Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Paul Rodgers - Free Spirit: Celebrating The Music Of Free

I was too young to ever see Free play live in their heyday.  So my eyes lit up at the announcement of Paul Rodgers’ Free Spirit tour last year – but sadly I couldn’t make it to any of the shows.  Judging by this 16 song recording of the Royal Albert Hall gig, I missed out big time.
Apart from anything else, this set has been impeccably recorded.  Whether the acoustics of the Albert Hall contribute to that at all I don’t know, but right from the bright opening number ‘Little Bit Of Love’ the drum sound is crisp, and the guitar and piano are mingled effectively.  Paul Rodgers’ voice is also clear as a bell, and by the following ‘Ride A Pony’ it’s evident –
Paul Rodgers - the spirit is willing, and the flesh is able
as if there were any doubt – that his pipes are still in excellent condition.  Where some of his vocal contemporaries are struggling in their later years, Rodgers is still a powerhouse whose reach is undiminished.  What’s more, as they get down to business on the gritty ‘Woman’ it’s apparent that he’s still the master of melisma, stretching syllables over several notes, and of wordless, “whoa-oh” articulation of soul.  In fact in this mode the influence of soul giants like Otis Redding is so obvious that the labelling of Free as a blues rock outfit seems a bit lazy - soul rock would be more accurate.
Rodgers is backed here by Deborah Bonham’s band, and if living up to the reputations of Paul Kossoff, Simon Kirke and Andy Fraser is a big challenge they seem to relish it. Guitarist Pete Bullick delivers a piercing solo on ‘Be My Friend’ that captures the depth of feeling well – and evidently pleases the crowd – and as the song progresses Gerard ‘G’ Louis’s piano backing emerges nicely.
They ease off with ‘My Brother Jake’, although revving it up a bit towards the end as Bullick’s guitar fizzes and sparks, and continue in a lighter vein with the roomy simplicity of ‘Love You So’, with Rodgers colouring in the margins around the melody. ‘Travellin’ In Style’ is a sunny affair, with the audience warming up their tonsils for subsequent exertions, before ‘Magic Ship’ marks a shift in terrain with its mystical feel, the piano intro carrying some Celtic undertones before the rhythm section kicks in.
Thereafter they get into the more muscular kind of groove that really does suggest blues rock.  ‘Mr Big’ has a tense play-off between the guitar and Rich Newman’s drums, before Ian Rowley is showcased on bass, evoking Andy Fraser’s rubber band sound.  ‘The Stealer’ has a mean strut, and another good solo from Bullick, while ‘Fire And Water’ has a soulful, rock steady straightforwardness. ‘The Hunter’ is brisk, and down and dirty, and then it’s party time on ‘Alright Now’, where Newman appears to dial up the beats per minute a fraction, giving it a fresh, zippier feel as the crowd sing themselves hoars.
Then they crunch into ‘Wishing Well’ and that classic descending riff, again powered along nicely by Newman’s drumming towards those wonderful lines, “Put up a fight you believe to be right / And someday the sun will shine through”.  The audience can still be heard singing along in the background, and I suspect there were smiles galore as they bathed in the warm glow of a trip down memory lane.
For me the album peaks there, with the following ‘Walk In My Shadow’ and ‘Catch A Train’ exhalations to end the night, even though both are tough enough, the former with its big riff and some squealing feedback, while Bullick essays some very Koss-like guitar on the latter – a song never actually played live by Free.
The album is titled Free Spirit: Celebrating The Music Of Free, and there’s certainly an air of celebration about it – even of a nostalgic love-in.  And why not?  It’s a strong body of work to celebrate, to say the least, and with Paul Rodgers’ voice well to the fore the spirit is alive and well.

