Friday, January 15, 2021

Reading Matters: Cassius X - A Legend In The Making, by Stuart Cosgrove

What’s this?  A book about a boxer on a music blog?  For why?
Well, while the “hook” for Cassius X may be the early professional boxing career of Cassius Clay, and his migration from that identity to Islam and Muhammed Ali.  (For the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to Cassius Clay rather than Ali, to avoid confusion.)  But the book also echoes Stuart Cosgrove’s recent Soul Trilogy by exploring the development of black music in the Sixties, against the backdrop of the wider black experience in the period.  
Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali - jive talkin'!
The primary timeframe of Cassius X runs from November 1960 to February 1964.  At the start of this period the young Cassius Clay lately crowned Olympic light-heavyweight champion, arrives in Miami to begin his professional career in the gym of trainer Angelo Dundee, and it ends with him winning the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston.  Cosgrove dots around related events either side of this period as the fancy takes him, but the primary focus is the development of the young Cassius.  In Miami, and on his travels around the States for a succession of fights, he encounters black icons such as Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, who fuel his interest in black music on the one hand, and the Nation Of Islam on the other.  In essence, the book is a study of emerging black consciousness and empowerment through the lens of Cassius, as under the influence of the Nation Of Islam, he first quietly divests himself of the surname Clay to become Cassius X, and then having won the world title is re-named Muhammed Ali.
As Cosgrove says in his foreword, on one level Cassius X “can be read as a prequel to my soul trilogy . . . in that it details the emergence of soul music”.  This seam in the book contains numerous interesting nuggets, such as the bewildering - with hindsight at least - story of Sam Cooke’s live album, Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963, recorded in Miami in front of a black audience.  Cosgrove tells us that the performance was “too black” for management at Cooke’s record company RCA.  The tapes were shelved, and weren’t released on record until 1985, twenty years after his death.  Having bought the album on the strength of Cosgrove’s description, I can say that, drenched in a vibrant, party atmosphere, those RCA executives really didn’t get it.  Check out his performance of 'Somebody Have Mercy' to see what I mean.
Miami was also the early Sixties home of the dynamic duo Sam and Dave, and Cosgrove

records their early false starts and travails, in the process mentioning the worthwhile B-side ‘Lotta Lovin’’, en route to their 1964 discovery by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and reinvention with Stax Records.  (Though as a point of detail, Stax was not a “subsidiary” of Atlantic, as Cosgrove puts it.  They had a loose production and distribution deal.)
Cosgrove also paints a pen picture of Sonny Liston that is rather more rounded perception than
Sam Cooke - blowing up a soul storm in Miami
the usual caricature of a thuggish former jailbird.  Born the twenty-fourth child in a family of twenty-five – think on that – Liston was an illiterate teenage delinquent who inevitably ended up in jail, where he was rescued by boxing.  But those who knew him, Cosgrove notes, told of a shy and sensitive man with an IQ much higher than that of Cassius, who was appalled by Clay's invasion of his personal life in pursuit of promotional stunts.  In the midst of this account, Cosgrove reveals Liston’s fascination with the song ‘Night Train’ – the 1952 original, by Jimmy Forrest, in preference to the James Brown version – which was played over and over in the gym as he trained for fights. I find it hard, though, to discern in the Forrest version “the shuddering image of a relentless train rumbling in the black of night” that Liston may have thought matched his own image.
For me though, the most striking aspect of Cassius X is the litany of black people’s oppression throughout the era; not just the segregation which was drawing protests, or the fierce defending of it by white communities, but the parade of black people being killed in the most despicable fashion.  And here we are 60 years later, and it seems that so little has changed in America.  When Cosgrove describes George Wallace proclaiming, in his 1963 inauguration speech as Alabama governor, that “the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright”, my immediate reflection is that in 2020 the knee of authority could still fit the neck of a black man, George Floyd, for over eight minutes until he was dead.
Cassius X has its flaws.  Like some of Cosgrove’s soul trilogy, it could have done with more rigorous editing.  A better chronology of Cassius’s fights than the one in the index would also have been helpful to track the course of events as Cosgrove flits here and there.  But it’s still a captivating account of an emerging black hero: hyperactive and curious; hip but disciplined; mischievous and occasionally cruel.  Stuart Cosgrove captures all these facets of the young Cassius Clay and how events, people and music shaped him into the man who would become “the Greatest”.

