Monday, August 19, 2019

Nicole Smit & Blueswater: Queens Of The Blues - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 18 August 2019

Introducing the final number of this show, Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, Nicole Smit says that it was suggested to her last year by guitarist Charlie Wild, but she said to herself, “There’s no way I can sing that – Susan Tedeschi’s way too cool.”  Aye right, as we say sarcastically in these parts.  On this evidence, Nicole Smit is capable of singing any damn thing she likes.
Queens Of The Blues is one of a suite of shows presented each year on the Edinburgh Fringe by local band/collective The Blueswater, but this is the first time I’ve managed to catch it.  Which is, undoubtedly, my loss.  Backed by a tight band of  two guitars, bass,
drums and keyboards, Smit leads a show delivering great songs by both famous and scarcely remembered female blues singers.  Apparently this was the first time her dad had seen her perform.  Hopefully he’s now retrieved his socks, because I imagine his daughter blew them off big time.
Smit does a terrific job of selling the material, bopping around on the likes of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and the foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll of Mary Knight’s tongue-twisting ‘I Told You Not To Tell Him’, and getting a sassy groove on for bump’n’grind R’n’B like Betty James’ ‘Little Mixed Up’, on which Charlie Wild delivers a wang-dang guitar solo.
But it’s her vocals that are the real centre of attention.  You want to get some idea of what she can do?  Well, her take on Billie Holliday’s ‘Tell Me More’, covered by Nina Simone, is as emotional as it gets, while her bending and stretching a cappella version of Ma Rainey’s ‘See See Rider’ reduces the audience to stunned silence when she finishes.
But both of those are topped, I reckon, by her rendition of a Janis Joplin song.  She introduces it by saying that she hadn’t been much of a Janis fan until a woman told her about witnessing Joplin’s Woodstock performance, and feeling that she provoked a 
tremendous sense of freedom with her “don’t give a shit” performance style.  After which Smit and the band go on to deliver a blazing, foot-stamping performance of raging soul on ‘Kozmic Blues’ that’s so intense we all need a breather when she’s done.
They show a bit of imagination too, by creating an excellent R’n’B mash-up of Helen Humes’ ‘Real Fine Daddy’ and Sean Costello’s ‘Talk To Your Daughter’, on which Jed Potts lets rip on guitar.  And there’s more fun with scrappy Sixties R’n’B that is Etta James’ ‘It Must Be Love’, and Frances Burr’s ‘I Say No, No More’, which they embellish with an organ solo from Rob Harrison, a rollicking guitar duel between Wild and Potts, and a false ending – “No no, not yet!” Smit teases before calling them back in.
Which brings us back to their set closer of Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, a torch song with a Fats Domino style groove, which needless to say Smit nails good and proper, wringing all the emotion out of the song with all the presence, range and power in her locker.
This isn’t just my opinion - at the end my other half announced that she’d been blown away.  Sitting in the front row, more by luck than good judgement, we got a close-up perspective on all of the humour, energy and musicality brought to the show by Smit and the whole band.
You’ll be hard-pressed to get a ticket for the one remaining performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year’s Fringe.  But if you decide to visit to Edinburgh for next year’s Festival, book your tickets early.

The last performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year's Fringe is on Friday 23 August at 5.30pm.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Danny Bryant - Means Of Escape

Danny Bryant’s blues are often pretty heavy, man.  Heavy but, it has to be said, often heartfelt.  And when he gets it right, this can result in something emotionally truthful both lyrically and musically.
The prime example here is ‘Skin And Bone’, which follows on from some of the songs on his last album Revelation in contemplating the death of his father. Low key and built on the simple strumming of acoustic guitar, it’s painfully honest about loss.  It’s up close and personal stuff.  And I can tell you from experience, it hits the emotional mark.
"Say cheese, Danny!"
Pic by Rob Blackham
Nothing else reaches that level, but ‘Where The River Ends’, written some time back for a friend who lost his daughter, features some lyrical, Clapton-like guitar in places. Meanwhile the closing ‘Mya’ is an instrumental exploration that benefits from being a bit more laid back, and less tense than yer typical Bryant arrangement, giving his guitar space to soar more freely as he builds a theme in – again – a Clapton-like fashion.  I’m reminded that on Revelation some of the best moments, for me at least, were those when he began to mine a Clapton seam, such as ‘Shouting At The Moon’.
In a different vein, the title track ‘Means Of Escape’ benefits from revisiting (so to speak) the riff from ‘All Along The Watchtower’, creating a supple vibe, and over the booming drums Bryant does a good job scattering licks around the place, before delivering an impressive solo on the outro.  And even if the lyrics are a bit gloomy apart from the affirmative chorus, Bryant’s vocals sound a mite more relaxed than is his wont.
And there’s the rub. Danny Bryant is rarely, to be honest, a little ray of sunshine.  And this tends to transmit itself through a variety of stomping, grinding, heavy blues outings, characterised by some teeth-clenching vocals.  Opening track ‘Tired Of Trying’, overtly influenced by his mentor Walter Trout, is typical of this tendency, and though it does feature some muscular soloing with a degree of tension and release, it’s overlong. The following ‘Too Far Gone’ is a smidgen more relaxed as it opens, with some nice rolling piano notes, and for a while it reminds me of the kind of gutsy fare the Nimmo Brothers might serve up. But it ends up getting a bit overwrought, and the vocals get too angsty for my taste.
‘Warning Signs’ is a slightly looser affair, with jabs of horns prefacing a useful organ solo, and ‘Hurting Time’ finds Danny dusting his broom on slide guitar, in slow and measured fashion, with some horns and a nice piano solo to leaven the recipe.  But these don’t do much to alleviate the sense of stomp-grind pervading much of the album, which is generally reinforced by Bryant’s idiosyncratic tendency towards vocals that to me sound physically tense. And if I were to offer up a sample of lyrics from across the album, you wouldn’t find many sunny moments.
Danny Bryant does what he does with commitment and intensity, and sometimes seizes your emotions as he does so. But all in all, Means Of Escape would benefit from more light and shade in terms of words, music and rhythm.  Hell, even Walter Trout and Eric Clapton, who haven’t had their troubles to seek, write some upbeat songs.  Discovering a broader palette would serve Danny Bryant well.

