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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

King King, Austin Gold - Playhouse, Whitley Bay, 11 May 2018

On it.  On it, on it, on it.  King King were totally on the money tonight.
Maybe Alan Nimmo had a premonition.  Coming onstage he looks out at the seated audience before a note has been played and says with a grin, “I hope you lot are gonnae get on your feet tonight.” And like a flash they are, even before he can add, “I cannae be doing with this sitting down shit.”
Next thing they’re off and running with an air-punching rendition of ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’, and anyone sitting down after that would surely have been a masochist.
Alan Nimmo, having an okay night by the look of it.
This was a performance that underlined two things about King King.  One is that they have special gift, one not all bands have, of creating a truly communal experience with their audience.  It’s apparent from that opening, and from the immediate to Nimmo’s quick instruction for them to get their hands clapping on the following ‘Waking Up’, and all the way through to the joyous, celebratory singalong on the encore of ‘Let Love In’.
The second thing is that they’re not standing still, trotting out the same set month after month. Tonight’s show features a new, quiet intro to ‘You Stopped The Rain’ as a precursor to a bit of audience input, though the best bit is the wowser of a solo Nimmo cranks out at the end of the song. Similarly Jonny Dyke produces a delicate new piano intro on ‘Rush Hour’ that fits the song beautifully, and Nimmo prefaces ‘Long Time Running’ with a teasing bit of guitar riffery.
More to the point though, the way all the gears click into place tonight it seems like the false starts, personnel change and anxieties of the last couple of years have now been put to bed.  New material like ‘Broken’ is now fully bedded into the set.  Meanwhile Jonny Dyke on
Just in case you'd forgotten who the lot with the guy in the kilt are.
keys, who according to Nimmo describes himself as “the most irritatingly positive member of the band”, seems entirely at home.  His solo on ‘Long History Of Love’  hits the mark now – for all I know he’s playing exactly the same notes as the last time I heard it in Edinburgh, but tonight it feels like he’s tapping into the emotional core of the song, while Nimmo’s closing solo is as ever doubled in intensity by the interaction with Wayne Proctor’s drumming.  And speaking of Proctor, he powers a bone-crunchingly tight version of ‘Lose Control’.
If Alan Nimmo still has any concerns about the state of his voice then they’re not apparent, as he applies himself to every song with gusto and an often beaming fizzog.  Dyke’s backing vocals with Proctor now sound more grooved in too, and together with Nimmo the two of them deliver the necessary punch to the chorus of ‘Long Time Running’.
The closing pillars of the set hit the bullseye too.  Lindsay Coulson brings the requisite bottom end to the funk party of ‘All My Life’, and the audience do their bit by keeping impressively schtum during Nimmo’s sotto voce solo on ‘Stranger To Love’.
Some reviewers and fans will have you believe that bands routinely deliver triumphantly perfect performances, but the reality is rather different.  Tonight though, the roar of approval that King King got at the end of ‘Let Love In’ told the story.  Whitley Bay was one of those nights.
Support act Austin Gold had done a fine job of warming up the crowd for them mind you,
Dave Smith gets all heartfelt.
whipping things up nicely right from their gutsy opener ‘Roadside’, on which the trilling motif I had assumed from the album to be a synth line turns out to come from guitarist Jack Cable.  They have a good line in ballads, even if now and then, as on ‘Wishing It Away’, it feels like they could learn from King King how to really build intensity.  But they do find another gear on ‘Before Dark Clouds’, the title track of their debut album, and without singer and lead guitarist Dave Smith having to resort to a solo of the blitzkrieg variety either.
They deliver some stuttering funk on ‘Another Kinda Bad’, and if ‘Home Ain’t Home’ shows that they’re not frightened of exercising some restraint, pace-wise, they still crown it with a damn good crescendo.
‘All The Way Down’ is another quality ballad with a heartfelt vocal from Smith,  and with good guitar harmonies mingled with Russell Hill’s keys to boot.  They close by segueing into the relaxed, rollicking, ‘See The Light’, which with its guitar face-off between Smith and Cable could develop into a real powerhouse of a closer.  The Whitley Bay crowd lapped it up.