Free Spirit is released by Quarto Valley Records on 22 June 2018, in various formats including 2 disc CD/DVD including tour booklet.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Big Boy Bloater & The LiMiTs - Pills

If you’re in the market for a blast of aggressive but witty R’n’B, then look no further.  As English as cod and chips, Big Boy Bloater majors on the kind of collision between Chicago R’n’B and Chuck Berry rock’n’roll evident in both early Stones and the Feelgoods.  His 2016 outing Luxury Hobo showed him throwing his own twists into that mix, and Pills repeats the trick.
The title track, with its ascending guitar figure, rocking bass from Steven Oates, and Bloater’s typical gargled-with-broken-glass-this-morning vocals, kicks off a hat-trick of tracks in this vein.  ‘Friday Night’s Alright For Drinking’ may be a bit vin ordinaire in places, but the chorus has plenty of fizz, and in addition to Big Boy’s pinging slide licks it benefits from
Big Boy Bloater - naturally charming
some classy female harmonies that provide extra oomph.  ‘The Saturday Night Desperation Shuffle’ is the real winner though.  A ‘Ballroom Blitz’-like drum rhythm from Matt Cowley sets the tempo, matched by fast-striding bass from Oates, over which the Bloat lays an urgent guitar riff, and a spiky solo.  And while he may not carry the air of menace that Lee’n’Wilko conjured up, he does offer a wry line in observational lyrics.
Pub rock, we’re often reminded by those who were there, wasn’t a sound or a scene, it was just rock music being played in a bunch of London pubs by a variety of different bands. It’s striking though, that when Bloater departs from the forceful R’n’B template, he’s liable to come up with the bobbing Anglo-Country that is ‘Stop Stringing Me Along’, a tale of relationship failure with acoustic strumming and ooh-oohing female backing vocals, that recalls another pub rocker, Nick Lowe.
‘Oops Sorry’ is a bit of lightweight rock’n’roll that’s also in Lowe territory, both musically and lyrically.  A whimsical tale of heartbreak that extols the merits of Gaffa tape and super glue, it features chiming piano and a Latino guitar solo.  And just to round out the pub rock comparisons, ‘Slacker’s Paradise’ is a skipping effort initially redolent of Graham Parker, and a witty vision of consummate idleness with perfectly matched laid back accompaniment.
The back end of the album may contain some efforts that don’t quite hit the bullseye, like the ultimately inconsequential ‘Mouse Organ’, with its inflections of European jazziness, or the closing ‘A Life Full Of Debt’, a melancholy tale of consumerism based on ukulele strumming.  And while ‘The Digital Number Of The Beast’ is a humorous take on “the rise of the machines”, pinging out some musical binary code, it lacks the focus on display elsewhere.
But hey, there’s still room for the quintessentially Bloaterist ‘Unnaturally Charming’, a spooky B-Movie yarn about a young man whose easy charm masks a dangerous misfit, with swirls of fairground organ in the background, jagged guitar counterpointed by more female backing vox, and closing out with a repeated, Dan Auerbach-like guitar lick.
Big Boy Bloater ain’t no teenage guitar hero.  He’s not trying to make some clever crossover into another market.  His act is founded on down to earth elements of rock’n’rollin’ directness, delivered with wit and imagination.  He takes some basic R’n’B virtues, and turns them into something as fresh as a mug of whelks.  Go get a fork and dig in.

Pills is released by Mascot Label Group on 15 June.
Big Boy Bloater tours Britain in September and October - details here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Future Juke preview - A Festival of 21st Century Blues

There’s this Future Juke Festival coming up at a handful of venues in London in the next week, in case you hadn’t noticed.  So I thought I’d pitch in with some thoughts on a few of the acts I’ve tripped over previously.  Well why not?

Eli “Paperboy” Reed could well be one of the highlights of the week at the 100 Club on 4 June, judging by the urgent, sometimes gospel-inflected, Sixties-style soul of his 2016 album My Way Home.  If Samantha Fish took Detroit R’n’B mini-epics of love and rejection, and re-tooled them for the 21stcentury on her album Chills & Fever, Reed’s style is a
Eli "Paperboy" Reed up close and personal
throwback to the old days, with a reverb-drenched production where you can practically hear scratches on 45rpm vinyl.
The energy levels are intense on the likes of ‘Cut Ya Down’, but he also pulls off sweetly Sam Cooke-ish soul on both ‘Tomorrow’s Not Promised’ and the title track, with its gospel choir like backing vocals.  It’s worth bearing in mind that in addition to spending a year or so imbibing the blues in Clarksdale, Bostonian Reed played organ and piano in a Chicago church alongside noted soul singer Mitty Collier, so he knows his onions, and it’s apparent here.
‘The Strangest Thing’ is a rock’n’rollin’ affair, while ‘A Few More Days’ has a dash of funk with its cocky guitar riffing.  And throughout it all Reed delivers vocals that are raw and convincing, with controlled melisma – and it’s not all boy/girl, moon/June soul subject matter by the way.
There are people who rave about the soul of our own James Hunter Six, but frankly they’re smooth operaters compared to Reed’s fervent reawakening of the Sixties.

