Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers/Ronnie Baker Brooks - BB Kings, New York, 10 October 2017.

In New York on holiday last week, and what better way to spend an evening than catching Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, and Ronnie Baker Brooks, playing at BB Kings?  And an interesting way too, with two bands taking different approaches to the blues.
Tommy Castro is nominally the headliner, but with the two outfits essentially co-headlining he’s opted to come on first tonight, and opens his set with ‘Rock Bottom’, from new album Stomping Ground, which he tells us has bounded to #2 on the Billboard blues chart.
Tommy Castro - "it ain't rocket surgery"
Recorded with Mike Zito guesting, it’s a breezy shuffle decorated with some rinky-dink piano from Michael Emerson.  They follow up with the title track from 2014 album The Devil You Know, with Emerson switching to organ to back up the strutting riff.  Right away it’s clear that Randy McDonald’s booming, funky bass locks everything together to underpin Castro’s guitar and vocals.
‘Lose Lose’ is the first offering from 2015’s excellent Method To My Madness, with more great bass from McDonald and expressive vocals from Castro, but that’s just a warm-up for ‘Ride’, from the same album.  A tale of steamy nights and wild characters in North Beach, California, during Castro’s younger days, it oozes atmosphere as it drifts along on McDonald’s loping bass line. Emerson contributes rippling, spiky piano, then they wind it down and segue perfectly into Tom Petty’s ‘Breakdown’, on which Castro turns out a beautifully controlled guitar solo.  As with the later ‘Nonchalant’, from the new album, Castro’s soloing serves the song, not his ego.
Dipping way into his back catalogue, ‘Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’, from Castro’s long ago second album has some sock it to ‘em shuffling from Bowen Brown on drums.  Down the stretch highlights from the new album are to the fore with ‘Old Neighbourhood’ and ‘Blues All Around Me’.  The former is a song of nostalgia for simpler times, with a Hispanic feel and a great sense of place – and some interweaving of licks from ‘Jessica’ too, methinks.  The latter, meanwhile, is a co-write with New Yorker Johnny Ace, who looks every inch the Big Apple bohemian as he gets up to join in on vocals.
As Castro says, his material is a soup of blues, soul and rock’n’roll, a product of the San Jose environment he grew up in – the stomping ground of the album title.  As he also says, in his Cheshire Cat grinning fashion, “it ain’t rocket surgery”.  But it’s good stuff, sometimes damn good, and the commitment of guys like him to performing new material is essential to keep the blues alive.
To be honest, Ronnie Baker Brooks was just a name to me before this gig.  I had seen a few mentions of his new album Times Have Changed, but didn’t realise he was the son of veteran Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who died earlier this year.  Coming on with the volume cranked up and going to work on his guitar right from the first bar, his set is a rather different proposition from Castro’s.
Brooks is a big guy, with a big personality that comes over through in-yer-face, wing-ding
Ronnie Baker Brooks - let's get this party started!
guitar playing that’s backed up by his tight band, with Maurice Jones in particular giving it plenty on drums.
Willie Dixon’s ‘My Love Will Never Die’ shows off a more soulful and subtle side though, with a pulsing rhythm and pinging guitar, and is a good showcase for the easy warmth of Brooks’ voice.  He follows that with a medley of blues classics that kicks off with the heavy R’n’B of ‘Born In Chicago’, on which he really starts to demonstrate that he’s a genuine guitar honcho, before easing through ‘Catfish Blues’ and into ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.  At this point he exercises top notch showmanship as he brings it down, before turning out a hilarious, spot on impression of what a John Lee Hooker take on the vocal would sound like. He doesn’t quite hit the bulls-eye with the following impersonation of Howlin’ Wolf, but makes up for it by bringing things to a wild conclusion.
After that he does turn to material from the new album, kicking off with the funky ‘Twine Time’, incorporating some great call and response stuff with keyboard player Daryl Coutts.  ‘Times Have Changed’ itself follows, with a very Buddy Guy feel and some nice counterpoint from waves of keys from Coutts, who also partners Brooks in a novel rap section (performed by Al Kapone on the album).  ‘Doing Too Much’ is a platform for some great riffing, as well as some smart contemporary lyrics.  A slow blues then provides a contrast, Brooks taking the volume right down low with some downright tasteful guitar before building it back up with witty soloing.
He gets Tommy Castro back to jam on ‘Let Me Love You Baby’, belts straight into ‘Honey Hush’ and then goes into a guitar impersonation of Albert Collins on which he makes his guitar talk in such a fashion that the crowd starts going nuts.  By the time they shut up shop for the night with Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillin’’ people are really on their feet, egging him on to create instrumental mayhem.

