Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Seamus McGarvey Band - Seamus O'Boogie

I’m sure lots of bands recording an album regard it as a labour of love, but Seamus O’Boogie is really in a different category.  Irish bassist Pat McGarvey had had a long-standing notion to record with his harmonica-playing brother John and their amateur musician dad Seamus.  But it was only with the passing of Seamus’s brother, sister and father-in-law that the idea crystallised, bringing this album into being.
Now in his seventies, Seamus McGarvey has been a lifelong music fan, collecting records 
Seamus sings the blues, in bars of twelve or less
and attending shows by many famous blues, rock’n’roll and country artists, as well as singing and playing guitar himself.  Seamus O’Boogie is a collection of cover versions that celebrate his enthusiasm and have personal meaning for the family, recorded in Edinburgh with the assistance of local guitarist Jed Potts and drummer Calum McIntyre.
McGarvey senior’s affinity for blues music is demonstrated by the feel of his vocal delivery on tracks like Robert Johnson’s ‘Rambling On My Mind’, and Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, on both of which John McGarvey’s harp and Jed Potts’ guitar combine very nicely, with Potts delivering a shivering and shaking solo on the latter.  The same is also true of songs like Lonnie Johnson’s ‘It’s Too Late To Cry’, an acid tale of a no good woman on which McGarvey captures the man’s breaking point with an emphatic “That did it!”, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s ‘Walk On’, which opens reflectively with sparse harp and guitar accompaniment.
More upbeat blues comes in the form of ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’, with its snapping, lurching arrangement and a brittle-toned solo from Potts, as well as the sturdy grind of Elmore James’ ‘Look On Yonder Wall’.
Meanwhile McGarvey’s penchant for country music is well represented by ‘Sea Of Hearbreak’ and ‘Deep River Blues’.  On the former it’s apparent that while his voice doesn’t have the basso profundo quality of Johnny Cash, it does have something of Cash's character, with restrained banjo and amusing “bom-bom-bom” backing vocals from Pat McGarvey
Seamus and his sidekicks
providing some variety.  The latter is a more laid back, country-ish take on a traditional blues, with McIntyre providing washboard percussion that even stretches to the use of a bicycle bell.
Crossover tunes like Brook Benton’s pop hit ‘Hotel Happiness’ and Carl Perkins’ country/rock’n’roll ‘Honey Don’t’ feel like throwaways by comparison, and I’ll never go a bundle on a crooning-style Elvis tune such ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’, nicely enough done though it may be.  But on Duke Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ the understated delivery and McGarvey’s liltingly romantic vocal are good enough to have me digging out a DVD of When Harry Met Sally, in which the tune gets the briefest of airings courtesy of Harry Connick Jr.  Such is the power of a classic song.
There’s some rock’n’roll too, in the form of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Break Up’.  The band rock away satisfyingly enough on the former, with McIntyre’s drums becoming more urgent in support of the guitar and harp solos, but the latter rattles along more vibrantly, with whoops of enthusiasm from McGarvey, and a nifty solo from Potts.
There are some curiosities added to the album too, harvested from a family cassette tape dating back to 1983 - snippets of song introductions and conversation, and renditions of a few Irish tunes on which Seamus McGarvey’s late brother John can be heard singing, add to the personal touch.  And even if these songs don’t mean much to me (other than ‘Mush Mush Mush Tooral-i-Addy’, familiar from the movie The Quiet Man) they underline my original point:  Seamus O’Boogie is a labour of love.

Seamus O'Boogie is available now on Johnny Rock Records.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Wishbone Ash - The Jam House, Edinburgh, 9 November 2019