One of the other main events is the outing at Dingwall’s on 1 June by Californian Grammy Award winner Fantastic Negrito, and you can find a review of his upcoming third record Please Don’t Be Dead here – with links to coverage of his two previous efforts.  But he’s also supported by British trio Miraculous Mule, so what are they all about?
Well, I’m not yet acquainted with their latest album Two Tonne Testimony.  But back in 2015 I came across their back-to-basics reading of ‘In My Time Of Dying’ on a covermount tribute CD to Physical Graffiti produced by Mojo magazine. On the strength of that I got hold of a couple of their albums, Blues Uzi and Deep Fried, which showed them offering a few
Miraculous Mule get spiritual
different modes of bluesiness.
First and foremost perhaps, they have a penchant for traditional spirituals and folk songs of the kind you might expect from Blind Boys Of Alabama, but often with a British sensibility that’s sometimes modern and edgy, sometimes dead straight. So they do a delightful version of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ that sounds like it’s straight out of the British Blues Boom by someone like The Animals.
Or there’s their minimalist take on the 19thcentury hymn ‘I Know I’ve Been Changed’ – also recorded by Aaron Neville – where the lead vocal is backed by little more than low key guitar and choral backing voices, with sporadic handclaps – a template they exploit more than a little.  But they might also produce something like ‘Satisfied’, with its guitar buzzing like a jarful of wasps behind the favoured device of a hypnotically repetitive, work song-like vocal refrain.
Then again, stuff like ‘Highway Song’ offers a blissed-out wah-wah trip that’s all Swinging Sixties London, whether in the hands of envelope-pushing Brits or Hendrix, who’s also echoed in the ‘Crosstown Traffic’ style riffing they bring to the gospel of ‘I’m A Soldier’ (aka 'Soldier For Jesus', a song often played to great effect by electric blues icon Joe Louis Walker). Or in another vein altogether you might get some country blues with clanking percussion a la Lincoln Durham, as on ‘Blues Uzi’.

On 31 May Brighton’s Mudlow are part of a three-part bill at The Islington. Their retrospective collection Waiting For The Tide To Rise opens with ‘Down In The Snow’, which features a guttural, ‘Peter Gunn’ style riff accompanied by swelling horns, gruff barked
vocals and a down to earth guitar solo from Tobias Mudlow, and a tasteful trumpet break.  But for the most part it’s a three-piece affair, with a few interjections of harp and horns.
Sometimes this means down to earth grunginess on the likes of ‘Drunken Turkey’, with the howling vocals sounding like a herniated Screaming Jay Hawkins, or a North Mississippi vibe on ‘So Long Lee’ with its rolling guitar line.  Often is dark, contemplative Americana, maybe haunting as on ‘The Jester’ with its twanging, spaced out guitar notes and tickled piano. Some of this, to be honest, can start to seem a bit earnest and sombre, though Tobias does turn his hand to a good Tom Waits-like vocal along the way.
Personally I like them best on the likes of ‘Stubb’s Yard’, which has a jaunty Delta simplicity to it that’s redolent of Frank Frost and Sam Carr.  Or on ‘Codename: Toad’, which has an air of Feelgood but more primitive – although they take their foot off the pedal a bit, rather than ramming it home in the way Wilko, Lee and co would have done.  Hopefully they’ll give stuff like this a bit more welly live.

But what do I know? There are other acts out there during Future Juke, billed as a Festival of 21stCentury blues.  Go see, go hear!



