Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Reading Matters: Lightning Striking - Ten Transformative Moments in Rock & Roll, by Lenny Kaye

Lenny Kaye may be best known as the guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, but he’s also celebrated for curating the Nuggets compilation of left field Sixties garage rock and psychedelic tracks.  Now he’s undertaken another historical project, with his recently published book Lightning Striking which explores, as the sub-title has it, Ten Transformative Moments in Rock & Roll.
Or to put it another way, Kaye sets out to describe a range of “scenes” – those times and places when the tectonic plates of popular music shifted, when circumstances combined to birth
Venerable rockn'roll history professor Lenny Kaye
Pic by Mike McGregor/The Observer
something that took rock’n’roll in a new direction.  And we are, in the main, talking about rock’n’roll here – the stuff with an electric guitar at its heart.
Kaye is a an ideal guide for this musical tourist trail.  Born in 1946, he was exposed to the early seismic shocks of rockn’roll, such as Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.  And then, as he says in the chapter on The Beatles and Liverpool 1962, “I’m watching that storied night of February 9 [1964], along with 73.7 million other curiosity-seekers,” when the Fab Four detonated the States on the Ed Sullivan Show.  “I’m in the sweet spot of adolescence,” he recalls, “just seventeen, you know what I mean.”  A few pages later he contemplates the full might of the British Invasion and writes: “They’re joined on the pop charts by ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Surfer Bird’, the ur-texts of garage rock.  Temptation took control of me and I fell.”
Those passages tell you a couple of things.  First, the chapter headings may identify specific years, as in ‘Liverpool 1962’ or ‘San Francisco 1967’, but Kaye doesn’t confine himself to those periods.  He recounts the evolution of these scenes in the periods before, and their full flowering (and withering, where appropriate) afterwards.  Secondly, Kaye gets it.  He’s a “fan with a typewriter” – but a smart, discerning and literate fan.  Here’s a guy who was playing in two-bit bands himself by the mid-60s, then a rock writer in the emerging music press, an occasional record label scout and an aspiring producer before, as an habitué of the New York demi-monde, he and Patti Smith started hanging out and doing their nascent thing in the early 70s.  And when Kaye wasn’t an eye-and-ear witness himself, he’s clearly done his homework.
Writing about ‘Memphis 1954’ he gives due credit to the catalyst that was Sam Phillips, but he’s also good weighing up the confluence of ingredients that triggered the sound of rock’n’roll: the jump blues tradition underlying Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88’; the R’n’B typified by Howlin’ Wolf; the hillbilly country music familiar to Elvis, shorn of fiddles and pedal-steel; and the boogie taken up from Western Swing by Bill Haley & The Comets, derided as Mr Kiss Curl may have been.  Just importantly though, even in hindsight Kaye feels it – the electric shock of it – as in this passage about Jerry Lee Lewis:
“ . . . it’s ‘Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On,’ Jerry Lee raking his fingers up the keyboard in his soon-trademark gliss, circling his index finger when he brings it real low and then lower and wiggle around just a little bit, almost giddy on theSteve Allen Show in July 1957, grabbing the bull by the horn, peroxide hair and piano stool flying, that explodes him, makes him a star.  And a target.” [Kaye’s italics]
He captures the sweaty, hairy, psychotropic craziness, typified by Ken Kesey and his LSD-fuelled Merry Pranksters, that sits alongside the love-and-peace-man of San Francisco 1967.  But he’s also there himself, in the audience to witness the out-there-ness of Big Brother & The
Lenny do-in' the do with long time amigo Patti Smith
Holding Company and become enthralled by Janis Joplin, “to dream about ways I could be there for her . . . if only to buy her records and witness her shows and remember her for ever.”
He’s good on the storminess of Detroit 1967 and its ambassador of raw power Iggy Pop, but is even more on the ball, naturally, writing about ‘New York 1975’ and ‘London 1977’, when he’s in on the action himself in the environs of those sibling punk scenes.  The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and others are all refracted through the lens of nights in CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in the very long and comprehensive chapter on NYC.  His knowledge of punk London is bolstered by making a tape-swapping Transatlantic buddy in Don Letts, capturing its multi-faceted evolution into New Wave, Power Pop et al, and along the way noting the contribution to the Pistols of Glen Matlock in contrast to the disaster-in-waiting that is Sid Vicious, even as the latter “thinks he’s the only Sex Pistol living up to the founding principle, anarchy unleashed, the ur-zombie”.
A couple of chapters depart from the normal trajectory.  ‘Philadelphia 1959’ is less about a new emerging scene than the soon-to-be-eclipsed one of doo-wop, and the development of teenager TV with American Bandstand – and the dubious business practices of its Teflon-smooth host Dick Clark.  But the chapter on ‘Los Angeles 1984/Norway 1993’, conflating hair metal and black metal, feels like an ill-fitting makeweight.
As is often the way in accounts like this, Kaye sometimes gets bogged down in lists of singles that are the stepping stones of a burgeoning scene; or in the incestuous band-hopping of musicians and indie label bosses, skipping hither and yon in search of their own musical motherlode – Seattle being a case in point - until one can barely keep track of who’s who.  Now and then too, his wordplay slips from amusing to confusing.   Don’t come to Lightning Striking expecting to read about Motown, hip-hop or reggae either, as they don't fit the guitar rock-focused narrative arc of the book.
But if you want a big and joyous account of some of the seminal moments in rock’n’roll history, and the people and places that created them, Lightning Striking is just the ticket.  A book by someone for whom, to give Lenny Kaye the last word, “It is my blessing to wake each morning with music on my mind.”

