Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars

I really wasn’t sure what I was going to think of Western Stars.  Not, I imagine, that many fellow Springsteen fans will give a shit what I think.  But for myself, y’know – when an artist you admire releases a new album, and you’ve got your fingers crossed that you’re going to find it worthy of at least a few plays, it still matters.  And the things I’d been hearing before it came out – chat about a Californian vibe, orchestral arrangements, and some YouTube tracks that seemed distinctly laid back – didn’t exactly give me high hopes.
Like, as Cilla Black might have sung, what’s it all about Brucie?
Well, having given the album a damn good listening to, here’s a few thoughts.
Numero uno.  Western Stars is one of the more thematically coherent Springsteen albums of this millennium.
"Damn - think I've locked myself out."
Numero due.  (I’m writing this in Italy, so humour me eh?) Bruce is up to his old tricks again, easing the listener into some pretty bleak stories by way of disarming music. Not his patented rock’n’roll sound to be sure, as with the likes of ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Dancing In the Dark’ in days gone by.  But still, the mix of words and music here is bitter-sweet.
Numero tre.  Bruce is acting his age.  The guy is 70 years old this September.  Do we really expect him to be making love in the dirt with Crazy Janey? It would be a bit – undignified, wouldn’t it?
So what we have here, in various guises, are songs about some old geezers with regrets.  A couple of them, like ‘Western Stars’ and ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’, seem to present characters from the movie world – marginal guys whose heyday is long gone.  The former is the tale of a one-time horse opera actor, with a narrative and a melody that sound like they’ve escaped fromNebraska– but with a very different, less claustrophobic arrangement.  The latter sounds like the guy from ‘Racing In The Street’, older and even more care-worn, reflecting on where he started from – “At nineteen I was the king of the dirt down at the Remington draw” - and where he’s ended up, after a long past fling with a girl in a B-Movie, “trying to get the pieces to fit”.
The opening couple of tracks sound innocent enough though, don’t they?  ‘Hitch Hikin’’ starts off with dreamy acoustic strumming before developing a gorgeous string theme, to accompany the perspective of a guy who seems happy to drift mentally as well as physically, chilled out as the landscape and miles wash over him.  Where’s he coming from though – and why?  And ‘The Wayfarer’ follows in a similar lyrical vein, with an orchestral arrangement that suggests wide open spaces in a dialled down Aaron Copland style – which then flows over into the following ‘Tucson Train’, which sounds like it’s recycling a melody from, I dunno, ‘Lonesome Day’ maybe, as the backdrop to stronger hints of lyrical bleakness.  Sure, the guy is waiting for his baby to arrive off the train.  But he’s waiting for her after having run out on her in the past, because he had to get his own shit together through the dignity of labour.  And you know what?  We never learn whether she gets off the goddamn train.
"Where did Patti say to pick her up again?"
And that sets the tone for a host of tracks featuring refugees from relationships that somehow, sometime in the past, enigmatically went wrong.  Musically, meanwhile, it’s no surprise to find that Bruce cited Jimmy Webb as an influence – writer of the likes of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ for Glen Campbell – when you hear stuff like ‘Sundown’ and (funnily enough) ‘Hello Sunshine’, the latter a song about loneliness and a wish that the sunshine wouldn't go.
‘Sundown’ conjures up the first hint of a most un-Boss like crooning vocal, to go with some ultra-sophisticated harmonies and lush strings, and this reaches its apogee on ‘There Goes My Miracle’, on which Bruce produces a full on, and very convincing, Tony Bennett-style vocal performance.  At first blush it sounds utterly romantic, a love song.  But the sting that shouldn’t be ignored is that the object of the narrator’s affections is walking away.  This is not, I think, the celebration of an enduring relationship.  The song ends with the phrase “Sunrise, sundown.” Things come, things go.
The album ends with ‘Moonlight Motel’.  And the veritable horde of string, woodwind and horn players required on other tracks ain’t needed here.  It’s spare and lovely, as another aging loner visits a once-romantic scene that’s now dilapidated and deserted.  He could be the guy who lit out with the girl in ‘Thunder Road’, now feeling like another of the ghosts of the boys she sent away.
