Thursday, August 11, 2022

Bernie Marsden - Trios

And so we come to the third album in Bernie Marsden’s Inspirations series.  Following the Kings and Chess albums, Trios is something of a leap in style, as Bernie pays tribute to a bundle of “power trios” who might reasonably be filed under the heading of blues-rock.  The outfits in question are all big names, and though several of the titles are familiar, the selection isn’t stuffed with signature songs.
For my money Bernie feels more at home on this collection of (largely) down’n’dirty material than on the previous two albums, right from the fuzzed-up entry of the heavy rockin’ ‘Black Cat Moan’.  
What have you got in the case, Bernie?
Pic by Alan Bambrough
With the late Jimmy Copley crunching away on drums, this is a genuine power trio sound given to a song which, like the similarly weighty ‘Going Down’, came from the pen of Memphis maven Don Nix.
There’s similar heft to the Mountain track ‘Never In My Life’, which hoves into view with a spiral staircase of a riff, some wailing, quivering guitar breaks, and an unusually gutsy Marsden vocal.  A new one on me, it registers because of the qualities mentioned above, but the melody and lyrics are pretty humdrum.  Rick Derringer’s ‘Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo’ is a more familiar tune, and a stronger one, which Bernie and co lay into like a punch bag, Bernie slipping in some harmonised guitar here and there on the riff for variety, and unleashing a blizzard of notes during his solo.  But this is still one of the moments that leaves me wondering, what’s the point?  Edgar Winter reprised the song on his recent Brother Johnny tribute album, and I ask myself how much value there really is in Bernie putting his take out there.
The following ‘Same Old Story’ is even more of a rock’n’roller.  A deep-ish Rory Gallagher cut, it still kicks like a mule, a driving affair with David Levy’s bass pumping away in fine style.   And Marsden demonstrates a real affinity with the Gallagher sound, cracking out three very Rory-like solos in the course of four minutes, right down to the piercing tone, and even having a bash at a signature Rory “sing-along-a-Strat” passage for good measure.  One might ask if this degree of imitation has any real value beyond paying tribute, but curiously I’d suggest that here it draws attention to Rory’s singular musical nature.
In more subdued mode, Peter Green’s slowish ‘Driftin’ Blues’ is a more subtle tune, with a halting riff over simple drums and bass, and Marsden executing an exquisite solo with plenty of dynamics, and delivering a gritty vocal that also comes over with feeling.  Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Driftin’’ is less successful though.  Bernie’s guitar work is plenty interesting, and if he doesn’t attempt to replicate Jimi’s sound he still manages to suggest his hazy tone.  But unfortunately Bernie can’t match Jimi’s peculiarly dreamy vocal.
Contrastingly, his singing stands up very well in comparison with Jimmy Dewar on Robin Trower’s ‘Too Rolling Stoned, which comes over with lots of drive and guts, right from the thrumming bass and wah-wah guitar of its intro to its edgy, wiry, slowed down coda.  And ‘Outside Woman Blues’ is another success, capturing the spirit of Cream without feeling slavish, with bouts of guitar tone suggestive of Randy Bachman on ‘American Woman’.
They get kinda funky once, on the James Gang’s aptly titled ‘Funk #49’, a familiar enough tune but one that still arrives like an old friend one doesn’t see enough of, with Jimmy Copley chucking in some powerfully funky, kit-rolling drum sallies, while Bernie’s occasionally double-tracked vocals are a tad cleaner than Joe Walsh’s distinctive voice.
I could live without ‘Spanish Castle Magic’, never one of my go-to Hendrix songs, and to close there’s a fun but corny take on Cozy Powell’s ‘Na Na Na’.  But on the whole Trios hangs together pretty well, considering its origins in the work of diverse hands.  I’m still not sure it adds much to the sum of rockin’ knowledge, but it’s enjoyable all the same.  And now for some originals please, Mr Marsden!
 
