Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Little Steven and The Disciples Of Soul - O2 Academy, Glasgow, 12 November 2017

Onstage is a man who is a walking encyclopedia of scrappy, underdog American pop, a champion of the music of the urban outsiders.  He’s also a singular guitarist and horn arranger.  He’s backed by an 11-piece band, like he means business.  And three backing singers too.
Oh yeah, the backing singers.  Now, I’m not talking about some autopilot mannekins here.  These are the sassiest trio you’re ever likely to come across.  They're wearing violet silk thigh boots, and these ladies ain’t shrinkin’ from nothin’.  To paraphrase a line from The Commitments, “Inspired management, Brother Steven”.
Steve Van Zandt rides the night away
Yes friends, I am talking about Little Steven, aka Steve Van Zandt, here with his Disciples of Soul.  And joking apart, he rightly tells us at one point that those singers are “dancing their asses off”, setting the tone for a night of sweaty R’n’B and soul and rock’n’roll that demands you shake your booty.
The set is based firstly around the material from new album Soulfire, before winding around to some stuff from his Eighties albums, but before getting to any of that Stevie leads them into the fray with a downright perfect rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘Even The Losers’.
‘I’m Coming Back’, originally crafted for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes before re-surfacing on the new album, has a classic Jukes style horn riff, a chorus so great that it seems simply inevitable, and a scything solo from Van Zandt – and is just one example of thunderous drumming from Rich Mercurio.  Mercurio may work with just a small kit, but he is a veritable beast.
Thereafter Stevie punctuates the set with a guided tour of his inspirations.  Highlights include the likes of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, featuring stabbing horns and a wild organ solo from Andy Burton, and ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’, on which he channels “the King of Despair”, David Ruffin, nailing the soul mood and the phrasing.  There’s ‘The City Weeps Tonight’, a eulogy to post-war harmony groups on which the sheer passion of Van Zandt’s singing is apparent.  Then in complete contrast there’s the restless funk of ‘Down And Out In New York City’.  Originally recorded by James Brown for the movie Black Caesar, it features a succession of flute and horn solos, and a crescendo into which Austin Powers-garbed guitarist Marc Ribler casually slips a reference to the riff from ‘Hey Joe’.
The Unshrinking Violets
Along the way there are other delights, like Van Zandt and Ribler ripping into a guitar duel on ‘Angel Eyes’, the irresistible horns on ‘I Saw The Light’ and Stevie uncorking an eyeballs out solo at one point to shake everyone’s booty good and proper.
Down the stretch though, it’s an absolute melting pot of soul and New York punk and even reggae.  At the outset he may have said with a twinkle in his eye that back in the Eighties he felt the need to do music about politics, but now there was no need so tonight would be “a sanctuary from politics”, but there’s no shaking the relevance of songs like ‘Solidarity’, with its haunting mid-section, as well as ‘I Am A Patriot’ and the Latin-inflected, floor-shaking rhythms of ‘Bitter Fruit’.
He throws in a couple of other Southside classics just for fun, with the rifferama of ‘Ride The Night Away’ and the romance of ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’.  But there’s no way the night could end with anything other than ‘Out Of The Darkness’, with the crowd pumping their fists and in full voice.

Some folk say that nostalgia’s not what it used to be.  But when Steve Van Zandt revisits his roots and his repertoire with a two hour show of anthemic soul like this, it doesn’t half take me back to my youth.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wishbone Ash/Steve Hill - The Jam House, Edinburgh, 10 November 2017

