Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sean Webster Band - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 16 February 2018

To be honest, I’d never heard of Sean Webster until just over a year ago.  Not a dickie bird, until I was interviewing Ash Wilson and Webster’s name came up – and then coincidentally I caught the Sean Webster Band supporting King King in the Netherlands.  Between then and now, his album Leave Your Heart At The Door has had regular airings in our house, so I was looking forward to this headline appearance at the Edinburgh Blues Club.
Sean Webster - Man In Black
Webster and his amigos don’t disappoint.  Opening up with the tough and powerful ‘God Forsaken Town’ (the titles of some songs are, alas, guesswork on my part), they shift into the strutting ‘Can You Make A Move’ and quickly demonstrate how tight they are, with top quality use of dynamics, while Hilbrand Bos adds the first of a few impressive organ solos.  But it’s on ‘Hands Of Time’ that they really get into their sweet spot, an example of Webster’s strong songwriting that’s also a good platform for his soulful voice.  The following ‘Too Many False Alarms’ opens in slow and sparse fashion, and Webster decorates it with some lovely echoing guitar tones, before unfolding a solo that shows of the ability, when he’s at this best, to put you through an emotional wringer.
Webster may be the heart of the performance, notwithstanding his unassuming chat between songs, but his well-honed band also bring plenty to the party.  Since I saw him last he’s recruited a new rhythm section, with Floris Poesse contributing supple bass and Ruud Gielen whacking the skins mightily when the occasion demands it.  The ensemble cook up successive storms on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, and some muscular funk-inflected Rock on ‘Give Me Time’.
Webster himself offers some expert storytelling on an evocative cover of Keith Urban’s ‘Til Summer Comes Around’, and after the rousing ‘Give Me The Truth’ he goes full tonto on the soul vocals front, with an impeccable reading of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, on which he delivers a solo that weaves around and about the vocal melody, elaborating and amplifying the emotion of the song in the run up to a compelling guitar and vocal ending.  And by the way, Webster does all this with just the one guitar – none of that endless swapping and re-tuning that so consumes some guitar geeks. 
The rocking ‘I Got The Blues’ includes some extra fun in the form of a sotto voce guitar and keys passage, before they close with ‘Mr Highwayman’, on which Webster and Bos depart the stage for a while as Poesse and Gielen embark on a highly entertaining rhythm section blowout.
I don’t know how many of this audience were familiar with Webster and co before tonight, but they roared for more, and got it in the shape of the slow and moody ‘Gravity’, with a very ‘Greeny’ intro, and finally the rousing, emphatic ‘You Gotta Know’.
Sean Webster is a damn good songwriter, he’s got the vocal and guitar chops to do the songs justice, and a well grooved band to do it with him. Other artists may get talked up big time, backed up by record labels and PR machinery, but to my mind the Sean Webster Band are among the unsung heroes of the current blues scene, and deserve more attention.
Speaking of well-grooved bands, local support act Cow Cow Boogie were also a wow.  “Is it rockabilly?  Is it R’n'B?” I asked myself as they ripped through the likes of ‘Scorched’, ‘Somebody’s Always Talking’, and ‘Candyman’.  “And the answer is, who cares?  This was the first time I’d encountered their stew of styles, incorporating stand-up bass, and several tons of twang courtesy of both Stevie Slide on lap steel and Steve Milne on guitar, and it warmed up a cold February night no end.
Heads down, no nonsense Cow Cow Boogie
I’d seen singer Nicole Smits guesting with other people from time to time, but here she was on another level, hopping, bopping, and twirling about the stage in a way that suggested she’s truly at home on the Cow Cow Boogie range.  More to the point, her vocals are Patsy Cline-outstanding on ‘San Antonio Rose’, and even better on the irony-laden ‘Do Me Wrong’, her phrasing expert as she delivers sliding and cracked notes to truly tell the tale.  Special kudos too for managing to do something different with ‘John Henry’, in a convincingly jazzy arrangement involving just Smits plus Scott Mather’s double bass and George Logan’s drums. Hats off to Cow Cow Boogie for blending different genres into a coherent aesthetic with such conviction.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Michael Landau - Rock Bottom

