Friday, October 11, 2019

Redfish - Souls

It strikes me, listening to Souls, that Redfish dream large.  Not in terms of world domination commercially I imagine, but perhaps at least in terms of realising their artistic potential.  Though probably the quintet from the environs of Carlisle and Dumfries think about it in quite those terms.
The bedrock of their sound is John Mayall-esque British blues (sans harmonica), with hints of Born Under A Bad Sign thrown in for good measure.  They certainly do a bang-up job on straight-up bluesiness, as on the strutting boogie of ‘One More Fight’ for example, and the
funky ‘For The Love Of The Wrong Woman’, which is well served by both the piano and guitar solos, and is one of several songs on which they employ guest horns to good effect.  Their feel for the essentials extends to the moody slow-ish blues of ‘It’s A Very Lonely Life’
Redfish - walking in the shadows of the blues
too, with its smatterings of guitar over a steady bass groove, and a spot on organ solo from Fraser Clark, and I’m taken with the happy-go-lucky, Georgie Fame-like feel of the closing ‘Hallelujah Road’ too.

But they also manage to throw some twists into this kind of material, such as the throbbing and swirling clavinet-type sound on the opener ‘There’s Nothing Else’, matched by a fitting guitar tone from Martin McDonald on his solo.  Or the stop-start vocals from Brian ‘Stumblin’’ Harris on the funky ‘(Kick Up) Hell’s Delight’, with its effects-treated guitar break and shift to a snappy, Squeeze-like closing refrain.  And Harris clearly makes an effort to produce smart lyrics too, as on the wittily acerbic ‘Don’t Waste The Good Stuff’, which has organ and jagged slide guitar getting into competition towards the end.
But it’s the fact that they stretch their range beyond these mainstream stylings that really deserves applause.  They’re brave enough to keep it simple, for example, on the finger-snapping ‘Rakehells’, with its earworm of a stride piano figure and shuffling, swinging rhythm from drummer Sandy Sweetman and bassist Rod Mackay.  Clark adds a rippling piano solo, and McDonald some slide, but they don’t clutter up the tune en route to its oddly abrupt ending.  More dramatically, ‘Hate The Song But Not The Singer’ kicks off with a quietly crooned, hesitant vocal from Harris over the most spartan guitar, and when the band crank it up the vocals become more angsty and pleading, with suitably rough guitar giving way to some jazzy Rhodes piano.
‘Shadow On My Soul’ has an original sound too, its feel apparently inspired by Nina Simone.  Sweetman lays down a novel rhythm on percussion, augmented by handclaps, while McDonald and Clark contribute a sparse guitar/piano motif that puts me in mind of ‘Sloop John B’ of all things, and Harris delivers a patient, keening vocal about wanting to “scream like Roky Erickson”.  There’s some fitting piano embroidery from Clark, and a trombone solo courtesy of Chris Riley, and the upbeat coda is nicely done even if it might have been better kept for another song.
I could probably mention some other quibbles, but to hell with that.  Redfish are a bunch who have paid their dues, musicianship wise, and it shows.  More to the point, they haven’t plodded along a familiar blues rut from one end of Souls to the other.  Instead they’ve shown a spirit of adventure, set out to explore some fresh angles, and done it with conviction – and good on ‘em for that.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