What’s it all about, Brucie? The guy has always had a compunction to hit the road, to follow those white lines in his head, like the Wayfarer. And I’d hazard a guess that some of this material reflects his struggle with depression, which he explored at length in his recent autobiography.  But all these songs about mysteriously broken relationships don’t sound like him pondering married life with Patti Scialfa, who gets a pointed credit for her contribution to the vocal arrangements here.  Are there some other ghosts he’s trying to purge?
Whatever, there’s one song that doesn’t fit the template, and it’s the most accessible track on the album. With a skipping rhythm, and cajun-style accordion courtesy of Chuck Giordano, ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’ sounds like the cheerful kinda joint that the couple in ‘The River’ might frequent of a weekend, once the kids are all grown up and have flown the coop. It’s a song you hear and immediately think – tune!
Western Stars isn’t an album I’m likely to play to death. But it sure as hell demonstrates that Bruce Springsteen has an artistic brain that’s still got some mileage in it, down those highways of the American experience.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul - Alcatraz, Milan, 13 June 2019

Whisper it, but while the Boss may still be the Boss, it’s his consigliere Steve Van Zandt who’s delivering the more vibrant musical experience these days.  This is the third time I’ve seen Little Steven and Co over the last couple of years, and each time the result has been the same – an uplifting spiritual victory for Stevie’s patented soul revue extravaganza.
Partly this is a matter of location.  While nowadays Bruce chooses to contend with the compromises born of performing in stadia, Van Zandt is able to play in venues on a human scale, where the music can envelop the audience and more easily create an emotional connection. God knows what the economics are of a 15-piece band playing internationally to crowds of around 2-3,000, but whether the gig is in Glasgow’s O2 Academy or Milan’s Alcatraz, artistically it works like a dream.
Little Steven and the gang - no Monochrome Set here!
This time around of course, the show is based around the Disciples’ new album Summer Of Sorcery, and by that I mean all of it, not just the token couple of tracks your typical heritage act might venture.
Steve Van Zandt, y’see, isn’t just a great assimilator, synthesiser and regurgitator of all that is great in American rock’n’roll.  He is a man with a vision.  And that vision is to reawaken in his audience the cultural memory of the heady, youthful innocence and optimism of classic rock’n’roll, soul, pop - whatever you want to call it - but seasoned with awareness of the real world stuff that still needs to be confronted.  As the lyrics of ‘Summer Of Sorcery’ itself put it, “I want to get lost in your festival of unlimited possibilities, I want to be transformed by your summer of sorcery.” And by the time he’s singing this, near the end of the show, you can bet your sweet ass that the audience want the same thing.
It really don’t matter which songs you pick, they’re all pulling in the same direction.  Maybe it’s the swoon-worthy Detroit soul melody of ‘Love Again’, one of the highlights of the new album, with which Van Zandt tells the audience they’re “about to be transported to summer”.
(Not a difficult proposition in sun-drenched Italy, it has to be said.)  Maybe it’s the pseudo-harpsichord intro from Lowell “Banana” Levinger, leading to the great slab of a riff that ushers in the horn-heavy ‘I Visit The Blues’, which he introduces with a spiel about there not being any Beach Boys and so no summer (“Gabeesh?”) without the guy who discovered California - said guy, he bizarrely suggests, being Sir Francis Drake.  Maybe it’s his Eighties belter ‘Los Desparicidos’, featuring a scything guitar intro from Marc Ribler, a heap of arm-flailing supplication from the girls on backing vox, and tour de force Latino percussion from Anthony Almonte. Maybe it’s ‘Party Mambo’, with its pointed reference to Puerto Rico being deserted in its hour of need, with its horn contest at stage front and the girls going heavy on maracas.
Sha-la-la - with added arm-flailing supplication
You get the picture? Alcatraz may be little more than a big shed, but the Disciples Of Soul turn it into the house party you always dreamed of.