My interest in Michael Landau was piqued by the observation that in his teenage years he’d toured with Robben Ford. The latter is renowned for his guitar wizardry, often exercised in jazz rock territory. But Ford's 2015 album Into The Sun also demonstrated a commitment to top quality songwriting that stretched the blues genre. So could Californian Landau match up to the guitar playing and songwriting talents of his old mentor, I wondered? The answer to both questions is no - but then that would be a tall order.
Landau certainly doesn’t go for full-on axe hero status, but the quality of his playing still
Michael Landau wigs out on guitar
comes across, albeit in an understated way. On the dreamy ‘We All Feel The Same’ for example, a relatively straightforward slow blues which is one of the album’s most successful offerings, the brief flashes of wah-wah are just the cream on the delicate cake. The similarly slow ‘One Tear Away’ also works on a guitaring level, with intelligent, exploratory soloing in a Ford vein, in a sparse arrangement with faint washes of discordant organ from Larry Golding, and Jim Morrison-like crooning from David Frazee.

‘Poor Dear’ offers warped and bent notes in a Hendrixy style. But this time in a more energetic, quirky framework, with bursts of guitar from odd angles over jazzy drumming from Alan Hertz, and a likeable, catchy chorus.
These tracks also happen to be the strongest examples of songcraft. Elsewhere the tendency is overmuch towards tricksy rhythms and/or minimalist atmospherics for my taste, though bright spots emerge here and there. ‘We’re All Alright’ has more drive to its chorus, and an offbeat air suggestive of White Denim. And ‘Heaven In The Alley’ is more melodic than some of the other subdued fare, with Landau sprinkling some nimble guitar runs throughout.
If you’re up for some jazzy late 60s style experimentation then Rock Bottom is worth exploring. Me, I’d like a bit more oomph to proceedings.

Rock Bottom is released by Provogue on 23 February.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