Lightning Striking - Ten Transformative Moments In Rock & Roll, is available now, published by White Rabbit.

A 2-CD companion collection of tracks featured in the book is also available - Lenny Kaye Presents Lightning Striking, on Ace Records.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Harlem Lake - A Fool's Paradise Vol.1

I’ll say this right at the top.  This debut album by Dutch band Harlem Lake is a mixed bag.  It’s stylistically diverse in a way that makes me think they haven’t really found their identity yet.  And the quality is variable too, with some songs that really needed more work.  But for all that, there are good things going on here too – and signs of better things to come, I hope.
“It’s like old Blues souls are trapped in these young bodies,” says a bit of PR bumf about A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1.  And yeah, there’s blues stuff going on over the course of the album, and we’ll get to that.  But in fact Harlem Lake are more interesting when they step off the blues trail.
Harlem Lake - happiness is a debut album

Opening track ‘Deaf Blind’ kicks off with a pleasingly gutsy, winding riff, but it really grabs the ear with a progg-ish bridge on which Dave Warmerdam’s organ and Sonny Ray van den Berg’s guitar get all Wishbone Ash with a clarion call of a descending motif.  The same is true on the pseudo-heraldic theme that recurs throughout the low key title track, on which van den Berg offers up some fluid, dreamy guitar work.  Later, twinkling guitar introduces ‘I Won’t Complain’, which has a pleasing folk-rockish melody in spite of its somewhat disjointed arrangement, and gets more positive marks when its goes through the gears, van den Berg delivering a powerful solo en route to another big, melodic riff in a Wishbone Ash vein, with an undertow rippling piano from Warmerdam.
These songs suit the voice of singer Janne Timmer, even if the melodies are sometimes less than gripping.  She can do the blues chanteuse bit, as she demonstrates on the loping closer ‘I Wish I Could Go Running’.  But with her crisp, sometimes strident delivery she strikes me as more of a Grace Slick type, as on ‘My Turn To Learn’, which marries a rolling, bluesy guitar line to a not-so-bluesy, more folky melody, before van den Berg kicks in with some piercing guitar licks.  And she can do a subtle turn too, as on ‘Guide Me Home’, a soulful ballad that focuses on the melody to good effect as Timmer delivers a delicate vocal embellished by moments of coo-ing and sighing variation.
‘Please Watch My Bag’ is funk-leaning, with swells of organ, but musically a bit predictable and with a title more intriguing than the actual lyric.  But ‘The River’ is a decent chunk of blues-rock, with a twisting and turning slide guitar riff, pulsing bass and drums from Kjetl Ostendorf and Benjamim Torbijn on the brooding verse, and an appealing, attention-snagging chorus.  The bridge is a bit run-of-the-mill, but van den Berg makes up for it with a sizzling, scurrying guitar solo.  The aforementioned ‘I Wish I Could Go Running’, meanwhile, is a straight-ahead 12-bar blues with a low-slung riff, kept just the right side of humdrum by another good vocal and van den Berg finding his blues mojo for a tasty solo when they rev it up a bit.  (I was really hoping for a quirky lyric to go with that title, mind you – ‘I wish I could go running, but I tore my calf last week,’ maybe.)
Okay, so I’ve highlighted several flaws evident on A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1.  But with musicianship that’s never in doubt, I reckon Harlem Lake have the potential to produce something striking next time around, if they can find a clearer direction and up the ante on the songwriting front.  Good luck to ‘em.
 