Trios
 is out now on Conquest Music, and can be ordered here.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Mickey Jupp - Up Snakes, Down Ladders

The story goes that this collection of 16 tracks hasn’t so much been released as wrestled from the reluctant mitts of so-called pub rocker Mickey Jupp for public consumption.  Jupp, the fella who wrote ‘Down At The Doctors’ for Dr Feelgood, has been living at arm’s length from the music biz for 40 years, in the wonderfully named Cumbrian hamlet of Boot.  But that hasn’t stopped him writing songs – it just required some arm-twisting on the part of Conquest Music label boss Alan Bambrough for this selection to see the light of day.
Fun can come in different shapes, weights and measures, and this little box of delights consists
Mickey Jupp takes a well-earned break from recording
Pic by Alan Bambrough
of a light and breezy, shuffling and two-stepping, short and sweet smorgasbord of Nick Lowe-ish rock’n’roll, blues and country.  The whole shebang was written, performed and produced by Jupp himself, closeted away in Boot, and sounds as relaxed as can be from start to finish.
The opening track, ‘I’d Love To Boogie’, is a shakin’n’rattling bit of jump blues/rockabilly, in which the hero can see a cutie standing there across the room, but can’t get her on the dance floor because the bar is propping him up.  Amphetamine-fuelled Feelgood R'n'B it’s not, but it’s still an irresistible turn from a worldly-wise, seasoned songsmith.  And it’s funny, too.
Jupp’s piano playing is to the fore there, and on many of the tracks that follow, chiming away on the simple but effective aching country of ‘Why Don’t You Don’t’, supplemented by injections of accordion; rinky-dink on the strolling ‘Learning To Swim’ another “too much drinking” song with a neat lyrical twist; leading on the stop-time riff of the perhaps over-subtle ‘Bad News Can Travel Slow’, notwithstanding its cleverly phrased title line; and trilling away on the Delbert McClinton-like rock’n’roll of the brief but entertaining ‘I Beg Your Pardon? (You Heard)’.
A few of these tunes, in fact, aren’t so much short and sweet as concise to the point of being abrupt.  The snappy ‘Get Hot’, given a semi-zydeco vibe by some shots of accordion, and infused with typically spot-on harmonies, certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.  And the yearning but witty ‘Lonely Boy’, which feels like it could do with a touch more muscle despite stirrings of electric guitar, comes to a sudden and less than dramatic conclusion.
Over the piece Up Snakes, Down Ladders may not quite match the musical sophistication of Geraint Watkins’ similarly rootsy 2019 album Rush Of Blood.  But Jupp still has the savvy to pull off the trick of making the laid back title track sound both spare and lush at the same time.  And the same is true on the vaguely Latin-feeling ‘Man In The Mirror’, a reflective (duh) tune with an intriguing lyric about loneliness, and a subtle mix of acoustic guitar, piano, and whispers of organ.
Another plus is that just about every song is perked up by some kind of lyrical conceit.  ‘Like You Don’t Love Him’ is the story of a properly smitten fella observing the object of his affections in a shallow relationship with another guy, and wishing it was him, set to a great melody, with warm, smoochy piano chords and flutters of organ.  ‘I Threw Myself At You (And Missed)’, meanwhile, is a great tagline for a languid bit of country fit for a place on the soundtrack to some offbeat Coen Brothers movie.  And ‘The Ballad Of Tutford Darnell’ is a nudge-and-a-wink, if slightly corny, bit of loping autobiography.
‘The Blues Ain’t What It Used To Be’, muses Jupp, on a nifty, clip-clopping country-meets-blues eulogy for simpler times.  But Up Snakes, Down Ladders is roots music that displays timeless qualities – sharp songs, great musical feel, and heart.

Up Snakes, Down Ladders is out now on Conquest Music, and can be ordered here.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Gimme 5 - The Starlite Campbell Band take us on a musical odyssey

As their recently released album Starlite Campbell Band Live! demonstrates, Suzy Starlite and Simon Campbell can do a classic British rock sound with the best of 'em.  But these musical nomads, currently living in Portugal, have interests and inspirations that range far and wide.  So let's join their Gimme 5 magical mystery tour as they share 5 songs that have clicked with them
lately, 5 key influences, and 5 guests - well, six, because they cheated - they'd love to invite to a long lunch.  Start the engines, Suzy and Simon!

Gimme 5 songs, old or new, that have been on your radar recently.

The Same by The Smile:  Simon has loved and devotedly followed Radiohead ever since he heard ‘Creep’. We think they are the most important band around right now as they continue to push musical boundaries and really love the collaboration with Nigel Godrich as a producer. The
The Starlite Campbell Band perform a rock'n'roll mind-meld!
Pic by Dario Leonetti

Smile is the latest side project from Messrs Yorke and Greenwood from the band and we saw them live early in July in Lisbon. It was a masterclass in modern rock music, the star of the show being the drummer Tom Skinner. But, it's not just the music. Yorke’s lyrics are always poignant but this particular track really speaks the language of 2022.