And you know what? You don’t even really need the visuals. Sure, there’s the day-glo backdrop. There’s ivory tinkler Andy Burton out front soloing on one of those keyboard-pretending-to-be-a-guitar contraptions with freaky all black keys.  There’s the three girls with wild, wild hair taking very, very seriously their contractual responsibility to go certifiably fucking nuts on a regular basis. But none of that matters.  Because you could close your eyes and still be immersed in a mythical soundtrack of mid-Sixties America, on some crappy radio in your bedroom, that in reality you probably never experienced at the time.  This, friends, is indeed a form of musical alchemy.
And by the way, those girls aren’t just eye candy.  You want Motown sha-la-las, Vandellas-like shoop-shoops, or Etta James like solo contributions?  Jessica Wagner, Sara Devine and Tania Jones got ‘em for ya.  Gabeesh??
There’s a great triplet of Van Zandt/Springsteen tunes “to express gratitood to Southside Johnny,” and “to keep the royalties comin’ in for Bruce, ‘cause he needs ‘em”, including the magnificent funky soul of ‘Trapped Again’, with another great solo from Van Zandt’s very own consigliere Ribler.  But ‘Love On The Wrong Side Of Town’ is something else, with the crowd singing along to its Searchers-like riff, its Ronette-esque backing vocals and sax solo combining to encapsulate all of the Phil Spector soul you ever imagined. And after it finishes
Just how cool is that guitar?
an ongoing crowd singalong prompts Van Zandt to start strumming his guitar again, and lead the band in what might even be an improvised extra turn around the block. (Though I’m betting it takes a lot of rehearsal to look this spontaneous.)
Steve introduces ‘I Am A Patriot’ with commentary about the universal language of politics being bullshit, and about false dichotomies suggesting you can’t be both a patriot and global citizen.  But just as relevant is the wild rock’n’roll of ‘Superfly Terraplane’, with the girls dancing fit to bust as he sings that “you can stick your Second Amendment up your ass”, in addition to getting down big time on lead guitar – something he should do more of, in my view.
By the time they get to the dance-percussion workout of ‘Bitter Fruit’, the Disciples Of Soul have become a demolition crew smashing your inhibitions, and happiness is defined as dancing the night away at a Little Steven gig with your, er, baby.
And so it goes down the stretch, through a wild ‘Soul Power Twist’, the call to arms of ‘Sun City’, and the anthemic ‘Out Of The Darkness’, until they’re gone and we’re all drifting away.
And then, at the risk of over-sharing, I’m washing my hands in the Gents when I hear a cheer, and then a guitar chord.  Meanwhile, back in the hall, my other half is taking a pic of a trio of gleeful guys with their backs to the stage, when she points over their shoulders as she sees the band reappear.  And I’m scurrying back towards the stage along with half the audience, as the Disciples Of Soul break into ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’.  And we all try to reach up and touch the sky . . .

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - The Traveler

I wasn’t following blues music when Kenny Wayne Shepherd first appeared on the scene.  I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.  And on my limited acquaintance with him in recent years he’s never really bowled me over.  So what to make, then, of his latest album The Traveler?
Well, on the strength of the opening three tracks I was pretty encouraged.  ‘Woman Like You’ may not be the most of original of songs, but it has a stomping drumbeat, a gutsy riff, and Shepherd contributes the kind of fiery guitar solo that might justify his reputation.  ‘Long Time Running’ follows that up even more strongly.  It’s even more powerful that its precursor, with revving rhythm guitar, and horns flaring to provide extra raunch. Shepherd
chucks in an array of urgent guitar licks, and his solos sound not just like he’s got a tiger in his tank, but that he’s having fun into the bargain.  ‘I Want You’ consolidates this promising opening with a suitably hip-grinding riff and a bluesy feel, buttressed by more horns and flashes of organ.  With a couple of solos from Shepherd that are varied in pace and show good use of tension and release, and a bright organ solo as a bonus, things are looking good.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd - we all alright
However.  Much as I’m impressed by what I’m hearing up to this point, I’m not keen on Noah Hunt’s voice.  Shepherd has been working with Hunt since 1996, so clearly believes in him. But for me, Hunt suffers from an unusual problem – his vocals are too good.  I know, this sounds crazy.  But his singing is too neat, too clean, too faultless, too lacking in personality to make a real impression.  Rather than putting any kind of stamp on the material, his voice just slides off me, so that as much as I find ‘Woman Like You’ entertaining, I’m left to note that his voice sounds like just another middle-of-the-road country rocker.