A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1 is out now, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Wille & The Bandits - When The World Stood Still

“Strange days have found us,’ sang Jim Morrison. “Strange days have tracked us down.”  You’re not kidding, Jimmy boy.
Some artists have responded to the strangeness of the last few years by girding their loins and creating music with uplift in mind, and that’s cool.  Wille Edwards and his Bandits, on the other hand, have chosen to confront the weirdness in its various forms – not just the pandemic, but political and economic turmoil, social divisiveness, climate change, and the impact on us as individuals.
"Bandits at 12 o'clock!"
Pic by Laurence Harvey
This is a tall order.  But When The World Stood Still lives up to the challenge.  Perhaps, having tackled themes like these on previous albums, Edwards has made himself ready for just this moment.
It’s not an easy album to peg though.  The opener ‘Caught In The Middle’ may kick off with a thudding hard rock riff, but it then flits through rapped vocals over piano, and into a mellow pre-chorus in which Edwards croons that “love is a better way”, before revving up into a chorus on which his voice becomes aching and angst-ridden.  And that tension between crashing chords and delicate segments reflects lyrics that balance aspiration and reality.
There are moments across the album that put me in mind of Led Zeppelin.  There’s the quasi-collapse à la ‘Dazed And Confused’ of the hard-hitting ‘I’m Alive’, with its funky groove melding into a semi-Arabic guitar passage, and reverb-induced spiralling vocal.  And there’s the juddering riff that recalls ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ in the bridge of the bright and breezy ‘Daylight’, in which Edwards sings of his daughter that “Your smile always lights the way”.  But in truth WATB don’t sound much like Zeppelin, even if they share a similar spirit of musical adventure.  And if Wille Edwards’ often teeth-gritted vocalising doesn’t resemble the blues-wailing or mercury-like liquid glisten of Robert Plant’s singing modes there’s still, I think, a desire to treat his voice as another instrument to be bent into the mix - and now and then there’s an off-kilter vibe that’s evocative of latter-day Plant too.
For me the best moments are in quieter songs like the title track, and the closing ‘Solid Ground’ (video is of a single edit).  The soulful ‘When The World Stood Still’ is a delicious, reflective song, opening with a gentle vocal over swirling organ and delicate piano from Matthew Gallagher, building towards a real “lighters aloft’ hook on the chorus, as our Wille sings of “sunshine, moonlight, sacrifice”.  ‘Solid Ground’ has an air of ‘Albatross’-mode Peter Green in the tone and pacing of its guitar parts,
Chief Bandito Wille Edwards gets angsty!
over tinkling piano notes and church-like strokes of organ, while Edwards sings yearningly that in an increasingly climate-challenged world “I want my children walking on solid ground”.  He then produces a quite beautiful guitar solo, over an anchoring bass motif from Harry Mackaill, en route to a gorgeous outro of gentle strumming, piano and organ fluttering in and out, and vocal whispering.
Those two tracks are worth the ticket on their own, but the epic, dynamic ‘Without You’ isn’t far behind.  It’s ultra-subdued, ghostly intro suggests a weary wanderer lost in a darkened forest – who then trips over roots and blunders against trees trunks.  Edwards’ keening, haunted vocal suggests alienation and loss even as he sings “You are someone to lean on”, before they ramp up the mood with spooky, weeping lap steel guitar, interpolated with lightning forks of power.  Meanwhile 'Will We Ever' is the bluesiest tune on offer, with Edwards' lap steel riffing over slithering organ from Gallagher, and a gossamer-light Dobro solo over behind-the-beat drums.
My one quibble would be that the more upbeat tracks rarely achieve the focus that was evident on the last Bandits album, Paths.  The semi-funky ‘Good Stuff’ lives up to its title, with a thumping backbeat, and a toe-tapping chorus with uplifting “woah-oh, oh-oh” backing vocals, and the following ‘In This Together’ recovers from abrupt verses as tyro drummer Tom Gilkes drives it along into its punchy chorus.  But I’d have liked just one unquenchably anthemic tune to add a little momentum.
How good is When The World Stood Still?  I can’t really say.  I’ve listened to it several times now, and I’m still getting to grips with it.  What I can say is that’s an absorbing hour of imaginative music that transcends easy labels – and on that basis alone it deserves your attention.
 