North Mississippi Allstars - Up And Rolling

The North Mississippi Allstars hold a special place in my affections.  When I started getting into this blues thing a bit, they were one of the first bands I discovered for myself.  At the time I knew diddly squat about the North Mississippi hill country, or the singular mysteries of the blues emanating from the area.  But when I got hold of their album Shake Hands With Shorty my jaw dropped.  These Dickinson guys could groove like gravy (I’ve just made that up, but you get the alliterative idea) with nagging rhythms, and then next thing they’d explode all over the place.
Some of the NMA collective
And I'm pleased to say they’ve come up with the goods again.  Up And Rolling is inspired by the rediscovery of collection of photographs harking back to Luther and Cody Dickinson's formative experiences of the musical heritage of the North Mississippi hill country, and includes reworkings of old songs from their mentors and influences, as well as originals from the Dickinsons and their pals.  But it’s also a celebration of the community and lifestyle from which it springs. And the emergence of NMA from the hill country and its music is well captured by Luther Dickinson in the booklet accompanying the CD – including his inimitable description of his own guitar playing:  “I forged my style of psychedelic open tuned fingerpicked bottle neck country blues guitar by combining the horizontal melody of Fred’s [Mississippi Fred McDowell] and Otha’s [Otha Turner] bamboo can fife with rock’n’roll tube amp power and thumb picked rhythmic boogie as marching drums in the distance.”  You said it Luther.
So they open up with ‘Call That Gone’, tripping along on a paradiddle rhythm from Cody Dickinson and rumbling bass from Carl Dufrene, while Luther trades call and response vocals with Sharisse Norman.  At first there are just intermittent injections of ragged slide guitar and flute-like fife from Sharde Thomas, but later they’re ramped up until they and the drums are in fiery, but controlled, competition.  You won’t get stuff like this on your bog standard blues-rock album.
And to underline that point, they follow that with ‘Up And Rolling’, a deliciously dreamy affair, and little wonder when it’s evoking hazy Mississippi days drifting along on a stream of weed, LSD and mushroom tea.  Built around a lovely descending melody, it hangs together beautifully, with those silky female vocals to the fore.  Not to be done, Luther comes up with some delightful, delicate guitar work, that in combination with Wurly piano from brother Cody that brings to mind Hendrix in hypnotic mode.
They venture into a more traditional blues format on Little Walter’s ‘Mean Old World’, with a circular, pinging guitar figure, and Jason Isbell guesting on vocals, but they’re still adventurous with it, as a slide solo eventually takes off into an extended uptempo passage that’s very Allmans in style – making full use of the presence of Duane Betts on guitar.  (Apparently the song was once recorded by their father, muso and producer Jim Dickinson, with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton during the Layla sessions.)
The Dickinson brothers make World Boogie
But they also dig down into the hill country roots, with a couple of RL Burnside songs in the form of ‘Peaches’ and ‘Out On The Road’, the former improvising around the patient groove, and the latter brief and to the point.  Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Lonesome In My Home’, meanwhile, is a largely downbeat affair with ticking drums and distorted, haunting vocals that begin collide with modern guitar sounds until at times it sounds like it’s on the cusp of falling apart.
But other influences are reflected too, as on the ‘Pops’ Staples song ‘What You Gonna Do?’, which with Mavis Staples guesting is gospel reframed as simple and repetitive soulfulness.  And there’s also the vintage gospel of Tom Dorsey’s ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’, a great tune on which Luther Dickinson trades vocal and guitar licks with Cedric Burnside.
And there are socially conscious original songs too, with ‘Bump That Mother’ and ‘Living Free’ both featuring lyrics that cleverly make the political personal. The former is again tripped out, with a tense riff playing off more great female vocals, and some more spaced out Dickinson guitar, the latter laid back and soulful, with a catchy guitar riff and guest vocals from Tierini and Tikyra Jackson of the rather wonderful Southern Avenue.
North Mississippi Allstars are more a collective than a band, with Luther and Cody Dickinson at the helm.  Up And Rolling is the latest phase in their mission to bring the North Mississippi hill country to the world, and new generations, and make good on the last words of their father, Jim Dickinson - “World Boogie is coming!”

Up And Rolling is out now on New West Records.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Stevie Nimmo - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 5 October 2019