Interestingly, Shepherd has said that for this album he took on lead vocal duties more often – but the album credits don’t specify on which tracks.  I’d hazard a guess at three of them though, one of them being the aforementioned ‘I Want You’, and if his efforts aren’t as technically flawless as Hunt’s, they have the advantage of displaying a bit more character.
And then I have another problem.  After this bright start, the album collapses like a soufflé in the face of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’, which are awful modern-day country rock efforts.  I don’t have a problem with country music per se, far from it. But ‘Tailwind’ is soggy, run of the mill country that’s not remotely original.  Striving to be deep and meaningful, it deploys acoustic strumming and harmonies to no effect.  ‘Gravity’ is slightly better, but not much.  With a pedestrian “Oh-woah-oh” vocal line and clichéd lyrics, its saving grace is another decent solo.  The same is true of ‘Take It On Home’, later on, a slice of common or garden country rock, or southern rock without the wit perhaps, despite swelling organ and another decent solo.
‘Better With Time’ may be in a similar vein, but it’s better put together, with (I think) Shepherd on vocals, a soulful horn riff, and a neat coda.  Stronger still is ‘We All Alright’, with its stabbing, spiky riff, and big fuzzy chords over a rolling drum beat, a busy guitar solo and an appealing little piano outro – which at least manages to create some fresh momentum after the feebleness of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’.
Two covers are included – Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’, and Joe Walsh’s ‘Turn To Stone’.  It makes for an instructive comparison, as both of them are thoroughbred songs, with guts and originality.  On the former horns chug out the emphatic riff, urged on by surging organ, it sounds like it’s Shepherd who brings conviction to the vocal, and there’s an accelerating ending with racing guitar to round things off nicely.  The Walsh hit is given a muscular reading, with its tough but controlled riff and good hook, but the vocals don’t have the striking, individual quality that Walsh brought to the party.  Still, there’s a nice, piano-led bridge, with KWS tickling his guitar in the margins, before getting into a big solo that has real vitality and even drama.
All in all The Traveler is a decent album that certainly shows off Shepherd’s guitar chops.  It’s even good enough to encourage me to play fair by Shepherd, and go in search some of Shepherd’s older stuff to try and understand how he’s got to where he is now. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Samantha Fish - Q-Factory, Amsterdam, 23 May 2019

It’s 11.45pm, Samantha Fish has been offstage for about an hour, and she’s just finishing up the last few selfies and signatures for a throng of fans at the merch stand.  So ends the latest gig in a European tour on which the buzz is reaching new decibel levels.
The Q-Factory is a modern complex of rehearsal rooms, music shop, café, two concert halls and god knows what else.  Fish and her band take the stage in front of a near capacity audience of 650, and kick into ‘Wild Heart’. It’s a big square box of a room this, and where
All-out hoedown!
I’m standing down the front the sound seems heavy on the bottom, but they cut through it by rocking the house with a set that’s big on raunch.
Twin peaks early on are once again the energy rush of ‘You Can’t Go’ and, even better, ‘Little Baby’.  The latter is in a whole different league tonight, with Samantha going all Dick Dale on the intro, and Phil Breen bashing out honesty tonk piano en route to an all-out hoedown, with Fish delivering a screaming, bottom-of-the-neck solo, and Chris Alexander going nuts on bass, turning it into one of those musical moments that makes you want to laugh out loud with pleasure.