Out in the shed I have a box of cassette tapes.  Remember them?  And among them is a C60 of a BBC broadcast of Wishbone Ash playing at the Hammersmith Odeon sometime around 1980, I guess.  That tape got played a lot, back in the day.  Yet somehow – don’t ask me why - I’ve never got round to seeing Wishbone Ash live until now.
Which is a pity, because they’re a band with a classy repertoire built on a unique mix of ingredients, and they absolutely have the skill set to do it justice.  They’ve been a revolving door over the decades of course, but led by Andy Powell on guitar and vocals the latest incarnation are still the real deal.
The signature
Heads down, no nonsense, mindless Renaissance folky prog rock
clean guitar harmonies are there from the opening instrumental, along with some of the folky elements that contribute to their distinctive sound.  They can also power out a good, gutsy riff though, getting the crowd going.  It doesn’t take them long to turn to one of their classics, ‘The King Will Come’, and when they do there’s immediate lift-off, with new guitarist Mark Abrahams contributing a stirring wah-wah solo.
It’s evident on ‘Warrior’ Andy Powell is still in fine fettle vocally, which can’t be said for some of his contemporaries, and his harmonies with bassist Bob Skeat are spot on.  Powell also manages to exude an affable elder statesman charm – without feeling the need to say very much he still makes an obvious connection with the audience.
They turn to acoustic guitars for ‘Throw Down The Sword’, and some more of those distinctive elements come to the fore in the almost courtly, Renaissance feel of some passages – yet they still swing.  They’re proggy, to be sure, but after their own particular fashion.  The following ‘Wings Of Desire’ is a bit more lightweight, but still features some tasteful interleaving of the two guitars.
‘F.U.B.B.’ is a whole other animal, built on a stonking bass groove, with passages of discordant guitar, precise guitar harmonies and a revved up, duelling ending – it’s an iconic instrumental.
They get down to some hard riffing with ‘Standing In The Rain’, with Powell and Skeat getting down in a neatly choreographed fashion.  It’s a good warm-up for them showing their blues roots with ‘Jail Bait’, a second cousin to ‘Roadhouse Blues’ if ever there was one.
Which just leaves time – well, quite a lot of time really – for them to get the crowd into hands aloft mode with the trademark epic ‘Phoenix’, before encoring with a brisk read through of ‘Blowin’ Free’ to end a set that clearly went down a storm with the aficionados.  Now, I wonder what state that C60 cassette is in?
Steve Hill - trapped in the middle of a drum kit
But first a word about support act Steve Hill, who has been doing the rounds with Wishbone Ash throughout this tour.  The Canadian is singular for his efforts in delivering hard-hitting blues rock as a one-man band, managing to play kick drum, hi-hat, cymbal and god knows what else in addition to guitar and vocals.  Now that runs the risk of being seen as a novelty act - except that he somehow packs enough punch to blow away a hell of a lot bands you’ll come across.
‘Damned’ is a Zeppelin-like stomp, and on the following ‘How Can I Go On?’ it’s clear that he relishes the rhythm he manages to build up.  For some light and shade ‘Change Your Mind’ features a howling solo and a neo-classical outro – on album he also demonstrates that he’s a dab hand with intricate acoustic guitar.
‘Rhythm All Over’ absolutely lives up to its title, with a great, ringing, Bad Company style riff, and the following ‘Dangerous’ is yet more rollicking rock’n’roll, and by now a good old chunk of the audience are definitely paying attention.
Hill closes with ‘Something That You Said’, on which he doubles up the tempo and takes an excursion into ZZ Top territory.  What he’s doing with the percussion must be a feat of concentration, unless it’s simply second nature to him after doing it for years, but he still manages to invest it with bags of energy.  He overdoes the outro for me – he could have got another song out there in the time he goes round the block – but the punters lap it up.  And shit, I think he deserves to do what he likes anyway with the effort he puts in.
Steve Hill may not sound anything like Motorhead, but I think Lemmy would applaud his rock’n’roll spirit.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Who I Am - Blues Enthused gets the lowdown on JW-Jones

It’s Friday, and it’s 6pm – at least it is where I am, in Britain.  But JW-Jones is in Ottawa, five hours behind me, when I make the pre-arranged call to catch up with him ahead of his upcoming British tour, which kicks off on 23 November at Worthing Pavilion.  He’s not long back home after six weeks of touring in Canada and the States, but luckily he’s got his time zones straight, and is ready to chat about his latest album, about the recording process, about songwriting, guitar playing, and – well, actually, he seems happy to chat away amiably about anything.

Your new album High Temperature (reviewed here) was produced by Colin Linden, a Canadian like you who’s won Juno Awards, but who is based in Nashville.  What did he particularly bring to the recording of the album?
Well, the whole thing with Colin was getting a real organic approach to it, and an organic sound.  So one thing that was interesting about his process was that he just wanted to go in the room, and just start playing the tunes and kind of see how they developed from there.  So there were no rehearsals or anything like that, we just had a general outline for each tune, and just went in and started playing, and the way it happened is the way it happened. One of the great things about working with him is that he had the right team in there, and aside from that he also pushed me in different directions with the vocals, and trying out different melodies that I wasn’t familiar with, and I thought all that was really, really great.
JW-Jones - "Reach for the sky!"