Monday, May 28, 2018

Rev. Sekou featuring Luther and Cody Dickinson - In Times Like These

The cover of In Times Like These, by Rev. Sekou, tells you a lot. A sharp dressed black dude wearing a three-piece whistle and a trilby with the brim pulled down over his eyes is walking along between two railway tracks, an acoustic guitar grasped in his mitt by the neck.  That’ll be the Reverend, I’m thinking.  And underneath the title it says ‘Feat. Luther And Cody Dickinson’.  Now, contributions by the North Mississippi Allstar brothers may not be a guarantee of quality, but they’re a pretty good recommendation.
And when it gets going with opening track ‘Resist’, it sounds like they’re onto a good one.  A
Like I said, whipping up a storm live.
civil rights sermon-style call to arms gives way to a hot-gospelling slice of soul, with organ, piano and horns, underpins an anthemic chorus of ‘We want freedom and we want it now’, with Luther Dickinson adding a few fills along the way.  You get the picture?
The way the title track barrels along is a reminder that Ray Charles built his soul sound on church music, with the Rev hollering away in fine fashion about the need for a miracle, but reflecting that ‘Ain’t nobody gonna save us, we’re the ones we’re waiting for’.
I imagine that the Reverend Osaguefo Uhuru Sekou can whip up quite a storm performing this stuff live, and there’s plenty of passion on display as the album progresses.  But he’s articulate with it too, with his liner notes about ‘The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters’ underlining the urgency of the lyrics.
The playing is top quality too, as you might expect with the Dickinsons on board.  I might have suggested that Luther Dickinson was doing sterling work on slide, but evidently he has some serious competition here from lap steel whizz AJ Ghent.  In any event there’s sublime playing decorating the likes of ‘Muddy And Rough’ and the jazzed-up gospel evident in the second half of ‘The Devil Finds Work’, with more rousing horns and Hammond B3 from former Al Green sideman Rev. Charles Hodges.
Things flag a little towards the end, with a couple of songs like the ‘Problems’ that melodically are more R Kelly than Ray Charles, but that’s enlivened by the rootsy playing, and in particular by some zinging guitar which I suspect is Dickinson’s handiwork.
Rev. Sekou is a guy with blues in his veins, but more than that he has a message, and boy does he want to get it across.

Rev. Sekou plays at the Black Deer Festival in Sussex on 23 June.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Here Comes The Sun - Blues Enthused meets Austin Gold

It's not so much an interview as a conversational concoction, really.   Austin Gold are a band who've been getting some attention in the 'New Wave of Classic Rock' space that's opening up, since the release of their debut album Before Dark Clouds last year. It’s the morning after the night before, when they delivered a set supporting King King at the Whitley Bay Playhouse that drew a roar of approval from a full house, and now the band members gradually assemble for a chat after scoffing their fry-up breakfasts in the Beefeater on the seafront.
Rhythm guitarist Jack Cable is first to turn up and park himself across the table, and gets the ball rolling by explaining how the band originated in two separate outfits back in 2014, playing at a blues night in the North Street Bar in their hometown of Peterborough.
Austin Gold - no getting away from Dave Smith's Beatles influences
“Dave put together a band,” he says, referring to lead guitarist and singer Dave Smith, “and another friend of ours Dan Collins put together a band.  Chris Ogden, our drummer, and myself were in Dan Collins’ band – I was playing bass, and Dan Collins was on guitar.  And in Dave’s band there was Dave and our keyboard player Russ Hill, along with another couple of musicians, and they were called Red Wine Blues. Dave decided that he was really enjoying it, but he wanted an extra guitar – so he asked me.  So I was in both bands, playing bass in one and guitar in the other. Then Dan decided he didn’t want to do it any more, but Dave was really getting into it.  He said, ‘I think I could write some tunes for this, I think it could really work.’  Then our drummer left, and the obvious choice was Chris.  Eventually our bass player left as well, and we knew of Lee Churchill from things he’d done before with groups of friends.  And then we’ve just kind of gone on from there, with Dave writing some songs and us doing more and more of our own stuff.
 “It’s kind of the natural progression that everyone goes through,” he says of their development, “where you start feathering in the odd original, around blues covers.  And then the blues covers seem to fade away a little bit, and the covers become a little more choice.  So some of our favourite things to play now are Wings, like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, and we do Python Lee Jackson’s ‘In A Broken Dream’ – that, I think, is my favourite cover to do.”
Along the way, he adds, their current monicker came into being.
“The name came about because we felt we had out grown our original name which was Red Wine Blues. Obviously we aren't really doing blues covers anymore. Dave has an old Rocktron guitar pedal called Austin Gold and we thought the name suited us quite well so we went with it.”