King King - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 26 January 2018

The times they are a changin’.  In keeping with their incursion into the broader classic rock landscape, King King come on stage to the heavy duty strains of ‘Highway To Hell’ rather than their old time fave ‘Alright Now’.  More appropriate though, would have been ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, because after all the trials and tribulations of 2017, this was a performance with a big grin writ large across its face.  Not flawless, it has to be said, but happy days are here again nonetheless.
The Queen’s Hall was sold out for this show, and it felt like it. And the longer the night went on, the happier Alan Nimmo looked in the assembled company.  Opening with the good time 
Alan Nimmo back in full voice - thank goodness
rock of ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’, followed by the dependable soldier that is ‘Waking Up’, they had the packed crowd moving from the off.  But it was ‘You Stopped The Rain’ that provided the first highlight.  Notwithstanding an unnecessary introductory singalong to the riff, the emotional bite that it has developed live was there in spades, rammed home by Alan Nimmo’s climactic solo.
‘Broken’ delivered a sense of epic from the Exile & Grace catalogue, though to my mind ‘Betrayed Me’ would be a stronger choice.  In any event it was eclipsed by ‘Long History Of Love’, as ever a defining moment.  New boy Jonny Dyke put plenty of energy into his keyboard solo, and of course he has to find his own path, but it felt like he still needs to tap into the soulful core of the song to do it real justice.  Dr Cameron prescribes repeated listens to the studio version.  All the same, it worked its magic as it’s always done.
King King were in cruise control by now, with the crowd going word for word on ‘Rush Hour’ – obviously – and ‘Lose Control’.  By the same token newie ‘Long Time Running’ predictably had the joint jumping with its good time vibe.  The chorus feels thinner than it should mind you – methinks Alan Nimmo may have to join in on the title line to give it the necessary beef.
It’s testament to the close knit nature of the King King crowd that throughout the set sightings of big brother Stevie Nimmo in guitar tech mode, arm in a sling following last year’s cycling accident, are met with sporadic cries of “Stevie!” – and ultimately a chorus at this point of “There’s only one Stevie Nimmo!”  It’s a family affair, as Sly Stone put it, in more ways than one.
Down the stretch ‘Stranger To Love’ is immense, with Alan Nimmo’s vocals as powerful and impassioned as they’ve ever been.  Never mind the much vaunted near silent solo, the ending is overwhelming, as Nimmo churns out the same couple of notes over and over and over, while Wayne Proctor shifts the mood by first going double time on drums, and then somewhere else altogether.  It’s one of several moments in the set that just brooks no argument.
They close with ‘All My Life’, and Jonny Dyke sure as hell finds the funk while Nimmo gets on down as Lindsey Coulson digs out a big bass groove over Wayne Proctor’s booming drums. It’s at moments like these that you remember just how good King King are.
After a quick breather, ‘Find Your Way Home’ sounds more convincing than it does in its REO Speedwagon-ish studio incarnation, before ‘Let Love In’ brings down the curtain in suitably jubilant fashion.
Alan Nimmo - a performance with a big grin on its face
There’s still work to be done for this rockin’ new incarnation of the band.  Here and there the harmonies felt off, perhaps because Jonny Dyke occupies a different register to Bob Fridzema before him.  And maybe there are still decisions to make about the balance of the set – I missed ‘Wait On Time’, and the choice of new songs is still up for grabs for me.  But for all that, this jam-packed crowd of happy bunnies, and the big smile on Alan Nimmo’s face, told the tale of a band that continue to be on the up and up.
Going on before a band of that quality is a challenge, but UK Blues Award nominees Gerry Jablonski and the Electric Band sure don’t shirk it.  Entering stage left with main man Gerry Jablonski sporting a dodgy new barnet, they embark on the moody intro to new single ‘Heavy Water’, which then erupts into an explosion of riffing, with Jablonski wafting abracadabra gestures over his guitar that are more Tommy Cooper than Ritchie Blackmore.
I jest – a bit.  But then Gerry Jablonski does seem to have a penchant for being the lovable court jester. Nonetheless, these guys have developed a niche proposition that deserves to be taken seriously - namely, hard blues rock with the added twist of the prowling menace that is Peter Narojczyk and his blues harp.
‘Trouble With The Blues’ shows off powerful drumming from the all growed up and stubbly Lewis Fraser, and squelchy bass from Grigor Leslie, but the more that Narojczyk gets in on the act the more powerful they get, until they whip up a veritable storm on ‘Soul Sister’, with Jablonski ripping out a wild solo that works all the better for the absence of any tomfoolery.  The same applies to the closing ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, another example of the danceability of their material. Jablonski and pals were probably well known to a lot of this audience, but I’d guess from the cheers at the close of their set that they’d won a few more fans.
As support bands go, Gerry Jablonski and the Electric Band are a daunting proposition.  King King showed once again though, that they’re on a different level, which is why they're now selling out venues like this.  Let the good times roll!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Elles Bailey/Climax Blues Band - 100 Club, London, 17 January 2018

Elles Bailey may be in the support slot for this London Blues Week gig, but she represents the blues future, in contrast to headliners the Climax Blues Band, who are a respectful nod to Blues past. This 45 minute set may not have been a show stopper, but it confirmed her huge potential.
The balance of the set felt a little off on this occasion, with something of a slow to mid-tempo lull before the excellent ‘Shackles Of Love’ kicked the audience’s collective arse. It was good to hear a couple of impressive new songs, but felt like they still needed a bit more development.  None of this detracted much from a highly enjoyable set however. The title track of her album Wildfire got things under steam with a well-muscled rhythm sound, Wilkins hunched over his Fender Jaguar as he got stuck in, and ‘Same Flame’ consolidated the strong first impression.
The first of the new songs, ‘Weary Bones’ lamented the loss of a friend to cancer,
Elles Bailey and Joe Wilkins cook up some wildfire
commencing a solo piano intro and vocals, supplemented by little more than some additional keys though it did feel like it needed a big bridge to add contrast. But the timbre of Bailey’s vocals were excellent from the get-go, calling to mind Elkie Brooks in her heyday. ‘What’s The Matter’ also felt like a work in progress, perhaps in need of a coda, but nevertheless was a tasteful smoky blues á la Nina Simone.