Brooks may include new material his set, but he’s readier than Tommy Castro to lean on blues classics as a catalyst for traditional guitar fireworks.  He does it brilliantly too, as the crowd reaction attests.  But at the same time it perhaps draws attention away from the new songs, leaving the audience sated, but not overly challenged to explore new horizons.  Whatever – Ronnie Baker Brooks still knows how to rock the joint.  Big time.

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers tour Europe and the UK in November and December, details here.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Listened to lately . . .

Jane Lee Hooker – No B!
That's "No B" as in the line "No B-O-Y" from Muddy Waters' 'Mannish Boy', because Jane Lee Hooker are an all female group. Geddit? They might just as well have titled the album "No BS!" though, because this five-piece sure as hell don't mess about.  I copped hold of a download of this album last year, and wish I’d listened to it more often.  These New Yorkers have taken a collection of blues classics, and infused them with the punkish spirit of CBGBs. 
Jane Lee Hooker - bashful souls
But don’t go thinking that means they’re amateurish three-chord wonders.
Although there’s plenty of raw energy at play, they make good use of dynamics, and the twin guitars of Tracy Hightop and Tina ‘T-Bone’ Gorin are cleverly layered at times.  Meanwhile Dana ‘Danger’ Athens is a real blues rock bawler, but capable of clever phrasing that brings to mind the likes of Alex Harvey, especially on the Adam and Eve tale of ‘In The Valley’.  (And if you things those nicknames sound corny, the rhythm section is made up of Hail Mary Z on bass and Melissa ‘Cool Whip’ Houston on drums.  Er, okay.)
They set out their stall with a raucous rendition of ‘Wade In The Water’, before getting their teeth into Johnny Winters’ ‘Mean Town Blues’.  The likes of ‘Champagne And Reefer’ and ‘The Hunter’ also get a serious workout, and the closing ‘Shake With Me’ is a belter, with a delightfully wonky shuffling opening before the playful guitar interplay gives way to wild duelling.
As simple as the approach may be, No B! is a set crackling with energy and wit.  Want something bold and brash to clear the cobwebs?  This is it.
 Jane Lee Hooker are touring France and Germany in October and November.
A new album, Spiritus, will be released on Ruf Records in November.

Geoff Achison – Another Mile, Another Minute
Australian Geoff Achison has evidently been knocking around for ages, but only came to my attention when I caught a snatch of him on the radio earlier this year.  His latest album Another Mile, Another Minute came out in August, and songs like ‘Working My Way Back Home’ recall the relaxed sophistication of Chris Rea, complete with a similar warm rasp of a voice, and in this case some Latin percussion.
That may be his default setting, but the acoustic-driven ‘Delta Dave’, a tribute to a famous Melbourne busker, demonstrates he can pursue other avenues too.  ‘Sum Peeples Got All The Fonk’ is a clever piece of downbeat funk lamenting the singer’s lack of grip on modern ways, and the downbeat ‘A New Bad Habit’, with its loping bass, ticking drums and smooth
Geoff Achison - groovy, baby
horns, is just one example of Achison’s way with a literate, original lyric.
Featuring 14 tracks and running to just over an hour, the album feels a tad overlong.  But there’s plenty to enjoy here from someone marching to the beat of a different drum, and producing imaginative, well-played material.
 Another Mile, Another Minute is released by Jupiter 2 Records.