Now the interesting thing for me is that this evolution away from blues covers has resulted in a distinctive, more melodic sound.  So where has that come from, I wonder.
“Well, Dave’s the songwriter,” Cable says. “Dave will come in with what we call the nucleus of a song, so anything to do with lyrics or melody lines is all Dave.  That’s him all day long.  So he’ll bring a song to the band, and we’ll play through it, and within a couple of hours we’ll have all written our own parts around what Dave’s doing.
Austin Gold go for a monochrome look
“But the influences are stretched quite far and wide,” he goes on, “because every member of the band has a different musical background.  In age there’s quite a broad spectrum there as well.  Our drummer Chris is 25, and our keyboard player Russ is 50.  Just 50,” he emphasises.  “So there’s quite a gap. Russ is a huge Marillion fan, and Deep Purple and things like that.  And Dave was born in the 70s, and his dad really pushed him down the Beatles, Eagles, David Bowie road, that kind of stuff.  Lee, our bass player, is much more hard rock based.  The previous band he was in was called The More I See, which was heavier – the original guitarist was in The Prodigy, so you can imagine it was quite heavy stuff.  And then I actually come from a producer’s background so I’m listening more for interesting sounds than I am for killer guitar licks.  Which is maybe why mine and Dave’s guitar playing works so well together.”
It’s a point well made, I think, by a couple of trilling guitar lines Cable delivers on ‘Roadside’ and ‘See The Light’ that counterpoint the main riff.  Before seeing them live I’d been convinced I was hearing a synthesizer, but it turns out to be the way Cable conjures an unusual tone with the aid of a fuzz box.  But sometimes a key contribution is not to play something, it seems. 
“Part of the ethos of the band has always been space, give each other space.  Because there’s five of us, it’s hard to all be heard unless you give each other space.  So that’s the kind of players we all want to be, is humble in our approach.  So if Dave’s playing something that’s full on, and got lots of movement, lots of playing, then I don’t need to.  There are even big parts in songs that we have where I’m not playing at all!  Do I care? No, why would I?  It’s serving the song.  It’s a bit of a clichéd thing to say, but it’s true.”
Serving the song is a sentiment that’s music to my ears, as it were.  I wish that more people did it.  Cable reckons in their case it’s a function of Dave Smith’s writing style.
“I think because of the way Dave writes melody lines, not just vocally but also for solos, he’s sort of putting himself in a situation where he has to play the solo pretty much how it is on the record, because the guitar solos are almost as memorable as the chorus lines.  And Dave loves a big hook, and that’s what it’s all about. He likes a big chorus.”
The end result is a sound that doesn’t make for simple comparisons.  Listening to their album Before Dark Clouds I’ve often asked myself who they remind me of, and not found easy answers.  Luke Morley of Thunder’s ‘other band’ The Union sometimes springs to mind, and going backaways even the likes of UFO.  But the band that Austin Gold sound most like is – well, Austin Gold. And they don’t fit the typical blues rock template.
“No,” Cable agrees. “It’s hard to put a label on what we actually are!
“Melodic hard rock?” I suggest.
“There you go – I like that.”