Austin Gold have a melodic rock sound that’s very much their own.  Oh, you might detect a smidgen of this here, and a smidgen of that there, some old influences, some new.  But ultimately they’ve developed a coherent sound that goes beyond easy comparisons. If you haven’t heard them yet you should get Before Dark Clouds right away, and put that right.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Andrew Robert Eustace - Stories

Andrew Robert Eustace ain’t exactly your archetypal blues moniker, is it?  Doesn’t really have the same ring as Blind Arkansas Joe, say.  Never mind, that hasn’t stopped Glasgow-based Eustace from producing an album of original songs that wanders down the Delta and up into the North Mississippi hill country with some conviction.
‘Can’t Wait For To See That’ makes for a positive start, with a gritty, swaying guitar motif over a thudding, metronomic kick drum, and periodic injections of more distorted guitar,
Andrew Robert Eustace racks his brain for that chord shape 
while Eustace’s croaking, growling vocal increasingly brings to mind Cedric Burnside.  The following ‘Broken Down And Beat’ adds a hint of shuffle to the stomp, and if the repetitive, hypnotic riff doesn’t quite capture the North Mississippi sound it’s not far enough.  The ker-chunking drive of ‘The Man’ has an air of one-man blues machine Steve Hill about it, in addition to the aforementioned Burnside, and catches the ear with another swinging, steely guitar solo.
At the other end of the spectrum Eustace conjures up a couple of acoustic outings to be proud of. The unaccompanied ‘Down In This Valley’ is melancholy and impressively spare, and with its convincing, aching vocal it’s the real deal.  Similarly the closing ‘Every Single Day’ drifts along nicely from its languid acoustic intro.  With Eustace’s low, reflective singing it evokes the image of a lone musician in an undecorated, dimly lit room, empty except for maybe an old fan stirring the air in the corner.
Stories has its limitations, to be sure.  That kick drum stomp features too often for my liking.  It works to good effect on the slow groove of ‘Bad Weather Blues’, which displays a good sense of dynamics and a neat layering of guitar lines as it works up to a satisfyingly chunky ending.  It also fits the bill on ‘Free Man’, where it’s the only accompaniment to some vocal lines, interspersed with an appealingly zippy riff, but its use in the middle eight is overdoing it.  And the tasteful Celtic leanings of the harmonised guitar lines on ‘Crooked Old Dog’ deserve something more imaginative to underpin the verse.
The haunting ‘Running Man’ is okay, but doesn’t reach the level of the standout acoustic offerings, and its lyric about having “killed a man and I don’t know how” is at risk of sounding inauthentic.  But hey, Johnny Cash knew squat about shooting a man just to watch him die, so let’s not get too precious.
There’s good musicianship at work here, and some quality songwriting, and if Eustace were to let drummer Michael McGee off the leash a bit it might have even more snap, crackle and pop.  As it is, backed up by McGee, and by Gordon Irvine on rhythm guitar and Craig Davies on bass, Andrew Robert Eustace has done himself justice with Stories. If you like your blues rootsy then have a mosey down the Mississipi – well, the Clyde – and give it a listen.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Wayward Sons - The Mash House, Edinburgh, 22 April 2018

If you’ve passed this way much before, you may have clocked that when I’m not on the blues beat I’m still partial to a bit of hard rock. It’s what I grew up with, after all. So last weekend took in a premier blues-roots performance from Ian Siegal on Saturday, and this show from rockers Wayward Sons on the Sunday. And if the former was full of heart and soul, Sunday was simply a blast.
Toby Jepson - still kicking up dust
Led by former Little Angels singer Toby Jepson, the Sons carry off the impressive trick of marrying sophisticated classic rock stylings with a rock’n’roll energy rush that evokes anything from Slade to ‘Teenage Kicks’ to the Foo Fighters.  The result is a live set that’s like being slapped in the fizzog by that orange bloke from the old Tango ads.
Catchy tunes abound from album The Ghost Of Yet To Come, ranging from ‘Ghost’ early on to the brooks-no-argument set closer ‘Until The End’.  On ‘Crush’ they knowingly pick up on a phrase and pivot into a rocking rendition of Blondie’s ‘Union City Blues’.  And if there’s a typhoon-like intensity throughout, they also bring a convincing slower groove to ‘Something Wrong’, powered by Phil Martini’s howitzer drumming.  By this time there are outbreaks of air guitar among the already buzzing crowd, and the place is starting to sweat.