Those two tunes bracket the new ones ‘Love Letters’ and ‘Watch It Die’, and a super slinky ‘Chills And Fever’.  Standing in front of Phil Breen’s keyboards, it’s easier to pick up on the subtle guitar/keys harmonies in the former, while the latter is an exercise in light and shade – and both feature fierce solos from Samantha, though not at the vertiginous heights of the monster to follow in ‘Little Baby’ (if you can have vertiginous heights in the Netherlands).
“By the way, I’m super-American and don’t speak any Dutch,” says Fish to amused laughter – given that Dutch is a super-hard language to learn, and they almost all speak English anyway, sometimes switching mid-sentence.  They whack into ‘Cowtown’, and the manner of her SG playing indicates that its country undertones are by way of the Stones, while Phil Breen gets on with a bout of headshaking as he gives it plenty on keys ahead of a brief singalong.

A full-on, rocking-out reading of ‘Highway’s Holding Me Now’, and ‘Gone For Good’, bracket the aching acoustic country of ‘Need You More’.  Tonight Fish opts for her Delaney semi-acoustic on ‘Gone For Good’, giving it a warmer tone, while Scotty Graves gives his snare drum a serious workout to drive the song along.
Sam takes a gulp of water before delivering her Lulu-like “Weeeeeee-yeeaah-yeeah-eaahulll” vocal intro to ‘Somebody’s Always Trying’, leading to a swirling mid-section, a moody pedal board exploration on her knees, and then an unhurried crescendo that takes her into agony-and-ecstasy guitar goddess territory.
They close tonight with  ‘Shake ‘Em Down’, a cigar box stomp full of grinding, screaming slide, before coming back for ‘Bitch On The Run’, with Fish working the crowd like a good ‘un on the call and response section, leading up to a wild, pounding conclusion.  And thence to that merch stall, and a crowd of happy punters ready to give their endorsement.
Some of the PR bumf around Samantha Fish talks about her genre-bending tendencies,
Curse Of Lono - bloody civilised
and the same is true in a different way of alt.all-sorts-of-roots music London-based support band Curse Of Lono. Which may make them sound kooky, but they’re not.
‘Blackout Fever’ is a chug-along opener, but subsequent songs are particularly enlivened by a range of tasteful guitar work from Joe Hazell.  The Doorsy vibe of ‘London Rain’ is garnished by a succession of sparky licks, while ‘Way To Mars’ features spangly guitar complemented by high-end piano chords from Dani.  Then on ‘No Trouble’ he delivers a solo that reminds me, I think, of what Hugh Burns brought to Gerry Rafferty’s records in the 70s and 80s.  And so on, and so on, to good effect.
But they’re good songs too.  ‘Send For The Whisky’, I’ve decided on repeated acquaintance, reminds me of that line in ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ about “Freedom’s just another word for – nothin’ else to do”.  Meanwhile their rendition of Tom Waits’ ‘Going Out West’ develops a brooding groove you could swim in like a dark river at night, and the closing ‘Valentine’ is bloody and menacing, but still civilised, like an Orwellian English murder.  And all this with smiles on their faces that belie the darkness of the material. Clearly they enjoy doing it – see what you make of them next time they’re in your neck of the woods.

Samantha Fish setlist
Wild Heart
Love Letters
Watch It Die
Chills And Fever
Little Baby
Blood In The Water
Need You More
Gone For Good
Somebody's Always Trying
Shake 'Em Down
Bitch On The Run

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Grady Champion - Steppin' In

Very well done, Grady Champion – as in, a good job well done, and also a pat on the back. Because Steppin’ In is a thoroughly enjoyable album.
It’s also billed as a tribute to ZZ Hill, the Texas bluesman who died in 1984 at the age of 48, due to complications following a car crash.  Hill is regarded in some quarters at least as having given the blues a shot in the arm by blending the blues with more modern soul stylings.  To be honest, I knew next to nothing about him before this album came my way, so I couldn’t say if that’s true.  But it makes listening to Steppin’ In a slightly odd experience, because I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I’m actually listening to Grady Champion in
Grady Champion - justifiably happy in his work
2019, and not ZZ Hill c.1980 – recorded in the same Malaco Studios in Jackson, MS where Hill did much of his work.