Reasons to be cheerful, part 57.  For Stevie Nimmo, it’s a hometown gig in Glasgow, in front of a busy crowd that are well and truly up for it.  For me, it’s seeing Stevie Nimmo in such good form, after what must have been a really frustrating spell since breaking his right arm a couple of years ago.  Now he’s all healed up, and it’s all smiles as he and his trio lay on a belter of a show.
Stevie Nimmo binds some spells
There’s no new material, unfortunately – part of the fallout from his injury – but with a rejigged set, a new bassist since I last saw him in the form of Kelpie McKenzie, and a less
than surprising guest making an appearance, there’s a palpable energy and freshness to this performance.
They open with ‘Chains Of Hope’, crunching opening chords leading into its churning, thudding riff to pin everyone’s ears back, before downshifting into the breezy ‘Loving Might Do Us Good’.  Moved forward in the set from the home stretch, where it’s been for the last couple of years, it’s still bright and appealing, with Craig Bacon laying down a supple foundation for Nimmo to knock out a terrific, free flowing solo, as usual including a snippet of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’.
The Allman Brothers’ ‘Gamblers Roll’ isn’t a song that particularly lights my fire, but Nimmo still demonstrates great control and tone on his solo, while on ‘Change’, with its chiming chords and steady backbeat, Kelpie McKenzie’s backing vocals are almost inaudible.  But
Kelpie McKenzie - he's having' a larf
he finds the groove effortlessly as his boss rips out some big chords.
‘Good Day For The Blues’ reinforces the light touch evident on ‘Loving Might Do Us Good’, drifting easily as the lyric suggests, but with direction and dynamics.  Conversely ‘Still Hungry’ is a muscular statement of intent, with Nimmo giving it large on wah wah and then a wailing solo over the gutsy undertow.
‘Running On Back To You’ is one of my favourite Nimmo songs, with its subtle and restrained guitar motif paving the way for a soaring, David Gilmour-like solo, itself a mere appetiser for Nimmo to serve up a second, fierce solo at the end, sweating bullets as he does so.
The guest appearance is of course by brother Alan, and together they firstly dredge up Walter Trout’s ‘On The Rise’ from their past repertoire together, a funky but tough affair on which Alan Nimmo tosses out a very Brian Robertson-esque solo.  In the midst of this Kelpie McKenzie may not have the geezer-ish affability of his bassist predecessor Mat Beable, but Alan Nimmo’s natural exuberance coaxes a big grin out of him.  Then on ‘Pray For You’, another dynamic tune with a great hook, big brother Stevie takes the first solo before
Craig 'Crispy' Bacon - it's smiles all round!
deferring to Alan for another wild solo, before they conjure up some guitar harmonies for the finale, before Nimmo the Younger takes his leave.
‘Roll The Dice Again’ builds tension with its surging riff, before Stevie cranks up a teasing intro to Freddie King’s ‘Going Down, on which McKenzie bubbles away furiously on bass before Nimmo leads the traditional singalong.
Which only leaves the encore of Big George Watt’s epic tune ‘The Storm’, reverb-laden and atmospheric, and featuring a solo from Nimmo that’s an object lesson in tension and release, ‘playing every other lick’ as the saying goes, making terrific use of sustain as he builds themes and produces something that blazes with feeling.
Stevie Nimmo is such a down to earth and humble guy that sometimes he may not get enough credit for just how good he is.  I’ve said before that his Sky Won’t Fall was my favourite studio album of 2016, as much for the variety and quality of his songwriting as the playing.  And tonight is further evidence that his guitar playing can be spellbinding. Reasons to be cheerful – absolutely.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sayer & Joyce - Makes You Stronger

The growing roster of artists on Mike Zito and Guy Hale’s Texas- based Gulf Coast Records includes people from St Louis, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Miami – and now husband and wife Ron Sayer and Charlotte Joyce, from Norwich.  That’s Norwich in England, not Massachusetts.
Having seen them live a few years ago, I know how good Sayer and Joyce can be – he’s a top flight guitar wrangler, and she’s a captivating singer and keyboard player.  But now and then, listening to Makes You Stronger, I’m not sure it gives full expression to their talents.
From right to left, Sayer and Joyce - Mr and Mrs Blues
There are a couple of songs about which I have no doubts, most obviously ‘We’d Both Be Wrong’ – as in the saying “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong”.  It has a catchy melody and sparky lyrics, which Joyce delivers convincingly.  But it also benefits from a toe-tapping funky groove, with a cheeky ascending riff that Sayer extemporises over effectively from the outset, before he puts the cherry on the cake with an entertaining solo over flaring horns from Dave Land and Clive Hitchcock – horns that then compete with him to further good effect.
Of similar quality, in a different vein, is the closing ‘Needful Things’.  An intriguing affair with a haunting tune, Joyce nails the expressive vocal, over little more than sparse double bass (also courtesy of Sayer) and the merest speckles of guitar.  Simplicity like this can be tricky to pull off, but they do it brilliantly, abandoning soul-blues stylings to contrive something more distinctive and European in tone.
On early listens though, I found the mix too thin to harness the different elements fully on some songs.  It was only when I stuck in some bloody good earphones and cranked things up that the sound began to hang together on tracks like the opener ‘Backbone’ and the later ‘My Life Alive’.  The former kicks off with a smart, intricate up-and-down riff, and once Charlotte Joyce’s assertively soulful vocal feels properly connected to everything else that’s going on, it comes across as a quality bit of funk-rock, topped off by a scattergun solo from Sayer, even though the horns are pushed too far down.  And on the blues-rocking ‘My Life Alive’, with it’s chunky, winding riff, Joyce’s strong vocal is further enhanced by some double-tracking on the chorus, while Sayer comes up with an adventurous solo, making use of some twangy low notes before darting off in various directions while always staying on point.
Joyce shows off her ability to get slinky on ‘Hard Love', on which a restrained arrangement swells for the chorus and bridge, while Sayer adds a tasteful, jazzy solo.  And ‘Broken’ provides an Aynsley Lister-like slice of soulfulness decorated by some precise and patient guitar.
Somehow though, the likes of ‘I Get Up Again’ and ‘The Things We Used to Do’ have an air of the whole not quite being the sum of its parts.  The former offers some neo-Hendrix links at the start and choppy funkiness, while the latter takes too long to muscle up to a rousing finish.  ‘No Galahad’, meanwhile, lands some punches with a strong Blackmore-esque riff, and Sayer putting his foot on the gas for his solo, but it’s as if there’s a missing ingredient somewhere - perhaps a bigger drum sound to really drive things along and provide more depth.  
There are lots of things to admire in Make You Stronger, as you’d expect from talents like Ron Sayer and Charlotte Joyce.  Sayer has plenty of clubs in his guitaring bag, and puts them to good use, while Joyce has terrific vocal control and soulfulness to boot.  But I can’t escape the feeling that there’s an even better album left in there that somehow hasn’t been fully revealed.