And it’s not just the songs that produce this state of affairs.  Wayward Sons are delivery men on a mission.  Jepson is a born front man, preset to the same wavelength as his audience, and looking like Robert Plant’s rather less grizzled nephew.  What’s more, his pipes are still in full rocking order, and he has a more than handy way with witty, real-world lyrics such as that on ‘Be Still’.  At his side, Nic Wastell is a blur of bass-thrusting energy from start to finish, frequently in danger of a head-on collision with ducting paraphernalia at the side of the stage. His rhythm buddy Martini comes on in shades, and completes the cool dude look with a Jeff Beck-ish barnet, but he goes at it hammer and tongs.  Keys man Dave Kemp, it has to be said, is an elusive presence hidden by a
Dave 'Thing' Kemp
speaker stack from where I’m standing, only his disembodied hands visible like Thing from The Addams Family.
Lead guitarist Sam Wood is the baby of the outfit, letting rip and evidently having a ball, but with an occasionally bemused air about him that calls to mind the whale in The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy: “Wow, that was a bit of biff, wasn’t it? And a bit rough too.  I think I’ll call it a riff!”  Happily his playing meets with a friendlier reception than the whale though.
They fling in Little Angels’ ‘Kicking Up Dust’ along the way, but are adventurous enough to add some new songs that fit in seamlessly, rather than relying on Jepson’s former glories.  They even encore with new tune ‘Backslide’, before going out in a blaze of screaming Les Paul and an exhalation of the outro from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.  Crowd happy, job done.
Filing out with the house lights up, I turn and find myself looking straight into the face of Toby Jepson.  “Not bad,” I say with a smile and a nod.  “Alright?” he grins, with a twinkle in his eye.
Yeah Toby, alright. ‘Nuff said.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ian Siegal - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 April 2018

They really should have played ‘In The Mood’ as an entry tape for this performance, because Ian Siegal was well up for for it – and his band weren’t about to be left behind.
This is the third time I’ve seen Siegal play with his band – alias The Rhythm Chiefs when they’re on their own dime – and if the other occasions were good, tonight is something else. It helps of course, that guitarist Dusty Cigaar is restored to the line-up, after being unavailable back in 2016. Cigaar is a guitar-picker who can sprinkle all kinds of stardust over proceedings, and tonight he’s often to be seen grinning wickedly as he ponders his next trick to complement his boss.
"Okay kid, good solo. But watch this!"  "Wow - great E chord boss!"
They open up in cruise control with the sweetly Americana-styled ‘Won’t Be Your Shotgun Rider’, its a capella interlude moving Siegal to proclaim with a grin that “it sounds like the fucking Eagles up here”.  It’s the start of a four-song stretch drawing on new album All The Rage, during which Siegal cranks out some riveting slide on ‘The Sh*t Hit’, while Cigaar gets into characteristically super-twangy mode for the first time on the withering ‘Ain’t It Great’. On the latter, a caustic jeremiad about the state of the States, Siegal’s relish for an acid lyric ensures that the song thuds into the bullseye.
But all this just seems like limbering up when they get into long-standing favourite ‘I Am The Train’. Cigaar chooses this as the moment to really let rip with a cascade of devastating Duane-Eddy-on-speed licks, and when they swoop seamlessly into an interpolation of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ the chemistry between him and Siegal is evident.  Hell, between them they even manage to whip that famously wonky ‘Folsom’ guitar solo into shape.  Not content with that, Cigaar then adds buckets of Hispanic sabor to the Tom Russell classic ‘Gallo Del Cielo’.  I do wish the crazy old chicken would pull through one of these times though.
Siegal then gets another bird in his sights with ‘Eagle-Vulture’, all Biblical imagery over a pattering rhythm from drummer Rafael Schwiddessen, to which Siegal adds tense slide on his Telecaster.  
Siegal skips the stage to give The Rhythm Chiefs the chance to display their versatility with an uptempo jazzy blues instrumental, and when he gets back ventures into North Mississippi hill country with a rendition of Cedell Davis’s ‘She’s Got The Devil In Her’, which featured on Buddy Guy’s 2001 album Sweet Tea. Prowling and menacing, it’s a song with a real juke joint vibe – and Siegal chucks in an effortless falsetto passage just to underline his vocal skills.
‘Sailor Town’, from the new album, is an irresistible funky stroll, with bassist Danny Van’t Hoff digging a groove and Schwiddessen deliciously behind the beat to the extent he might arrive next week.  And then with Siegal referencing Little Milton and Sam Moore they teasingly morph it into the riff from some old Atlantic soul classic – ‘Soul Man’ maybe? It just doesn’t get any better than this.
"Er, how does this one go again?"