A Minha Menina by Os Mutantes:  “Suzy is always off-piste with her music tastes and since being in Portugal has been investigating the music of our new adopted home. Os Mutantes are Brazilian, but of course sing in Portuguese, albeit the Brazilian version. The album was released in 1968 and feels very much a part of the psychedelic scene, but with a wonderful Latin twist and fabulous fuzz guitar.

Flowers of Neptune 6 by The Flaming Lips:  Simon saw the Flaming Lips at Glastonbury a few years ago and became aware of them through the album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and later when Wayne Coyne featured as guest vocalist with The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Golden Path’. Flowers of Neptune 6 is from the album American Head which is totally wonderful, and we love Coyne’s broken vocal and childlike lyrics, both of which convey insightful messages. The production is wonderful, in parts Beatle-esque but still rooted in their chaotic Oklahoma sound. He likes dinosaurs and spaceships and that's good enough for us.

That's The Way It Is (live version) by Daniel Lanois & Heavy Sun:  We talk more about Lanois later, but this particular track was written for the Amazon video game Red Dead Redemption 2 and is just outstanding. We love the general vibe, guitar and vocal sensitivity of the Hammond, the falsetto vocal - basically everything.

I Believe In You by Talk Talk:  Talk Talk always give waves of ‘80s nostalgia with their big hits ‘Life's What You Make It’ and ‘Living in Another World’.  But to us, its the album Spirit of Eden that really defines the band. It was engineered by our good friend Phill Brown who has worked with an amazing array of artists from Led Zeppelin to Bob Marley. Phill’s excellent book Are We
Still Rolling
? details the torturous recording process plus a plethora of fabulous anecdotes from his life as a premier league studio hound. The atmosphere, instrumentation and vocals on this track are totally spellbinding.

Gimme 5 artists or bands who have had a big influence on your work.

Daniel Lanois:  “We fell in love with Lanois through his production of Bob Dylan's masterpiece Oh Mercy and quickly found the other records in the trilogy: Yellow Moon (Neville Brothers) and his first solo album Acadie. All three were recorded in New Orleans using fabulous local musicians plus the wonderful talents of our friend Malcolm Burn along with Mark Howard and Brian Eno, plus Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton of U2. Over the years we have followed him
Bowie - A shape-shifting musical influence
with a passion, and the rockumentary ‘Here Is What Is’ is a great favourite of ours. Lanois has produced some monster albums, working with a stellar array of artists from U2 to Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel to Sinéad O'Connor, but it's his collaboration with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris that really floats our boat. He works with Brian Blade, who along with Vinnie Colaiuta is one of our favourite drummers. The fact that he is a songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, producer and engineer provides a deep connection with Simon who plays our vinyl copies of Acadie and Oh Mercy before every session he records  - just to set the standard. ‘Nuff said.

Nigel Godrich:   “Godrich is Radiohead’s producer and works also on Tom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood's side projects. We just love his production sensibilities making complex music very accessible and appears to be very much a part of the creative process. But he is much more than just Radiohead. The From the Basement series of live performances is totally amazing, taking its inspiration and vibe from The Old Grey Whistle Test. Outstanding."

Jimmy Page:  Simon says, I was born on January 9th, the same date, but not the same year as Page, and feel a real connection with his playing and production. He is a very ‘British’ guitar player, a bit sloppy - not as clean and refined as some of his American counterparts. Zeppelin III was my first introduction after an older boy at school who didn’t care for the music gave it to me. Of course, I voraciously consumed all the albums and using a reel-to-reel tape machine to slow them down, learned every track. Houses of the Holy and Zeppelin I have remained my favourites and are on regular rotation in our studio. It was these that made me want to learn how to write, arrange and produce records. To this day his slightly crunchy guitar sound always sounds great to me and made me dislike the muddy overdriven sounds of many ‘modern’ guitar players. Take a listen to our new album Starlite Campbell Band Live! and youll see what I mean.

David Bowie:  Suzy says, “Who can’t love his style, avant-garde thinking, intelligence, and his constant pushing of musical boundaries. Like most artists, he was of course a musical magpie picking up musical ideas from the likes of Scott Walker and Jacques Brel. He also surrounded himself with great musicians, primarily guitarists such as Ronson, Fripp, Alomar, Slick, Belew, Rogers and Gabrels plus of course legendary producers Eno and Visconti. My all-time favourite ‘Bowie’ rhythm section is the combination of George Murray and Dennis Davis. Simon and I cried when we first heard ‘Where Are We Now’ as it was clear - to us - he was dying.

Scott Walker:  “This enigmatic, mysterious, troublesome genius has been so influential to vast swathes of modern music. He always lurks in the British psyche with his magnificent early Walker Brothers hits, but it's his solo material that really strikes home. The later material can be a very tricky listen but totally worth it. 