‘Perfect Storm’, her tribute to Muscle Shoals, didn’t quite light the fuse, but ‘Shackles Of Love’ certainly did. It’s the kind of song that Bonnie Raitt might well choose to deploy as an album opener, in the vein of ‘Unintended Consequence Of Love’, and it’s so spot on that it only seems natural for Bailey to laugh with pleasure In response to the organ solo.
‘Let Me Hear You Scream’ keeps up the momentum, with some tasty, pinging slide from Wilkins, and ‘Girl Who Owned The Blues’ has the requisite drama to provide a fitting close.
One last thing - her band could do with being smartened up a bit. I imagine the low key sidemen in black look is deliberate, but if she really means business they should dress to impress a bit more. Not that this will have bothered the long line of punters who gathered at the merch stall to chat with Bailey and buy her wares. That accentuates the positives from her set.
Graham Dee gets smoky
The Climax Blues Band have been going 50 years this year - continuously. Though of course with no original members they, like the current Dr Feelgood, are a case of “This is my father’s axe. It’s had two new handles and three new blades.”
But still and all, it’s some going keeping the show on the road all that time, and their soul-funk sound is as well-honed as you’d expect. And if they’ve recruited some younger legs, as it were, in the form of guitarist Lester Hunt, the older lags still deliver.  Long standing keys man George Glover still looks the part of a rocker in his baggy t-shirt and shades as he gets wired into his organ, and Chris ‘BB’ Aldridge adds quality sax to bring to mind the image of founding member Colin Cooper toting his horn on TOTP way back when.
Material like ‘Chasing Change’ and ‘Fool For The Bright Lights’ is sound. Fair play to them too for recording a new album, Hand Of Time, from which ‘17th Street Canal’ conveys an intriguing underworld mood.
They come up with an unusual upbeat arrangement of ‘Spoonful’, but of course it’s their one big hit - and it was really big back in 1976 - ‘Couldn’t Get It Right’ that everyone’s waiting for.  And after a teasing slow burn intro they do it justice, with singer Graham Dee emulating the distinctively smoky quality of Colin Cooper’s original vocal.  Happy anniversary chaps.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Joe Louis Walker - 100 Club, London, 16 January 2018

Seeing Joe Louis Walker play live means having a good time.  Simple as that.  Hotshot blues rock guitarists abound, but few of them bring the sense of playfulness to electric blues that Walker displays.  Schooled in church music, he still includes a big chunk of gospel in his live set, and makes it such a pleasure that I could almost be persuaded to get religion myself.  Almost.
And so it is from the off at this busy 100 Club gig as part of London Blues Week.  Opening with ‘I’m Not Messin’ Around’, he and his band lock into a big groove, founded on vibrant drumming from Byron Cage, that slams the FUN into funky.
Joe Louis Walker - ain't messin' around
A slow blues instrumental follows, but one imbued with mischief, as Walker sets out teasing with controlled feedback that eventually melts into pizzicato picking before heading back the other way, while guest ivories man Stevie Watts gets to launch the first of several big organ solos.
‘Don’t Let Go’ is the first of the gospel outings, featuring vocal harmonies that he reveals were originally delivered by the Jordanaires when he recorded it on Hornet’s Nest.  But ‘Wade In The Water’ swings on another level entirely.  Lenny Bradford – a man of a thousand facial expressions, most of them variations on a big grin – contributes nimbly subterranean bass runs as he, Walker and Cage gear up for some blindingly funky interplay underneath another Watts solo.  The way they chop up the rhythm and turn it inside out, in total synch, is something to behold.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, recorded for the 2002 Beatles tribute The Blues White Album, is delivered with absolute conviction, before ‘In The Morning’ transports gospel into the realms of sunrise soul.  Conjuring up a season of warmth and mellow fruitfulness, it shifts with ease into a hi tempo ending.
After some squealing slide on ‘Soldier For Jesus’ the delicate opening of ‘Black And Blue’ ushers in quiet little flurries of notes from Walker, building towards a big finish.  Giles Robson pops up to guest on harp and lend extra wailing to the chugging boogie of ‘Young Girl Blues’, and then it’s time for the riotous set closer that is ‘Too Drunk To Drive Drunk’.  Chuck Berry-like in feel to the point that at one point Bradford sets off on a duck walk, and with Stevie Watts giving it some rock’n’roll piano into the bargain, it features an interlude that breezily flings in riffs from ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ and ‘Daytripper’, and probably more besides, to bring the house down.
With the crowd baying for an encore as the band mosey offstage, Walker stays put and
Lenny Bradford - "Whaddya mean, man of a thousand faces?"
straps his mother-of-pearl decorated guitar back on to deliver ‘Where Jesus Leads Me I Will Follow’ on his own, before welcoming his compadres back for a final outing.  Introduced with a funny story about working with Peter Green, it’s Mac’s ‘One Sunny Day’, covered on latest album Everybody Wants A Piece.  With Bradford giving it large on the song’s big bass figure, Walker wrenches plenty of torque from the descending guitar riff, and delivers a jaw-dropping solo for good measure.
Joe Louis Walker is an electric blues delight, and here’s hoping he gets back to these shores soon.  When he does, get your ass along to see him, and have yourself a damn good time.
The cheerfully unassuming King Size Slim is deserving of a mention for his solo support slot, consisting entirely of unamplified tri-cone resonator guitar and vocals – and some thunderous foot stomping when required.  With a frequent twinkle in his eye he manages to weave some Sarf coast rapping into acoustic Delta blues, and engages the audience to assist him in re-tuning his guitar through “the collective consciousness of thought” – the best line I’ve heard on the subject since Jimbo Mathus declared “Fuck it – tuning is a decadent Western concept anyway”.