As the rest of the band roll in and join us, the conversation turns to the previous night, and the surprise they got coming onstage to be greeted by a full house, when they were expecting to find about 50 people in their seats.
“Well when I’ve been to gigs it’s been like that,” says Dave Smith.  “Everyone stays in the
Dave Smith - Seventies rock revivalist
bar, and then when the main act come on they come in.”
“I came out to check about 15 minutes before we went on,” says drummer Chris Ogden, “and it was deadly silent in there.  But yeah it was great, really good.”
So was supporting King King a learning experience?
“I think we’ve learnt loads just in the last day alone,” says Ogden.  “They’re much further on than we are, and seeing how they work, how their show works, is great.”
“One interesting thing,” says Cable, “is that we do gigs down in London, where you have no idea who else is on the bill, and a lot of the time who’s on the bill has nothing to do with what you’re playing, so there’s no inspiration from them. Whereas when you get to do a show with a band like King King, it inspires you to bring your A-game a bit more. I personally thought last night we were on our game, and that was mostly because we felt inspired to go out and do the best we could.”
“And there’s the style of music,” Dave Smith adds.  “We knew we were playing to a type of audience where - we’re not dissimilar to what they do – kind of under the umbrella genre of blues rock, but we knew they’d be at least receptive.”
Cable laughs.
“Except we’re not blues rock any more – we’re melodic hard rock!”
“We’ll have that!” Smith nods.
“That’s what I said,” says Cable.
“But I thought it really worked last night,” says Smith, “and afterwards the boys were really supportive.”
“Yeah they’re great guys,” agrees bassist Lee Churchill.  “They said they really appreciated the show, and were just very normal, down to earth, friendly guys.”
“They were really happy to chat,” adds Ogden, “and take any questions we had.”
“There was a lovely moment when we were all standing at the side of the stage watching their show,” recalls Smith, “and me and Lee were standing there and at some point Alan Nimmo came over to get a drink, and he shook our hands and said ‘Great show lads’” – said with a Nimmo-esque thumbs up and wink – “in the middle of them playing. He’s like ‘Everything alright?’”
“It was funny when we were unloading the van,” says Russ Hill.  “There’s like a big ramp you have to get up.  And Alan obviously looked at me and thought, ‘He’ll need a hand.’  So he pulled me up, like woof – he’s a dead strong fella!”
“He’d obviously seen your advanced age,” says Cable, chancing his arm
“Yeah that’s what I thought,” Hill laughs.  “He thought ‘Here’s the old boy.’”

Since Dave Smith is now in the company, it seems like time to get his take on the band’s sound, given that he’s the main writer.  So what’s inspired him?
“Well, how long have we got?”
“Not long – you’ve got another gig to get to.”
“Okay, to summarise – massive Beatles nut from a kid, ELO, Bowie, Gerry Rafferty –so although we’re more guitar-based, it’s the chord structures I love in that stuff.  We’re really into Bonamassa – we like heavy stuff like the Foos, Audioslave and that.  So it’s a mixture.  We’re getting a tag at the moment of 70s rock revival-ish, and that’s cool – Bad Company, massive Pink Floyd fans as well, and there are some moments where what we do comes over a bit Floyd.  And then we like Tom Petty as well.”
“Cheers!” says Cable, presumably the leading Tom Petty fan in the band.
“Thank you,” nods Smith in acknowledgement.  “So a mixture really, and in terms of the writing it tends to be the music first – sit down with the guitar.  And then that dictates where
Cable and Smith - almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Skynyrd
the lyrics go.  It’s an open-ended question really, I could go on and on!”
“I think one of the best things,” says Ogden, “is we’ve never sat down and had a chat about what genre we want to do.  We just write the song and it goes where it goes.  And then since the album came out we’ve been put in so many different genres.”
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword that,” Smith suggests.  “Because sometimes it’s like ‘Well what are you?’  People are ambivalent about not knowing the genre. But then, that’s not how we work. There’s a track ‘Home Ain’t Home’, where it’s quite dark, and a Beatles workout, or we do something straight like ‘See The Light’, which is just a straightforward four to the floor – “
“- Americana,” says Cable.
Eh?  Now, of all the styles I might ascribe to Austin Gold, Americana is not one of them.  It turns out what they mean is a hint of Southern rock, suggested by the impressively intertwined guitar face-off Cable and Smith go for on set closer ‘See The Light’.
“Yeah, which isn’t on the album,” says Cable.  “It’s something that at one show in particular I thought – that would be a perfect moment for a little Skynyrd-type guitar thing.  So we talked about it at one rehearsal, and then it’s been in ever since.”
The comparison still tickles me though, because as Skynyrd impersonators I reckon they’d make a very good Wishbone Ash.  Austin Gold are a band whose sound seems to me as British as the North Sea backdrop to the photographs we do before parting company.  In a good way, I should stress.
We finish up with some chat about them recording a new album later in the year, for release in 2019, and forthcoming gigs and festival appearances they have scheduled.  But as Cable says, their immediate future is to get some more support slots like this one with King King, to build their audience on the strength of the current album.  Here’s hoping they get them – they’re a band that deserve to be heard.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Black Cat Bone - Get Your Kicks Sessions EP