Makes You Stronger is out now on Gulf Coast Records

Monday, September 30, 2019

Chantel McGregor - Bury'd Alive

Here are three things I know about Chantel McGregor.  First, she won a couple of British Blues Awards back in 2013.  Second, she's not really a blues artist.  And third – that’s fine.
It’s fine, because in the course of over an hour on Bury’d Alive (so titled because this live album was recorded in Bury St. Edmunds - ouch!), McGregor and her show mark out their real territory with total conviction.   Some hard rocking, some progginess, and some hints of jam band – these are the essential ingredients they whip together to damn good effect.
Finding windswept and interesting angles
The hard rocking is evident from the start, as the opening ‘Take The Power’ features a winding guitar riff, leading into a staccato rhythm and punchy vocal on the verses, a first bout of guitar and bass harmonising, and a sweeping chorus amid ringing guitar chords, before McGregor gets into a brooding, semi-distorted solo.  There’s an even more aggressive, crunching riff on the following ‘Killing Time’, underpinned by driving bass and rock solid drums, en route to a stuttering bridge.
There’s lots of tension too, for example in ‘Caught Out’, with its buzzing riff and choppy drums giving way to surging guitar and bass over a steady rhythm.  McGregor tops that one off with a flickering, wah-wah solo ahead of a sprint to the finishing line.  And the closing ‘Freefalling’ is another gutsy, energetic affair, with its appropriately twisting and plunging riff, strident chorus, and yet more surging guitar chords and bubbling bass.
These tracks do a good job of maintaining the momentum and energy levels, with ‘Caught Out’ in particular carrying echoes for me of latter day guitar-driven Rush, circa Vapor Trails perhaps.  But McGregor is even more effective when she gets into more expansive realms.
‘Like No Other’ lays down a marker for this more reflective sound, with its delicate guitar opening counterpointed by patient bass notes, before taking off into heavier realms, with an ascending bass line from Colin Sutton, over subtle guitar textures from McGregor, reinforcing its appeal.  But they really hit paydirt with the excellent ‘Eternal Dream’, its mellow strummed and picked opening recalling Wishbone Ash for this old git, while McGregor’s singing is clear, pure and feminine, underlining the song’s distinctiveness.  It’s suspenseful and dream-like, and indeed borderline ethereal as it approaches the halfway mark of its nine minutes and sets off on a sparkling instrumental exploration.
Happiness is a damn good live album
Is that the standout track on the album?  Difficult to say, what with similar treats being offered up by ‘Inconsolable’, a cover of a song by American folk-rocker Jonatha Brooke with a shimmering, acoustic sounding opening, and some lovely, lilting vocals from McGregor.  Sutton weighs in with dipping and darting bass notes over sparse, controlled drums from Thom Gardner, before McGregor gets into some dynamic, sustain-heavy guitar work, and they play around with various themes, but without descending into the dreaded aimless noodling.  This is prog with a sense of purpose.
And one can’t ignore ‘April’ either, a previously unreleased instrumental heralded by weeping guitar notes over rumbling drums and tinkling cymbals, leading into piercing guitar lines over a click-clack rhythm and pulsing bass and then picking up pace as they apparently jump off into jam band territory, the three of them bouncing off each other beautifully, even if its does get a bit manic towards the end.
I could go on, as there are other pleasures to be appreciated on Bury’d Alive – and with the crystal clear production and mixing by Wayne Proctor, giving the instrumentation well-nigh perfect space and balance, you won’t have to listen too hard to catch them.
Eschewing keyboards, Chantel McGregor and co deliver a singular style of guitar-led proggish rock that’s imaginative but focused.  Methinks the lady knows very much what she’s doing, and she stands apart doing it.  There’s a Scottish poet who wrote about the need “To be yersel’ and mak’ that worth bein’”.  With Bury’d Alive, Chantel McGregor is living up to that maxim.