Cassius X: A Legend In The Making is published by Polygon.
Stuart Cosgrove’s Soul Trilogy comprises the books Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (2015); Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul (2017); and Harlem 69: The Future Of Soul (2018).  All published by Polygon.
Also recommended is documentary movie The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, available on Netflix.
The movie One Night In Miami is also available on Amazon Prime from 15 January 2021 – a fictional account of the closed doors encounter between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and American Football star Jim Brown that occurred immediately after the world title fight with Sonny Liston.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Alabama Slim - The Parlor

Juke joints and back porches.  That’s where Alabama Slim is at.  Oh yeah, and bedrooms, a coupla times.  The Parlormay have been recorded in New Orleans, Slim’s adopted home, but the ten tracks it serves up are country blues.  Born in Vance, Alabama in 1939, Slim’s music is still the product of childhood’ and summers on his grandparents’ farm.  “Them old folks would get to moanin’ while they worked,” he says, “and I just started moanin’ with them.”
The connection to those days is evident in song choices such as ‘Rock Me Baby’ and a reading of Sleepy John Estes’ classic ‘Someday Baby’.  The former was around for many a year before
Alabama Slim - sharp dressed man gets down
BB King made it famous, and here is reduced to its core, with rudimentary drums and bass, and sparks of guitar.  The latter lopes briskly along on jingling and jangling guitars from Slim and his cousin Little Freddie King, gathering a touch more urgency before fading out.
There’s also a strong nod to John Lee Hooker in the opening brace of ‘Hot Foot’ and ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’.  ‘Hot Foot’ lays down a twisting, foot-tapping groove, with a bopping bass line from Matt Paton, underpinning rumbling rhythm guitar and trebly guitar embellishments.  ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’, with cousin Freddie on vocals, is an even more Hooker-esque slice of boogie, one guitar chugging while the other chimes, over a minimalist patter of drums.  And later on ‘Midnight Rider’ is boogie in looser-limbed vein, combining bright guitar chords, stuttering bass, and a clipping beat from drummer and producer Ardie Dean.
But if these tracks tell the tale of the juke joint dance floor, others sound like the dark night of the soul.  ‘Rob Me Without A Gun’ is a slow and sombre meditation on abandonment, with quietly doomy bass, spare guitar notes and chords, and some ghostly flutters of organ chords from Jimbo Mathus.  ‘All Night Long’ seems a tad sketchy by comparison, with its undulating guitar line and sprinkles of glittery licks, this time enhanced by Mathus with subtle strokes of piano.  The haunted closer ‘Down In The Bottom’ – not the Howlin’ Wolf song of the same name – is rather better, with Slim moaning and groaning doubts and uncertainties over whispered percussion, while the sparse guitars push and pull, creating a tense and unpredictable vibe.
‘Rock Me Baby’ and ‘Rock With Me Momma’ are about sex, plain and simple.  If the former is somewhat dulled by familiarity, the latter feels steamy and sweaty, its groove relaxed and insistent at the same time as Slim croons his appreciation of his “momma”.  There’s life, it seems, in the old dog yet.
In the midst of all this, ‘Forty Jive’ is a contemporary little diamond.  “Aw, look at that fool standing up there,” Slim’s semi-spoken vocal begins, “with the mail-order bride and the dead cat for hair.”  It’s the opening sally in a stiletto-like skewering of a certain Donald Trump.  If brevity is the soul of wit, this funky little charmer is a prime example.  “Undertaker,” Slim concludes, “you have to screw him into the ground.”  Amen to that.
The Parlor is like the ghost of country blues past, captured with the clarity of modern recording techniques - stripped back but embroidered by the intertwining guitars of Alabama Slim and his cousin Little Freddie.  It’s not going to change the world, but if you like real deal blues, look no further.
The Parlor is released by Cornelius Chapel Records on 29 January.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Bad Day Blues Band - Table By The Wall