When The World Stood Still is released on 28 January on Fat Toad Records, and is available to pre-order here.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Tinsley Ellis - Devil May Care

Devil May Care seems like a fitting title for this latest album by Tinsley Ellis, because one of its strengths is its carefree vibe.  Ellis and his band sound at home and at ease, with no sense of strain – which is a good fit for much of the material on offer.
Opening track ‘One Less Reason’ finds Ellis picking out a most ‘Green Onions’ inspired guitar riff, over a similarly inclined bass line from Steve Mackey, before all concerned settle into a relaxed groove, swinging along with Lynn Williams’ drums.  Ellis’s John Mayall-like voice may
"Careful everyone - I've dropped my Juju!"
Pic by Elaine Thomas Campbell
 have some limitations, but that doesn’t distract when they’re in the zone like this – and his handy way with overdubs and harmonised guitar effects adds some extra piquancy.
Our Tinsley is at his best operating in a zone that suggests Clapton on a good day, covering something by JJ Cale maybe.  ‘Right Down The Drain’ has echoes of ‘Cocaine’, with a loping rhythm and an undulating guitar line, underlaid with slide guitar to add more texture, and with a growling vocal that adds emphasis.  But what really sets it off is Ellis combining slide and straight-up guitar, ultimately having an impressive six-string “conversation” with himself in the closing passage.  And if there’s a hint of Skynyrd in there, it’s also apparent in the easy-going shuffle of ‘Juju’, its laid back feel ear-catchingly punctuated by a woodpecker-ish one-note phrase from - I’m guessing here - the bottom end of an electric piano.  Whatever, it jogs along on a revolving motif between bursts of a jabbing turnaround, and Kevin McKendree comes to the fore with a rinky-dink piano solo, before entering into an entertaining dialogue with Ellis’s again-impressive slide playing.
They can deliver this kind of groove in slower form too, to best effect on the excellent ‘Just Like Rain’, a patient affair that doesn’t follow a typical slow blues template as it rolls along over acoustic guitar strumming, while McKendree’s organ and piano playing dovetail perfectly with Ellis’s electric guitar, and the main man delivers his most impressive, “felt” vocal – and a closing guitar solo that captures the mood perfectly.
Of the other tracks in a slower tempo, the more orthodox blues of ‘Don’t Bury Our Love’ is the most satisfying.  A minimalist affair, it combines extended organ chords, clicking rim shots from Williams, and sparing bass notes from Mackey, with Ellis showing similar restraint when his guitar eventually comes in.  It’s all about atmosphere, pressure gradually building from halfway, before receding again for Ellis’s solo.  It may sound familiar, but it doesn’t sound derivative.  By contrast ‘One Last Ride’ is less impactful, even if well assembled around a twitching rhythm, and with more chorus-like guitar from Ellis, while the closing ‘Slow Train To Hell’ is similarly well executed, but also somewhat predictable.
Ellis shows a liking for Hendrix on the funky excursions of ‘Step Up’ and ’28 Days’, but while they may provide some variety neither really sets the heather on fire.  The chopping rhythm guitar, snapping drums and burbling organ of the former are appealing enough, melding into some soulful horn textures, but Ellis doesn’t really have the vocal punch to drive it home.  He sounds more at ease on 'Beat The Devil', bringing feeling to his vocals alongside economical guitar and warm swells of organ and horns.
Devil May Care is a likeable album, and not one-dimensional, even if it doesn’t convince right across the piece.  When Ellis and co hit their sweet spot though, they create a blues sound that manages to feel both familiar but distinctive – and more than satisfying.