There’s only one Wishbone Ash.  Well, actually that might be a rather contentious statement in some quarters.  What I mean to say is that there’s only one Wishbone Ash sound.  There may be a distant resemblance to Yes here and there, in the vocal harmonies, busy bass playing, and occasional pastoral mood, but that’s it – they really do stand apart with their twin guitar prog sound.
Mark Abrahams and Andy Powell get all wistful and elegiac
Which is clear as soon as they kick off tonight’s show with ‘Real Guitars Have Wings’, an instrumental that may be brief but still has room to show off those rippling guitar harmonies.  And having warmed everyone up with that, they then make a statement of intent by knocking out three humdingers in a row from Argus.  Mark Abrahams takes the lead with a wah-wah intro that builds into the classic riff of ‘The King Will Come’, while Andy Powell contents himself with laying down rhythm textures, and those vocal harmonies produce the icing on the cake.  They follow that with the Tudor-sounding opening theme that announces ‘Throw Down The Sword’, on which it’s evident that Powell, all salt-and-pepper and twinkling eye, still has a decent set of pipes, though it’s bassist Bob Skeat that adds the vocal fairy dust with his high harmonies – though verses and choruses are, as is often the case, the lesser part of the song, as Powell takes the lead guitar chair this time with a piercing, elegiac solo.  By which time the thought occurs that Robin Trower may sometimes be identified as a master of tone, but there can’t be many pairings out there to match Powell and Abrahams for crystal clarity. 
The third element of the Argus triptych is ‘Sometime World’, which opens in lyrical mode before revving up and building to its distinctive dah-dah-dee-dah vocal harmony section, before Powell produces an excellent solo underpinned by great bass runs from Skeat and ringing chords from Abrahams.
They make room for a new song, ‘We Stand As One’, which stands up well beside the older
material.  Written by Mark Abrahams, his prickling guitar lines are counterpointed by a jagged, rumbling riff.  But the final highlight of this first set is ‘Way Of The World’, a dynamic epic with a mountainous riff, and a blazing Powell solo over more big chords, and undulating bass from the beaming Skeat.  It then hits a fresh peak with a guitar harmony segment of byzantine complexity, followed by a screaming solo from Abrahams before they drop it down to create space for a crackling exchange of guitar fire between them.
They ratchet up the momentum again quickly in their second set, with Powell on a Telecaster for the boogie of ‘Blind Eye’, before the chunky, chugging shuffle of ‘Deep Blues’, which underlines that Joe Crabtree’s drumming is unfussy in the midst of everything going on around him, but exactly where it needs to be.
Andy Powell and Bob Skeat - old guns havin' some fun
‘The Pilgrim’ takes things back into epic territory in convincing fashion, its patient opening leading to a hypnotic rolling guitar groove.  But while ‘Tales Of The Wise’ features a very WA stately intro, and a faster middle section with expertly combined lead and rhythm guitar, for me it demonstrates that you can have too much of a good thing, as it goes on long enough to begin to pall.
But of course with their back catalogue they’ve got too many get out of jail cards to really lose their way, and they promptly rip out the gutsy riff to ‘Living Proof’ to get back on track, before trumping that with the catchy guitar figure of the swinging ‘Jailbait’, with Powell prompting an arm waving, testifyin’ singalong.
They encore with ‘Blowin’ Free’, of course, a classic which is really beyond commentary, and brings a cheerful conclusion to an effortlessly strong 2 hour performance, accompanied by some appealingly old-fashioned visuals in the form of a slide/animation/kaleidoscope show.
Wishbone Ash aren’t anybody’s star vehicle.  Powell may be the main man, but he’s happy to give his axe sidekick Abrahams plenty of space to shine, and it’s very much an ensemble performance.  Fifty years gone, and a new album coming next year, Powell tells us.  I dare say we’ll meet again.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Uncle Nef - Love Songs