“Brim-full of vim!”  That’s the phrase that first came to mind on first acquaintance with this first studio album from The Bad Day Blues Band.
As the opening three tracks unwound my first impression was of something . . . hectic, the guitar, bass, drums, harmonica and vocals all fighting for space.  With a retro-looking album sleeve, it comes over like The Yardbirds’ ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’catapaulted into the 21st century.  On their cover of Sam and Dave’s ‘Hold On (I’m Coming)’ Sam Springer’s harp deputises for Stax horns, while Adam Rigg whomps away on bass, and Nick Peck’s guitar scrambles for attention along with Rigg’s rather tremulous vocal.  On the title track drummer Andrea Tremolada lets loose with a cacophonous bombardment as Springer and Peck jostle for the foreground around a riff that
The Bad Day Blues Band psych themselves up for rock'n'roll rabble-rousing

sounds like it’s been yanked unceremoniously from Skynyrd – and though Rigg sings about something or other tasting like “black coffee and sweet Mary Jane”, I’m thinking that if this lot have a preferred narcotic it’ll something of a speedier variety.  Then on ‘Burn It Down’, trilling guitar and harp try not to be overwhelmed by the rhythm section, while Rigg shakes off his earlier reediness to snarl his way through proceedings, and Springer whips out a simmering harp solo.
By this stage I’m rehearsing phrases like “endearingly ramshackle” and “naïve enthusiasm”.  But after several spins of Table By The Wall in its entirety, I’ve changed my mind.  Their sound may be unvarnished, but this is not the work of raw recruits.  There’s more to this musical maelstrom than at first meets the ear, and as the tracks go by it comes into sharper focus.
There’s some imagination to ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, for example, with the curious yelps of its chorus over rumbling jungle drum backing, before Peck starts to carve out a high-octane Bo Diddley riff, all rough-hewn slabs of guitar chords.  This becomes the foundation for another impressive Springer harp turn, followed by a tightly-wound, bleeping and squealing guitar break.  ‘Hurricane’ is a rocker that bursts into life with a roaring, twiddly-accented guitar riff, but also demonstrates their sense of balance, with good dynamics in the bridge and some jolting halts to proceedings – oh yeah, and a helter-skelter slide solo.
‘Wandering Man’ kicks off with a Stonesy, ringing guitar riff, and features a taut, whip-cracking drum sound, as well as to-ing and fro-ing harp, while the lyric raises a smile as the protagonist-of-no-fixed-abode reflects that he’s “got five little kids and no damn socks”.  Then ‘Jump’ is straight up rock’n’roll blues, with a riff that in racing parlance is by John Lee Hooker out of ‘La Grange’, with a reverb-plastered snare drum and Springer’s harp wailing over the top.
They slow things down a mite for the primitive mid-paced chug of bass’n’drums’n’guttural guitar on the spelling song ‘Forget’, with Rigg’s quivering vocal veering towards an Elvis lip curl at times, while Springer shudders away on harp and Peck adds a couple of teeth-grating guitar solos.  Then they get real mellow, romantic even, on final track ‘Luna Rooms’ – until it explodes into a rock’n’roll frenzy a minute and a half in, Peck’s spiky guitar clambering all over the rhythm section, Springer’s harp elbowing in, and Rigg wailing away fit to bust as the things careers along like a runaway train.
Some stronger hooks wouldn’t go amiss in the song-writing department, but all twelve tracks are still solid fare.  And though on the whole I prefer Rigg’s wigging out to his crooning, the contrast in vocal styles does offer light and shade.  But get this - Table By The Wall is way too polite an album title for this malarkey.  Table Chucked Through A Plate Glass Window would be closer to the mark.  The Bad Day Blues Band mean business.

Table By The Wall is released by Lunaria Records on 5 February, and can be pre-ordered here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Gráinne Duffy - Voodoo Blues