Either way, what you get here is a collection of archetypal blues stories – the guy having a day where if it can go wrong it does (‘When It Rains It Pours’), double entendre-laden occupations (‘Shade Tree Mechanic’), self-assertiveness (‘I’m A Bluesman’), and the guy whose woman is giving it away to the neighbourhood (‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’) – delivered with a modern sheen but with a nod to Hill’s own influences such as BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.
Opener ‘Down Home Blues’ sets the tone, with a laid back groove, a classic bluesy melody, and a straight ahead guitar solo from Will Wesley.  Think of Little Steven’s version of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, then imagine a stripped back, cooled off tune that’s about kicking back when business is done, and you get the picture.  There’s not a lot to it, when you get down to it – and none of the horns that decorate subsequent tracks – but it works just fine.
Champion’s voice appears to be a reasonable emulation of Hill’s - from a quick exploration on YouTube - a soulful, bluesy growl that’s well suited to the leering lasciviousness of ‘Bump And Grind’, which does exactly what it says on the tin.  But he can still bend it to smoother soul space on the likes of ‘Cheating In The Next Room’ and ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go’, which both offer a nod to the likes of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, the former displaying some tasteful piano and organ from Sam Brady, as well as some crooning horns.  The horns go on to provide some vibrant punctuation across the album, notably on ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’, where they follow a very BB King guitar intro from special guest Eddie Cotton, who proceeds to pepper the track with single-note guitar licks.
‘I’m A Bluesman’ – not the BB King song, it should be noted – offers variety in the form of a declamatory statement of intent, like a less spiky take on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, fitted to a great bass line from Frederick Demby Sr that’s shadowed by the horns. And Denise Lasalle’s ‘Someone Else Is Steppin’ In’ is a funky groove that makes good use of female back vocals and the horns as the main man shifts from victim to swaggering his way out the other side.
Contrary to what the album cover suggests, Champion doesn’t play guitar on this outing.  He provides the on-the-money soul-infused vocals though, and some harp.  But most importantly, as producer he’s succeeded in creating a warm and rich sound that captures the soulful vibe.  Like I said, well done.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Stray Cats - 40

NOW we’re talking!
I remember when the Stray Cats first burst onto the scene back in 1979, hurtling out of nowhere with youthful, swaggering braggadocio, all quiffs and tattoos and throwing off sparks like a Catherine Wheel.  And now here we are 40 years later, they’re back with a new album, and it’s like they’ve never been away.  Once again resistance is useless – prepare to be pulverised, people.
Stray Cats - the rock'n'roll insanity resumes
Pic by Suzie Kaplan
‘Cat Fight (Over A Dog Like Me)’ crashes out of the speakers with a blast of Brian Setzer’s rock’n’rolling guitar, then gets swept along on a tide of clattering snare drum from Slim Jim Phantom and runaway stand-up bass from Lee Rocker, telling a typically daft lyrical tale to the accompaniment of spiky chords from Setzer and culminating in an ever-so-Chuck-Berry solo.  It’s only track 1, and I’m breathless.
Across 12 tracks in just 35 minutes, like days of yore, the Stray Cats are plugged into a high voltage rock’n’roll generator, and have a direct line open to the greats of their musical ancestry.  ‘Cry Danger’ is built around a ‘Daytripper’-ish riff, and has “HIT” written all over it.  Setting the apocalyptic scene with an atmospheric verse that builds to the lines “The ground is shaking underneath, I’m too close to the edge,” it then ignites a dayglo Sixties party vibe to rival the B-52s’ ‘Love Shack’.  And they follow that up with ‘I Attract Trouble’, sucking you into a Link Wray-like vortex that emerges into an infernally catchy, two-part undulating chorus, illuminated by some very Dick Dale scudding twangery from Setzer.
