Monday, April 19, 2021

Steve Cropper - Fire It Up

“I remember yesterday like it’s right in front of me,” goes a line in the track ‘Two Wrongs’.  Which sums up Steve Cropper’s new solo album Fire It Up rather well, as its effortless retro sound makes it feel like we’ve gone back to the future with a soulful mid-Sixties Memphis vibe.
The best songs on Fire It Up sound just like the kind of hits that poured out of Stax, Ardent and Royal Studios way back when – grooving R’n’B that wrote itself into the DNA of American popular music.  Take ‘One Good Turn’ for example – a great blend of horns, guitar, organ and
Genial soul wizard Steve Cropper
Pic by Michael Wilson
piano around a hooky melody that hints at melancholy, with a neat, relaxed guitar solo from Cropper.  It sounds like just the kind of tune from which Springsteen must have drawn ingredients for soul-pop excursions like ‘Hungry Heart’.
Or there’s ‘Far Away’, an infectious, strolling groove that also features a social commentary lyric that one of the more interesting pieces of wordsmithing on the album, to go with some more nifty guitar breaks from Cropper, a man generally known more as a rhythm guitarist, songwriter and producer than as a fully fledged axeman.  Not that his soloing ever sails off over the horizon here – with thirteen tracks adding up to a total of 39 minutes, Fire It Up is never an exercise in self-indulgence.  (Well, there are notionally 13 tracks – I’ll get back to that.)
‘Heartbreak Street’ and ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ are standouts.  There’s that positive feeling of déjà vu about the former, in the sense of a comforting familiarity like putting on a favourite pair of old slippers, and it benefits from a strong chorus that introduces a neat change of direction.  And ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ is another pleasing tune, with probably the most energy and brio on the whole album, with wit in the lyric, backed up by a classic horn riff and another vibrant guitar break.
There are a couple of problems though.  One of them is singer Roger C. Reale.  Yes, he sings with authentic soulful grit, and communicates all the melodies with ease.  But for me he doesn’t offer enough personality to bring distinctiveness to some of the songs.  And they need that personality, because over the piece too many tracks feel samey.  ‘Fire It Up’ itself, for example, is bright and jaunty over a lazily shuffling rhythm, but never quite achieves lift-off.  ‘I’m Not Havin’ It’ is more driven, with a pumping groove and something of a strut to it, but it doesn’t really develop enough.  And the same is true of ‘She’s So Fine’, a bit of bouncing R’n’B with a twinkling guitar motif that’s given a push and a shove from the drums, but really needed a stronger bridge to give it a lift, rather as a key change in the middle eight helps to perk up the slower, more reflective ‘Two Wrongs’.  ‘Out Of Love’ is better though, in spite of some perfunctory lyrics, with a laid back groove. a cool, pinging guitar solo, and further assorted licks to match, while all the while it swings like a Sultan.
The album closes with the instrumental ‘Bush Hog’, engagingly built on a rolling, revolving guitar line and staccato horns, with a descending turnaround that feels naggingly familiar.  It’s enjoyable – but I can’t help wondering what the two snippets ‘Bush Hog Part 1’ and ‘Bush Hog Part 2’ add to the equation, the first opening the album and the second preceding ‘Bush Hog’ itself.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s never a bad moment on Fire It Up.  It just feels like it could have done with a bit more wildness thrown into the mix.  A bit more fire in the belly, in fact.