Means Of Escape is released on Jazzhaus Records on 20 September.
Danny Bryant's October British tour dates can be found here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Albert Castiglia - Masterpiece

Okay folks, here’s how I imagine the conversation went when Albert Castiglia arrived at the studio and introduced this bunch of songs to his producer Mike Zito.
“No fucking frills, right?”
“Right!”
“Who else we gonna get play on it?”
“Nobody.  We’ll do this fucker ourselves.  You and me.”
“Cool.  Let's go.”
So here we have the pair of them weighing in with electric, acoustic and bass guitars,  while Castiglia takes care of the vocals, and Zito also takes responsibility for – would you believe? - drums and keyboards.  It sounds like it was recorded on some clapped-out analogue recording equipment that someone rescued from the dump.
And it is flat-out, bone-shakingly magnificent.
"You looking' at me?  Well, they're ain't nobody else here."
Oh sure, it starts out sounding like a particularly juicy T-Bone steak of electric blues, with ‘Bring On The Rain’, urgent and ready to rock, with guitar licks elbowing their way in all around Castiglia’s growling voice.  But believe me, they’re just lulling you into a false sense of security.
The shuffling primal stomp and booming bass line of ‘I Tried To Tell You’ build foundations of granite for Castiglia’s screw-you vocals and a scrabbling, discordant solo, before it sulks its way to an abrupt ending.  And that’s just by way of readying you for the further acts of shock and awe coming your way.  Like ‘Keep On Swinging’ fr’instance, with its bludgeoning riff over rock steady, reverberating bass and drums, a spell of raking guitar harmonies, and a dogfight of traded guitar licks, while Castiglia insists “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Or ‘Thoughts And Prayers’, on which more bang-crash drums and sledgehammer bass, allied to a lurching, scratchy guitar riff, provide the basis for an acid discourse from Castiglia about “thoughts and prayers and a loaded gun”, and “children in the firing line.” Or ‘Catch My Breath’, which welds a Skynyrd-like melody to a chugging, clanking rhythm.
The two covers provide reinforcements.  Johnny Winter’s ‘Too Much Seconal’ feels like drinking the hair of the dog the morning after the night before, with fuzzy, screeching guitar and some basic blues piano-bashing from Zito, while Castiglia grabbed the most ancient microphone available for his vocals, and the drums sound like they were recorded out in the garden shed.  I’m sure Johnny would be proud.  As he would also be of their take on Muddy Waters’ ‘I Wanna Go Home’, which is all jagged, jangling R’n’B basics, with a razor-wire guitar solo - Hard Again indeed.
Castiglia does provide some relief from the scruff-of-the-neck approach though.  The title track is an awestruck but not maudlin reflection on his first discovering he had a daughter, the masterpiece of the title, 30 years after her birth – a simple affair of acoustic strumming and slide remarks, over boom-tap drums.  ‘Heavy’ is a social commentary slow blues framed around a rippling, rising guitar line and basic, beats-like drums.  And best of all there’s ‘Love Will Win The War’, a meditation on the horror of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, schools and – well, you get the idea – set to warmly twangin’an’twinklin’ ‘Wild Horses’-like guitar work.
Castiglia and Zito deserve a lead-heavy slab of acclaim for this album.  Masterpiece is raw and primitive, down to earth and defiant, emotional and honest.  And it is not to be denied.  Crank it up to 11, and tell me if I’m wrong.

Masterpiece is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Samantha Fish - Kill Or Be Kind