You recorded the album in Nashville, and sometimes when I hear about people writing and recording in Nashville, the end result – sometimes – can be a bit middle of the road, a bit generic.  But you’ve certainly managed to avoid that - the songs on the album are quite varied in style.  Is that something you were deliberately aiming for?
You know, when I was writing the record the whole goal for me was just to have a really great collection of songs, and not think too much about how many shuffles were on the record, or if every song sounded like, you know, 1955 Chess Records blues.  And just to concentrate on writing songs the way they came out, and that’s why it has a few different flavours in there.  But I think what ties it all together is that it’s all roots music, and, you know, my voice and my guitar playing, so I feel like that’s what, kind of, is the glue to the whole project, plus the band is the same on almost every track too.  So, yeah, I’d say the goal was just to have a great collection of songs, and because they came out sounding a little different than typical blues records, then I think that’s a good thing.

Were you writing with different co-writers on the album?
All of the songs that I contributed to this record were co-written with Dick Cooper of the Cooper Brothers, here in Ottawa.  They had a great touring career in the Seventies, and Dick Cooper is really an incredibly great songwriter.  So I had a lot of these ideas, and some lines and some choruses down, and we got together and he brought the magic to the table, I guess you could say!

The album actually reminds me a little bit of Robben Ford’s album from a couple of years ago, Into The Sun, with that variety in the songwriting.  In fact just before I phoned I dug out a magazine interview with him, where he talked about wanting people to step up to the challenge of songwriting as a craft, and go beyond writing in simple categories like blues or country.  What’s your approach to it?
Well, I haven’t heard his particular record, but now that you mention it I should definitely go and find it.  But I think it’s true that, you know, it’s how you say it, and it’s also – to me it’s a bunch of different things.  There’s the subject matter, because there are only so many ways you can say “my baby left me”, you know?  So you have to find a different way around, you have to find a way that’s – you know, why would she leave you?  Or what happened to her, how can you be blamed for that? You know, take a different approach instead of just pointing the finger.  One of the songs on the record, ‘Same Mistakes’, what I thought was really cool and different about that song is that I was saying “She makes the same mistakes, over and over, and I know ‘cause I’m one of them” – I’m one of the mistakes.

Yeah, it’s a great line . . .
I truly felt that, and that song is a true story, that’s absolutely from the heart.  But what I do is I collect different ideas from lyrics, and subject matter, and song lines and things like that on one side.  And then on the other side I’m always collecting different chord changes, and melodic ideas, and riffs and things like that.  And then I sit down every so often and try to marry them up, and say, you know, what guitar vibe is going to work best with this subject
JW gets his twang 
matter, and what chord changes are going to work best?  And then I put them together, rather than waking up one day and just writing an entire song all from scratch.

This is a bit of a playful question really.  There are country tinges to some of the songs, like ‘Away Too Long’ and ‘Leave Me Out’.  I was reminded of a song by Shemekia Copeland on which she sings “Country music’s just the blues with a twang.”  What’s your take on that?
[Laughs]  Absolutely!  I mean, I’ve heard Jimmie Vaughan say that too, you know.  He said country, blues, rock’n’roll – it’s all the same thing.  It really, really is the same thing.  It’s just, how hard are you hitting the drums, how aggressive are you being with the vocal and the guitar – I mean, you listen to some Western Swing and then some Bebop, and it’s virtually the same thing.  But yeah, the twang thing is interesting too, because that wasn’t really on purpose.  And that’s kind of the direction that a lot of people are talking about with this record, they’re saying “Oh, this album’s got some country twang to it.”  That could well be that I’m into country, and even some of the new country stuff, and it just came out that way.  But you mentioned ‘Away Too Long’, and that to me is a blues shuffle, and it just so happens that it’s got a certain bit of twang to the harmonies with the vocals, and I think that makes it feel a little bit differently.