“Please sir, I want some more,” said Oliver Twist.
Which sums up how I feel about Voodoo Blues, the latest album by Irish roots songstress Gráinne Duffy.  I want some more because it’s lip-smackingly tasty, unlike the thin gruel Oliver endured – but also because a little ain’t quite enough.
Whereas her previous album Where I Belong took a mellow, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriterly turn, this time around it seems Duffy and her fellow guitar-wielding husband Paul Sherry decided to, er, get their rocks off.  So four of the ten tracks channel raw and lusty blues roots, starting
Gráinne Duffy - the lady doesn't half sing the blues
with ‘Voodoo Blues’ itself, which sets forth with an old-fashioned blues riff, faintly distorted vocals, and work song-tinged backing vox, and then uncorks a powerful chorus and some wiry guitar to compete with the vocals on the outro.
It’s a theme that continues with ‘Mercy’, with Duffy casting her soulful voice over a stomping, ‘Red Rooster’-style riff, before letting rip on the chorus.  Later, on ‘Wreck It Up’, ripped out guitar chords preface an emphatic vocal, again a little distorted, on which she proclaims that “We’re gonna boogie and we’re gonna shake”.  I believe you, girl.  The sound is stripped back but in no way soft, and crunches to a raunchy ending with thumping bass and drums from Dale Davis and Troy Miller.  Only - would a howling guitar break have hammered it home to the hilt?  I think it would.  Something to look forward onstage, perhaps, one fine day when live music returns.
‘Hard Rain’ closes the album with another tough, primitive vibe, grinding guitar chords opening up over a sparse rhythm to create an ominous groove befitting the title, then rising on surges of organ towards Duffy letting her inner Etta James loose in testifyin’ fashion – and even supplying her own gospellated backing vocals for emphasis.
In between, songs like ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Shine It On Me’ signal a convincing return to the crossover soul/blues/country sound of her second album Test Of Time, the former with a strong melody, catchy chorus and Motown-leaning middle eight, the latter with a touch of funk to the rhythm guitar, with brief lead interjections over long organ chords, and a country-ish guitar solo.
There’s more funkiness in the elasticated bass line of the foot-tappingly soulful ‘Roll It’, with its gently ringing guitar chords, lazily snapping drums and bursts of organ.  And Davis’ bass also bumps and grinds to good effect under the squealing guitar licks of ‘Tick Tock’, on which an anthemic bridge runs into some slithering guitar work before Miller’s drums get a serious workout to build a semi-psychedelic crescendo.
But the other standout track is ‘Don’t You Cry For Me’.  Flurries of organ and guitar chords combine on a restrained intro, before evolving into a chunk of gospel-ish soul on which Duffy’s voice is very much the focus.  And when she knocks out a breath-taking long note here, one can only approve.  Then when the rhythm section kicks in, augmented by forceful organ from Miller matters then take on a Steve Winwood-cum-Joe Cocker hue - except, you know, female.
I have only one rather selfish gripe.  The Voodoo Blues menu is short – the whole album clocks in at 32 minutes – and my appetite would have been fully sated if a couple of songs had been developed further.  Please Miss Duffy, I want some more!
Whatever.  Voodoo Blues is a cracking album, and a salutary reminder that Gráinne Duffy is one of the most spine-tingling roots singers out there.  With strong songs, and sympathetic production from Troy Miller, it sounds like she’s back home where she belongs – playing the blues.

Voodoo Blues is available now, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Roy Roberts - Nothin' But The Blues