Kill Or Be Kind is a grower.  I’ve been living with it for a couple of months now, and it’s a distinctive album that defies easy labels, gradually disclosing its subtleties over time. It’s the product of an evolutionary journey on which Samantha Fish has stretched and deepened her vocabulary until she can now command her own mature sound with confidence.
As a key to getting inside Kill Or Be Kind, get your ears around ‘Love Your Lies’, the shortest and most straightforward track on offer.  The first time I heard it spring out of the starting blocks, I said to myself, “Buzzcocks! With Chrissie Hynde on vocals!”  That may seem like a daft response to this fizzing little rock’n’roll firecracker, on which Fish lets loose a whoop of delight as she launches into a brief, scorching guitar solo that will just beg for her to let rip live.  But the Chrissie Hynde reference is apposite all the same, because Kill Or Be Kind achieves just the kind of crossover quality that The Pretenders nailed in their heyday, encapsulating soul, R’n’B, classic pop and rock’n’roll with élan.
Samantha Fish - crossover success beckons
And to underline the point, the outstanding ‘Fair-weather’ is a simple and lovely song lamenting the decline of a friendship.  Resting on tinkling ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ guitar notes, it features an at times breathy vocal from Fish set against the merest touches of organ and murmurs of horns, before being elevated by a key change as Fish delivers a rueful wave goodbye at the receding relationship.  Simple as it is, the emotional connection is profound.
A brace of songs reach back to Chills And Fever and translate its soul and R’n’B vibe into originals with a modern feel.  'Kill Or Be Kind' itself sets the tone, with some excellent rubber band bass providing the basis for Fish to open up with deceptively girlish vocals – deceptive because this is a lyric with a very Fish-like dark twist to it, revealing not a "goody-good-good girl", but a tough cookie.  ‘Try Not To Fall In Love With You’ is a dreamier affair, sweet and soulful, with a neat horn arrangement, and twinkling guitar notes providing texture ahead of a scorching solo.
There’s nothing here squarely in the acoustic/Americana vein of Belle Of The West.  But ‘Dreamgirl’ takes the romantic feel of ‘Belle Of The West’ itself, and gives it a more sleek modern sound, with some double-tracked vocals, a woozy slide reading of the melody, and squiggling noises in the background combining to add a phantasmagorical tinge to proceedings.  And the following ‘She Don’t Live Here Anymore’ blends Americana and soul stylings, with a twanged descending guitar motif, subtle Memphis horns, and a restrained slide solo over tinkling keys, while Fish holds herself back rather than wigging out vocally.
‘Love Letters’, like the title track, offers a love-turned-sour lyrical juxtaposition, mirrored musically by the contrast of sweet verses and a bitter chorus, with sighs of slide guitar and another helping of appealing bass.  And ‘Dirty’ is another reflection on distasteful relationship behaviour, setting out with a flurry of understated organ, ticking drums and sparse bass notes, before Fish’s guitar paves the way for a finely judged burst of vocal passion.
Which leaves a trio of rockers in the form of ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Watch It Die’ and ‘You Got It Bad’ to add some heft.  ‘Bulletproof’ opens the show with a bullet, as it were, its cryptic lyric about the challenge of standing up for oneself played out via a delicate falling melody on the verses and a full throttle roar on the chorus.  It’s both urgent and tense, gains weight as it progresses, and features a blistering cigar box slide solo – Fish is now a veritable slide guitar demon.  ‘Watch It Die’ is all buzzsaw riff and flaring horns, with a squealing solo and a bridge of interesting sighs, as it were, while Fish soars vocally on the chorus as only she can.  ‘You Got It Bad’, bringing down the curtain, is a layered chunk of moody blues-rock, with a brooding guitar figure, a rousing vocal on the chorus, and a repeated slide refrain that ushers in a scraping slide solo.
The songs and musicianship on Kill Or Be Kind are top notch. Fish’s guitar is sharp and multi-faceted, and her vocals are, as ever, astonishing.  Ultimately it’s an album to captivate not just the ears, but the emotions. The fuse has been burning on her career for a while now, but I have a feeling that Kill Or Be Kind may be about to detonate a Samantha Fish explosion.

Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 20 September.

Read the exclusive Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish here.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Whisky Road - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 7 August 2019

Now and then it’s a pleasure to hear the blues stripped back.  It gives a different perspective on the songs, shorn of volume and effects. And this acoustic blues show on the Edinburgh Fringe by Whisky Road, a trio armed with two acoustic guitars and harmonica, does the job very nicely, thank you very much.
Their hour long set ranges draws on classics across the generations, with the addition of a few originals, kicking off with an uptempo, good-time reading of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Eyesight To The Blind’, with a funkily rhythmic undercurrent, with Jim Harcus providing chugging harp accents along the way, and a pinging guitar solo from Pete Caban.  And they
Whisky Road - unplugged blues in the Jazz Bar
follow that up with ‘Key To The Highway’, demonstrating just why it’s a classic, with a plaintive harp solo from Harcus and a tasteful guitar solo from Derek Smith, which then neatly interleaves with Caban’s guitar again at the end.
There’s some amusing banter about them changing the set list from show to show, and whether anyone actually comes back for a second helping to check, but they evidently have an extensive repertoire at the their disposal with which to deliver on that promise.
Highlights include the dreamy and soulful Clapton/Cray song ‘Old Love’, and in a similar vein ‘The Thrill Is Gone’.  Smith conjures up a Layla-ish bass line on his acoustic for the former, in addition to a neat solo, before Harcus plays around with the melody in subtle fashion on harp, on the way to a piercing solo from Caban as they bring the song to a crescendo.  Their take on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, meanwhile, is loose-limbed and exquisite, a quiet opening leading to the understated introduction of that classic blues riff.  There’s well-balanced tension and release in Smith’s solo, while Caban demonstrates similarly good tone and phrasing in his outing.
But there’s variety too, ranging from the simple, chugging R’n’B of Jimmy Rogers’ ‘That’s Alright’, with nicely interwoven guitar lines, to the nagging, harp-reinforced riff of something I think called ‘You Don’t Love Me’, which is ever so British Blues Boom.  And Derek Smith delivers a suitably smoky vocal on Memphis Minnie's 'Ain't Nothin' In Ramblin'', a downbeat depiction of pain and misery on which you can practically feel the Louisiana heat.
Smith’s self-penned ‘Nobody Knows Like Me Like I Do’ is a lightly swinging affair, with a jazzy solo from Caban, that has a cool air of 50s rock’n’roll inspired pop, matched later on by the old-time vibe of the blues standard ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out)’.
They close with BB King’s ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, with rattling solos from both guitarists and a mid-song switch of harps from Jim Harcus as they change key, and a bit of singalonga-BB for good measure.
If you’re in Edinburgh for the Festival, and in the market for a bit of unplugged blues as a warm-up for your afternoon, the Whisky Road show is a damn good shout.