Music loving movie man Quentin Tarantino celebrates lunch invite
Gimme 5 guests you’d love to invite to your ideal long lunch.

"Of course, as a couple, we would always invite six as five is awkward so we popped in an extra chair at the table."

David Byrne:  “Byrne is of the most intelligent musicians out there and sure would be an engaging guest adding some zing to this fabulous group of people. His fabulous book How Music Works is on its second read in the Starlite Campbell house and we never tire of the groundbreaking Stop Making Sense, critically acclaimed as one of the greatest rock movies ever made.

Tom Yorke:  “This activist, eclectic musician and visual artist would complement the other guests around the table. Witty, articulate and a very unique way of looking at the world.

Annie Leibovitz:  “What can you say about this legendary photographer? Is it the picture she took of Ono and Lennon five hours before he was tragically murdered, or the controversy that surrounds her shots of Queen Elizabeth II, Miley Cyrus and LeBron James? In any event, we think she would make a fascinating addition to the cocktail of guests.

Quentin Tarantino:  “Our favourite music director and lover of music. All his movies have magnificent eclectic soundtracks and we particularly love Urge Overkill’s version of ‘Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon’, Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ and The Statler Brothers' version of ‘Flowers On The Wall’. Were sure we would be a riveting guest.

Laurie Anderson:  “Is one of the most renowned and daring creative pioneers and is bound to really make a fabulous guest. Visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist and instrumentalist.

Pedro Abrunhosa:  “We met Pedro at his studio in Porto last year not knowing he was one of Portugal's biggest artists. We really hit it off and a few weeks ago we went to stay with him. He again is a fabulous singer, songwriter, poet, philosopher, musician and composer. He founded Porto’s jazz school and has been immensely influential in the modern music culture of Portugal.  He is well read and has tremendous gravitas. The man has his own library - that says it all. [
Not being remotely familiar with Pedro Abrunhosa myself, I've dug out his track 'Se Eu Fosse Um Dia O tea Olhar' by way of introduction.  Nice piano!]

Just one track – pick one of your tracks that you’d share with a new listener to introduce your music.

“We’d go for the track ‘Lay It Out On Me’, from our album The Language Of Curiosity.  We wrote and recorded the drums, bass and guitar whilst we were living in Germany. The grand piano was tracked at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales when we were in the UK on tour, two weeks before the first lockdown. Rockfield is famous for being the world’s first residential recording studio and also where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody’, and many other monster bands have worked there including Black Sabbath, Oasis, Robert Plant et al.  For our session, Simon asked Jonny Henderson to play three versions of the song - busy, medium and sparse. We chose the sparse version which gives the track a very desolate and intimate feel. Although principally a love song, the lyric has a sense of hopelessness and brokenness and the very melodic and clean guitar adds to the atmosphere. ‘Lay It Out On Me’ has space, a naked vulnerability and we think that it's one of the best recordings we have made, and defines much that the Starlite Campbell Band were in 2021.

_

Lay It Out On Me - Starlite/Campbell 2021

I wrote you letters, parchment to hold
You brought suspicion, or so I am told
Love is a picture, to paint and to see
Lay it out on me
 
Walk in the forest, there’s nothing to fear
I am so right, when you are so near
Love is an anger, a sign, a decree
Lay it out on me
 
Walk through the water, just in and not on
Swim in the ocean, bask in the sun
I gave you my all, your love is my plea
Lay it out on me

Starlite Campbell Band Live! is out now on Supertone Records, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