Fire It Up is released by Provogue Records on 23 April.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Gary Moore - How Blue Can You Get

How Blue Can You Get is about as good as it gets.  Set aside any fears that this posthumous Gary Moore release might be an incoherent batch of outtakes.  It’s the real McCoy.
This eight-track collection hangs together beautifully, split evenly between covers and originals but with Moore putting his stamp on everything in the breeziest fashion.
The opening take on Freddie King’s ‘I’m Tore Down’ sets the tone, with swinging drums, jogging bass and grooving organ creating a tight but relaxed vibe.  Moore’s vocal feels totally at home,
Gary Moore - bluesy from any angle
Pic by Jesse Wild
and if his first solo is on the money his second outing is even better, with a clear and biting tone as he goes to town without ever overdoing it.  There’s bags of tension and release, and as he raises the stakes towards the end the drums complement his moves to good effect.
The cover of Memphis Slim’s instrumental ‘Steppin’ Out’ that follows is spot on right from its staccato opening.  Moore’s playing around with the theme is fluid, and sets the scene for soloing that’s by turns witty, conversational, and then scorching, over more corking backing even if the organ feels a touch too high in the mix, competing with Moore at times rather than complementing him.
BB King’s 'How Blue Can You Get' is a classic slow blues that floats along beautifully, with patient bass and drums providing the foundation for slow, slow, quick-quick-slow Moore licks on the intro, before he brings the lyric to life with his vocal.  There’s a stop-time bridge, and then Moore embarks on the most tasteful of less-is-more solos, suspense colliding into fluttering quick passages.  Restraint isn't the word I’d most associate with Gary Moore, but his relaxed playing here is a model of it.
Of the four covers, Elmore James’ ‘Done Somebody Wrong’ feels most like a makeweight, but still hits the mark as a slice of straightforward blues in a ‘Who’s Been Talkin’’ vein.  It swings in lightly funky style, and Moore has fun on a squealing, high tension wire solo.
Of the four originals, three are slowish affairs.  ‘In My Dreams’ could be ‘Parisienne Walkways Mark 2’ with Moore’s use of heavy sustain, and a simple arrangement that privileges precision over fireworks, while Moore adds a good, suitably romantic vocal – in spite of his repeated, frankly preposterous, proncunciation of the word “night”.  ‘Love Can Make A Fool Of You’ is a soulful ballad, again kept simple, with vocals, lyric and guitar all working in harmony even as Moore ramps things up with a cracking solo to close.  And the closing ‘Living With The Blues’ is a romantically inclined slowie that nods towards ‘Still Got The Blues – a strong song, well-constructed, with a perfectly pitched vocal and guitar work that’s full of feeling.
Which just leaves ‘Looking At Your Picture’, which is perhaps the most interesting song here – even if it’s not the best – simply because it’s a little bit different.  It combines an unusual, shuffling rhythm with tense, prickly guitar and brooding bass, while Moore’s vocal is low-pitched and hushed.  Superficially a song about heartbreak – “I’m looking at your picture through my tear-filled eyes” – it conveys an unsettling sense that somebody might be about to come to harm, self-inflicted or otherwise.
These songs may have been captured at different times, but there’s a relaxed air about them all that’s warm and engaging.  Leisurely but never lazy, even when Moore is opening up the throttle there’s no sense of strain or going over the top.  How Blue Can You Get is the perfect reminder, ten years after his death, of just how good Gary Moore could be.

How Blue Can You Get is released on 30 April by Provogue Records.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Mary Stokes Band featuring Sarah Michelle - Comin' Home