Whisky Road play six more shows at the Edinburgh Fringe from 9-24 August.  Tickets available here.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones - Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones

The first time I gave a spin to this self-titled album by Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones, I said to myself “Uh-huh” as a positive response to the first few songs, made a mental note about a few things, then kind of half-listened to the rest of the album as I pottered about at something or other, thinking that it tailed off a bit as it progressed.
Listening to it again now, those first impressions were wrong.  This third album from Hannah and her pals is an impressive body of work from start to finish.  The songs are good, she’s got a strong voice, plays some sharp guitar, and has a kicking band behind her in the form of drummer Juilian Dorio and bassist Reno Bo.
Hannah Wicklund - she can play, sing, she can do most anything
Pic courtesy of Greg Logan Photography
Imagine, if you will, Pat Benatar re-tooled for the 21stCentury.  All the AOR-sheen has been
sandpapered off, she’s been force-fed a diet of Led Zeppelin and early Rush, and handed a guitar and told to equip herself as a lead guitarist even if it makes her fingers bleed.  That might give you an idea of what Nashville-based Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones sound like.  Maybe. Or perhaps you should just imagine being chucked in a wind tunnel.
The ‘Peak Patty’ moment is probably ‘Mama Said’, with its stuttering, semi-reggaefied riff leading to a hooky, upbeat chorus which they ram home big time towards the end, while Wicklund contributes a nifty little squealing solo to close.  But the polished middle 8 of ‘Ghost’ comes pretty close, in the midst of a strolling, chiming, bluesy affair on which Wicklund’s expressive vocal reaches towards a rootsier domain, and she demonstrates a disciplined approach to soloing that serves the song rather than the ego.
Wicklund’s inspirations may stem from the early Seventies and beyond, but she still manages to sound modern, with the aid of producer Sadler Vaden (guitarist with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit).  For ‘On The Road’ she highlights her flexibility by deploying a yelping, hiccupping vocal that provides some effective variation, over ringing guitar, appealingly bendy bass from Bo, and crunching, driving drums from Dorio, before downshifting into a subtle solo.  Then there’s a discordant tinge to ‘Crushing’, with a quavering vocal, and a heavy descending riff that’s counterpointed by a spiky solo, before Wicklund really gets her wail on vocally.
Now and then things may get a bit overcooked, as Wicklund’s voice has to compete with that huge rhythm section at times, as on both ‘Strawberry Moon’ and ‘Meet You Again’, but I’ll forgive her.  The former is another well constructed song, opening with just guitar and an aching vocal that hints at Maria McKee rootsiness, and features another patient, well-measured solo.  The latter hints at Americana possibilities with its moody guitar and voice intro, which is then met with sharp injections of Zepp-ish power, before a shift in tempo and rhythm into urgent strumming and then a scrabbling solo.
And if the album opens with stomping blues rock in the form of 'Bomb Through The Breeze', she’s got the courage to close in more restrained fashion with ‘Shadow Boxes And Porcelain Faces’, which features delicately picked acoustic-sounding guitar, and sweet vocals that again play around with Americana in haunting fashion, over minimalist percussion – and I do mean minimalist.
With her Pre-Raphaelite auburn locks the 22-year old Wicklund looks the part too.  If she can cut it live with the punch suggested by this album, I predict a bright future.

Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones is released in the UK on 13 September.
Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones are touring Britain and Europe from August to October.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Going Dutch - Samantha Fish shares conversation with Blues Enthused

Dateline:  23 May 2019, Amsterdam.  Samantha Fish European Tour.

It’s late May in Amsterdam, and to quote The Kinks, I’m lazing on a sunny afternoon, having a quiet beer and waiting to meet Samantha Fish.
After catching three of her shows in Britain, I’ve indulged myself with a quick jaunt to the Netherlands to catch tonight’s show at the Q-Factory – and I’ve managed to score an interview with the lady of the moment into the bargain.
She’s running late, something to do with a filmed interview, but that’s okay.  Patience is a virtue, and all that.  And sure enough it’s not long before her tour manager Mark Sampson appears at the café doorway and gives me a wave.  And off we go, zig-zagging down some corridors before he opens the door to a cavernous, spartan room, in which Fish can be found sitting on a leather sofa in one corner, wearing a simple black t-shirt, black trousers and black headscarf, and looking fresh as a daisy.  I dunno how she does it, given her schedule.
We say our hellos and I sink onto the armchair at right angles to her, while she checks with Sampson that I’m the guy she thinks I am, who did those reviews of the British gigs? “Thanks for the great press man, I dig it!” she says winningly, as I get the digital recorder rolling.  And then off we go.

Down The Road Apiece
As they’re getting towards the tail end of a 22-date run through Britain and Western Europe, the obvious first question is:  how has it been going?