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs,” sang Paul McCartney.  Well that’s no problem for Uncle Nef, because their Love Songs aren’t silly, they’re – unusual.
Uncle Nef are comprised of New Orleans jazz drummer Shannon Powell, and his young apprentice and NOLA incomer Darren Hoffman, a multi-instrumentalist who for the purposes of Love Songs focuses largely on guitar playing of a less than straight up variety.
Uncle Nef(few) - across the generational divide
What we have across the 11 tracks here are a variety of originals and covers, instrumentals and songs, with Powell supplying most of the lead vocals in his rich, relaxed voice, starting with ‘That Was That’.  A break-up song in a real sloooooow tempo, it opens with birdsong, followed by quaking guitar notes from Hoffman before Powell weighs in on a soulful melody, and then as is his wont triggers a Hoffman solo with a “Come on son” aside.  With an organ solo from Paul David Longstreth, and hooting sax from guest Morgan Guerin combining with Hoffman’s guitar, it’s a good entrée for the mixture that follows.
The four instrumentals take on less traditional textures.  The scratchy bleep and squeak of ‘Cabrito’ has drum rhythms and guitar lines vying for dominance before clicking into synch.  On Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Jam 292’, Hoffman’s exploratory, wiry wah-wah guitar jostles for attention with swirling organ from Kyle Roussel around a handful of themes, while on ‘A-Side’ a repetitive riff alternates with another guitar refrain, until Hoffman kicks in with another warbling wah-wah solo from some peculiar Hendrixian dimension.  Edgier still is the Kurt Cobain composition ‘tourette’s’, on which a rudimentary riff is picked as single notes, and as it’s repeated gradually metamorphoses into fuzzy chords over mounting cymbal tapping from Powell, prefacing some spikier guitar licks from Hoffman.
But if all that sounds a bit wacky, they sweeten the mix with the likes of Louis Jordan’s
‘Caldonia’, giving it a bass heavy, loose and fun jump blues treatment, and Fats Domino’s ‘Sick And Tired’, with Kyle Roussel responsible for its great rolling piano figure, and also a tasty, jazzy solo.  And ‘Beat To Eat’ has an offbeat sound, over fast-ticking metronome-like percussion, as if James Brown has lost the ‘one’ – or maybe it’ll remind you of the Flying Lizards’ version of ‘Money’, who can tell?  Either way, it’s infectious.
Evidently a bargain deal on purple shirts
In a different vein, ‘It Hurts’ is an achingly romantic song, opening with the sound of lapping waves, before introducing warped, echoing guitar notes and strung out violin and viola courtesy of guest Abby Swindler, while Hoffman delivers his only lead vocal in a semi-spoken style that suggests Scott Walker.
They close with the ancient classic, ‘St James Infirmary Blues’, founding it on grinding, deep down guitar notes over which Powell delivers a bluesy vocal, supported by sweet backing vocals from Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, before Hoffman gets into slow, shivering guitar notes over abrupt organ from Longstreth.  It may be tense and modern, but it’s still got deep roots.
Uncle Nef are not what you’d call predictable.  Just when you think they’re about to soar off into an experimental sphere, they come back to earth with a nod to blues history – albeit still from an odd angle.  Love Songs is a quirky, sophisticated album that’ll keep you on your toes.

Love Songs was released on Ropeadope Records on 21 October.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

StoneWire - Life As We Know It

Well I’ll say this for hard rockers StoneWire, their sound is well put together – there’s no clatter and thrash dunderheadness evident on their second album Life As We Know It.
In fact in their better moments, such as the opening track ‘Monkey Talk’, they sound like the real deal.  Tearing off the starting grid with a supercharged, topsy-turvy riff, topped off with some blazing guitar licks, it cracks on into a more than decent hook, with Sky Hunter’s vocals supplemented by some shoutalong backing on the chorus.
By the same token I can see a crowd bouncing around happily to ‘House Rules’, which chugs along nicely with another strong chorus and a satisfying arrangement that includes
Stonewire - Denim and Leather, and all that
good loud/quiet transitions.  On these tracks, and indeed throughout, Hunter’s vocals are well to the fore, sounding like Maggie Bell – and, er, Klaus Meine.  No kidding, her intonation of some vowels is disconcertingly similar to the little Scorpion.
Their sound remains impressive even on some more hackneyed songs, with good clarity and separation, though I might have liked Gaz Annable and Duncan Greenway’s guitars to be a tad higher in the mix at times, to counterbalance Hunter’s voice.  But the material is rather less consistent.
Oh, there are some other decent tunes and good moments, such as ‘All That Matters’, which kicks off with a impressively twisting, turning riff paving the way for an intriguingly doomy verse and a catchy enough chorus, and the robustly mid-paced ‘One For The Road’, has an endearingly old-fashioned aspect to it.  But too often songs feel overlong, or that they haven’t developed quite as far as they should.  Lyrically too, if you’re going to explore themes about escaping from the mundanity of everyday life, it would be handy to avoid descending into cliché quite so often.
The aforementioned ‘All That Matters’, for example, clocks in at five and a half minutes, but feels like it’s need of a decent bridge to liven it up.  And while ‘Top Shelf Conversation’ benefits from some tough riffing, with hints of slide to give it variety, it could also do with a middle eight capable of giving it a lift.  The title track lurches along happily on its sturdy riff, and adds some stuttering changes of gear into the chorus, but outstays its welcome, while ‘Kick Up Some Dust’ hoves into view with a bright riff, then throws it away by slowing down into a duff verse before regrouping with an effective chorus.
‘Hero’s Journey’ offers some wordless vocal harmonies over a restrained guitar motif at its outset, before big, isolated chords come crashing in.  It’s an epic, innit?  As if you hadn’t guessed from the title.  But it’s all a bit so-so, despite a pleasing enough guitar solo.  ‘A Step Too Far’ tries hard in various ways, opening with a thudding Sabs-like riff, before chucking in some stinging guitar chords, a neat little bass moment from Steve Briggs, and on this occasion a half-decent middle eight, but it’s weighed down by a less than captivating melody.
But you know what?  For all the flaws I’ve enumerated, I still think StoneWire show promise.  There are good ideas on Life As We Know It that just needed more nurturing in order to flower in the same way as ‘Monkey Talk’ and ‘House Rules’.  In terms of musicianship, they sound well equipped, Sky Hunter has a suitably big voice, and I daresay they can deliver an energetic live performance.  Check ‘em out and make your own mind up.