Ever watch Masterchef on the telly?  You know when they get a likeable contestant, who cooks something that tastes good, and looks okay, but which the judges think lacks the “wow factor”?  That, in essence, was my initial response to this “live in the studio” album from Ireland’s Mary Stokes Band.
My first impression, listening to the opening title track of Comin’ Home, was of your favourite local blues band.  That’s a compliment – they’re good enough to be reliably enjoyable, without bum notes or poor playing marring their performance.  But it’s also a reflection of a less than
The Mary Stokes Band do a good job of saying "cheese"!
adventurous first couple of verses and choruses.  Sure, the chugging groove is inviting, Mary Stokes’ vocals hit all the notes satisfyingly enough, and Brian Palm contributes some tasteful, songbird-like harmonica.  But it all seems a bit decorous, a bit tame.  Until, that is, guitarist Sarah Michelle goes to work.  She cuts in with a fuzzy, edgy guitar solo that dirties things up and brings more character to the party.  After which, to be fair, all concerned rouse themselves in pursuit of a more animated ending to the song.
And this recipe is pretty much repeated on the following ‘Moonshine’, which swings well enough but also sports some prosaic lyrics.  So at this point I’m asking myself if they’ll continue to play it safe and rely on Michelle’s guitar work to enliven proceedings, or if they can get out of their comfort zone and serve up something different.
Fair play to them though, they do find some fresh ingredients to spice things up.  ‘Mattie Won’t Write’ is a stuttering slowie, with a minimalist, repetitive lyric – and it’s a mood piece that works.  There’s more depth to Palm’s harp playing, more variation in Stokes’ singing, and a sense of more dynamics all round.  ‘Fine And Mellow’ is exactly what it says on the tin.  Slow and jazzy, it plays to Stokes’ strengths vocally, and she ups the interest quotient accordingly.  Harp and piano make fluttering contributions – the latter, courtesy of Dermot Stokes, not much in evidence hitherto – and a Sarah Michelle guitar solo adds extra guts.  The following ‘Mola Di Bari’ adds a different flavour too, with a funky guitar riff and slinky bass from Chris Byrne, and another less-is-more lyric.  A Palm harp break slots in well, but the real centrepiece – again – is a teasing solo from Michelle.
Along the way ‘Baby How Long?’ combines a bright and bubby riff with harp filigrees, and Stokes’ piano flits into earshot to good effect.  It swings for sure, and if it’s still a little on the safe side there’s still some urgency to the harp solo, with an extra helping of guitar solo sizzle.  And later on ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ and ‘Help Me’ both cut the mustard, the former with its strong, winding riff and guttural guitar solo, and the latter with its enjoyable turn around a ‘Green Onions’ groove.
The highlight though, is ‘Story Of Bo Diddley’, a seven minute plus excursion that still manages to be brisk and spiky, leavened with light, shade and wit, and with Michelle at her best as she stretches out on some slithering, scraping, serpentine guitar work.  And after the live-without-able ‘At The Christmas Ball’ they close strongly with ‘Long Way From Home’, locking into a strutting, gritty riff, with stabs of piano and an energetic vocal, while Michelle sharpens her six-string blade and slices through the middle like Sweeney Todd feeling peckish for a fresh pie.
The Mary Stokes Band do what they do like pros, and when they stir some imagination into the poy they create some pleasing fare.  It’s only right that guitarist Sarah Michelle is given a specific namecheck though, because where there’s a “wow factor” on Comin' Home it’s down to her confident, assertive playing.

Comin' Home is available now, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Scott McKeon - New Morning