It's going good - Fender Jaguar time
“Going good,” says Samantha. “I’m in Amsterdam, having a blast!  Yeah, I mean this tour has been really exciting.  I feel we’re connecting with people, and that’s really exciting. And tonight’s going to be huge, there’s a lot of tickets sold, so I’ve just gotta go get myself together and make it work!”
This tour has taken in some bigger venues and audiences than her previous European jaunts, and from what I’ve seen the levels of enthusiasm have been stronger too.
“Yeah, yeah man!” she agrees.  “I love it when people sing the words along with the band, you know – they know the words of the songs.  It’s crazy when there’s a language gap,” she says, referring to the most recent gigs in Paris and Brussels, “but they still know the lyrics to the songs, you know?  It’s cool!”
One of the things I’ve noticed, I say, is that Fish is constantly changing her set, whether it’s the songs she plays each night or the running order.  This is not something that a lot of artists do these days, and highly commendable in my view.  So how important is it to her?
“I’m trying to do it more and more,” she says.  “It was kind of tough at first, ‘cause we had put two records out in 2017, and I had such a big band, and really with as much time as we’re on the road there’s not a lot of time to go home and rehearse, and work it out.  But we’ve just been forcing some of the older catalogue back into the set.  Really what helped facilitate that was we’ve been doing these festivals where we’ve been multiple shows at the same festival – you know when you’re in Byron Bay for four days,” she says, referring to the Australian festival they played recently, “I want people to think they’re missing something if they don’t come to another show.  You know, when we do those festivals, if they come to one show, and then they come to another one and they hear we play the same songs in the first 15 minutes, they go ‘Okay, we saw ‘em, we don’t need to go see ‘em again’.  I want ‘em to feel like they’re missing something, so I started putting that into the live show.”
I’ve also noted that she’s changed the guitars she uses on some songs.  On this tour she’s been using her Fender Jaguar on ‘Gone For Good’, for example.  
“Well, when I first started playing that song I was using an oil can, but that was really a six-string guitar.  So that was just like a regular guitar, I just tuned it to an open chord.  But yeah, the last few years I’ve just been down-tuning to Open G, and you can really do it on anything at that point. It’s kind of like, I look at the set list, and it’s what’s gonna be the easiest thing to tune fast, so whatever guitar I play before, I usually make that the one for ‘Gone For Good’.”
Watching her live, particularly when she’s soloing, Fish often seems so totally in the zone
A relieved band after negotiating another changed-up set list
that’s she’s lost in the music.  But obviously she has to keep one eye on the practicalities, because there are changes that come up, such as segue-ways where Phil Breen covers on piano while she re-tunes or switches guitar.
“Yeah, definitely,” she nods.  “And you know, over the years I always wonder ‘Why did I do this?’  It’s easier at home, when you have your home rig.  But you know, I could only fly over here with so many guitars.  So ideally I’d have a guitar in every tuning that I need, and I’d just go pick it up, put it on, and that’d be fine.  But you know, when you’re flying to Europe and you can only bring two bags with you, it’s like, okay, gonna have to make these four work in whatever tunings.  So yeah, I do think about that.  I write out the set list before the show.  We write it on the way to the venue – I like to feel out the venue, and go ‘Oh, this is going to be a rock’n’roll show tonight. Let’s stack the show with these kind of songs.’  I have to think about it before the show, so I’m not too stressed about it in the moment.”
And presumably the same applies to the rest of the band too, I suggest, so that they’re not left saying, ‘You’re gonna do what?’
“Well yeah, they need to know, they need to know!” she agrees, before laughing.  “Unfortunately for them, I’ll write the set, I’ll send it to the tour manager, and he’ll print it out and put it on the stage before the band even know what the hell’s going on!  So they get on stage and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know we were going to play this tonight!’  And I’m like, ‘Weeell . . . ,’ and she mimes an apologetic shrug.  “But they’re so talented, they can play anything!”
On this European tour they’ve been working as a four-piece, without the horns that have been a fixture since Chills And Fever.  So thinking about her earlier reference to having limited time to rehearse, I ask if it takes much work to rearrange things for the smaller line-up.  Or is it just more work for Phil Breen on keys?
More work for Phil Breen!
“It’s more work for Phil!” she acknowledges.  “I think he likes it though.  I’m like, ‘Would you like to play three keyboards tonight?’  I think he’d dig being able to do all that, it’s fun. It’s not more work, it’s just a different approach.  You know, we’re taking on songs like ‘Hello Stranger’, for instance, and that’s such a strong horn song, that’s got a really prominent part.  So how do we either cut that out, or adapt it to work on the guitar?  You know, some things are just, the personality characteristic is a horn, you can’t make the guitar into a horn.  I gotta find something else that’s gonna serve the song.  And a lot of our material, I mean I write a lot of the material on an acoustic guitar by myself, and it’s been fleshed out over the years as a trio, so it’s not too difficult.  But other songs’ll just take a little more effort and thought.”
Some of Fish’s long-standing fans are prone talk wistfully about ‘when Sam had a power-trio’.  But to me her approach has always been too wide-ranging for what seems a rather one-dimensional label – as opposed to ‘three-piece’, as a purely numerical descriptor.   Was it ever a description she identified with much, I wonder?
“You know, any time I feel like we’re closing to getting – um, figured out,” she says, “when people think that this is exactly who you are, and this is what you’re gonna be, and it becomes an expectation - it makes me wanna change.  ‘Cause I like to surprise people, and as an artist I feel like I want to grow and evolve, and I don’t want to be in a situation later where I’m like, ‘I wish I could change my band, but people will get upset’, you know?  I feel like, with as much as we changed in the last couple of years with the line-up, and in all honesty we added horns, a keyboard, and a fiddle for some stuff, the songs are still really guitar heavy.  I’m singing like I’ve always sung on them, and sonically I feel like it adds this layer of drama that I really, really dig.
“And you know,” she continues, “for certain things we might go back to – I mean we stripped down to a four-piece for this tour, you never know.  But I don’t ever want it to get to the point where I can’t do something, because it’s been so ingrained for so long that you can’t change anything.  I’m a solo artist, I’m a writer, I like to shift and bend my genre, and move around. But the thing that’s always going to be in the band is the guitar and my voice, so if I’m serving that then the rest around it is me just trying to make the best show possible.”