Devil May Care is released by Alligator Records on 21 January.

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Peppermint Kicks - The Peppermint Kicks

“Hey, you there!  You with the glasses!  I want you.  I want you in the front.  Don’t lean on me man, ‘cause you can’t afford the ticket.  Let’s kick out the jams and find our lust for life, coz mama weer all crazee now!  I’ll bring my Sharona, you bring Irene Wilde, and we’ll take those California girls and get ourselves a piece of the action.  We’ll surrender to rock’n’roll, yeah
"Hey, that you down there Dan?"
surrender - but we won’t give ourselves away, and we won’t let people put us d-d-down. We’ll get our teenage kicks on Route 66!”
Yeah, all that.  And all points before, between and beyond, if you get my drift.
See, I was born in ’62, so I was 9-years old when Slade had their first Top 10 hit with ‘Coz I Luv You’.  The fashions of glam rock weren’t remotely my pre-teen thing, man, but the music was.  Not that I knew it then, but glam pointed back to the wild evolution of rock’n’roll, sideways to my seduction by the power of hard rock – and also forward to the revolution of punk.  And though the latter was the road less travelled for this kid, its impact still resonated down the years.
The Peppermint Kicks are Bostonians Sal Baglio and Dan Kopko, plus a few pals when called for.  Never bleedin’ heard of ‘em till last week, to be honest.  But listening to their self-titled album, I can only think that these guys shared a kinda similar trajectory to me, way back when and way across the Atlantic Ocean.  And then they probably went and formed garage bands that thrashed through their passion for ‘Louie Louie’ and ’96 Tears’ right alongside ‘20th Century Boy’, ‘All The Way From Memphis’, and Blondie’s ‘Rip Her To Shreds’
Get a load of opener ‘When Rock & Roll Met Your Dad’, with Kopko’s vocal sounding uncannily
"Quiet Sal - I'm listening to the Man In Black!"
(and surely on purpose) like a wistful Ian Hunter, while Baglio’s piercing lead guitar competes with sweeping strings and backing vocals.  Or ‘Strawberry Girls’, with Baglio at the mic this time as they mash up ‘Blackberry Way’ with Beach Boys harmonies.  Or the tougher ‘Shag ‘72’, which sounds like a lost demo by Cheap Trick, with Kopko taking the chance to get his rocks off on guitar.  Or the invitation for Iggy to make a guest appearance on the edgier, punkier ‘Stooge’.

Get the idea?  This is a power popping' rockn'roll adrenaline rush stuffed with diamond-hard hooks to make you ache to be part of a sweaty, joyous crowd, heaving and bouncing in front of a cramped stage, just like you did in yesteryear.  Which is pretty much what the Peppermint Kicks envisage with ‘Johnny D’s (Play It Again)’, all spangly, jangly guitars and “doo-do, doo-doo-doo-doo” singalong moments.  And surely they’d encore with ‘Rock & Roll Rampage’, heralded by a siren straight outta ‘Blockbuster’, before they beat the crap out of the riff from ‘Route 66’, stuff it into the trunk of a souped-up Ford alongside drummer Chris Anzalone impersonating Keith Moon, and blast off down the strip with one last scrape of a pick along an E string.
You’ll have worked out by now that I’m breathless about this album.  Yeah, I know, I know – it’s not a blues record.  But goddamn it, if you yearn for ‘The Golden Age Of Rock’n’Roll’, then The Peppermint Kicks has got your name written all over it!  Whaddya waitin’ for?
 
The Peppermint Kicks is out now on Rum Bar Records, and is available here (or from Amazon etc).
 