When Rivers Meet - Flying Free Tour Live

Right down to its rather prosaic title, Flying Free Tour Live comes over like a rough and ready, off the cuff, unvarnished document of When Rivers Meet in performance.  Sonically it's pretty raw, sounding too ambient at times, a bit unbalanced at others.  It also feels very much “in the moment”, right down to Grace Bond having an unfortunately timed fit of the giggles during the sensitive acoustic number ‘Don’t Tell Me Goodbye’.  So for those who caught them on this tour it will doubtless be a great memento.  But how does it sound to someone, like me, who wasn’t able to make any of these shows?
Heads down, no nonsense, not quite mindless boogie
Pic by Paul May
Well, there’s no denying the visceral thrill of the opening ‘Did I Break The Law’, as the tension built by the churning guitar, the whomping, metronomic kick drum, and low-pitched verse, is met by a whooping crowd.  Then with a shout of “Here we go!” Grace Bond braces all concerned for her hollered, wordless chorus.  It’s one of their best songs, and makes for an electric opening.
The following ‘Walking On The Wire’ is less of an out and out belter, but still captures some of the key elements of their repertoire, with a riff that could be out of Jimmy Page’s ‘Slide Guitar 101’ course, aided and abetted by pounding drums, and embellished by intriguing slide mandolin breaks and a chant-along chorus.  There’s more of this kinda thing on the likes of ‘Free Man’, which is all about the grinding slide riff, and the ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ stylings of ‘Lost & Found’, with its stop-time riffing and the urgent vocal from Grace Bond on the chorus, while Roger Inniss emulates the elastic bass of Adam Bowers from the Saving Grace studio version.  Meanwhile the slide grind of ‘Innocence Of Youth’ suggests Aaron Bond has listened to ‘In My Time Of Dying’ more than a few times, and if it feels a bit stop-start and disjointed that doesn’t stop the crowd getting all riled up by it.
But if this is their “go to” foundational style, it’s some of their other leanings that give them satisfying range.  There’s a disarming, retro feel to the excellent harmonies on ‘My Babe Says That He Loves Me’.  The aforementioned ‘Don’t Tell Me Goodbye’ is Americana, via the Moptops’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ perhaps, simple but delivered with feeling and more convincing harmonies, and inspires some wistful singing along.  But ‘Bury My Body’ is even better, a seriously good song in a folkie vein – notwithstanding the ill-advised wobbly whistling on the intro – that’s one of the absolute highlights on offer.  Drummer James Fox switches instruments to provide delicate backing on ‘Tomorrow’, which is perhaps less subtle than on the studio version.  The crowd lap it up though, with at least one fella whooping his appreciation – though if I’d been there “in the moment” I might have been thinking “STFU, dude”.  Bah, humbug.
Down the stretch they could be stronger.  ‘Kissing The Sky’ starts off hinting at funk with its twanging bass, then jolts along in stop-start fashion, encompassing a tasty slice of slide mandolin – or is it violin?  ‘Want Your Love’ is also a bit thin, in spite of the punkish edge to the guitar intro and Grace Bond’s “blues’n’twos” fiddle break.  But I reckon different song choices would have landed some stronger punches.
Still, while Dylan and Hendrix might well give each other knowing looks over the riff to ‘Testify’, the moaning, Yardbirds-like backing vocals are still a nice twist, and Grace Bond’s vocal is satisfyingly explosive to bring down the curtain.
When Rivers Meet have certainly flown free over the last couple of years, winning awards and garnering awards.  But I do start to wonder: is that bare-bones Zep sound they lean on enough to let them soar higher; or do they need to strengthen their musical wings to avoid falling to earth?  Meantime, Flying Free Tour Live is an enjoyable souvenir of where they are right now – and Grace Bond’s voice continues to be something to behold.
 
Flying Free Tour Live
 is out now on One Road Records, and can be ordered here.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Kirk Fletcher - Heartache By The Pound