The song ‘Who I Am’ is a very meaningful story of growing up in challenging circumstances.  Was that autobiographical to some degree?
It’s one hundred per cent autobiographical.  On the last record, Belmont Boulevard, we had Tom Hambridge producing it, and what Tom did for me on that record was he said, “I want you to dig deeper on the songwriting.  I want you to talk about where you come from.”  And no other producer had ever said that to me in those words.  So that in itself challenged me, and I ended up telling him a bit about my story growing up, and he said “Man, we have to write about this.  So we’re going to do that together in the studio.”  And then when I got down there we did it, and man, some of those lines in ‘Cocaine Boy’ made me feel very uncomfortable at first, because they were so real, and so raw.  And I thought, I don’t want people to know how my parents were when I was growing up, and things like that, because I thought it might affect my career negatively.  So I’d been trying to put that aside for so long, that when he influenced me to do that song it made me feel liberated, and it changed everything.  And when that song came out, and people were responding to it, I thought, “Man, this is great.”  So on this record, you mentioned the song ‘Who I Am’, it’s a bit of a continuation of the same trend of saying, “Where did I really come from?”  You know, people get some pretty crazy ideas when they see me in a suit and tie, playing a Fender guitar, they think I came from money or something like that, when it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  So writing a song like that is liberating, and it was special, and I feel good about it now.  And I’m happy about where I am, and I can tell my story.

On the other hand ‘Where Do You Think I Was’ is a really ironic and funny tale of how glamorous people think the life of a touring musician must be.  Was that inspired by a particular individual’s notions of what you get up to, or is it a perception you come across more widely from non-musicians?
Well actually, to be honest, that’s more directed at my ex-girlfriend! [laughs]  There were a few instances where she was kind of accusing me, saying “Why didn’t you call me before you went to sleep?”  Or, “What happened between this hour and this hour?  You disappeared.”  And I used to say, “Where do you think I was?”  And then I came up with all these ridiculous ideas about where do you think I actually was, and then made that song just kind of a tongue in cheek story about all the possibilities.  And we made a music video for that in Las Vegas as well, which was pretty fun, so you should check that out on YouTube.

The guitar work on the album is varied too – you dash off solos in a range of styles, while always retaining your own sound.  And I was just reading some of your bio earlier on, and you’ve worked with some big names in the past – Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, for example, on your album Midnight Memphis Sun.  Who are
JW-Jones and some random guy - oh, wait . . .
your influences when it comes to guitar?
Well, you mentioned Hubert, he’s definitely one of the big influences.  But I’d say my list is probably like many you’ve heard, you know - BB King, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Albert King.  A big one for me are some of the younger generation compared to those guys, like Jimmie Vaughan, and Anson Funderburgh, Little Charlie Baty, Junior Watson, Rick Holmstrom.  I mean all of these guys bring different sounds.  I mean, you think about the difference between Little Charlie and  Anson Funderburgh, or the difference between Junior Watson and someone like Rick Holmstrom, they all sound completely different, and have totally different styles, and I drew from all of them, in different ways, and for different reasons.  But I love them all so much, and I just wouldn’t be the player that I am today without having studied all of those guys.

It’s interesting you talking about the variations in style between quite a few people, because the blues is often described as quite a simple framework – that might be part of its charm I suppose.  But it’s also quite narrow, in a sense.  What do you do to try and explore ways of keeping your playing fresh?
Well, whenever I think about blues guitar – I teach blues guitar at home, when I’m not out on tour – one of the things I always come back to is: learn the rules – meaning, study the masters - and then break them.  Meaning, if you want to start adding effects, and playing faster, and listening to guys like Joe Bonamassa, that’s great, but you’ve got to learn where all this came from to begin with.  Because if you do that, that itself is a lifelong process.  You will never get through all of Lightning Hopkins, Eddie Taylor, and then all the Kings and all those guys – you’ll just never get through it.  So if you keep listening, and you keep picking up on the little tiny subtleties then you’ll realise how your playing can immediately sound different from what’s already out there.  And that’s something that’s really important to me, is that people recognise what I’m doing is coming from a deeper source, and it’s not just learning scales and running through them like so many blues rock players do these days.