With a bottom end that rumbles like thunder coming over the hills, Black Cat Bone certainly make their presence felt on this 5-track EP.  Squalling guitar from Luis Del Castillo, and wailing harp from Ross Craig have to compete to make their presence felt over Kai Wallace’s insistent, nagging drum rhythms and the dirty, fuzzed up bass of Jonny Voodoo (now succeeded by Ewan Mckenna after Linstead left for pastures new).  With Craig adding deep, edgy vocals, it can be a compelling brew.
Ross Craig and Luis Del Castillo get their wail on
‘Morning Light’ sets the tone with a booming, hypnotic drum pattern in the foreground, and ringing guitar in the distance, while high harmonies on the “How-how-howlin’” chorus provide contrast.  The titular ‘Get Your Kicks’ eases off the starting grid with a slow opening verse over spare guitar before the big artillery kicks in to support a rolling, double-tracked riff with an attractive climbing segment, leading up to a final, uptempo assault that features scrabbling guitar from Del Castillo balanced by a harp solo from Craig.
‘Bullet’ combines a driving riff and stuttering rhythm with Craig’s croaking vocal to come across like 'Teenage Kicks' colliding with Motorhead.  After a low-key opening ‘Love My Baby’ echoes ‘Roadhouse Blues’ to the extent that you’ll want to call out ‘Let it roll, let it roll’ over the buzzing rhythm section, while Del Castillo’s scratchy guitar tries to break in through a window to join the action – and now and then succeeds.
Closing track ‘Hip Shake’ takes Slim Harpo’s much covered blues classic and drags it through a proverbial hedge backwards, with fuzzy bass and buzzsaw guitar piling in over a relentless, stomping rhythm worthy of the Glitter Band.  With another chanted chorus, you can almost feel the sweat of a mosh pit as they bring it to an urgent conclusion full of prickly guitar injections and bursts of harp.
Black Cat Bone have a distinctive sound that’s likely to appeal to a younger, more grunge-ready audience.  The challenge for them will be to make sure their deep groove doesn’t become a rut as they go forward.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Fantastic Negrito - Please Don't Be Dead

Calling Fantastic Negrito genre-busting may be a bit of an exaggeration, but like Gary Clark Jr and Rag’n’Bone Man he’s one of those artists who’s doing something new by melding elements of old-fashioned blues to beats and rap stylings.  More accurately maybe, bearing in mind his overt interest in politics and social commentary, would be to say he’s following in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron, who described himself as a “scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues”. Either way, it’s got Negrito some attention, garnering a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy for his 2016 album Last Days Of Oakland.
On new album Please Don’t Be Dead he sets out his stall with ‘Bad Guy Necessity’, utilising
Fantastic Negrito - don't need this fascist groove thang
familiar ingredients to both Oakland and his earlier Fantastic Negrito Deluxe EP.  He growls out a verse with its melodic roots in the cotton fields over a metronomic beat and throbbing bass, until it collides with a modern-day soul chorus and sprinklings of Prince-like falsetto, and restrained guitar work.
‘A Cold November Street’ and ‘The Suit That Won’t Come Off’ have even more rootsy foundations.  With understated organ accompaniment, the former develops a steady, ominous vibe from a low, work song foundation, with hints of the spooky old folk song ‘In The Pines’, which Negrito has covered previously, and adds a brief eruption of drums and guitar. The latter builds on a halting beat and a background field moan, and Negrito adds a pinging guitar break to its meditations on skin colour resulting in “standing on the outside”.
Negrito takes a resilient, hopeful stance though, as on ‘A Letter To Fear’, where a slow, nagging groove underpins the sweetly sung declaration that “Whatever you do to me, I will carry on” in response to imagery of mass shootings at the hands of semi-automatic weapons.
Negrito mixes things up with some other vibes though.  ‘Bullshit Anthem’ dials up the funk enough to make like James Brown, as accompaniment for a simple mantra of “Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit – yeah!”  Both ‘A Boy Named Andrew’ and ‘The Duffler’ exploit anthemic chants that sound more Native than African American, the latter especially punchy as a precursor to more soulful falsetto and wonky organ sounds, ahead of a piercing, all-too-brief guitar solo and a bridge that funks hard.  And current single ‘Plastic Hamburgers’ rocks out with a strutting guitar riff and moments of Zep-like slitheriness as he demands we “break outta these chains that’s pullin’ us down.”
He can do dreamy too, as on the low key ‘Dark Windows’ with its almost Beatle-ish melody, flickers of cello, and restrained guitar fills. ‘Never Give Up’ is simpler still, a one minute interlude on which smooth harmonies celebrate “Walking in sunshine, walking through the city” over the rapped-out title.
Fantastic Negrito – aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz – has come a long way from the hospital bed cover photograph of Please Don’t Be Dead, picturing him after the car crash in 2000 that nearly killed him.  My guess is that, with his Don King-like electro-shock hair and strident social commentary, he can shake this stuff up and deliver on stage too.  But you don’t have to rely on my guesswork – he has a handful of British dates coming up.  Check him out if you can.