Bury'd Alive is out now.  For details of Chantel McGregor's tour dates, look here.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Billy Price - Dog Eat Dog

Billy Price covers a few bases on Dog Eat Dog, its twelve tracks encompassing soulful blues, some different shades of funk, and ultimately Philly soul – all of which are delivered with top drawer musicianship, and channelled into an excellent sound by producer Kid Anderson, of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats fame.  And Price, a 2016 Blues Music Award winner, consistently delivers the goods vocally too.
The quality of his vocals is apparent right from the off on ‘Working On Your Chain Gang’ – relaxed and showing off characterful phrasing in a manner that recalls Delbert McLinton, underlined by some snazzy backing vox from the ‘Sons of Soul Revivers’.  With some
Billy Price - his voice is better than his jacket
Pic by Mark Simpson
rubber band bass twanging from Jerry Jemmott, a great rhythm, funky horns, and a zippy guitar solo from Anderson, it’s all enough to induce a soft shoe shuffle.
There’s a darker brand of funk on the title track, a Rick Estrin song that’s been given new lyrics to set out some despairing social commentary.  Estrin guests on harp, and the horns are restricted to some tenor sax remarks, as the patient delivery has the effect of slowly touring a decaying city.  ‘All Night Long Café’ is a slinkier affair, with a shout-it-out chorus from whoever happened to be around I guess, and a Mike Zito wah-wah solo.  It may seem simple and repetitive in form, but it works.
The pick of the soul blues bunch - and in fact of the album - is ‘Lose My Number’, on which Price and co pretty much out-Cray Robert Cray on a clever reflection about a femme fatale.  It’s laid back and measured, with a proverbially smoky sax solo and a neat descending Wurly piano motif courtesy of Jim Pugh, and Price captures the vibe perfectly with his vocal.  ‘Remnants’ is similarly blues-hued, with another witty lyric, this time about the tell-tale signs giving away a cheating partner, and shivering guitar backing.
There’s a different strain of blues on ‘My Love Will Never Die’, a Willie Dixon affair that’s given a reverb-heavy treatment, with twangy guitar from Anderson, dainty organ notes, and an aching vocal from Price, ultimately sounding like a replay of a lovelorn nightmare.
There’s a different kind of treat too, in the form of the finger-snapping ‘We’re In Love’, a cool but happy-go-lucky affair with sharp horn punctuation and an irresistible walking bass line to set toes tapping.
The back end of the album features some more Philly soul orientated songs, in the form of ‘Walk Back In’, ‘Same Old Heartaches’ and ‘More Than I Needed’, which aren’t really my bag, though it has to be acknowledged they’re well done.  More to my liking though is the closing ‘You Gotta Leave’, with its assertive lyric, stuttering offbeat rhythm, a jazzy Fender Rhodes piano solo from Pugh, and a jagged solo from Anderson that injects an edge the melody never quite acquires.
Dog Eat Dog shows off Billy Price’s mastery of soulful blues and funk, and if it tails off a bit towards the end – admittedly a matter of personal taste, in large measure – there are still a good half dozen tracks of real quality that are well worth getting your ears around.