Life As We Know It is out now on 22:11 Records.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Conil - Strange Part Of The Country

Well one thing’s for sure, Strange Part Of The Country ain’t no dance album.  Instead we’re in the realms of Nick Cave and warped lo-fi experimentation on the hinterland of blues and folk, with Phil Conil (not to be confused with a French DJ of the same name) contributing vocals and guitars, both acoustic and electric, and yer go-to maestro of the low notes Danny Thompson on stand-up bass.  There’s piano and other stuff on here too, but don’t ask me who’s responsible for what.  And although the album only came my way recently, I've reason to believe it's been kicking around for a decade.
The title of the opening track, ‘Dog Meat Stew’, offers a sense of the vibe here.  Conil strums away on acoustic guitar while intoning a repetitive descending melody in husky
Phil Conil goes for a suitably bohemian look
fashion, and Thompson develops a brooding bass undertow, before things boil up into a kind-of-chorus that sounds like Thom Yorke getting his wail on, while sprinklings of electric guitar emerge into scratchy eruptions.
There’s delicacy on a track like ‘Years Between’ though.  Thompson supplies some subtle, deep bass playing to go along with Conil’s minimalist strums of acoustic guitar, drums and keys gradually emerge, and there’s an appealing chorus you can fall into.  ‘Time Settles’ similarly leans on faint acoustic and foregrounded bass, with wistful, breathy singing and hints of other sounds in the background – is it a voice, a recorder, a synth?
The most immediate song on offer is ‘Round Midnight’, which drove me nuts for a while with naggingly familiar snatches of melody.  What it reminds me of, I eventually decided, is the opening to Beck’s (no, not Jeff – the other one) ‘Nicotine And Gravy’, and though it doesn’t have Beck’s dance beats it’s still rhythmically interesting underneath Conil’s harsh vocal and a burst of jagged electric guitar.
‘After The Hole’ feels like more of a collage, opening with tinkling piano notes as a precursor to some doomy drum beats and sparkles of guitar, while Conil’s voice veers from a droned hum to clear, drawn out high notes, and the drums return after fading away.  There are even what sound like ripples of harp to add more texture.
Lord knows what Conil’s singing about there, but though he hails from London and is much-travelled I’m reckoning he has some Irish roots, judging by song titles like ‘Old Irish Drunks’ - which feels like watching clouds drift by - and ‘Kitty’s Wake’, a spooked folkie kind of affair with a stretched out melody that again sounds oddly familiar, but alien at the same time.  Oh yeah, and there’s the reference to “the death of a bricklayer in Dublin” in amongst the scratching, scraping and squeaking of the marvellously titled ‘A Waterfall Is A Poem Pouring Through A Rock’.
Conil has produced some lovely tunes here, sometimes rendering them in an almost ethereal fashion that demonstrates tremendous control, but always with an off-kilter sensibility that makes Strange Part Of The Country an edgy, prickly listening experience.    Much to my surprise, I’m quite taken with it.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Jawbone - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 24 October 2019