Jared James Nichols – Black Magic
Every time I see a photo of Jared James Nichols, his back is arched, his hair flail, and what can be seen of his facial expression suggests agony/ecstasy.  It doesn’t bode well.  But actually Black Magic isn’t the one-dimensional display of shredding that I feared.
On this evidence Nichols believes that brevity is the soul of blues rock – 10 tracks, barely 30 minutes – so has sidestepped over-indulgence.  On the other hand ‘Last Chance’ sets sail with a widdly guitar opening that gives way to a thunderous riff and pounding drums that, together with some banal lyrics (eg “Your mind is fuckin’ blown”), is less than inspiring.  There’s some light and shade and a convincing degree of force in ‘The Gun’ though, one of a few mid-paced stomps on display.
There is some variety though, in the funky strut of ‘Honey Forgive Me’ with its female backing vocals, and the shuffling rhythm of ‘Got To Have You’ with its good-time riffing around the chorus, even if it’s a bit slight in the end.
A real plus point though, is that Dennis Holm’s subterranean bass offers a useful counterpoint to Nichols’ squealing solos.  It growls away on ‘Don’t Be Scared’, underpinning a stuttering riff, rumbles around for fun on ‘What Love’, and complements Nichols’ chiming guitar work on closer ‘Home’.
All things considered, Black Magic has some good moments, but there’s plenty of room for development.
 Black Magic is released by Listenable Records on 27 October.

The Bad Flowers – ‘Thunder Child’
The new single from Black Country heavy rockers The Bad Flowers, ‘Thunder Child’ blasts off with heavy riffage and lung-bursting vocals, clattering drums, lead-weighted bass – and some naff, back-of-the-fag-packet lyrics.  There’s a mildly interesting middle eight though and some signs of dynamics via a sort of quieter section.
Back-up track ‘Lions Blood’ is equally energetic if a bit soulless, with a dull chorus and more weak lyrics.  But at least the opening riff has a pleasingly tangled quality, like a distant echo of early Rush maybe.
It’s all pretty breathless stuff, but if nothing else the spirit of NWOBHM is still alive and kicking – and I’m old enough to remember what it was like.
 ‘Thunder Child’ is out now.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Raw Power - The Red Devils' King King LP

Imagine going to a gig in some club, standing in front of the stage as the band kick off, and then their sheer sonic force grabs a fistful of your shirt and slams you against the back wall.  That, my friends, is what 1992 live album King King by LA band The Red Devils sounds like.  No kidding – this is an animal of an album.
A chug of harp, a slash of rough guitar, a rock solid beat – and The Red Devils are off and running with opening track ‘Automatic’.  Then harp guy Lester Butler starts hollering, and
The Red Devils, with Lester Butler second from right
with some rock’n’roll piano thrown into the mix their signature sound is laid bare.
The following ‘Goin’ To The Church’ ups the tempo and the ante, with Butler testifyin’ away fit to bust in between stabs of harp that duel with lead guitar licks from Paul ‘Kid’ Size.  Remember that bit of between songs chat on Deep Purple's Made In Japan, where Ian Gillan tells the sound man to make “everything louder than everything else”?  All too often that would be a recipe for disaster, but the Red Devils don’t half make it work.
Willie Dixon’s ‘She’s Dangerous’ is a classic stop-time riff affair in the manner of ‘Mannish Boy’, but sounds like Feelgood at their edgiest best, with Butler telling of a woman who’s “36-24-26, an’ gotta a big ol’ bag o’ tricks”.  It sounds like they're just about keeping themselves in check, but then, just as Butler is letting rip on harp, Size weighs in underneath him with a descending riff, and – BAM, they find another gear.  It's simple, but it's brilliant.
On Billy Ray Arnold’s ‘I Wish You Would’ they do actually tone it down a tad, though as it actually ratchets the tempo up a notch with a Bo Diddley style beat from drummer Bill Bateman, it’s like keeping a hungry hound on a leash.  They manage to keep the beast under control again on Sonny Boy Williamson’s (ie Rice Miller’s) melancholy ‘Cross Your Heart’, but it still has the fever of some early Zep blues wailing.
On another Willie Dixon number, ‘Tail Dragger’, Size cuts in with a jagged intro while fellow guitarist Dave Lee Bartel lays down the classic riff.  Butler adds his own lyrics, bawling his appreciation for his baby, before Size cuts loose again with a solo that’s sweet and decorous in exactly the same way that razor wire isn’t.  And that’s just the preamble to the
group-penned ‘Devil Woman’, which is simply magnificent.  Stomping drums from Bateman dig the foundations for a ringing, repetitive guitar riff, leading to another wild guitar solo, and then when Butler takes a turn on harp they end up slamming their way to a finish with a flurry of combination punches.