Notes:
  1. Sal Baglio is also a member of The Stompers and The Amplifier Heads.  Dan Kopko (aka Danny The K), is also a member of Watts, and The Shang Hi Los.  I know nothing about these bands.  Yet.
  2. I never much cared for Marc Bolan.  The guy could write a great riff, but his simpering style and his half-arsed lyrics weren’t for me.  Give me Slade, Mott The Hoople, or even the ChinniChap production line of (The) Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Mud any day.
  3. Credit to fellow blogger Andy Thorley of maximumvolumemusic.com, whose review tipped me off to The Peppermint Kicks.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Sean Chambers - That's What I'm Talkin About

Having been a member of Hubert Sumlin’s band from 1998 to 2003, Florida’s Sean Chambers decided to record a tribute to his mentor with his 2020 album That’s What I’m Talkin About.  But the result is something that follows its own path, rather than being in thrall to Sumlin’s relatively restrained blues style.  Chambers is more of a blues-rocker, and puts his own stamp on the material in entertaining fashion.
Given that Hubert Sumlin was the long-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, the vocals will inevitably be as much a point of comparison as the guitar playing on some of these songs.  The Wolf’s
Sean Chambers doin' the do!
voice was more bear-like roar than lupine howl, and unsurprisingly Chambers doesn’t inhabit that ballpark.  But the snarl-meets-growl that he brings to the opening ‘Howlin’ For My Darlin’’ is convincing in its own right, contributing to a shaken-rattled-and-rolled vibe that’s often redolent, to these ears, of vintage Dr Feelgood.
The aforementioned ‘Howlin’ For My Darlin’’, fer instance, is all jagged, spiky guitar chords and driving rhythm section, supplemented by waves of organ.  ‘Hidden Charms’ rattles along with cracking, cantering drums from Andrei Koribanic and bounding bass from Antar Goodwin as the basis for Chambers’ scratchy riffing and sharp, to the point soloing.  ‘Rockin’ Daddy’ is in a similar vein, with more force and more beats per minute than the loping, swaying Wolf original, all the way to its sudden ending.  And if ‘Do The Do’ is less full throttle, it’s still a shaken’n’stirred cocktail of shuffling, Diddley-esque drums and skating slide guitar breaks.
Elsewhere, there's more of a blues-rock raunch to tracks like ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’, with its big meaty chords, thumping drums, and skimming, squealing solo; ‘Goin’ Down Slow’ with its scrabbling guitar fills and waves of organ like Big Surf set to a slow-ish tempo; or ‘Tail Dragger’, which features one of Chambers’ most interesting solos, with a succession of bent notes and sudden jabs, plus some exchanges with swirling organ work.
‘Forty Four’ and ‘Louise’ are the most Wolfish takes.  Chambers and co deliver an excellent rendition of the former, with its spiky, almost wonky riff, rippling piano, and a slamming kick drum at the heart of its slow march rhythm, while the latter is a slow bump’n’grind with ringing, resounding guitar, tootling piano, and a squall of a guitar solo to close.
‘Chunky’ is a surprisingly funky Sumlin instrumental, the drums behind the beat while the bass is busy, leading to a sweeping organ solo and some FX treated guitar work from Chambers.  And the closing ‘Hubert Song’ is a tribute written by Chambers – an uptempo, bouncing boogie, and affectionate if prosaic lyrics.
Never mind that That’s What I’m Talkin About is a Hubert Sumlin tribute, it’s enjoyable fare in its own right.  Sean Chambers and his band bring plenty of energy, oomph and chops to proceedings, rounded out by guest turns from Bruce Katz and John Ginty on keys.  It may not be a showstopper of an album, but it does add a fresh and zesty dressing to some classic ingredients.
 
That’s What I’m Talkin About is out now on Quarto Valley Records, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Quickies - Jimmy Regal And The Royals, Elles Bailey, Wily Bo Walker, and John Mayall

Here's a chance to catch up with a clutch of recent releases in the EP and single domain.