The song remains the same, in that Kirk Fletcher continues to be one of the premier exponents of blues guitar out there.
It really doesn’t matter what kind of song it is, Fletcher’s guitar work is the most delicious icing, and indeed cherry, on the cake.  There’s the sparkling and relaxed ‘Shine A Light On Love’, with its slinky horns and the lift given by Jade MacRae in the middle, around which he wraps a jaunty, twisting and turning solo, and some dazzling extra licks besides.  There’s the smoky ballad ‘The
Kirk Fletcher - he knows what to do with that thing in his mitts
Pic by Mitch Conrad
Night’s Calling For You’, a tale of regret about relationship misdemeanours culminating in the moment when a lover “found about me and your very best friend”, the mood set by subtle piano and organ and then crystallised in Fletcher’s delicate, lyrical solo – and stiffened by a very Whitesnakey little background riff that slides into earshot halfway through.  Or there’s the ultra-twangy Carl Perkins-like rock’n’roll picking on ‘Wildcat Tamer’, a slice of fun that sounds straight out of mid-50s Memphis.
I could point to the way the simple, melancholy ‘I Can’t Find No Love’ is elevated by a solo that takes the melody into a different dimension.  Oh, I just did, didn’t I?  And on the closing ‘Hope For Us’, all concerned ramp up the tension before he takes off into a stunner of a solo, culminating in a segment like showers of sparks falling from the sky.
Best of all though, is the brace of songs in the middle of the album.  ‘Wrapped Up, Tangled In The Blues’ is an infectious tune, soulful but enlivened by a spiky, pinging riff, and it’s just not enough to say that Fletcher’s stinging outro solo sounds effortless.  It’s a high-wire, turn-on-a-dime affair, and whatever other metaphors you fancy.  Then he follows that with ‘Wrong Kind Of Love’, its tickling drums and rubber band bass augmented by funky rhythm guitar, the vocal counterpointed by conversational licks en route to another crackling, jaw-dropping solo – though it fades out rather than, as I’d have preferred, reaching for a big climax.
The song doesn’t remain the same, in that while his 2020 outing My Blues Pathway was peppered with songs about asserting oneself and one’s worth, this time around the subject matter is often – well, heartache, but sometimes also the possibility of music as a means of escape, redemption, transcendence.  Or whatever.  Gotta say, I find the notion of Kirk Fletcher as a cheatin’ heart a bit of a stretch.  But hey, dramatic licence and all that, and most of these songs about love’s labour lost hit the spot in terms of mood.
The song remains the same, in that here and there Fletcher falls a little short on the vocal front.  I’m damn sure he’s worked on his singing over the years – he’d be a fool not to – but it’s still not his forte.  There are times when he sounds entirely at home – ‘Wrapped Up’ and ‘Wildcat Tamer’ being prime examples.  But the wavering opening lines of ‘Night By Myself’ plant a gremlin in the back of mind, tensing for further moments – though in fairness he just about gets away with it most of the time.  But if only he had the velvety vocal control of a Robert Cray, or the zip and personality of a Joe Louis Walker, Kirk Fletcher would be an even stronger force to be reckoned with.
Still, as someone once said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”, and Kirk Fletcher is still stretching and striving to be as good as he can be.  Meantime, there’s no doubt that he’s a sublime guitar player, as Heartache By The Pound once again makes clear.
 
Heartache By The Pound is out now on Ogierea Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Todd Sharpville - Medication Time

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.  Medication Time is a blues album, not a blues-rock album.  Oh, it rocks’n’rolls a fair bit, but this ain’t no heavy, heavy monster sound.  At the same time though, Todd Sharpville doesn’t restrict himself to yer common or garden blues knitting patterns either.
For example, there are four ballads on the album, but Sharpville is in no danger of getting stuck in a slow blues rut.  Only the last of them, ‘I Don’t Need To Know Your Name’, really comes over
Todd Sharpville, tangled up in thought
Pic by Al Stuart
 as a conventional slow blues, and even then it still leaves its own romantic mark.  But ‘Tangled Up In Thought’ cleaves to a more soulful vein, to which Sharpville really does justice with his excellent, emotive vocal, over strokes of organ and sparse chimes of guitar.  Meanwhile 'Medication Time' itself is a dramatic ballad that sounds to me as if it has as more in common with Gershwin than Stevie Ray Vaughan.  And ‘Silhouettes’, with its minimalist delivery, feels like a downbeat meditation in an old-fashioned, smoky jazzy styling.  All four of these slowies, though, feel like genuine quality.
It’s this kind of range that allows Sharpville to keep the pot boiling for more than an hour, across 12 tracks (even if a few do linger at the out door longer than necessary), whereas many an artist would be treading water several times along the way.
In the simplest upbeat mode, ‘Get Outta My Way’ under three minutes of horn-inflected rock’n’roll, but these notes wot I have wrote say it’s brisk, danceable, catchy and infectious.  In fact, taking into account Sharpville’s stinging solo and a warbling sax break, you might say it’s irresistible.  The single ‘Brothers (From Another Mother)’ swings perfectly down a similar bluesy road, with great horns and the added attraction of Larry McCray, totally in sync on both the guitar and the vocal "blues hound" vibe.
‘House Rules’ though, is a more relaxed offbeat shuffle, with witty lyrics trotted out from the perspective of an old-fashioned male chauvinist pig.  But if ‘Stand Your Ground’ also shuffles along, it’s with a New Orleans, second line funk inflection, with Hispanic piano touches, and some vituperative words.  ‘God Loves A Loser’, meanwhile, takes a more direct route, with driving guitar and bass as the backing for a tale in which “Hope is a stranger, anguish is my best friend”.
There are three covers, and two of ‘em work a treat.  The album opens with Dylan’s ‘Walk Out In The Rain’, coming over like the Stones in laid back mode, though Sharpville’s voice, with its throaty quality, owes far more to Ian Siegal than Mick Jagger.  ‘Money For Nothing’ – yes, that one – pulls off the difficult trick of an imaginative treatment that’s actually down to earth, as the 80s megahit is given a harp-rasping Chicago blues reading, with a guest turn by Sugar Ray Norcia.  Only Springsteen’s ‘Red Headed Woman’ doesn’t really hit the mark, with its lurching rock’n’roll arrangement, though Sharpville’s rockabilly solo is still worth a listen.
Much of the material on Medication Time originates in Sharpville’s reflections on a period, some years ago, when he succumbed to a breakdown and needed treatment for severe mental health issues.  The resulting lyrics are sharp regarding both the downs and the ups of that experience – and the music lives up to them.  I didn’t really know what to expect from either Todd Sharpville or Medication Time.  What I got was a damn good, original blues album.
 