British guitarist Scott McKeon has played with a host of big names both in the studio and on the road.  But when the list of his credits is rolled out, the name of Sir Tom Jones is usually at the top.  I very much doubt though, that McKeon ever wrangled his guitar like this when he was accompanying Jones the Voice.
McKeon previously came to my attention via the band Rufus Black, whose album Rise Up came over like Free-meets-funk, with plentiful injections of stinging, imaginative guitar.  New Morning is
Scott McKeon - he plays guitar a bit
Pic by Rob Blackham
a largely instrumental album that steps further into left field, with the leading role handed to McKeon’s guitar playing.  But the rest of the cast are also kept mighty busy by the intricate stuff captured here.
This is particularly true of drummer Jeremy Stacey, who kicks off ‘Fight No More’ with a complex, twitching pattern that gives a glimpse of the shape of things to come, augmented by some rich, ducking and diving bass from Rocco Palladino.  McKeon overlays this with some tweeting lead licks, then develops a wiry, Hendrix-like solo before crashing into some slam-dunk power chords.  A meditative vocal refrain swings around a couple of times, but then they don’t spare the horses on an explosive crescendo.
There’s an enjoyable whiff of the Rufus Black sound in all this, and the last couple of tracks, ‘Everything Is Nothing’ and ‘Take Me Back’, swing back round that way to complete the circle.  Rufus Black vocalist Gavin Conder pops up on both of these to add his Paul Rodgers/Steve Marriott-like voice to the equation, giving them a soulful blues tinge.  ‘Everything Is Nothing’ has a funky drummer foundation too though, and Conder’s singing alternates with bouts of a chunky, Zep-like, staircase-climbing riff, while McKeon sets off on some scragging, strafing solo breaks.  ‘Take Me Back’ has a more restrained feel, with McKeon and guitar buddy Ben Jones conjuring up a guitar conversation at one point, and a vocal/guitar interchange that’s less yer typical call-and-response than a dialogue between two languages.
In between, the title track has a creeping guitar intro that McKeon overlays with drifting strands of reflective lead playing, before he slowly builds a solo with a tone that cuts like the edge of a knife.  Meantime Stacey again lays down some byzantine rhythms that bring a jazzy air to proceedings.  ‘Zapruder’ wades in on a sturdy, strutting riff that Ross Stanley’s Hammond Organ swirls around, before it dwindles into some twisting and turning guitar musings that straighten out to find the riff again, en route to some frantic variations on a theme before cooling off.  It’s like a supersonic jet roaring into the sky, then morphing into a gull gliding in to land.
Conder does another turn on ‘Third Eye Witness’, adding a crooning vocal to some brooding guitar chords and an offbeat rhythm, evoking a dreamy, latter-day Robert Plant vibe.  Then McKeon splutters into life with fuzzy, jagged notes like the signal coming and going as the dial is turned on an old-fashioned radio.  At times like these I suspect that McKeon is infinitely more knowledgeable than I am about Jeff Beck’s guitar explorations.
‘Crossfader’ is differently atmospheric, as discordant organ weaves over drums that patter like rain on a windowpane before resolving into a more assertive rhythm.  It’s the undertow for squelched and squeezed guitar notes that eventually coalesce into a squalling solo, while the drums turn into a hail shower that swirls in the channel-switching of the title.
There are nine tracks on offer here, spread over 54 minutes, so you know you’re not in three-minute wonder, three-chord trick territory.  Me, I like the stuff that leans most towards that Rufus Black funkin’ soulful rock vibe, especially with Gavin Condor’s voice in the mix.  But I reckon the people who will really dig New Morning are fans of fusion-leaning guitar wizardry that bends licks out of shape and turns them inside out.  If that’s your bag, then I suggest you let Scott McKeon lead you on a journey to another dimension.

New Morning is released on 23 April, and can be pre-ordered here.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Adventures in the South - New Orleans, Part 2

