The Watchtower’, creating a supple vibe, and over the booming drums Bryant does a good job scattering licks around the place, before delivering an impressive solo on the outro.  And even if the lyrics are a bit gloomy apart from the affirmative chorus, Bryant’s vocals sound a mite more relaxed than is his wont.
And there’s the rub. Danny Bryant is rarely, to be honest, a little ray of sunshine.  And this tends to transmit itself through a variety of stomping, grinding, heavy blues outings, characterised by some teeth-clenching vocals.  Opening track ‘Tired Of Trying’, overtly influenced by his mentor Walter Trout, is typical of this tendency, and though it does feature some muscular soloing with a degree of tension and release, it’s overlong. The following ‘Too Far Gone’ is a smidgen more relaxed as it opens, with some nice rolling piano notes, and for a while it reminds me of the kind of gutsy fare the Nimmo Brothers might serve up. But it ends up getting a bit overwrought, and the vocals get too angsty for my taste.
‘Warning Signs’ is a slightly looser affair, with jabs of horns prefacing a useful organ solo, and ‘Hurting Time’ finds Danny dusting his broom on slide guitar, in slow and measured fashion, with some horns and a nice piano solo to leaven the recipe.  But these don’t do much to alleviate the sense of stomp-grind pervading much of the album, which is generally reinforced by Bryant’s idiosyncratic tendency towards vocals that to me sound physically tense. And if I were to offer up a sample of lyrics from across the album, you wouldn’t find many sunny moments.
Danny Bryant does what he does with commitment and intensity, and sometimes seizes your emotions as he does so. But all in all, Means Of Escape would benefit from more light and shade in terms of words, music and rhythm.  Hell, even Walter Trout and Eric Clapton, who haven’t had their troubles to seek, write some upbeat songs.  Discovering a broader palette would serve Danny Bryant well.

Means Of Escape is released on Jazzhaus Records on 20 September.
Danny Bryant's October British tour dates can be found here.