Medication Time is out now on Dixiefrog Records, distributed by Proper Music Group in Europe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Samantha Fish - Ex-Convento di Santa Chiara, Piacenza, 17 July 2022

On Saturday night Samantha Fish and co were in Haapsalu, Estonia.  On Sunday they’re here in Piacenza, Italy.  Two countries and two very different languages, 1500 miles and probably 10 degrees Celsius apart.  Such is the European blues festival circuit.
Tonight’s gig is among the semi-ruined, scaffolding-propped cloisters of a former Convent, which is in the process of being salvaged as a community space.  You think Delta blues is old school?  
"Now, which knob do I twiddle here again?"
This place is way, way older.  But it swiftly gets jolted into the 21st century when the Fish ensemble take the stage and let rip with a gutsy and rocking rendition of ‘Bulletproof’.
‘All Ice No Whiskey’ continues the latterday slant to the set with its funky dance feel, and I could have enjoyed it going on longer before an organ glissando heralded a crunch into ‘Twisted Ambition’, which Fish elevates – if that’s the word – from the album version by chiselling out some screaming guitar breaks.
The show is evidently sold out, but to a surprisingly small audience, who are all plonked on plastic seats while a bundle of professional snappers patrol the front of the stage with fearsomely large cameras.  So Samantha is being a bit optimistic, I think to myself, when she says she hopes she’ll see people up and dancing before long.
It doesn’t matter for now though, as they roll through ‘Hello Stranger’ in a manner that shows the song is anything but a stranger.  It’s gentle and sparkling, cool and sassy, before being ratcheted up into a crescendo.  A rumbling opening to ‘No Angels’ follow, and if the crowd still aren’t on their feet there are at least pockets of singing along to the “No there ain’t” lines of the chorus.  Sam essays a downbeat slide passage, then breaks loose into a solo that rises to fever pitch, cooled off with a slinky final vocal segment.
‘Better Be Lonely’ is a spiky pleasure, while ‘Kill Or Be Kind’ now seems to make more of the incipient menace in a character who offers her lover the alternatives of the title, having already “put the fear of god in you”.  It segues into a slide passage for which Samantha straps on a peachy looking Les Paul, building towards some big, torn-out chords then escalating frenzy over walloping drums from Sarah Tomek – so much frenzy in fact, that two cymbals take a tumble from the drum riser – all in the service of introducing a fierce take on ‘Watch It Die’.
The band take a break as Fish picks up an acoustic and underlines the blues theme of this ‘Dal
Have Les Paul, will travel!
Mississippi Al Po’ series of summer shows by playing ‘Jim Lee Blues Pt 1’, with some nice picking and a truly bluesy vocal, followed up by a very personal and intimate sounding take on ‘Need You More’.
As the band get back on stage another prompt from Fish finally gets the crowd down the front in time to dance and sing along to ‘Bitch On The Run’, which is followed by the scratchy and infernally ‘So Called Lover’, which could easily be taken for a homage to Blondie, and it the high-flying vocals on the chorus can’t cut through the density of the guitar and rhythm section it doesn’t matter – its infectious, ragged energy is enough to make it work.
The sweet swirl of ‘Dream Girl’ offers some respite for a while, until eventually it soars skywards on Fish’s solo, driven on by Ron Johnson’s propulsive bass.  This is a mere appetiser though, for the wild rollercoaster of ‘Black Wind Howlin’’ with which they close the set.  You need to do something dramatic to pull anyone’s focus from Samantha Fish during a live performance, but Holy Moly, Sarah Tomek does just that on this occasion, with a display of ferocious, jaw-dropping batterismo, as they might call it in these parts.
As she tunes up for the encore, Fish notices a poster for a Sam Fish tribute band dubbed The Runaways, after the title track of her first album.  “You probably know the words better than I do these days,” she observes.  Which is a shame, because like a lot of her early material, it’s better than she seems to think.  Still, it’s good to see that songs from Faster, state-of-the-art twists and all, slot in nicely alongside older stuff to produce a coherent, rocking show.  And just to underline her blues-heavy roots, they bring down the curtain with a substantial, hard-hitting, and dynamic rendition of ‘Shake ‘Em Down’ that draws satisfied cheers from the now dancing audience.
It was a pretty darned hot night in Piacenza.  This show from Samantha Fish and her band added their own cocktail of chills and fever to the atmosphere.  (See what I did there?)
 