It was a leisurely start to our first morning in New Orleans.  We’d promised ourselves that after driving all the way from Nashville over the last ten days or so, we were going to kick back and take it easy in the Big Easy.  So we took a leisurely breakfast in the dining room of the hotel before setting out to explore.
We sauntered down to the wide boulevard of Canal Street and then towards the Mississippi Riverfront.  Passing by the hulking mass of Harrah’s Casino, we made our way to the stop for the Riverfront Streetcar – never can resist a historic streetcar.  And there we waited  in the
That there is Satchmo's cornet, on display at the Jazz Museum
sweltering mid-morning heat.  For quite some time.  Early August, it has to be said, ain’t the most comfortable time to visit New Orleans, but other commitments had dictated our holiday period.  Even wearing a hat it helps to find any scrap of shade you can – and have a bottle of water to hand.  Eventually though, the streetcar arrived, and pulling away towards the Lower French Quarter we could immediately feel the movement creating a blissful breeze through the streetcar.
Getting off at the French Market, we had a stroll through the (thankfully covered) Flea Market.  Chatting with a local artist from whom we picked up a couple of pictures capturing the colour of the French Quarter, we mentioned our interest in music and asked if he had any tips.  Nearby Frenchman Street was the locale to aim for, he reckoned, and added that we should try to catch local legend Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington playing in a club there the following night.
From there we headed for the Old US Mint in Barracks Street.  Now a museum, the Mint neatly tells the story of New Orleans’ chequered history through its frequently changing currency, as it changed hands from one “occupying power” to another – French, Spanish, then French again before the United States acquired it through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  It also houses the excellent New Orleans Jazz Museum, during our visit including a temporary exhibition about the historic venue Preservation Hall, which can be found in nearby St Peter Street.  For some reason we didn’t cotton on to the Louisiana State Museum, so the Mint was the closest we got to exploring the history of New Orleans.
Having done the culture vulture bit, we returned to the French Market for a spot of street food
There's always a gig somewhere in New Orleans
lunch – gumbo for me and a po’ boy for Jill, and very tasty it was too.  Much more satisfying, for my money, than the much-vaunted but disappointing beignets we sampled at Café Du Monde, the “Original French Market Coffee Stand” since 1862.  I mean, I like a good doughnut now and then - and that's all beignets are - but these didn't strike me as anything special.  What’s more, much of the icing sugar in which the doughnuts were swimming ended up on the tiled floor, turning it into a skating rink.
Meandering back towards our hotel, we passed through Jackson Square, with its statue of former president Andrew Jackson, and took in some jazz musicians playing al fresco, in relaxed but still impressive style.  And so back to the hotel, and some reading and cooling off around the outdoor pool.
That evening we set off for Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant and Dance Hall in the Warehouse district, where cajun music is played every night.  Having failed to score any cajun music a couple of nights earlier in its heartland of Lafayette, we were intent on making up for it now.  Mulate’s is a large and airy, pleasant room, but on this Tuesday evening customers were sparse.  Maybe we’d arrived too early, but while we did get a band knocking out some cajun stuff on the stage, the atmosphere was far from energising.  The food seemed uninspired too – or perhaps I’d had just had a surfeit of fried stuff after nearly three weeks on the road in the States.
Somewhat deflated, we walked back to the hotel in the decidedly warm and humid night air.  On the way, rather surreally, we passed two police horses tied up next to a multi-storey car park, their riders nowhere to be seen.  The horses seemed entirely unconcerned.  Taking a leaf out of their Big Easy nonchalance, we spent the rest of the night chilling out over cocktails in the cool of the hotel.

To read Adventures in the South from the beginning, go to the Prologue.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Chris Cain - Raisin' Cain