But amid the laughs Slim also produces stirring guitar and nice dynamics on the catch ‘Love Divine’, and constructs a tuneful singalong on ‘May We Find A Way Out Of The Storm’.  He may not actually be King Size, but Slim still manages to make an entertaining mark.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dan Patlansky - Perfection Kills

“Whuh!” grunts Dan Patlansky at the start of ‘Too Far Gone’.  It’s like a statement of intent for one of his trademarks – when Dan Patlansky decides to get gritty on Perfection Kills, he gets real gritty.
For me Patlansky’s last album Introvertigo never really found the weight of punch that was evident on its predecessor Dear Silence Thieves.  But this time around ‘Too Far Gone’ is just one example of him getting back to his edgy best, its big descending riff trading off against some squeaky funkiness before he slots in a strong solo that also incorporates some stylish dynamics.
Hit' em high, hit 'em low, hit 'em hard!
Pic by Laurence Harvey
The album opens and closes with similarly convincing combinations.  ‘Johnny’ has an attack that lives up to its chorus of “Hit ‘em high, hit ‘em low, hit ‘em hard”.  It’s a tale of the impact of growing up in a difficult environment, but Patlansky still manages to add light to the shade with some twinkling guitar and smooth vocal “oohs” in contrast to the rasp of his vocal elsewhere.  At the other end of the set comes ‘Dog Day’, which ponders whether our hard day’s night is as bad as the plight of others, to the accompaniment of a neck-snapping chorus, and sand-blasted guitar underscored by organ oomph, before Patlansky rounds it out with a brief, squalling rollercoaster of a solo.
In between those two bookends the aforementioned ‘Too Far Gone’ bolsters the middle of the album, along with the offbeat funky undercurrent of ‘Junket Man’ and the staccato edginess of ‘iEyes’.  The former contrasts relaxed verses with a tense chorus, while Patlansky dashes off a – technical term coming up – widdly guitar solo with ease.  The latter casts a withering eye on the phenomenon of people taking in the world through their phone screens, the distorted vocals suggesting the unnatural filter they’re surrendering to.
But Patlansky is just as good when taking a breather from the hard-hitting approach of these tracks.  ‘Mayday’ is slower, more mellow, with keys contributions that add delicacy.  Patlansky’s guitar sparkles, and the verses have a dreamy quality that call to mind his Floyd influences.  Maybe it could be leavened with a middle eight of some kind, but it’s indicative of the different shots he could have in his locker.
If ‘Mayday’ has a hint of prog about it, ‘Judge A Man’ gets back to basics, with a patient slow blues on which Patlansky goes all Albert King on an excellent extended solo.  Better still though is ‘My Dear Boy’, on which he contemplates his young son’s future in a manner that’s both reflective and positive, carrying an openness to possibility.  It’s a simple and lovely tune, propelled by some breezy strumming of an effortlessly Hendrixy variety.
The scary thing is that I reckon Patlansky still has untapped potential.  I find myself pondering where he could take the proggier influences he’s described in interview.  If he had someone like Steven Wilson in the producer’s chair, what far horizons could he explore with a couple of tricky time signatures and a sinuous rhythm section?
But never mind my leaps of whimsy.  Perfection Kills confirms that Dan Patlansky is a big hitter.  He can deliver big riffs with a modern twist to them.  He’s as expressive a lead player as you could find, when he puts his mind to it.  And while a couple of tracks here may lag behind the rest, more and more he shows capability as an imaginative songwriter, whether with the challenging social commentary of ‘Too Far Gone’ or the delicacy of songs like ‘Mayday’ and ‘My Dear Boy’.  If there’s a New Wave of Classic Rock rolling in, then Dan Patlansky is surfing it.