Jimmy Regal And The Royals – Ain’t Done Yet
 
As Bertie Wooster might have put it, they interest me strangely, do Jimmy Regal And The Royals.  On one level there’s a sensibility to them that’s as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  But as the five tracks on their Ain’t Done Yet EP demonstrate, their musical palette extends to more exotic influences.
This openness is most apparent on the tracks that bookend the EP, ‘Ain’t Done Yet’ itself and a radio edit of ‘Can’t Cry No More’, which appeared previously on their album Late Night Chicken.  
Jimmy Regal And The Royals - which one's Jimmy?
The former is built on twitching, pattering drums from Sammy Samuels, and sub-Saharan-tinged guitar lines from CJ Williams – and in due course a squeakin’n’scratchin’ solo - with honking sax from guest Chris Rand providing additional punctuation.  Meanwhile Joff Watkins gets to grips with a tongue-twisting vocal on the verses, and a simple but overly vibrato-prone chorus.  On the closing acoustic version of ‘Can’t Cry No More’ that African undertone is taken further and made more explicit, with more sparkling and shimmering guitar from Williams set to supple Kora rhythms courtesy of the guesting Diabel Cissokho.  Cissokho also adds some additional colour to the mantra-like vocal from Watkins, who earns his corn by adding further textures via moaning, gypsy jazz like harmonica work.
In between these two poles, ‘Mickey Two Suits’ – a title deserving of an award all on its won – is a blast of instrumental boogie on which Watkins’ harp lends an infusion of urgency to Williams’ chunka-chunka guitar.  ‘Way To Lose’ is a more downbeat affair, combining ripples of acoustic guitar, moans of nocturnal harmonica and minimalist, atmospheric persussion as the basis for Watkins’ groaned vocal.  And ‘Show Time’ is an intriguing affair, with Samuels’ patter-and-lurch rhythm matched to fuzzy splutters and splinters of guitar that occasionally get spiky in tandem with Watkins’ bursts of harp.  Meanwhile Watkins vocal may hint at a Brilleaux-esque growl, but this ain’t no Feelgood-like rock’n’roll, it’s a more idiosyncratic example of British blues.
All in all, Ain’t Done Yet confirms the impression that Jimmy Regal And The Royals may not be a big name in the making, but they are an outfit with something original to offer.
 
Ain’t Done Yet is out now, and available from Lunaria Records here.
 
 
Elles Bailey – ‘Stones’
 
The third single from Elles Bailey’s forthcoming album Shining In The Half Light rides in on a brooding slide riff from Joe Wilkins, grinding along in Resonator-like fashion over subtle, reined-in drums.  Then Bailey’s moody, assertive vocal swings into play, and Wilkins’ slide playing finds slithering groans and moans to harmonise with her on particular segments, while elsewhere some elegant vocal harmonies bring additional richness to Bailey’s delivery.  Wilkins then earns
Elles Bailey wonders where her hat has gone
Pic by Rob Blackham

extra bonus points with a slithering slide solo.  All in all ‘Stones’ makes a far more impressive impact than Bailey’s summer release ‘Cheats & Liars’.
 
Shining In The Half Light will be released by Outlaw Music on 25 February, and can be pre-ordered here.
 
 
Wily Bo Walker Acoustic Band – ‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’
 
With which Wily Bo Walker, as is his wont, reworks a song from his back catalogue in a different style, this time taking a 90% acoustic approach to a song previously titled ‘The Ballad of Johnny And Louise’ when it appeared on the album The Roads We Ride recorded with compadre ED Brayshaw.  But while the instrumentation here may be different, there’s still a familiar cinematic tone to ‘Long Way To Heaven’, as a tale of the two characters out on the road in the American night.  Lyle Zimmerman adds twinkling mandolin to Walker’s familiar, Waits-like groan of a voice, while Gary Bridgewood contributes sweeps of elegiac fiddle.  Brayshaw meanwhile (whose latest solo album is reviewed here), is responsible for the non-acoustic dimension, adding harmonic electric guitar notes for colour, and a brief but typically edgy solo.
 
‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’ is available now on Mescal Canyon Records.
 
 
John Mayall – ‘Can’t Take No More’
 
It’s remarkable to think that John Mayall is now 88-years old – the likes of Jagger and Richards are mere striplings by comparison – yet here he is gearing up to the release of his gazillionth album in the New Year, from which ‘Can’t Take No More’ is the second single.  And a sprightly affair it is too, even if Mayall’s vocal is, in all honesty, stronger on phrasing than melody.  Horns riff brightly, and Mayall’s organ tootles over a tripping, shuffling rhythm from Jay Davenport and funky bass from Greg Rzab.  Special guest Marcus King brings the guitar quotient, with an extended but relaxed solo, to which Mayall adds subtle remarks on organ, and there’s a spikier King outro to round things off.  ‘Can’t Take No More’ isn’t a humdinger of a track, but delivering something like this is still as easy as falling off a log for John Mayall.
 