It’s clear, right from the start on ‘Hush Money’, that Chris Cain knows his stuff.  He should do mind you, given that Raisin’ Cain is his fifteenth album.  But still, the bright guitar lick he delivers over a horn backdrop on the intro, and the rich voice he brings to bear on the vocal, tell you that he’s a pro.  It’s a lightly funky tune, with an amusing lyric and a vibe reminiscent of ‘Master Charge’ by one of Cain’s heroes, Albert Collins, and his jazz-inflected solo is an engaging embellishment.  And that pretty much sums up the Chris Cain style – smooth, classy and mature, in a manner descended from BB King, which can’t be bad.
He’s backed up in this endeavour by musicians who know their stuff, too.  So the following ‘You
Chris Cain demonstrates the white man's overbite
Pic by Marilyn Stringer
Won’t Have A Problem When I’m Gone’ confirms those initial impressions as it swings briskly into view with walking bass from Steve Evans and swishing cymbals from Derrick ‘D’Mar’ Martin, to which Greg Rahn adds some rinky-dink piano fills while Cain drops in a perfectly fitted solo.
Indeed Cain’s guitar playing is ear-catching throughout, full of crafty twists and turns on the slower ‘Down On The Ground’, vibrant on ‘I Believe I Got Off Cheap’, and clever again on the jazzy and soulful ‘Found A Way To Make Me Say Goodbye’, on which Greg Rahn underlines the jazz credentials with his Wurlitzer piano turn.  And on the bouncing, uptempo ‘Out Of My Head’ Cain’s fluttering guitar licks, set against sharp flurries of horns over swinging drums and stair-climbing bass, advertise his Robben Ford-like chops.
The Robben Ford reference is telling on the songwriting front though, because Cain’s all-original material feels a bit safe compared to what Ford might produce.  Cain keeps things short and sweet, in and out without messing about, which is fine by me.  But while his lyrics are wry and well-assembled, the subject matter sometimes feels overly familiar, lacking the freshness that someone like fellow Alligator artist Toronzo Cannon brings to proceedings.
Still, ‘Can’t Find A Good Reason’ captures a Robert Cray-like mood of romantic disappointment well, with a slow, lyrical opening, and patient soloing that shifts pace beautifully.  This is one song where stretching out at greater length could really have been worthwhile.  But Cain sings it with feeling, evoking those BB King influences.  Meanwhile ‘Born To Play’, a simple enough song when you get right down to it, manages to pack a lot into its three-and-a-bit minutes. Warm horns and slinky bass lay down the foundations, and Cain pings guitar notes around over the top like he’s enjoying a game of Space Invaders.  (Younger readers – ask your parents.)
Speaking of space, the closing ‘Space Force’ is a real headscratcher of a selection.  An instrumental on which Cain decides to amuse himself with an ARP synthesizer, it sounds like it belongs on a whole other album.  But in so far as it’s still entertaining, it’s thanks to Evans’ funky, squelchy bass, and spots of clavinet from Cain and melodica from producer Kid Andersen, rather than the featured synth.
But leaving that oddity to one side, Raisin’ Cain is a polished collection of old school blues, given added zest by Cain’s citrus-sharp guitar playing.   Expect the unexpected, as the saying goes, because Chris Cain pulls out plenty of licks that deliver just that.
Raisin’ Cain is released by Alligator Records on 9 April.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Quickies - Wily Bo Walker, Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters, Jo Carley & The Old Dry Skulls

Wily Bo Walker Presents . . . Tales Of The Mescal Canyon Troubadours
I could have sworn that Wily Bo Walker had already released an album going by this title a few years back, but further research suggests not.  Probably I’m just getting older and a bit more addled.  But it may also be that I can’t keep up with the Wily one’s constant re-working, re-
Wily Bo surfs it up
Pic by Sally Newhouse
imagining and re-purposing of his material.  In any event some of the songs here are familiar landmarks from cruising around the streets of “Voodooville”, the noir-ish, B-movie locale that’s the imaginary backdrop for Walker’s songwriting.
With that kind of cinematic taste, it’s little wonder that the likes of ‘Drive (Mescalito Mix)’ and ‘Jawbreaker (Surf-O-Rama)’ carry echoes of the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.  The former tune swathes Walker’s characteristic growl in Hank Marvin-esque twang, while the latter is an instrumental firmly in Dick Dale/Del Shannon terrain.
My favourite track here is cut from different cloth though.  ‘Velvet Windows’ is catchy and rootsy in a JJ Cale ‘Tulsa Sound’ fashion.  It canters along with rippling acoustic guitar and banjo accompanied by pattering drums and stand-up bass, adorned by an Albert Lee-style guitar solo.
Different guitar styles are in evidence elsewhere.  Regular compadre E D Brayshaw contributes typically biting and sizzling six-string stuff over the loping beat of ‘Walk In Chinese Footsteps (Bardo Thödol Mix), and adopts a piercing, Santana-without-the-Latin-rhythms persona on the closing ‘Moon Over Indigo’, with its hints of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.  (Bardo Thödol is the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, by the way.  Go figure.)  Meanwhile the uptempo ‘Chattahoochee Coochee Man (Southern Slide)’ does exactly what it says on the tin, dialling up a squealing solo that turns grittier as it progresses, bouncing off some underplayed injections of horns.
If you’re not familiar with the Wily Bo Walker oeuvre, Tales Of The Mescal Canyon Troubadours offers an ideal entrée – ten tracks that are all roads to Voodooville.