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing, wrote Duke Ellington.  I don’t know if that’s Roy Roberts’ musical motto, but it really should be.  Right from the opening track on Nothin’ But The Blues, the breezy ‘I Got A Gypsy Woman’, we’re in the big band-inflected blues realm of BB King – laid back, warm and, of course, swinging.
A large part of the equation is the use of horns, not as sharp punctuation in the R’n’B fashion, but in rolling waves against which Roberts can bounce his always impressive, understated guitar playing, recalling BB King to a degree, but also his namesake Albert circa Born Under A Bad Sign.
Roy Roberts enjoys some sweet soulful blues
The other factor though is his voice, which inclines towards Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland if without the aching soulfulness, or perhaps Robert Cray without the silky smoothness.  Whatever, his rich, relaxed voice, sometimes with a husky edge, is a perfect fit for the material on this digital compilation.  And let’s face it, if the guy could sing at all, he should have got a good vocal education while working as a sideman to the likes of Solomon Burke and Otis Redding back in the Sixties.
The best songs here tend to be in the sensitive Bobby Bland soul-blues vein, in particular ‘The Next Time’, with its typically well-assembled arrangement, appealing interaction between the horns and Roberts’ guitar in the intro, and a tremulous guitar solo.  ‘Why Didn’t You Come Home’, with its ‘Thrill Is Gone’ vibe, has lush horns ushering in an impressive, tension-and-release guitar intro.  (It’s a reminder too, that for every happy back door man in the blues, there’s another being wounded by a woman coming home after hours, all mussed-up.  Quid pro quo, eh?)  And ‘Your Troubling Mind’ takes on a still more reflective tone, with the horns dialled down a notch to provide subtle, lower pitched remarks, and a sax solo adding a different slant.
With a couple of other songs mining the same seam things could get a bit samey, notwithstanding Roberts’ pin-sharp guitar work on ‘What Should I Do’.  But other tracks provide some healthy variety, notably the more uptempo ‘I Got A Gypsy Woman’, with its skipping rhythm and hints of call and response as it closes, and ‘Just One More Blues Song’, which is more modern in a Cray-like fashion, riding in on a funky bass line and featuring smoky sax fills.  ‘I’m A Real Blues Man’ ditches the horns in favour of piano, but while the piano and organ solos are satisfying, I’m torn as to whether the piano turnaround that arrives every few lines is a rinky-dink novelty or somewhat teeth-grating.  And the set drifts to a close with ‘Have You Seen My Baby’, a simple and upbeat blues that hints at Albert King’s ‘Crosscut Saw’.
‘Dirty Old Man’ just about survives a naff lyric, assisted by guest slots from Skeeter Brandon on organ, and Bob Margolin, who delivers a slippery slide solo.  But ‘I’ll Be Your Plumberman’ isn't so lucky – Roberts’ voice may be smooth and seductive, but it isn’t a good fit for one of the least convincing double entendre blues songs you’ll ever hear.
Nevertheless, if you like the quasi-big band soulful blues of BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Nothin’ But The Blues is an enjoyable collection that should hit your sweet spot fair and square, with on-the-money arrangements and Roy Roberts playing to his strengths vocally and with guitar in hand.  Oh yeah, and don't forget the swing.

Nothin' But The Blues is available as a download from Roy Roberts' website.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2020 - Part 2

Still full of Christmas cheer, people?  Well, here’s Part 2 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking to keep you smiling.
Now, you might think that live music is a curious choice for this piece to focus on, at the end of a year that was almost a total write-off for gigs from around mid-March.  But hey, there were a few live albums this year, from artists old and new, to remind us of the power of live music.
At the very top of the tree is Check Shirt Wizard – Live In ’77, by Rory Gallagher.  Released in March, I said in my review that I’d be dumbfounded if there was a better album this year, and I stand by that statement.  Check Shirt Wizard is a breath-taking document of what Rory brought to the stage back then – a four piece on full throttle, barnstorming, dynamic form, led by a man with a musical mojo of mythic proportions.  If you want to get in the mood, check out this footage of ‘Calling Card’, from a Hammersmith Odeon performance that year.

Another in concert collection from a late Irish legend arrived in January, with Gary Moore’s Live From London.  Recorded in 2009, it’s not without its flaws, but it’s still a testament to how rediscovering the blues back in 1990 brought a much stronger focus to Moore’s work.  Hard core fans will love the guitar pyrotechnics for which he always had a penchant, but for me it’s when he lays back a bit and captures the emotion in songs that he’s at his best, whether it’s the heartache of ‘Still Got The Blues’ or the humour of ‘Too Tired’.  Here he is having some fun with ‘Walking By Myself’, at the 2010  Montreux Jazz Festival.

A more contemporary live recording released this year came from Albert Castiglia, with Wild And Free, recorded in Boca Raton in November 2019.  Now Albert, like Gary Moore, is fond of letting it rip in the guitar stakes, and he certainly does that a few times in the course of this set.  But there’s light and shade in there too – as well as some special guests.  This performance of Johnny Winter’s ‘Too Much Seconal’, filmed in Poland a few weeks before the Boca Raton gig, is a pretty good illustration of the Castiglia style.

But lest anyone think that quality live albums are the sole preserve of guitar slingers, singer Sari Schorr chipped in with a goodie back in February in the form of Live In Europe.  At its best it serves up sassy, rockin’ blues with a dash of funk, decorated by quality guitar from Ash Wilson and keys from (depending on the cut) Bob Fridzema and Stevie Watts, as a platform for Schorr to do her forceful vocal stuff.  Here they are giving it some welly on the brooding 'Damn The Reason', back in 2018.