An album cover that scarcely hints at the mayhem within.
Butler’s composition ‘No Fightin’’ sets off with a steady, throbbing rhythm, but if you think it’s time for a breather, think again.  He takes off on a supercharged harp solo that elicits whoops of delight from the crowd.  Size takes over on guitar and tries to outdo him, and then when he’s done – you find that steady rhythm from Bateman and bass player Johnny Ray Bartel has been lurking underneath all along.  And not satisfied with that they take on the Wolf’s ‘Mr Highway Man’, and make absolute mincemeat of it.  Butler seems to be busting a gut just to make himself heard over the battling guitars and rhythm section, till it grinds to a halt, as if the song itself is exhausted.
And maybe they are too, because they tone it down to gale force proportions on ‘I’m Ready’ and Little Walter’s ‘Quarter To Twelve’, the latter a comparatively lazy instrumental in which the harp and guitar sound like a couple of world weary but still stoked and argumentative guys at last orders.  And there’s still room for Butler to unleash a tension-filled repetitive harp blast that is entirely bonkers. 
The album closes with some boogie in the form of Junior Wells’ ‘Cut It Out’, evidently situated just before a break in their set, and a swinging piece of boogie on which they relax and let their hair hang down rather than attempting to do GBH to the audience.  Aptly, Butler offers up a harp solo based on ‘The Last Post’.
Do I sound breathless?  You should hear Alan Nimmo on the subject.  As a blues playing whippersnapper back in the 90s he saw them playing in Glasgow, and they made such an indelible impression that years later he named his band King King after this album.  Talking to Blues Enthused recently, he recalled the experience of seeing them live as "just euphoric, it was tremendous!"
Rick Rubin knew what he was doing when he signed this lot and decided on a live recording for their first album.  And he deserves credit for managing to channel the raw power of their performance with his production.  Mick Jagger had also stumbled over the Devils, and been well impressed, and no wonder – listening to this must have made him feel 18 again.  So much so that he actually recorded with them, though next to nothing was released from the sessions – maybe he couldn’t keep up.  

Sadly though, King King was to be the high watermark of the Red Devils’ recording career.  Lester Butler was a guy with drug problems, and an attempted second album yielded only the four-song Blackwater Roll EP.  It wasn’t long before they fell apart, and though Butler formed another band called 13 that released an eponymous album, by 1998 he was dead of a heroin overdose, at the age of 38.  Surviving Red Devils have reformed from time to time, most recently this year to play in Europe with Dutchman Big Pete fronting them.  But King King still stands as their real testament – live and exceedingly dangerous.

King King by The Red Devils is available on Amazon.
There's an extra shot of The Red Devils playing at King King on Youtube - very raw footage of them performing 'Shake Your Hips'/'Who Do You Love'.

Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 29 September 2017

If you’re a blues band hailing from Denmark then you’d better be bloody good if you want to make an impact.  Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado clear that bar with room to spare.
The beanpole that is Thorbjørn Risager is the main man on numerous fronts.  It’s a cliché to describe a blues singer’s voice as gravelly, but Risager definitely lives up to the tag, and makes versatile use of his instrument to deliver a variety of song styles.  At the same time he shares lead guitar duties with Peter Skjerning, and into the bargain his rhythm guitar sound is a growling beast fit to compete with his voice.  Oh yeah, and he writes all their original material.  No wonder his name is on the front door.
Thorbjørn Risager - Danish blues ain't cheese
And yet this show demonstrates that The Black Tornado is still very much an ensemble affair, a whole that is great than the sum of its parts, Risager included.  With two guitars, trumpet, sax and keys in addition to bass and drums, they knock out a big, fat mother of a sound, without even trying.  And what’s more, they’re tighter than a cork in a champagne bottle.
All of these qualities are evident in set opener ‘If You Wanna Leave’ which kicks off with a ‘Roadhouse Blues’-like riff and shedloads of grit in the guitar sound, before adding horns to take us down the bright side of the road.  And it’s not much longer before ‘Maybe It’s Alright’ raises the roof still further with its Stones-meets-ZZ Top sound, featuring yet more meaty guitar, plus cracking horn riffs and kickass drums, and some decorative fairground-like organ from Emil Balsgaard as icing on the cake.  It’s a belter, and sets a hell of a standard for them to follow.
They’re not frightened to change tack with the material either.  ‘I Used To Love You’ is a convincingly mournful affair, and later they dial it down again with ‘China Gates’, a Nat King Cole ballad that Risager tells us featured in a movie about the French Indo-Chinese War.  I’ll have to take his word for that, but what I do know is that it’s a subtle affair, with some nice slide guitar from Skjerning.  ‘Long Forgotten Track’ is also a slow and rolling atmospheric piece, with chiming guitar work.
In the midst of all this they also manage to get feet moving with a boogie-woogie jump blues
instrumental on which Hans Nybo produces a big sax solo to go along with Balsgaard’s piano showcase, and punchy drumming from Martin Seidelin that brings to mind Max Weinberg.
Hands up who wants to get down?
Just for good measure Risager introduces a new song called ‘All Your Love’ into the set, inspired by BB King.  And indeed he goes on to deftly channel the spirit of BB with both his guitar tone and his vocal phrasing, over a walking bass line from Soren Bojgaard, while Peter Kehl adds a jazzy trumpet solo.
Other highlights are the nagging ‘Long Gone’, with the horns providing a spot-on counterpoint to the vocals, and a distinctive arrangement of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’.  But they really cut loose – and I do wish they’d do it a bit more often - on set closer ‘All I Want’, complete with lead guitar harmonising.
Thorbjørn Risager and The Black Tornado bring something fresh, sophisticated and classy to the blues scene.  Risager explores different avenues with his songwriting, and his bandmates follow with conviction, serving up something not to be missed.
Support comes from local outfit Main Street Blues, who as always serve up some interesting song selections held together by an earthy sound.  Derek Smith contributes some dirty guitar licks on Coco Montoya’s ‘Last Dirty Deal’, while John Hay’s bass and Iain Hanna’s organ add some more colour to the palette.  Sean Costello’s ‘Hard Luck Woman’ is strutting but spare, with Smith’s guitar fluid and easy going.  In fact if I do have a criticism it’s that they’re too easy going at times, and could do with upping the energy levels.

But they bring some funk and swing to Warren Haynes’ ‘Before The Bullets Fly’, and generate excellent dynamics on Alvin Lee’s ‘Bluest Blues’, with a melodic intro and swathes of keys from Iain Hanna to enhance the mood.  Main Street Blues have a new album coming soon, and hopefully they'll be giving some welly to their own material.