Except it does, with another staple of Siegal’s repertoire, the Big George Watt classic ‘Take A Walk In The Wilderness’, a song with a transcendent quality that Van Morrison would be proud of.  Tonight Siegal and co take it to a new level of intensity, with Cigaar pulling out a searing, fiery solo.
They come back for an encore with the yearning ‘Sweet Souvenir’, and then with the curfew shot to hell they haul support act the Dawn Brothers onstage for ‘Don’t Do It’, merrily going to town on The Band’s reading of the Marvin Gaye hit, giving it an Allmans spin, and generally pleasing themselves almost as much as the crowd. And as a last word on Ian Siegal’s ability to cross over genres with style and conviction, that takes some beating. Like I said, he was in the mood.
Support for the tour are the aforementioned Dawn Brothers, also featuring Schwidessen in the drum chair, and they deliver an enjoyable set that’s short and to the point.  Or maybe short and to several points, because they meld genres with freedom.  Kicking off with some sunny soul about getting down the road back to California, that blends in four part harmonies and twanging guitar from Bas van Holt, they subsequently offer a slowie that hints at Vintage Trouble.  Then there’s a country ballad affair that lifts off into more vigorous terrain before a rather ragged segue into an organ solo, followed by a West Coast rock’n’roll affair.  And just for good measure they close with ‘Staying Out Late’, a piece of jazzy funk with more guitar twang to the fore.  Their set is a brief but interesting tour of styles, strong on musicianship and encouraging further acquaintance.
First up on a three-part bill is Stirling-based Reece Hillis, last seen by this correspondent supporting Matt Andersen.  He delivers a similar mix of covers and originals tonight, with his trademark intensity.  Hair screening his face, he gives his 12-string acoustic a rare old seeing-to, while singing in a powerful rasping voice, his forehead practically leaning on the mic.  Hillis ain’t kidding when he delivers ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and he provides a rousing opening to the night that puts the early arrivals in the mood for the fireworks to follow.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Steve Hill - The One-Man Blues Rock Band

One good thing about reviewing Steve Hill - there’s none of that having to go checking the names of his bandmates.  That album title, The One-Man Blues Rock Band, is the literal truth.  Credit to Hill though, I didn't spend the duration of this live album, recorded in Quebec last autumn, brooding about the truly solo nature of his enterprise.
The album opens with the spiky guitar intro of ‘Rhythm All Over’, leading into a jagged, ringing riff. And the rhythm in question is stomping. When Hill sings “I’m beating on your door”, you very much get the idea.
Steve Hill - full spectrum one-man blues
Pic by Szymon Goralczyk
To begin with this may seem like his default mode, with the grinding beat of ‘Go On’ and the pounding ‘The Collector’.  But the latter meshes single note guitar work with chords and slide in impressive fashion, while Hill delivers an original lyric with a rumbling vocal.  And once you get past the lurching, bluesy riff of ‘Damned’, Hill displays more variety.
‘Tough Luck’ ripples with steely, acoustic-sounding guitar played off against measured harp, in a slow and reflective outing featuring very bluesy lyrics.  ‘Never Is Such A Long Time’ meanwhile, is a tense affair, with Hill spitting out twitchy guitar licks over low key drums, before stretching out on a squealing solo on which he somehow manages to work in counterpointing figures.  How he does that is beyond me, but the bottom line is that he manages to conjure up the full sound of a band.
The uptempo classic R’n’B of Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’ – also recorded by the Stones - maybe demonstrates that it’s not so easy for Hill to do drums that swing like Charlie Watts.  But hell, I ain’t going to damn him for that, and with its ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ groove it still delivers plenty of voltage from the crunching chords and squalling notes of its intro to its eyeballs out solo.
But if he can’t quite pull off swing single-handedly, Hill still manages to get laid back and soulful on the simple, different, and romantic ‘Emily’.  And then he does a handbrake turn into the downbeat, brooding, ‘Nothing New’.  Its lyric, about how “I been thinkin’ ‘bout all the things I’m gonna do to you” has a dark, borderline obsessive vibe akin to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.  And in fact, in the midst of pondering the singularity of Hill’s musicianship, it would be easy to overlook his penchant for good words, whether his own or someone else’s.  But they keep cropping up - even if the Black Keys-ish ‘Still Got It Bad’ has a bit of a plodding air, it manages to tell a tale of marital deceit in withering fashion.