You can watch some clips of the Piacenza show here.

Check out Samantha Fish’s upcoming shows in Europe and the United States on her website, here.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Starlite Campbell Band - Starlite Campbell Band Live!

Suzy Starlite and her husband Simon Campbell aren’t averse to being a bit quirky, musically speaking, as some of the sounds on their last album The Language Of Curiosity demonstrated.  But this live excursion makes clear that at heart they’re a throwback to an earlier time, and a brand of British blues-rock in which bands treated being on stage as an adventure, stretching and bending songs to get the most out of them.
This sensibility is underlined by the closing track here, a cover of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’, included in this set on the basis that Hammond organ duties were undertaken by one-time Procul Harum keys man Josh Phillips.  It’s a song that has a soulful vibe, but of course also
Simon Campbell and Suzy Starlite, living it up
Pic by Peter Putters
reaches out beyond a blues framework by appropriating a bit of Bach.  Campbell may be at the edge of his vocal capabilities here, but proves it’s worth the effort with a dandy delivery.
The Hammond focus is no accident either, as the rest of the album demonstrates that Campbell, a wing-ding guitarist who can put lots of young guns to shame, loves to have an organ to bounce off.  So it is that the opening track, ‘Brother’, runs to eight and a half minutes as all concerned bounce around in pursuit of different angles.  And bounce is the operational word for a rhythmic groove centred on Suzy Starlite’s bubbling bass line.  Campbell adds stinging guitar, and on this occasion Jonny Henderson delivers the classic, surging Hammond sound. They take it down for a stuttering, Morse Code guitar solo, and do some smart call-and-response guitar and organ stuff before they’re done. Oh yeah, and it’s a good song to boot, with a nifty hook.
A couple of songs, ‘Cry Over You’ and ‘Said So’, show off different sides of Campbell’s guitar prowess.  The first is a blues ballad, but not by the numbers.  It’s a romantic affair, with clever lyrical phrasing, and Campbell reinforces the mood with a swooning, gentle solo reminiscent of Gary Moore at his most melodic.  And again, there’s a marvellous organ solo that captures the requisite sensitivity and drama.  ‘Said So’ is an altogether different animal.  At first a crunching mash-up of a ‘You Really Got Me’-type riff and a melody that owes a few quid to the Temptations, it downshifts into some moody meandering, before some wailing and bleeping guitar wrangling that sounds like it’s being transmitted from Space Station No. 5 heralds a psychedelic instrumental storm, in the course of which Campbell lets rip – to the evident satisfaction of the crowd at its conclusion.
The quality of the songs is an important factor though, as the reflective and melodic ‘Take Time To Grow Old’ demonstrates, even if its “na-na-na” vocal bridge is a bit daffy.  Campbell still comes up with a gripping guitar refrain though, controlled in both pace and tone before a more explorative solo that eventually resolves into a closing theme.  Meanwhile Suzy Starlite produces a steady, patient vocal on the contemplative ‘Guilty’, with a classy melody over a spare backing consisting of metronomic drums, locked in bass, and flurries of understated guitar and keys.
‘Misgivings’ shows just how well they swing, on a bright shuffle with a lightness of touch and another strong chorus, while the rhythm section and organ combine marvellously to underpin a Campbell solo that sizzles without burning itself to a crisp, and Jonny Henderson produces another classy Hammond excursion as they shift up a gear.  Only ‘Preacher Of Love’ – taken like ‘Brother’ and ‘Misgivings’, from Campbell’s 2011 solo album ThirtySix – leaves me wanting more.  Not that it’s a bad song – it’s got drive and an intriguing twitchiness – but to my mind they’ve got a heap of stronger options in their locker.
Be that as it may, Starlite Campbell Band Live! confirms that this husband-and-wife pairing are under-rated gems of the blues-rock firmament.  Their musicianship is top notch, they write really good, smart songs, and they’re great fun. If you hanker after that classic British rock vibe of yesteryear, then . . . Live! will satisfy your appetite.

Starlite Campbell Band Live! is released by Supertone Records on 22 July, and can be ordered here.