Tales Of The Mescal Canyon Troubadours is available now from Mescal Canyon Records.

Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters – It Won’t Be Long
‘It Won’t Be Long’ is the third in a series of original singles coming down the pipe from Scotland'sJed Potts & The Hillman Hunters, and finds them coming over all Howlin’ Wolf.  Which is some going, because Jed Potts isn’t six foot four tall, doesn’t have a bass voice like gravel, and sure as hell ain’t black.  But fair play to him, he digs deep to find all the vocal raunch he can muster to go with the scratchy, spiky, lurching opening to this latest outing.
It’s a tale of domestic less-than-bliss that sounds like it was garnered from some seedy Chicago joint, with Potts reinforcing the sentiments with jagged injections of guitar.  Then they cool things down halfway through and play around with the groove ahead of the lyrica
Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters - not in a seedy Chicago joint
Pic by Mark Holloway
l pay-off.  All in all, ‘It Won’t Be Long’ is the best effort so far in this string of new releases from the Hillmans.
‘It Won’t Be Long’ is released on 20 March and available from Bandcamp here.
Jo Carley & The Old Dry Skulls – Voodoo Bones & Vaudeville Blues
Is Anglo-Voodoo a thing now?   Are sales of hoodoo dolls and gris-gris soaring along the Thames Delta?  Because if Voodoo Bones & Vaudeville Blues sounds like it has one foot in Louisiana Creole, the other seems to be planted in East End music hall.
To give a quick example, the brief instrumental ‘Crowhurst’s Lament’, with its creeping low-end guitar notes and funereal beat, may carry dark and atmospheric hints of a movie soundtrack – but that movie might well be Carry On Screaming.  I have visions of Kenneth Williams waist-deep in a vat of boiling oil, yelling “Frying tonight!”
I’m kidding. A bit.  But I’m not dissing Jo Carley & The Old Dry Skulls when I say this, because that comic tinge is deliberate.  As is, I imagine, Jo Carley’s occasional preference for a vocal approach that evokes Eliza Doolittle more than Marie Laveau – witness ‘The Jungle’, with its spoken intro.  Nothing wrong with that in principle – I call Ian Dury as an expert witness, M’lud – but here it does seem a bit mannered at times.  For me her more straight-up vocals work better, allowing her use of dynamics and story-telling to come across without distraction, as on ‘The Devil’ and the following ‘She Got Him (With Her Voodoo)’.
Jo Carley and pals - engagingly bonkers
The arrangements often suggest skiffle, but that’s not the whole story.  Carley, her husband Tim, and amigo James Le Huray have a range of weapons in their arsenal, and between them can chuck in mandolin, fiddle, banjo and keyboards as the need arises.  Sansula, even.  (A kind of African thumb piano, since you ask.)
The melody of opener ‘Little Limbs Of Satan’ reminds me of nothing so much as the daft old song ‘Three Little Fishies’ – you know the one, where the fishies “swam and they swam right over the dam”.   But there’s better fare elsewhere.  Highlights include the slow-ish ‘Lose Your Soul’ with banjo-picking leading the accompaniment, some spare guitar notes flitting in here and there, and sonorous backing vocals from the fellas.  ‘The Witchdoctor’ also bobs along in appealing fashion, with a cod-ominous vibe, and some fiddle duetting with guitar to hint at Gogol Bordello gypsy punk.  ‘The Devil’ could be a stripped down, esoteric take on something from Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band.  And there’s a characterful vocal to with the tense and suppressed feel and syncopated rhythm of ‘The Bone Readers’.
Voodoo Bones & Vaudeville Blues is engagingly bonkers, and probably an acquired taste.  But if a little of that ol’ Black Magic is what gets your mojo working, then let Jo Carley & The Old Dry Skulls go do their voodoo on you.
Voodoo Bones & Vaudeville Blues is available now on Old Higue Records/New Retro Sounds, here.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Big Harp George - Living In The City