Please Don’t Be Dead is released by Cooking Vinyl on 15 June.

Fantastic Negrito’s UK dates are:
24 May -  Night & Day Café, Manchester
30 May – King Tut’s, Glasgow
1 June –  Dingwalls, London (Future Juke Festival)
2 June –  Thekla, Bristol

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Simon McBride Trio - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 17 May 2018

So here’s a question. You can go see Joe Bonamassa in some arena for a hundred quid, or you can go see Northern Irishman Simon McBride and his trio play about twenty feet from you in a club for a fifth of the price – maybe less.  What do you do?
To my mind it’s a no-brainer.  McBride is a sizzling guitarist and a good singer, has a decent bank of material, and he and his band are brain-crushingly tight.  More than that, they’re engaging in a way that recognises live performance is about more than just rolling out the tunes.
Simon McBride - feeling as well as fret-frying
They get off to a strong start with new song 'Don't Dare', and you get a clear sense of McBride’s oeuvre from their rock solid, driving rendition of Free’s ‘The Stealer’, followed by ‘Heartbreaker’, a rifftastic original in a heavy Bad Company vein.  But ‘You Got A Problem’ underlines the breadth of McBride’s approach, starting off swingingly bluesy but veering into some Billy Whizz guitar work that’s also clever with it.
McBride explains that ‘Go Down Gamblin’’, from his Crossing The Line album, is a Blood Sweat and Tears cover, for which he decided not to go with the original’s tuba solo.  A good call, I think, but it’s a strong song and he makes it his own with some slithering guitar and use of harmonics at the end.
Throughout all of this McBride’s control of his sound is impeccable, and in fact their sound as a whole is big but pristine, as is evident on the slow-starting epic ‘Down To The Wire’, where they make good use of dynamics.  But by the time they get to ‘Down To The River’ it’s not just about McBride producing a stunningly spooky, echo-imbued solo, as it’s prefaced by some banter with bassist and fellow Northern Irishman Dave Marks, who proves to be adept at taking the mick out of his boss for the rest of the night.
Marks isn’t just there as a comic turn though, as ‘Change’ demonstrates.  He adds some slap bass to funky riffing from McBride, before embarking on a bass solo – which, remarkably, is good enough and witty enough to not send me running straight to the bar!  Not to be left out, McBride gets into some funky interplay with him before going all jazzy ahead of an entertaining ‘cutting heads’ episode with Marks that’s wrapped up by McBride
McBride and Marks - rocktastic ribaldry
digging out the riff to ‘Smoke On The Water’.
Drummer Marty McCluskey (from guess where?) also gets a showcase, on ‘Fat Pockets’, which is  similarly well handled – not overlong, and punctuated by brief injections from McBride and Marks.
A new song, ‘Show Me How To Love’, from a new album scheduled for next year, features a staccato verse and a chiming chorus, before they bring the curtain down with the bouncing, shuffling ‘Don’t Be A Fool’, which lends itself naturally to a singalong and sees McBride getting jazzy again before they hit the Stop button.
The encore is heralded by the grinding out of the riff to ‘Iron Man’ as a preamble to them rocking out on ‘Power Of Soul’.  And believe me, when this lot get going they are serious contenders in the Aural Artillery Stakes.
McBride himself says that he’s more of a rock player than a bluesman, but there’s plenty of feeling as well as fleet-fingered fretwork in this show – and there’s a bucketload of fun from the comic double act of McBride and Marks into the bargain.  I'd seen them before, but this was a night when the Simon McBride Trio made plenty of friends, and next time they’re around I’ll be seeing them again – it’ll take a really big name to stop me.