Dog Eat Dog is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Geoff Achison & The UK Souldiggers, and Redfish - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 September 2019

I’m late, I’m late, for a date with a more than interesting support act.
As it turns out though, Redfish are only a song and a half into their set when I arrive at the Voodoo Rooms, in time to hear Martin McDonald serving up a fiery guitar solo and Sandy Sweetman giving the drums a fair old skelping.  And the Carlisle/Dumfries combo maintain that momentum from there till they vacate the stage.
I’ve seen Redfish a couple of times before, and a singular ingredient of their live performances is the fidgety capering of beardy, bunneted keyboard player Fraser Clark, who often looks like he’s delivering tic-tac-toe signals for a racecourse bookie.  I’m bound to say
Redfish keys man Fraser Clark listens closely for the lost chord
Pic by Stuart Stott
that in the past I've found his antics distracting.  But now, well really it seems like an endearingly daft display of enthusiasm.  And more to the point, it doesn’t detract from some entertaining piano prestidigitation on his part, rocking away on ‘Rakehells’, for example, while McDonald contributes some mean slide guitar.
‘For The Love Of A Good Woman’ is a good example of the Sixties British blues angle to their sound, underlined by the John Mayall-like stylings of Brian Harris’s vocals, and with more good guitar/piano interplay into the bargain.
They close their set with Charlie Rich’s ‘Feel Like Going Home’, a pleasingly different and soulful choice of cover, with hints of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ in Clark’s organ playing.  Awarded an encore, they get funky with ‘Phone Booth’, Sweetman and bassist Rod Mackay laying down a solid groove while Clark goes nuts to the point where his head ends up underneath his keyboard, and McDonald adds a ruff’n’tuff guitar solo to put the lid on proceedings.
Redfish have become an impressively robust outfit over time, showing energy, a real feel for what they’re doing, and some good taste in material.  Watch out for a forthcoming review of their album, Souls.
Geoff Achison finds fresh angles of funk on guitar
Pic by Stuart Stott
If Redfish are rooted in Sixties blues stylings, Geoff Achison pursues a rather more distinctive path.  As the Australian and his UK Souldiggers band kick off their set with ‘Working My Way Back Home’, the vibe is funky and free-flying, with Achison adding a husky vocal and unwrapping great tones on his pretty-as-you-please PRS guitar. They also work in some clever turnarounds, and keyboard player Paul Jobson announces his presence with some jazzy piano, adding up to a sophisticated funk-blues sound.  Their “theme tune” ‘Souldigger’ follows, with lots of witty asides from Achison on guitar, a flurry of bass from Andy Hodge, and a distinctively voiced organ solo from Jobson, en route to a characteristic Achison solo combining slide and wah-wah.
‘Walking Blues’ is a good example of what they do, with Hodge and drummer Sam Kelly laying down a swaggering groove with plenty of swing, a nimble fingered solo from Achison, and then some top notch guitar/organ interplay building up to a major funk workout.  It may be a Robert Johnson song, but as Achison observes with a grin, “We changed it a little!”  Instrumentally they’re a band who join the dots with consummate ease – upfront Achison and Jobson are each constantly alert to the other’s moves, while Hodge’s bass both counterpoints Achison’s guitar and ties it into Kelly’s rhythms.
But it’s far from being all serioso muso stuff – Jobson shakes everything but his tush as he underpins the rolling groove of the catchy ‘High Wire’, while Kelly is often to be seen and
Achison and co get down to some soul digging
Pic by Stuart Stott
heard hooting with pleasure at proceedings.  Meanwhile, with just a wah-wah pedal at his feet, Achison continues to combine it with slide playing, but on ‘Crazy Horse’ also gets into some cooler knob-twiddling and whammy bar flicking to conjure up different sounds.
A second set opens with Achison on acoustic guitar for the rootsy ‘Skeleton Kiss’, with its intriguing lyrics, and the more folkie, fingerpicking ‘Sovereign Town’.  Then with Achison back on his electric horse, ‘I’m Gonna Ride’ is a blues shuffle highlight, with a big open chorus adding a twist, and Jobson delivering a blisteringly good honky tonk piano solo, including some neat improvisations around the chorus melody.  In fact, if Fraser Clark’s keys playing demands acknowledgement, above and beyond his freaky shenanigans, I’d venture to say that Jobson is in another league, bearing in mind the jazzy, discordant and hugely impressive solo he contributes to the Average White Band-like ‘Voodoo’.
They close with a big fat groove on ‘Baby Come Back’, a fun song with a good hook and some tongue twisting vocals from Achison, who also adds some tips of the hat to ‘Alright Now’ and ‘Uptight’ on guitar.  There’s no time for an encore, but they’re coaxed back for one anyway, coming up with Muddy Waters’ ‘Sugar Sweet’ – but not, I’m sure, as Muddy would know it.  Nevertheless, with a brief guitar/bass face-off between Achison and Hodge, it’s a suitable dessert course to end an entertaining night.