Big Harp George.  The name conjures up some man-mountain, his voice growling and groaning the blues, then letting loose a hurricane howl with his harmonica as beads of sweat run down his face.
Well, not so much.  Big Harp George, alias George Bisharat, is a mucho dapper dude in his mid-sixties from San Francisco’s Bay Area, with a neat and sprightly voice to match.  Sure, he plays a harp, but of the chromatic variety that appeals to jazz players, rather than blues blasters embellishing tales of crime, misery and debauchery. On which songwriting note, it’s worth knowing that before he retired from the 9-to-5 our George’s gigs included defence attorney and
Sharp dressed man Big Harp George
Pic by Peggy De Rose
law professor, and he's as sharp with words as you might expect.
All of which is to the fore on opening track ‘Build Myself An App’, which bobs and bumps along in breezy fashion, hinting at New Orleans and laying a diverting foundation for George to share the thoughts of a wannabe app developer who doesn’t know his ROM from his RAM but still harbours hopes of a fast buck.  And his harp break has an airy, swinging tone that sits easily next to the following sax solo.
Other winners include 'Living In The City' itself, and ‘Copayment’.  The former is heralded by cool bass and snapping fingers, to which George adds harp that comes over like muted trumpet.  The verses paint a picture of the urban jungle over a swinging vibe ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat’ vibe, and if the chorus is less interesting then George compensates with an appealing harp solo, high-pitched and playing around with the melody, augmented by a brittle, pinging guitar solo.  ‘Copayment’, meanwhile, is a stop-time riffing affair with more swinging horns, on which George gets all snarky as the ordinary Joe discovering the limitations of his medical insurance, leading to some witty dialogue and his final protest that “If I wasn’t sick when I came in here, I sure am now!”  And ‘Don’t Talk!’ is similarly amusing as a lawyer stresses to his client the risks of opening his mouth, over a twitching, pseudo-Latin beat, embroidered with some interesting musical stings and harmonica and trombone solos combining in short order.
Some songs, like ‘Try Nice’ and ‘First Class Muck Up’, suggest jump blues foundations.  But Bisharat often ranges more widely into swingin’ terrain, with the instrumental ‘Bayside Bounce’, for example, springing off from a phrase redolent of the old Benny Goodman standard ‘The Glory Of Love’, and other tunes deploying one Latin rhythm or another.  Which is all well and good, but he takes things too far with ‘Heading Out To Itaipu’, a song that both musically and lyrically references the ghastly ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. I hate ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ George – I hate it!
Down the stretch things get more interesting though, with the slow waltz of ‘Enrique’, piano-led backing underpinned by sparse bass and whispered drums for the crooned story of a troubled brother, and enhanced by melancholy fiddle solo.  ‘Pusher In A White Coat’ sidles in on a slinky opening before developing into a bitter condemnation of medics making money out of misery as they take “incentives” to peddle drugs, with Kid Andersen (who shared guitar duties with the late Little Charley Batey) adding a sharp, spiky guitar solo.  And the closing ‘Meet Me At The Fence’ is a plea for Palestinian dignity that jumbles up a Latin rhythm with Middle Eastern instrumentation. (Bisharat, who has Palestinian ancestry, is a well-known commentator on Middle Eastern law and politics.)
There are thirteen tracks on Living In The City, which is a few too many – and a few are overlong into the bargain.  But I like George’s style all the same, as he combines an acerbic take on everyday life with the swing-era feel of snazzy hotel dance floors.  His sweetly horn-like harmonica playing is impressive too.   All in all, Big Harp George may well be the classiest former criminal defence attorney on the bandstand.

Living In The City is available now on Blues Mountain Records