I have a question.  What in the wide world of sports is going on when a band as bloody marvellous as Jawbone are playing to a hundred or so people?  It’s a question that applies to numerous other artists of a roots rock disposition of course, but still – these guys really should be enjoyed by a bigger audience.
Their self-titled debut album from last year laid out a heart-warmingly good collection of songs, and I’d have been delighted to turn up for this gig and have them give me an action replay of that.  Well, stupid me.  Because it turns out that live they’re even better – more
Marcus Bonfanti amuses Rex Horan with a solo
free, more rock’n’roll, and pure and simply entertaining.  That crowd of a hundred that I mentioned lapped it up.
They kick off with ‘Leave No Traces’, with gritty guitar from Marcus Bonfanti and spikes of keys from Paddy Milner, Bonfanti ripping out a gutsy solo, and bassist Rex Horan advancing to the apron of the stage to liven everyone up.  It’s a solid statement of intent, and over the rest of the night they live up to it, and more.
‘Get What You Deserve’ lays out more of their armoury, with a really full sound featuring sumptuous two and sometimes three part harmonies, swirls of organ from Milner, and Aussie Horan serving up loose-limbed bass over Evan Jenkins’ swinging drums.
Milner doesn’t restrict himself to organ either, and in fact is even more ear-catching on piano, as on his rippling, classically styled intro to the dramatic ‘Bet On Yesterday’, which swells to a massive but subtle crescendo in the middle with Jenkins utilising timpani mallets on drums, before ending with a surprising and quite wonderful singalong, with both Bonfanti and Horan offstage, encouraging the crowd with woodblock accompaniment.
They pay homage to The Band, after one of whose songs they’re named, with a crackling rendition of ‘Rag Mama Rag’, featuring a sizzling, all action rock’n’roll solo from Bonfanti and wild piano from Milner, and it’s evident by this point that they’re not only tighter than a gnat’s behind, but they’re also enjoying it hugely, the smiles on their faces mirroring those in the audience.
The uncorked energy of some songs brings to mind The Beatles of, say, ‘Get Back’, in a way that wasn’t apparent from the album.  ‘Rolling On The Underground’ comes with crunching chords, witty lyrics name-checking London Tube stations, and a guitar-keys collision while Jenkins and Horan gets their syncopated groove on, while ‘Miss Feelgood’ is possibly the best of a clutch of new songs, a Faces-like pint of rock’n’roll which Rod the Mod would surely have been happy to grace in his heyday.  The former features an excellent bass break from Horan, and the latter a drum showcase from Jenkins, but neither is overlong, and throughout both the others keep rolling out the basic chords, so that the solos
Paddy Milner gets all deep and meaningful
still serve the song rather than offering an excuse to go to the bar.
But their sophistication continues to be evident too, on ‘Sit Around The Table’ for example, a song full of lyrical depth and musical feeling that opens with a piano only first verse and chorus before rousing itself, and with their attention to detail apparent even in the brief piano-guitar interplay of its outro.  Their sense of dynamics is clear too, on the likes of ‘The City’, another excellent new song with a mid-period Mop Top feel, which drops off to a delicate bridge before Milner’s revved up piano solo.
As they get ready to close Horan steps forward to deliver a yarn about spider farming in Australia, which turns out to be a bonkers pitch for the merch on sale later, before they finish with the thoughtful ‘Two Billion Heartbeats’, all supple groove and luscious harmonies, with another brilliant middle eight.
They’re back with more after a minute of course, and daringly offer the swoonsome ‘The Years Used To Mean So Much’ as a first encore, before bringing it home with the piano-pounding, slide guitar-stinging, dance-inducing ‘Big Old Smoke’ – and next thing they’re all in the audience, grabbing a tuba, side drum, trumpet and accordion to lead another mad singalong.
Honestly, what more could you ask for?  Great songs, great arrangements, intelligent lyrics, fabulous vocal harmonies, wonderful playing, and an easy rapport between themselves and with the audience – this, my friends, is what live music is all about.  