Read the exclusive interview with Dan Patlansky here.
Perfection Kills is released on 2 February.

Dan Patlansky tours the UK in March, supported by Mollie Marriott.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa

I had high hopes for this album, I really did.  The notion that Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa were reprising a collection of “soul gems” sounded promising – a chance for Bonamassa to lay back and swing a bit after the Sturm und Drang of the latest Black Country Communion affair, allied to the light touch and reined in vibrato Hart showed on her last album Fire On The Floor.
Unfortunately Black Coffee doesn’t deliver on those expectations.  Or perhaps I should say it doesn’t match my conception of what they were intending.  Not that it’s a bad album, though it’s not a great one either.  But it draws on a wider range of styles than soul – sometimes to good effect, sometimes less so.
The highlights actually lie in jazz-inflected songs like ‘Lullabye Of The Leaves’ and ‘Why Don’t You Do It Right’.  The latter is a smoky ballad, originally recorded by Ella Fitzgerald,
He's behind you, Beth!
and Hart does a good job of evoking that mood, aided by some rippling piano from the inevitable Reese Wynans and a subtle solo from Bonamassa.  The latter, a Kansas Joe McCoy song tackled by Peggy Lee back in the Forties, is finger-snapping jazz, with slinky, swinging horns and rinky-dink piano from Wynans, with both Hart and Bonamassa catching the easy-going mood.
The closing couple of tracks may be less in jazz mode, but carry a similarly coherent vibe.  ‘Soul On Fire’ is a bit of a torch song, with Hart keeping her vibrato on a leash and JoBo exercising similar restraint, although he can’t resist firing off a few clusters of unnecessary notes.  The same is true of his brief but steely solo on ‘Addicted’, a laid back, almost reggae like shuffle on which Hart essays a suitably dreamy vocal.
None of the above are raves, but at least they develop a coherent mood.  Etta James’ ‘Damn Your Eyes’ has a different, tense feel to it, with Hart getting soulful to the strains of a strong riff, backed up by piano chords and organ swells from Wynans, stabs of horn punctuation, and an effective, urgent solo from Bonamassa.
Those are the highlights though, other songs hanging off them in an unfocussed fashion.  The opener, Edwin Starr’s ‘Give It Everything You Got’ has soul food ingredients in the form of the horns, backing vox, and handclaps, and the guitar interplay with (I think) Michael Rhodes’ bass is playing.  But JB’s warped wah-wah intro and even heavier solo just sound incongruous.  Meanwhile the title track, from the Ike and Tina Turner catalogue, is essentially a low key arrangement over which Hart gets her wail on – and this is purely a matter of personal preference, but that quavering vibrato she is wont to adopt does precisely zip for me.
‘Saved’ is high tempo, honking pseudo-gospel that isn’t as funny as it thinks, though Anton Fig’s train-track drum pattern is appealing.  And ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ is simply redundant – give me Howlin’ Wolf any time, or even Frank Frost and Sam Carr.

Some pleasing moments then, and the musicianship is of course top notch, but ultimately the whole is less than the some of its parts.  All things considered, Black Coffee isn’t so much a rich, dark soulful brew as a half-and-half.

Black Coffee is released by Provogue Records on 26 January.