A bit later they conjure up another stone-cold killer with ‘That’s Messed Up’, kicking off with a strutting riff that Mick Green might have cooked up for The Pirates, and adding some Jerry Lee Lewis-style shivering vocal into the mix, en route to a scrabbling solo from Setzer.  ‘When Nothing’s Going Right’ then picks up the baton with a riff like a gunning engine on a Mustang, added handclaps for a lark, and another explosive solo.
They cool things off a bit with ‘Desperado’, which is a descendant of the Shadows’ ‘Apache’ melding into some more Dick Dale-ery on guitar, before they bust into a high tempo country-ish shuffle, all tumbling guitar lines, on ‘Mean Pickin’ Mama’ – or as it should really be titled, ‘Meeeeaaaann Pickin’ Mama’.
Sure, there are a few tracks that don’t hit the heights of some of the above, but they still have enough wattage to light up Piccadilly Circus, from the jangling guitar and rasping vocal on the chugging ‘Rock It Off’, to the twiddly guitar breaks tossed hither and yon on ‘I’ve Got Love If You Want It’, and more besides.  And they finish strongly with the punk-ish refrain and chanted backing vox on ‘I’ll Be Looking Out For You’, with its plunging riff that crunches to an emergency stop, and the closing ‘Devil Train’ – the bastard offspring of ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’, with ripping chords and crashing cymbals.
Get this album.  Turn the sucker UP!  And party like it’s 1979, people!

40 is released by Mascot Label Group on 24 May.
You can find a 'Flashback' recollection of Stray Cats playing live in 1981 here.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Jimmie Vaughan - Baby Please Come Home

Time for me to take a deep breath, because I reckon I’m going to be in a minority of one with what I’m about to say.  I find this resolutely retro new album from the iconic Jimmie Vaughan . . . uneven.
Let’s start by accentuating the positive.  Jimmie Vaughan is a great singer.  This is particularly apparent on a couple of tracks falling in the middle of the album, T-Bone Walker’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’, and the following ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)’.  The first is a dreamy ballad on which Vaughan delivers the vocal beautifully, over nothing more than drums’n’bass for a spell, until they’re joined by swells of horns, touches of organ,
Jimmie Vaughan - dig those shoes!
and some trills of jazzy piano.  It’s a delight.  And his phrasing really lifts the last verse of ‘It’s Love Baby’.
The album starts off in scintillating fashion with ‘Baby Please Come Home’ itself, swinging like a trapeze, with a bouncing bass line courtesy of Ronnie James, a good sax solo, and Vaughan’s guitar solo playing off the melody in nifty fashion.
On the whole though, I find the second half of the album stronger than the first.  One of the reasons for this is that some of the early tracks lean heavily on horn riffs that seem a bit tame to these ears.  And bearing in mind that Vaughan made his name as a rhythm guitarist, there are times when I’m asking myself whether he’s even playing rhythm guitar.  Is it buried in the mix, or is he leaving it to the horns to do the rhythm job? Either way, it contributes to a shortage of grit in places.
All the same, there’s a cool groove on ‘Be My Lovey Dovey’, with female backing vocals and handclaps, and ‘What’s Your Name?’ gets up a bit of head of steam as it progresses.  And things liven up a bit more on the instrumental ‘Hold It’, where Vaughan’s guitar sound is warmer and Mike Flanigin’s organ comes to the fore.
Fats Domino’s ‘So Glad’ really has a bit more of a tiger in its tank though, with the horns a bit tougher, more snap in the drums, and Vaughan rousing himself vocally as well as delivering a stinging solo.  That higher oomph quotient is also apparent in Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s ‘Midnight Hour’, with some nice ripples of piano that could have been higher in the mix.
Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, What’s Wrong’ is better still, in a back to basics manner.  With the horns absent, Vaughan’s rhythm guitar is audibly present on the ‘Got My Mojo Working’-style riff, though occasionally threatening to be overtaken by Flanigin’s organ, and there’s plenty of zip in his solo too. The fact that it’s a live cut may be something to do with the fresher approach, and the same is true of the two bonus tracks, ‘Silly Dilly Woman’ and the Flanigin-penned instrumental ‘Exact Change’.  All the same, while I love the sound of a Hammond B3 organ, and Flanigin is known as a prime exponent, across the album it seems to be set up with too much of an old-fashioned, Wurlitzer sound to suit my tastes.
Baby Please Come Home is the proverbial curate’s egg of an album - absolutely of the standard you’d expect from Jimmie Vaughan in parts, and curiously flat in others.  Maybe he and I aren’t on quite the same blues wavelength.  Whatever, I don’t imagine my bemusement will affect his iconic status one iota.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Rockin' Johnny & Quiqué Gomez - Dos Hombres Wanted

I seem to be having a couple of weeks where new albums reach my ears that show old-fashioned R’n’B is alive and well.  This time it’s San Francisco-based guitarist and vocalist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and his harp-playing Spanish compadre Quiqué Gomez supplying the goods.
Dos Hombres Wanted announces itself with ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You’, a helping of bopping R’n’B penned by Burgin on which he delivers the vocals and also zinging guitar work, while Gomez adds harp licks aplenty over an easy beat and bobbing bass from Eric Przygocki, and ivories tinkle in the background courtesy of Christian Dozzler.  And it has to be said, they make this stuff sound easy.
Arrest those men!
‘Take It Like It Is (What I Gotta Do)’ features Gomez on vocals.  He has a bit of a groaning style, with the slightest of Spanish inflections, but he understands how to deliver the lyric to good effect, while Burgin offers up a solo that starts off stuttering and reined in, before shifting to a more waspish gear, in contrast to Gomez’s plaintive harp.
There are a couple of nifty instances of that classic blues theme of the knockout babe who’s devoted to her man, in ‘You Can’t Steal My Sugar’ and ‘Everybody Loves My Baby’.  The first rocks along urgently, with rollicking piano from Dozzler and a rattling rhythm from drummer Stephen Dougherty, while the second is an unhurried, steady groove, featuring subtle guitar with bags of twang from Burgin.
The flip side of those lyrical sentiments appears on the slow and mournful ‘Coffee Can Blues’, a tale of heartbreak on which Gomez moans away on harmonica throughout, and Burgin contributes a pinging, ringing solo, over simple, dragging bass lines from Przygocki.
A particular highlight is ‘Ain’t No High Roller’, a steady rumble of a track with squalls of harp and swirls of accordion from Dozzler in the background.  With reined in surges of guitar from Burgin, and an insistent bass line, it has an on-the-money feel.  ‘Step It Up Bro’ also scores heavily, with some shouted backing vocals on the chorus, the accordion pulled into the foreground, and woozy bursts of trombone from Farris Jarrah.  The overall effect is a swinging, jazzy feel reminiscent of Sean Costello, underlined by some dreamy guitar tones from Burgin.
Robert Lockwood’s ‘Funny But True’ heads for Tom Waits-style late night lounge territory, and though it never has Waits’ edge or poetry it’s still a pleasingly minimalist affair, with twinkling guitar and piano.  More fun, perhaps, is Tampa Red’s ‘Don’t Blame Shorty’, which is laid back and easy with a liberal helping of harp from Gomez.
At 14 tracks the album feels overlong, with a couple too many common-or-garden slow or mid-paced offerings.  There’s some variety in the slow but atmospheric ‘The Jinx’, the vocals apparently delivered through a bullet mic over a steady, nagging beat and restrained guitar chords, and ‘Are You Ever’ is upbeat and shuffling, with a squealing harp solo and some stinging, brittle-toned guitar from Burgin.
I might have liked a tad more raunch here and there, a bit more hair let down.  But on the whole Dos Hombres Wanted shows Burgin and Gomez hitting the mark old-fashioned R’n’B that catches the right vibe with ease and charm.

Dos Hombres Wanted is out now on Vizztone Records.