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Wayward Sons - The Truth Ain't What It Used To Be

Time for a wander into hard rock territory I think, in the company of the recently released second album from Wayward Sons, The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be.
Put simply, on the evidence of their debut outing Ghost Of Yet To Come, and seeing them live, Wayward Sons are just about the freshest, most attention-grabbing straight-up modern rock band to have emerged in years.  And I gotta tell you, if The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be isn’t quite as chock-full of stone cold killer tunes as its predecessor, it comes damn close.
Wayward Sons deliver another feelgood hit
Pic by Gary Gilmurray
The freshness is a product of their expert melding of different elements into their distinctive sound.  Wayward Sons take the dense, percussive riffing of the Foo Fighters, underpinned by a mountainous rhythm section courtesy of Phil Martini’s drums and Nic Wastell’s bass, and combine it with a more British classic rock sensibility, and – adding to their repertoire since their debut - some strands of pomp à la Queen.  Plus, in Toby Jepson they have a standout singer and front man, who has all the power, range and clarity you could ask for in a rock vocalist.  And he does a very impressive line in sharp, thought-provoking lyrics into the bargain – a bit wordy maybe, and more oblique than on Ghost, but smart all the same.
The ultimate peak here is ‘Joke’s On You’, the first single released from the album, which is less mega-heavy than some other tracks, but combines descending piano chords and a stop-time riff to pave the way for a grapnel-like hook.  Martini’s drum sound is huge, and Jepson ventures some semi-snarled vox, but there’s still room for dynamics, and spiralling, competing guitar lines from Sam Wood towards the end work a treat.  Once upon a time, in simpler days, it would have been described as a “surefire hit”.
The Queen influence emerges for the first time on the following ‘Little White Lies’.  Jepson is a self-confessed Queen nut, and even if all the guitar work here is down to Wood, the intro positively reeks of Brian May, which proves to be a mere appetiser for his solo, which has that familiar razor-wire May tone, a product of sustain, echo, Chorus effects or whatever it is
Toby Jepson - Wayward Son Number 1
Pic by Gary Gilmurray
guitar nuts use to contrive such things.  Along the way there’s also chiming piano, and a very Foo Fighters pre-chorus crashes into a Queen-ish refrain, complete with high, ooh-ooh-ooh harmonies in the background.
The Brian May guitar sounds resurface on a few other tracks, including the Queen-like drama of ‘Fade Away’, which kicks off with delicate piano from Dave Kemp, and Jepson’s restrained delivery of an elegiac, autumnal melody, before Wood goes to work with some appropriately counterpointed licks.
Other personal faves include ‘Feelgood Hit’, whose buzzing opening riff turns jagged over pounding drums, before easing off on the verse ahead of an urgent, busy chorus that strong enough to warrant them beating the listener over the head with it.  Then there’s ‘Long Line Of Pretenders’, on which another May-like intro leads to a cool verse over stop-start guitar, followed by a descending chorus over pounding piano that carries faint echoes of glam rock fun.  The title track and ‘Us Against The World’ both sport anthemic choruses, the latter augmented by a contemplative opening over ringing guitars and a tweeting keyboard line, with a squealing solo from Wood for good measure.
There also a (semi) hidden track, ‘Totally Screwed’, to create a baker’s dozen of songs – a hammering slice of polemic that suggests the young Elvis Costello converted to hard rock.  And though it’s brief and to the point, it still squeezes in another great guitar break.
The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be confirms that Wayward Sons are a day-glo bright presence on the current hard rock scene – no thud and blunder, no clatter and noise, just well-focused musical energy.  Why they’re still schlepping around in support slots is beyond me.  These guys are born headliners.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mike Zito And Friends - Rock'N'Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry

Doubtless some folk will think that putting together an album that revisits a bundle of Chuck Berry’s hits – 20 of ‘em, to be precise – is a redundant exercise.  Others are liable to see the unique selling point of this album as the range of guest guitarists on display, including the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Robben Ford and Eric Gales.
For me though, one of the key attractions is that Mike Zito has made an old-fashioned rock’n’roll record.  See, while Zito is rightly appreciated as a leading modern-day bluesman, his 2015 album Keep Coming Back, made with his then band The Wheel, was very much a
Mike Zito - Let It Rock!
rock’n’rollin’ affair.  Hell, it even featured a cover of Bob Seger’s ‘Get Out Of Denver’, a direct descendant of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ if ever there was one.  It was also, as I have never tired of pointing out, my favourite album of 2015.  In short, Mike Zito’s affinity for this brand of rock’n’roll is the catalyst for a tribute album that captures the fun, energy and magic of Chuck’s music while giving it a modern sound.
And to some extent, all those guest guitar honchos are an unnecessary distraction, because with songs as good as ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Back In The USA’ and all the rest, all a pro like Zito needs to do is wind ‘em up and crank ‘em out.  You can’t lose.  Though it’s fair to say that many of them in fact make contributions that merrily catch the Chuck Berry spirit.
Fittingly, the album opens with W.C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’, celebrating the hometown of both Chuck and Mike, and here with an on the money lead guitar slot from Chuck’s grandson Charles Berry III.  It also sets the standard for the fundamentals of what follows, with a lively rhythm laid down by Matthew Johnson on drums, backed up by Terry Dry on bass, while Lewis Stephens whacks out some pounding piano.  And as on several other tracks, there are horn interjections to add further highlights, though any horn players seem to be uncredited.  And Zito’s voice, it’s worth emphasising, is an excellent fit for these songs.
Early highlights for me include the aforementioned ‘Rock And Roll Music’, on which Joanna Connor delivers some slithering slide guitar while backing up Zito on vocals, and the horns bring Hispanic hints to the fray.  Walter Trout gets very much in the mood on ‘Johnny B Goode’, duetting with Zito in rabble rousing fashion before the two of them cut loose simultaneously on guitar.  Meanwhile Anders Osborne reflects the more laid back vibe of ‘Memphis’ with some relaxed, sparkling slide that’s witty in tone as it plays around with the melody.
‘You Never Can Tell’ and ‘Back In The USA’ both illustrate Berry’s quality as a lyricist, respectively a perfect little short story of young love conveyed in a couple of minutes, and a brashly energetic, neon-lit collage of Fifties America, sizzling burgers and all.  Robben Ford
Eric Gales - one of 21 guest guitarists reeling' and rockin'
decorates the former with playful guitar, finding unusual angles, while Eric Gales reins in his usual whirlwind self on the latter, catching the mood with pinging playing over pummelling drums from Johnson.
Luther Dickinson brings a fresh guitar tone to ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and doubles up on vocals with Zito entertainingly on the tongue-twisting lyric, while Stephens gets down to some rootin’ and tootin’ on piano.  Contrastingly, Sonny Landreth scatters woozy slide licks around with restraint on ‘Havana Moon’, respecting its dreamy salsa feel.
‘Downbound Train’ is an interestingly dramatic slow turn at the story of a hellbound loco, with spot on spooky guitar licks over ticking drums, though Alex Skolnick perhaps gets too modern in feel in his hurtling solo.  And ‘Thirty Days’ also strikes a different chord, featuring Albert Castiglia on its very country-leaning twanging.
There’s plenty of other good stuff too, but the album has its imperfections, just like Chuck himself.  The song selection could have been better, eschewing the fluff of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and one or two lesser tracks in favour of the mysteriously absent ‘Little Queenie’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.  And the treatment of the slower ‘Wee Wee Hours’ is a real aberration - I’m no Joe Bonamassa-hater, but Zito really should have asked him what in the Sam Hill he thought he was doing slathering the song in a succession of full throttle guitar breaks that bear little relation to a Chuck Berry vibe.
But those concerns aren’t enough to spoil an album that’s a fitting, fun tribute to one of the giants of rock’n’roll music.  So kudos to Mike Zito for that, and for delivering what to these ears is the most enjoyable thing he’s done since Keep Coming Back.

Rock’N’Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry is released by Ruf Records on 1 November.