You worked with quite a few session musicians on this album.  Did they bring
"Hang on - are we recording this?"
anything in particular to the approach?  You talked about the way that you approached it with Colin Linden was “Let’s just play the songs”.  So had you even met these guys before you went in the studio?
No, we met that day. [Laughs]  That’s the kind of crazy thing about Nashville, and going down there, is that they’re hired guns, right?  They’re there to play, and as soon as they arrive the producer generally hands out some framework for each song, and it’s written in what they call the ‘Nashville number system’ – so that’s where you get the terms ‘one – four – five’ and stuff like that.  So everyone’s got their forms, and then Colin will pick up an acoustic guitar, and just strum through it and say, “So we’re going for this,” and you can try this and you can try that.  But for the most part we just went in and sat down, and started playing.  And you know, one of the funny things about doing it that way is, on the opening track ‘Price You Pay’, what you’re hearing there, the very first thing you hear on the album, is – we all just start playing, and I didn’t even have my guitar picked up yet.  So Colin plays that first little riff with his guitar, and then all of a sudden the piano comes in and does a little tinkle thing, then all of a sudden there’s a shaker, and then you hear the bass does a riff, and then I play a riff on the lead guitar, and then Colin just keeps playing the rhythm – and I didn’t even know we were recording yet!  I literally thought, “Okay, this is the run through,” and then as they kept going and didn’t stop, I looked around and I realised, “I’m the only one here that doesn’t know we’re recording – I guess I’d better start paying attention!”  [Laughs]  And that became the final take - it was incredible.

So, really organic, and they’re presumably hearing this from their own perspective.  Does that trigger the development of the song, or is it really just a couple of takes and bang?
Well, there was no time to develop the songs.  I don’t mean that we didn’t have time to do it, I just mean that we didn’t need the time.  Because like you say, each player comes with their own approach, and then when they start playing then they’re bringing what they instinctually feel is the best thing to do.  So, they’re in that room for a reason, and they’re in that room because someone trusts them and because they’re great.  And there’s nothing that any of those guys did where I thought, “Er, I don’t know about that, we’d better re-do that”, or change the approach completely.  Just everything they did was just the right thing to do at the time.  It was a beautiful thing – I loved working in that way.  I did have my touring band on three of the songs as well, so that brought a different energy to ‘Wham’, ‘High Temperature’, and ‘Midnight Blues’ – that was my touring band, with Laura Greenberg on bass, and they sounded great because we play those songs every night.

As you say, you tour as a trio.  How much of a challenge is it to adapt the songs for a trio format?
Well that’s a really great question, because they’re never going to sound as large as they do on the record.  So whatever they lack in terms of instrumentation, in terms of having a Hammond organ, and a piano and a rhythm guitar, and all that good stuff, we just have to make up for in enthusiasm and energy!  So what happens a lot of the time is the songs end
JW-Jones and band get cheesy
up being a few beats per minute faster, because we need to fill in a bit more space, you know.  But we also take comfort in the differences, so I think it’s a cool thing, and people love them live from what we can gather, so that’s a good thing – and it sure saves to not have to have a five or six piece band on tour.

You’ve got 18 dates coming up in Britain, and I think you’ve only got one day off.  Is that a tough schedule, or is the travel less of a challenge than touring in Canada and the States?
Well, I try to book things that way anywhere I go, because my theory is that there will always be off nights, so if you approach the booking like you don’t want any off nights then it’s still going to happen anyway.  So you just take the holes where you get them, and that’s the end of it.  But with this UK tour - you know it’s so expensive being on tour, and I’m personally investing an absolute ton of money to do this tour, with publicity, and renting venues, and the vehicle, and you know, all the accommodation and stuff – that I’m really taking a bigger risk on this tour than I ever have in my entire career, in any market.  So my goal is just to get over there, work hard, play every single night, sell as many tickets well in advance as possible, and get the word out as much as possible.  And it turns out that that day off you mentioned has been filled now, at the Cock Inn in Leek, on December the 4th, and that’ll be on the updated tour poster soon.  And yeah, we just look forward to working hard and trying to develop a name there, because if this tour goes well we can keep coming back, and if this tour does not go well then it’s going to make it pretty much impossible to try to keep coming back there.

Last question.  What does the JW stand for – or is it a closely guarded secret?
[Laughs]  It’s fairly closely guarded – no, I’m just kidding!  My full name is Josh Wynne-Jones – a nice Welsh name there for you.  But everyone calls me JW, and that’s just been the way it’s gone for the last couple of decades or so.


So now you know, folks, why his album covers say JW-Jones – he’s a hyphenated Welsh Canadian.  So you could say JW’s coming home with his forthcoming tour.  It’s not the first venture he’s made to these shores, and hopefully it won’t be the last.  Get out there and see him rip it up with his brand of blues, complete with rootsy, adventurous guitar playing.

You can find full details of JW-Jones' UK tour here.