If there’s someone who really should have released a live album in 2020, to fill the void in touring work, it’s the woman who probably does around 200 gigs in the course of normal year – Samantha Fish.  Let’s face it, she and her management must have piled up some decent recordings of her incendiary live shows by now, and her fanbase have been drooling at the prospect for a good while now.  On the plus side, I did manage to catch a couple of British shows early in the year, including the London gig at Islington Assembly Hall, before she had to pull the plug on her European tour in mid-March.  Here she is in Denver back in February, having fun on ‘Bitch On The Run’, complete with compulsory singalong.

One of the few other bands I managed to catch before live music came to a crashing halt was Wille & The Bandits, in their new four-piece incarnation.  To my mind they're a band who deserve considerably more attention than they currently seem to get, as they manage to extend their blues foundations into prog rock terrain, with world music influences thrown into the mix for good measure.  To demonstrate my point, here they are with 12 minutes' worth of the epic instrumental 'Angel', from a 2020 performance in France.

I can't say I've devoted a lot of time to watching the streaming of live shows, though naturally quite a few artists have gone down this road in an effort to keep the home fires burning.  Sometimes that's just been a matter of timing - shows in the States often hit our screens in the middle of the night here in Europe.  But there's also the missing ingredient to contend with - the magic of simply being there, in the room when the music is being made, and being part of the interaction with the artist.  And with that in mind, let's hope this pandemic beats a retreat before too long, so that we can all get back to enjoying live music for real.

You can find Part 1 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2020 - Part 1

Oh, the irony!  2020 has been a disastrous year for any professional musician not insulated by superstardom, with live music ravaged and with it the opportunity for many CD and merchandise sales.  But at the same time it’s been an astonishingly good year for new studio albums – possibly the best I can remember over the six years I’ve been writing this stuff.

So with that in mind, Part 1 of this year’s Christmas Stocking review is given over to reminders of ten of the best examples - and look out for the links to the original album reviews.  This ain’t a chart, and it’s not an exhaustive list, so you may well have favourites that don’t appear.  But that probably just underlines the strength in depth that 2020 brought us.

First up then, are Denmark’s finest, Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado, who lit up January with their latest album Come On In.  Apart from his distinctive bass voice, Risager is a songwriter with an acute sense of his blues inspirations but who also finds fresh angles.  And on Come On In that leads to material making refreshing use of acoustic guitar in addition to the Black Tornado’s usual big band sound, plus intriguing rhythms courtesy of drummer Martin Seidelin.  Here’s an early live take of the title track, dating back to 2018.

Of course, coronavirus lockdowns themselves became the stimulus for new work.  Two of the best results, for me, were Mike Zito’s Quarantine Blues, and on this side of the Atlantic the Birdmens collaboration that resulted in the album Lockdown Loaded.
Zito was first out of the blocks, evidently driven by frustration and financial concern after he was forced to abandon a lengthy European tour that had barely started.  Knocked out in just two weeks, Quarantine Blues crackled with creative energy, and did what Zito is best at, getting beyond pure blues into broader terrain.  As I said in my review, it’s a goddamn rock’n’roll rekkud!  Here he is with the Petty-esque 'Looking Out This Window', from a rare live excursion in June this year.

The Birdmens gang, inspired by a bundle of drum loops from producer and guitarist Dave Doherty, and featuring the likes of Ian Siegal, Jon Amor, Bob Fridzema and Jonny Henderson, rocked up at the end of May with Lockdown Loaded, an eclectic batch of barnstormers ranging from Delta stomp to Zepped-up funk to keening Americana.  Have a gander at this video of ‘Cover It Up’, which sounds a bit like it’s escaped from the theme to ancient TV show A Man In A Suitcase!

Some new names made a mark for me this year too, starting off with Norfoll-based Little Red Kings.  Their second album, The Magic Show Part One, was a cattleprod-jolt of rootsy rock, with a clutch of curveballs thrown in to keep you on your musical toes.  Here’s the unusual lyric video for one of those curveballs, the subtle and moody ‘Magic Show’ itself.

Canada’s Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar are a more straightforward proposition: scorching Sixties-style soul music, with a singer in young Samantha who sounds like she could tear your playhouse down.  Their album The Reckless One is swinging, torch-carrying, love-in-vain R’n’B fare, and mostly originals to boot.  Get yourself in the groove with this video of them in upbeat, 'Nowhere To Run' mode, with ‘Don’t Have To Be’.