All The Way From Memphis
Her new album Kill Or Be Kind is coming out on 20 September – you can read the Blues Enthused review here.  So what’s the lowdown on it, Samantha?
“We recorded it mostly in Memphis at Royal Studios, which is a historic place,” Fish observes.  “It’s Willie Mitchell’s studio, and Al Green, Ann Peebles and all these incredible soul artists recorded there.  I know Bruno Mars did ‘Uptown Funk’ and everything in there.  I mean it’s just a special place, there’s a lot of soul, and history and vibe there, and I always really wanted to go back – because we did some stuff there for theWild Heart album.  
Ann Peebles - walking in the footsteps of classics at Royal Studios
“So when it came time to record, my producer Scott Billington and I were assessing Nashville, and all these different places, and I was like, Memphis has always made me feel so good, so let’s go there.  And we got some Memphis horns on a couple of the songs.”
But as she notes, this outing is following two dramatically different albums, in the form Chills And Fever and then Belle Of The West.
“So I wanted to find the middle ground,” she says, “but then push it even further – utilise the horns as a texture, something that’s gonna add to the track, but it’s not a horn record if you know what I mean.  But I kind of utilised the guitar a little differently on this album.  I got to flesh out and pad things, and add different layers and textures to the record, that polished it in a way.  And that was sort of fun for me, ‘cause it made it more dramatic. But I wrote all the songs, co-wrote everything with a bunch of different writers, from Los Angeles to Nashville, and all in all I think it’s a really good songwriter’s record, storyteller’s record – powerful guitar, powerful vocals.  I think it’s what people expect from me, but it’s just an evolved version of that.”
The songs on the album feature a handful of co-writers, such as Jim McCormick (who also contributed to Wild Heart), Patrick Sweaney, Eric McFadden, Katie Pearlman and Parker Millsap.  I ask her what these collaborators bring to the party for her.
She loves co-writing, she says, because, “Say I start with an idea, like a cool melody and a story I want to tell, it’s nice to have somebody there with you who can maybe point out that something that makes complete sense to you won’t make sense to anybody else.  I really feel like the best songs in the world can tell everybody’s story, you know? So having somebody else in the writing room with you, just to really get that story across, to make sure that you’re telling something that’s cohesive . . .”
Is that lyrics, or music?
“It can be both. Everybody I worked with was really different from one another.  Like Jim McCormick – he is a lyric doctor,” she says with a smile.  “He’s worked with some heavy country music superstars, and he writes in Nashville, and he was probably the guy I wrote with the most, ‘cause we kind of reside in the same place, when we’re both not working.  So ‘Love Letters’ was a co-write with him, just fleshing out lyrics on that one.  I had this idea,
Lyric doctor Jim McCormick
and I wanted to build off of it.  I started that one on an acoustic guitar, and then that’s one of the songs that doesn’t really change chords.  It kind of hangs on the same groove, but when we took it into the studio to produce it, and make the track come alive, it kind of peeled off into all these different layers.  The song sounds really dynamic, but it’s actually pretty simple chord structure wise. But Jim and I worked out the lyrics, telling the story, making sure the right messages get conveyed.  It’s just that another writer is another perspective, and I think that’s kind of exciting – that can be musical, that can be lyrical.”
And speaking of lyrics, it seems to me that a lot of Fish’s songs – and coincidentally covers such as those on Chills And Fever are often of a similar ilk - are character-driven. Where does that come from, I ask.  Is it books, movies . . . ?
“You know, probably so,” Samantha says, reflecting on it.  “You mean like it’s told from the first person, rather than an omnipresent narrator?”
Uh-huh, I confirm.
“I don’t know, like ‘Bitch On The Run’ – I’m peeling away back into the old catalogue . . .”
The Wild Heart album isn’t really that old, I suggest.
“No, it’s not that old,” she agrees.  “But ‘Bitch On The Run’ was like a social critique, you know?  I don’t know, I guess it feels like a bird’s eye view, but when you start putting words like ‘I’ into a song it feels very personal. Now that one in particular was just like a critical assessment of the world that we’re living in – not really so much about myself, but I mean I am living in the world.  Um, I think it might just come off that way.  But yeah I guess – I never really thought of that. You know, probably a lot of my songs probably do come from a very personal place.  Even if the song isn’t about me . . .”
It’s like you’ve created a character, I say.
“Yeah?”
I tell her that’s how I see it a lot of the time.  I recall reading an interview somewhere, where she mentioned her family responding to her songs by saying “Where do you get this stuff from?  This is nothing like you!”
She laughs at this. (You’ll have gathered by now that Samantha Fish laughs readily – unfortunately there’s a shortage of synonyms to cover her repertoire.)
“No, I mean it’s a songwriter’s curse too!” she says.  “I was talking to Jim about it, and I’m like ‘Do you ever come home after writing a song, and your wife is just mortified and mad at you, and asking “Why would you write that about me?”, and you’re saying “It’s not about you, what are you talking about?”’  She mimics hurt and bafflement in this exchange, before sobering up.
“You know, a lot of my writing does come from a personal place.  If it isn’t a personal experience it’s something I’ve witnessed, or come close to experiencing, you know?  It’s a
Getting in character
story. I think stories are the driving force behind songs, I think that that’s what connects people.  And songs to me kind of – when I hear a song I kind of imagine it applying to my life.  I don’t know about you, but that’s kinda how it feels to me – somebody else telling my story, and that’s such a strong connection.  So I think I keep that in mind when I’m writing.
“It’s also like the narcissism too!” she goes on, with a hoot of laughter.  “It’s the horrible narcissism – I write everything about me! It’s my character!” she says with a giggle, before reverting to serious mode.  “No, it’s interesting.  I’m learning more and more about writing all the time, how to diversify your style, and change things up, and approach from a different way, and I think collaboration has really opened my eyes to a lot of different practices that way. Everybody’s got a different approach – it’s kind of cool to watch that.”
The producer for Kill Or Be Kind was Scott Billington, a big hitter at her new label Rounder Records, who has three Grammys and numerous nominations to his name.  Was it interesting working with him?
“Yeah, it was interesting!” Fish says enthusiastically.  “Scott really came into the room, like, trusting.  He let me build out these songs the way that I saw them.  You know, I’ve had producers in the past where I’m like ‘Oh, I want to try this thing!’, and they’re ‘Nope, it’s done.  Move on.’  And I’m like, ‘Oh – okay,’” she says, adopting a disappointed tone.  “And that’s fine, but with Scott we had a bit more time on this record, and he was ‘Yeah, I can hear that – give it a shot.’ And then he was either like ‘It didn’t work’ or ‘That’s cool – we’ll put that in!’  He was very encouraging when it came to me wanting to try something else, and he guided the process but in a gentle way.  I thought that was cool, we really tried to do a bunch of different things together.”