‘The Ballad Of Johnny Wabo’ is a down home blues with a low key opening, that then rouses itself into a slide bonanza over nothing, it seems, but a bit of hi-hat – and appears to have the crowd going nuts.  It’s a good warm-up for the set closer of ‘Dangerous’, an iconically strong track with a grabber of a riff over a great, simple rhythm.
Personally I could do without the encore of ‘Voodoo Chile’, mountainously OTT guitar solo and all. Going toe to toe with Jimi seems like a futile exercise to me, but I’d hazard a guess I’m a minority on that point. What I will say though, is that the mastering of the album could have been better.  The whole damn thing should simply be louder – I had to whack it up to 11 to get an acceptable degree of punch – and on a few occasions crowd applause is clipped off so abruptly that it undermines the live experience.  And on another tack, I’d have liked Hill to take a real time-out to deliver the kind of shimmering acoustic playing he demonstrated on the likes of ‘Troubled Times’, from his last studio album.
Steve Hill may be The One-Man Blues Rock Band, but he’s not a one-trick pony.  He may not be a game-changer, and his approach may wrap him in some artificial limitations, but there are layers in his material that I think we’ve still to fully grasp.  What this outing proves though, and what I already knew from seeing him live, is that Steve Hill is a guitar-totin', cymbal-whackin', drum-bootin', ass-kickin' joint-rocker.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Kris Barras Band - The Divine And Dirty

Appearances can be deceptive.  I’ve been aware of Kris Barras as a name for a bit, but without ever encountering his stuff. So when I see pictures of said gent, in a t-shirt with extensive tats, with hipsterish beard and slicked back hair, and read that he’s a former MMA combatant who’s “unleashing southern-fried blues fury” on his album The Divine And Dirty, I’m expecting to hear an avalanche of very modern, heavy duty, greasy boogie.  Which it isn’t.  It is, however, really good.
Sure, there’s some bluesy stuff in The Divine And Dirty, and some kinda southern rock riffs based on licks not power chords.  But with Barras’s airy voice to the fore, it heads in a direction that reminds me of the Paul Nelson Band’s Badass Generation, an album that used blues and southern rock influences as a launchpad to get into 80s style AOR.  And the end result is something breezily refreshing.
Kris Barras - Let's get ready to rumble!
Okay, so when you really get down to it a couple of songs like ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Stitch Me Up’ might be a bit slight.  But catchy hooks abound, the production from keyboard player Josiah J. Manning is strong and clear, and when it comes to vocals you can forget Ronnie Van Zant. Think Jon Bon Jovi – and believe that it works.
All this is true right from the outset, with ‘Kick Me Down’ and its swooping slide notes over a rolling riff and swells of organ, soon augmented by tasteful soaring backing vocals. But if you need convincing, check out ‘Propane’, which features a sweeping chorus straight out of the melodic rock playbook that sounds oh-so-like the Christopher Cross hit ‘Ride Like The Wind’ – a song, lest you forget, covered by NWOBHM stalwarts Saxon. ‘Lovers Or Losers’ similarly features a revolving guitar line, with injections of slide, and ends up hinting at Bon Jovi’s ‘Steel Cowboy’.  Penultimate track ‘Blood On Your Hands’ canters along on a choppy, hooky riff, with a melody and vocal that sound like Bryan Adams in his pre-wimpy heyday. It’s good tunesmithery, with a big sound incorporating attractive piano, and great backing vox to boot.
Manning’s piano is a recurring motif.  On the more rootsy ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, a rattling, uptempo melting pot of r’n’b, he throws some jazzy woogie into the boogie, to augment Barras’s spot-on rock’n’roll solo – make that solos, because he chucks in another satisfying outing at the end too.  It’s there again on ‘She’s More Than Enough’, which has a crisp rhythm from Will Beavis on drums, a fast-paced Southern-ish riff – and bags of energy and just-harvested freshness.  Oh yeah, and another pretty damn fine hook.
Initially I could live without ballad ‘Hold On For Tomorrow’, but it as it grows it also grows on me.  With another strong vocal, lush organ and vocal harmonies underpin another tasteful solo from Barras.  The closing ‘Watching Over Me’ is probably stronger, a Bonamassa-style ballad that rises to a big peak before dropping off into delicate closing phrases.
Is The Divine And Dirty something revolutionary? No, it’s not.  But it’s a breath of fresh air that’s delivered with brio, and it plays to its strengths throughout.  Summer must be coming soon, surely, and this will make for a good soundtrack for when you stick on your shades and wind down the window in the car.