But the new name that made the biggest impression was When Rivers Meet, aka married British musos Grace and Aaron Bond, who have stormed into the rock consciousness with the unorthodox bluesiness of their debut album We Fly Free.  Why unorthodox?  Because they’re flying free of the guitar solo-ing norms of blues-rock, and foregrounding their voices – especially the eye-popping singing of Grace as she sweeps from delicate hush to adrenalin rush.  Guitar does feature, but largely as a rhythm and slide engine, with embellishments provided by Mamzelle Bond via injections of fiddle and – wait for it – resonator mandolin slide playing.  Anyhoo, check ‘em out on this video of ‘Tomorrow’, from one of their 2019 EPs!

Regular readers will know that I get a bit sniffy about some of the ‘Southern rock’ that gets paraded around as having a blues/blues-rock appeal.  But that’s an argument for another day, because there was one Southern rock album this year that brooked no argument.  Last Light On The Highway by Robert Jon & The Wreck was a hook-laden belter.  Maybe it’s because they’re not good ol’ boys from the Deep South, but from California, but Robert Jon & The Wreck mostly avoided getting sucked into latter-day Southern rock stereotypes.  Still, if you like an Allman Brothers guitar sound, you should enjoy them on 'Do You Remember'.

Which just leaves us with three more familiar names to conjure with - Walter Trout, Jim Kirkpatrick, and King King.
Now, Walter Trout may be regarded by many as yer archetypal, guitar-flaying blues-rocker.  But to my mind there’s more to the fella than that – to wit, he’s a damn good songwriter who isn’t a slave to the 12-bar format.  And his latest album Ordinary Madness proves my point, with tracks ranging across various styles.  Get a load of ‘Heartland’, for example, as a classy example of rootsy rock.

Jim Kirkpatrick may not have a host of solo albums behind him - just one, in fact, before this year.  But he's still a known quantity by virtue of his work with FM, the Chris Bevington Organisation and more besides.  And he deserves a bigger following on the back of his new solo outing, Ballad Of The Prodigal Son, he really does.  It’s not full-on guitar overload from start to finish, but our Jim doesn’t half let rip at times.  Whether it’s blues, boogie, glossy instrumental or throw-in-the-kitchen-sink, the songs impress – bar one, and I’ll forgive him that – the delivery is great, and the guitar playing runs wild.  Check out the video for the monumental ‘Brave New World’, and tell me if I’m wrong.

And then there's King King.  Alan Nimmo has recast the King King line-up, and completed their metamorphosis from modern British blues heralds to fully-fledged Adult Orientated Rockers.  With a leading role for newly-liberated secret weapon Jonny Dyke on keyboards, new album Maverick finds the KK boys switching from glossy hard rock to gob-smacking power ballad and back again with consummate ease.  Check out the video for the mountainous 'Never Give In' for starters.

So there we have the first instalment of goodies for your edification and delight.  Merry Christmas one and all - go easy on the cake and mince pies, and we'll get together for Part 2 next week!

You can find Part 1 of the 2020 Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Martin Barre - 50 Years Of Jethro Tull