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Speaking of experimentation, at the time of our conversation in May the UK Amazon site had recently put up a page for pre-orders of Kill Or Be Kind with an album cover featuring a picture of Samantha sporting a rather different look - Brigitte Bardot sprang to mind.  So I wondered if there any particular artistic concept behind that.
Kill Or Be Kind - the cover that wasn't to be
“Oh my gosh!” she says, laughing.  “Ha – I’m glad that got out there somehow!  We had a few different album cover ideas, and the one that they came up with is actually on the internet today, and that’s a different one from what you saw before.  But I dug that one - I was thinking, Brigitte Bardot, 1960s. . .”
This wasn’t then, the eventual cover choice?
“No that’s not it.  I kept my short hair.”
Would long hair would be too much work, I ask, like I’d know a damn thing about it.
“Well I’m kinda of the thought that when I think about my favourite female artists, they can do whatever the hell they want with their hair and it doesn’t matter.”
Which sounds fair enough to me.
“But for cohesiveness and stuff I was like, okay let’s just keep the hair short, and that way I’m not having to mess with it every day.
“But I thought that was kind of a cool picture – I’m such a fan of vintage looks, and I’m not afraid to try something new.   I’m always wanting to experiment with my style, so that was a fun day for me,” she says, laughing.  “I had a blast!  And I love that picture – I don’t know when we’re gonna use them, or what we’re gonna use them for . . .”
So I’m guessing, I say, that the shoot could have involved a variety of looks.
“Yeah.  I wanted to try out a few different looks – I’m going to do the one I’ve been doing, but I wanna try out some stuff and see what really clicks.
“At the end of the day I have a team of people that I work with,” she explains, “that want to guide the process, and that’s why they’re there.  So I do a bunch of different things, I throw a bunch of shit at the wall, and they come in and say, okay let’s make sense of this.  But I did love that shoot, I thought that was cool – I’m kinda glad it got out.  Half the people really dug it, I guess some people didn’t like it!”
For what it’s worth, I rather liked the energy of that cover design, with its graffiti-like scrawl of her name and the title, regardless of Fish’s styling.  I reckon it had an iconic air about it, a bit like The Clash revisiting Elvis with the cover of London Calling, maybe.  But it’s the road not travelled now.
Since we’re talking about image and so on though, it seems to me that somewhere before Chills And Fever, after she’d already been working her socks off for quite a few years, it was
"Hey you - I'm a girl!  Deal with it!"
like there was a step change in her attitude to what she was doing.
“Yeah . . .” she agrees, thoughtfully.
She seemed to want to take things to another level, I say, expanding on the thought, with her image being part of that.
“Yeah, well it’s always gonna be a part of it. But you know when I started playing guitar . . . I’m just gonna put this out there, I don’t even like talking about the gender thing ‘cause I could focus on it too much and talk about it too much.  But when I first started playing I didn’t want even the fact that I was a girl held against me for any reason at all, so I would dress in like Converse shoes . . .
Almost saying “I’m not a girl,” I venture.
“Yeah,” she agrees.  “I’d wear t-shirts, and Chuck Taylors, and carry my own amp in like a bear.  I worked my ass off to not have this perception.
“But then I was like, you know, I am a chick, and I love dressing up,” she says with a chuckle.  “I love that aspect.  I’m very connected to my femininity, that’s a part of who I am, and so I started dressing up.  I’m such a fan of vintage styling, like I said.  I feel like it’s iconic, it’s timeless, it ain’t going anywhere.  It looks rock’n’roll but it looks beautiful at the same time, and so I started honing my style towards that.  And it’s evolved over the years – I think if we don’t evolve and we don’t change – nobody is born knowing exactly what they’re going to do, you have to get there somehow.  There’s a long journey.
“But you know, you’re going to see me over the years change things up a lot!’ she says, with another hearty laugh.  “I hate to break it to people that didn’t like that photo the other day, but they’re going to see a lot more crazy stuff they might not like!  But that’s part of being an artist - you’re going to do things that are either gonna incite happiness, or upset people.”

New Horizons
Changing the subject, I noted that last year Fish, along with her manager Reuben Williams, had set up her own record label, Wild Heart, and produced its first signing Jonathon Long. How did that come about, I ask.  
“Well, I had been talking to my manager about wanting to start producing records.  It’s something I’d always wanted to do, I just hadn’t . . . .” She pauses, pondering the reason.
Had the time, I suggest, thinking about those 200 plus gigs a year she does.
“Yeah, exactly.  The problem with me is I want to do all these things, but I don’t feel like I have time to do ‘em.  And I probably don’t.  Then Reuben comes to me and he says,” she clicks her fingers, “‘You’re producing Jonathon’s record’.  And at first I was like, ‘I don’t have time to do this!’” she says in a mock-hysterical fashion.  “’I can’t do this!’  And he’s like, ‘You’re gonna do it, just go do it.’  And I got in there and it was, okay – it’s a lot of pressure to produce somebody’s record.  I want him to feel like he’s comfortable, and I want to help him get his message out. So you have to really let go of your own pre-conceived things about what the music should be, as a musician, and just be the producer and facilitate his goal - but also make it commercially viable for a label.  It’s a fine line – and also don’t spend all the money immediately.  Make sure that all the money doesn’t get wasted!  So there’s a lot of things that go into producing records.
Wild Heart Records inaugural signing Jonathon Long
“I hooked up with Jonathon through Reuben,” she explains, “who’s also his manager.  We were going to shop it to labels, and then we had this conversation, ‘cause something else I always wanted to do, but didn’t feel like I had time for, was start a record label.  And Reuben goes, ‘Hey, we know all the people that we need to shop this to. We know what to do.  We should just start this thing.’  And I was ready!  And it’s been going really good – I want to help get other people out there who deserve that kind of representation.  It’s hard to find.  And Jonathon, he’s a hard worker, and he’s so talented – he’s freaky talented, he’s amazing – and he deserves some representation, and I’m glad that I can be a part of his journey.
A Jonathon Long live album is lined up at some point, she says, before mentioning other signings. 
“There’s a guy named Nicholas David, and that’s coming out later in the summer, and he’s amazing too. He played keys in Devon Allman’s band for a long time, and he also was on The Voice, he did good on there.  And then Charlie Wooton from New Orleans,” she says, referring to the renowned bass player who has been a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood and collaborated with Sonny Landreth, Zigaboo Modeliste and many others.  “We’re gonna put out a record by him.  So, three!”
And in fact Blue Basso, the album by the Charlie Wooton Project named after his signature blue bass, and featuring Anders Osborne, Sonny Landreth and Eric McFadden among others, is released on 23 August.