John Mayall’s new album The Sun Is Shining Down is released by 40 Below Records on 28 January.
 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Dion - Stomping Ground

Okay, so it’s the season of goodwill and all that, but you know what one of my favourite Christmas movies is?  The Grinch, with Jim Carrey all hairy, green, and most of all grouchy.  So before I get into telling you about the good things on Stomping Ground, I wanna get a couple of gripes off my chest, alright?
Gripe #1:  The album follows the same guest artist formula as 2020’s Blues With Friends.  It’s an approach that can have some artistic value by way of spicing up an artist’s sound and repertoire, but for me repeating the trick seems too much like a marketing tactic.  If the songs are good
Dion - still stompin'!
Pic by Steve Cell
enough, then why not just record with a core band, and pull in name guests on just a couple of tracks if you want some extra stardust?  This is Dion DiMucci fer cryin’ out loud, not Joe Schmo no-one's ever heard of!
Gripe #2:  There are fourteen tracks included here, and while plenty of ‘em are good ‘uns, a few are makeweights.  And are some tracks overextended just to get more mileage out of the guest turns?  Now then it feels like the pudding is being over-egged.
But that’s enough bah-humbuggery for now.  Because when the opening track 'Take It Back' kicks in, it’s a catchy old thing which Dion sells well over a strutting rhythm laid down by the bass and drums.  And Joe Bonamassa, who would probably turn up to provide a guest solo for the opening of an envelope, does in fact elevate the song with a bundle of humorous, on-point and interestingly-toned licks.
The swaying and sinuous ‘Dancing Girl’ lives up to its title with a danceable Latin rhythm fit for your next Salsa class.  And with some pinpoint guitar from Mark Knopfler in his inimitable style, enhanced by some subtle interplay with the piano, it’s very good indeed.  On the other hand, while Eric Clapton brings some decent soloing to the blues shuffle of ‘If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, the star of this particular show is Dion himself, singing “I’m a rhythm king baby, I can groove all night long” and other such lines, in a manner that suggests they have less to do with the dance floor than the bedroom.
‘There Was A Time’ is a slow blues with a kinda European feel to its suspenseful melody, and Peter Frampton doesn’t feel the need to fill every crevice with his playing, while there’s plenty more to notice between the deep rolling horns, the rippling piano, and the sweeping strings add to the melancholy feel.  Sonny Landreth delivers suitably weeping slide guitar on the intro of ‘Cryin’ Shame’, but his playing warms up as the song progresses, and instruments interweave on a textured arrangement with a deceptively simple beat.  There’s slide guitar too, courtesy of Keb’ Mo’, on the album’s only cover, a version of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’.  On early listens I was less than impressed, but there is some merit in its rootsy approach and Dion’s plaintive vocal, even if the contributions of Keb’ Mo’ don’t amount to much.
Getting away from the guitars, ‘Angel In The Alleyways’ may not be a classic, but it’s certainly better than ‘Hymn To Her’, Dion’s previous collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.  An acoustic guitar-led piece of Americana, with the Boss and his missus supplying harmonica and hushed harmonies, it manages to combine tension and urgency.  But the two tracks that foreground piano are bigger winners.  ‘That’s What The Doctor Said’ makes lyrical reference to Dr John, and backs that up with a New Orleans groove foregrounding sweeping, swinging ivories from Steve Conn, while horns toot and later toot in fine fashion.  And ‘I Got My Eyes On You’ is a rockn’roll train stoked by Marcia Ball’s piano, rattling along with intermittent horn punctuation and then bright riffs on the chorus, plus twanging guitar from Jimmy Vivino.
There’s more rockn’roll, of the Chuck Berry variety, on the amusing, foot-tapping ‘I’ve Got To Get To You’, on which Dion shares the mic with Boz Scaggs.  But the more interesting duet is the closing ‘I’ve Been Watching’, to which Rickie Lee Jones adds characterful vocals in tandem with DiMucci, the mood shifting between reflective and impassioned in satisfying, while producer Wayne Hood adds fluid guitar that fits the song well.
When you get right down to it, Stomping Ground is a good album.  But it’d be a better one with more focus – focus on fewer songs to maintain the quality, and focus on Dion’s delivery more than a troupe of guests.  Hasn’t the guy earned the right to the spotlight?

Stomping Ground is out now on Keeping The Blues Alive Records, and can be ordered here.