The last time I saw Jethro Tull was ten years ago, when I drove through a filthy night of wind and snow to see them on their fortieth anniversary tour, and they opened the show with Ian Anderson and Martin Barre stage front, aptly playing the atmospheric acoustic track ‘Dun Ringill’ with its “Stormwatch brews” lyric.
Nowadays of course, the pair have gone their separate ways.  But here’s Martin Barre popping up with a 28 track, two CD retrospective celebrating 50 Years Of Jethro Tull.  And why not?  Anderson may have been the well-spring for all things Tull, but if there’s anyone else with a sure grasp on the band’s aesthetic it must be Barre, his wingman for so many years.  And so it proves with this intriguing, satisfying collection of Tull material.
The songs are of course shorn of Anderson’s flute playing and idiosyncratic vocals.  But the
Martin Barre now . . .
interest levels are maintained by a track selection that blends deep cuts with old favourites, and brings some fresh arrangements to bear – particularly so in the case of Disc 2, which features female vocals from Alex Hart and Becca Langford on stripped back versions of several songs.
But to begin at the beginning, Disc 1 focuses on a batch of live-in-the-studio performances, including the likes of ‘My Sunday Feeling’ and ‘Hymn 43’, on which Tull’s bluesy roots are apparent even as they’re bent into different shapes.  On the former, with its tense ascending riff, there’s a relaxed swing under the melody, but it’s disrupted by bursts of bright chords, stinging flurries of guitar notes from Barre, and sharp drum fills from Darby Todd.  The more contemplative, mid-paced ‘Hymn 43’ is most notable for Barre’s feisty guitar licks, a suitable counterpart to Anderson’s acerbic lyric about the misuse of religion.  And later there’s ‘Teacher’, a personal favourite, weaving more bluesiness around its two-steps-forward, two-steps-back riff and its shifts from swinging to gutsy, before concluding with a blazing Barre solo over a crashing rhythm section.  
‘For A Thousand Mothers’ is a hectic affair, with a trademark byzantine Tull riff over complex, ducking and diving drums, which Barre accents with a succession of guitar breaks, ahead of lower-pitched solo.  ‘Sealion’ develops from a spiky, discordant intro to lay out simple, muscular riffing and scurrying guitar lines as a basis for Anderson’s metaphorical lyric about performing animals (like your friendly neighbourhood rock band), leaving space for the imagery then underlining it.  ‘Back To The Family’ references folk-rock elements from the Tull game plan, then bursts into life with Barre knocking out a piercing solo, accelerating over the racing rhythm section.  And speaking of folk-rock, while vocalist Dan Crisp wisely avoids outright imitation of Anderson’s vocal style, as songs go by his delivery hints more at English folkiness, perhaps reflecting his previous associations with various Fairport alumni.
They crank things up with a run of ‘Hunting Girl’, the aforementioned ‘Teacher’, and ‘Steel Monkey’.  The first shows off peak-Tull twisting and turning and mixing of folk and heaviness, the music again informing the story, and with some terrific guitar/bass harmonising between Barre and Alan Thomson.  The last is a more modern rocker, with heavy riffing, a tense and tough vibe, and a great bass line from Thomson adding to the groove.
. . . and then
Contrastingly, the second disc opens in dreamy form with ‘Wond’ring Aloud’, the voices of Alex Hart and Becca Langford winding together over sparse acoustic backing.  They follow that up with ‘Someday The Sun Won’t Shine’, a two-minute acoustic blues that Larkin Poe would be proud of, with another delicious female vocal over acoustic strumming and a glittering acoustic guitar break.  And ‘Life’s A Long Song’ completes a beautiful trio of tunes, with another pure vocal over magical, precise guitar picking from Barre, and understated complementary bass from Thomson – on stand-up bass, I’m guessing.
On ‘Under Wraps’ electric guitar and drums add more muscle and swing to proceedings, but with Hart and Langford’s singing it’s a more organic take than the original, more electronic version.  And later they bring a beguiling new dimension to ‘Locomotive Breath’, all rippling guitar and mandolin over insistent, nagging bodhrán, adorned by languid, layered female voices.  Meantime a purely instrumental rendition of ‘Home’ is exquisitely wistful.
Dan Crisp returns to the microphone for some tracks, delivering an aching vocal on the subdued ‘Still Loving You Tonight’, with its ticking rhythm guitar and sparkling lead lines, and getting into a lower register for the Celtic-feeling ‘Slow Marching Band’ as it shifts from reflective to rousing.  And he also has the last word, as they close the circle with the blues-based ‘A New Day Yesterday’, light and shade swirling around its beefy riff and swaggering rhythm.
The set also includes four tracks taken from a 2019 show in the States, at which Tull bandmates Clive Bunker and Dee Palmer guested on drums and keys.  Of these, the intricacies and folk elements of ‘Heavy Horses’ and ‘Songs From The Wood’ do more for me than ‘Warchild’ and the rather shallow ‘Bungle In The Jungle’.
But it’s the rediscovery of old songs, and the fresh take on others on Disc 2 in particular, that make 50 Years Of Jethro Tull a worthwhile exercise.  Those factors, and one other:  Martin Barre continues to be a twelfth-dan, black-belt rock guitarist, and a way more interesting player than many big-name axe merchants one could name.

50 Years Of Jethro Tull was released by The Store For Music on 6 November, and is available here.