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend
Our time together is nearly done, so I tell Samantha it’s time to pop the $64,000 question – what’s the red diamond eye make-up all about?
“Ha ha!  I can’t talk about it yet!” she laughs, before repeating more coyly, “I can’t talk about it yet!  It’s part of – a project that’s coming up.  But I like that,” she says with another giggle, “the $64,000 question!”
Was that mysterious project simply the video for her latest single ‘Bulletproof’, released in July, or was it something more?  Only time will tell.  And speaking of time, mine is up.  Samantha has to go eat before showtime.

Later that evening, Samantha Fish and her band deliver another crunking performance to the Q-Factory crowd.  Just another night on the rock’n’roll road, with many more ahead.  Like the lady said, it’s a long journey. I look forward to seeing her again in Europe in 2020, by which time I expect that she’ll have taken a big stride forward on the back of Kill Or Be Kind.

Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 27 September. 




Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sean Webster Band - Three Nights Live

More people should know about Sean Webster. More people should be listening to him. More people should be going to see him. It’s as simple as that.  And his new live album Three Nights Live underlines the singular quality of a soul-blues sound that deserves more attention.
Now when I say soul-blues, I don’t mean Stax horns.  And12-bar action isn’t the primary focus either.  But what the hell else can you call it when the guy sings like Joe Cocker, his songs are high on emotional content - generally located at the dark end of the street, to quote the James Carr song – and his guitar playing enhances the intense mood?
This is not throwaway stuff. Take his cover of John Mayer’s ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning
Sean Webster - hear him now
Room’, which comes along three songs in.  A subtle ballad, it weighs in at ten and a half minutes, but it’s so engrossing that the time passes easily.  It opens with mesmerising guitar on the intro, building tension before floating into the body of the song, on which Webster and his band contrive to create an intense atmosphere.  It helps, of course, that as a singer Sean Webster could wipe the floor with Mayer’s airy efforts every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  But it also reflects some guitar playing with real purpose, adding fuel to the song over washes of organ from Hilbrand Bos, and even including a neat little snippet of the melody from Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ as a cherry on top.
The album opens ‘Give Me The Truth’ and ‘Hands Of Time’, both taken from Webster’s last album Leave Your Heart At The Door, and both with the energy to give momentum to the album.  The former has a strong melody, to which Webster brings a typically expressive vocal, augmented by some “woah-oh-oh” harmonising, while an excellent guitar solo builds suspense as it weaves around the melody.  ‘Hand Of Time’ then reinforces the impression that Webster knows how to write a damn fine tune, as the patient, pulsing beat and throbbing guitar on the intro lead towards a hook to be savoured.
‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’ then kicks off a run of four tracks in a similar mode.  And if I have a gripe at this point it’s that four songs on the trot about heartache and pain, ranging from seven to over ten minutes, is a little bit much.  Not that they’re bad in themselves – though I think he has stronger songs in his locker than the last of them, ‘Don’t Feel The Same’ – but for me a shorter, snappier affair in the middle would have been good to cleanse the palate.  Try writing a funky little number about going on holiday with the missus, eh Sean?
But I digress.  ‘Heart Still Bleeds’ is a strong song does have a laid-back intro, and some bright chord sequences, and you might even call the tune jaunty if it wasn’t the backdrop to more emotional turmoil in the lyric.  And there’s no arguing with a guitar solo that soars and changes pace, over shuffling drums, en route to an immaculate, attention-holding ending.  ‘Hear Me Now’, meanwhile, is probably as bluesy as the album gets, with a halting, hesitant
Songs from the dark end of the street
rhythm that echoes the doubts in the mind of the character in the song.  It also displays excellent dynamics as the intensity rises and falls, with a rousing ending on which Webster’s voice rides the mounting tension.  And if I don’t find ‘Don’t Feel The Same’ so interesting melodically, it still has a tasteful, elegiac organ solo from Bos, and a stylish guitar solo built around a repeated motif, before gliding down to a delicate ending.
‘The Mayor’ does bring a shift in mood, a driving affair with a tough riff, that’s kept crisp, and provides a breather before they tackle Keith Urban’s ‘’Til Summer Comes Around’, also previously included on Leave Your Heart At The Door.  It has a loooong intro, that starts quietly then picks up and recedes again, as a precursor to an evocative song with a restrained arrangement that puts Webster’s voice well to the fore as the lyrics paint a vivid, melancholy picture.
They go out in more upbeat fashion, with the funky, high stepping ‘Highway Man’ the set closer, and then the encore of ‘You Got To Know’, which rides along on a swinging beat from drummer Ruud Gielen and walking bass from Floris Poesse, with Webster adding some chiming, funky guitar and a breezy solo, to deliver a satisfying finish.
Mixed and mastered by House Of Tone knob-twiddler Wayne Proctor, a man who knows a bit about soulful grooves, the sound is clear and unfussy, letting the quality of the performance shine through.  Three Nights Live is a treat.  It captures an artist of real substance, with his own distinctive vibe.   If you’re a fan of smouldering, soulful blues, then this is for you. 

Three Nights Live is released on 2 September, and available for pre-order now.