Geoff Achison is touring Britain until Sunday 29 September - details available here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nine Below Zero - Avalanche

The other week on a long drive I gave a spin to Nine Below Zero’s Live At The Marquee, their first album dating back to 1980 and a ferocious blast of mod and soul inflected R’n’B, and very much of its time – 21 songs, most of them under three minutes, and you can practically feel the sweat in the room.
Nine Below Zero are bit more mature now, a bit more laid back, though they’re still a corking live band who will get you moving.  But Avalanche, building on the excellent 13 Shades Of Blue, shows how they’ve broadened their range over the years – and to good effect too.
The double diamond duo - Greaves and Feltham
The presence nowadays of Charlie Austen’s female voice extends their options, whether she’s taking a lead vocal or providing a foil for Dennis Greaves, particularly in exploring their soul influences.  The pick of the soulful bunch here is ‘Ter Wit Ter Woo’, a co-write between Greaves and Glenn Tilbrook – handy to have a mate like that, eh? – on which Austen’s clear, sweet voice makes the most of a great melody and hook, and some neat wordsmithing from (I assume) Greaves, while Mark Feltham contributes a typically mellifluous, songbird-like harp solo.  Almost as good though, is ‘One Of Sour, Two Of Sweet’, a neo-Motown soufflé that’s as catchy as hell, with Greaves and Austen duetting marvellously and the former adding a slithery guitar solo.  And Austen gets another turn at an aching vocal on ‘Recycle Me’, which also deploys some smoky sax from Chris Rand and gospelly backing vocals – and ache seems appropriate on a song about, literally it seems, organ donation.
They get funky too, on the instrumental ‘Hey Siri (Go **** Yourself)’ with its James Brown-like horn riff and some squealing harp from Feltham, and do even better on ‘Picture No Sound’.  The latter sounds to me like a chunk of second-line funk originating in N’Awlins, leaning on an electric piano riff from Will Barry, over a snappy beat and throbbing bass line from Sonny Greaves and Benjamin Wills respectively, and scorning yer usual verse-chorus-verse structure in pursuit of the groove.
But there’s some more direct stuff too, with the opener ‘I Wanna Be A Wannabe’ and
Charlie Austen and Dennis Greaves - like Sonny and Cher, not
‘Breadhead’ well to the fore.  The former is a bright, Jam-like affair that takes aim at the modern yearning for easy celebrity – though Greaves is too nice a bloke to really twist the knife, and the same is true on ‘Breadhead’, where the lyrics are sharp but not lethal.  Still, it’s got a driving, chunky riff and a Chuck Berry-like guitar solo, and is set fair to be a floor-shaking live stomper.
NBZ still sing for the ordinary Joe too.  ‘Race To The Bottom’ is another duet, with a lyric about the impact of economic change, while ‘Austerity Blues’ is an old-fashioned, simple blues with injections of harp from Feltham, and some nifty, stinging guitar from Greaves, which I reckon adapts an old rugby song in the lines “It’s the rich that gets the gravy, The poor that gets the blame, It’s the same the world over”.
There’s even room for some ‘Tequila’-style mambo backing on the closing ‘I Drink But I Don’t Get Drunk’, a party tune with twangy guitar, jangling piano and another sweet harp solo.  With some woozy trumpet, sax, and a suitably blurred ending, it sounds like the title is wishful thinking.
Nine Below Zero are a national treasure, still producing fresh and sparkling R’n’B sounds after 40 years.  Get yourself Avalanche, press Play, and be good and ready to enjoy a damned good night out on their forthcoming UK tour.

Avalanche is released by Zed Records on 4 October, and can be pre-ordered here.
Nine Below Zero are touring the UK from 5 October.  Check the tour dates here.