Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Songhoy Blues - Somerset House, London, 16 July 2017

Malian desert blues honchos Songhoy Blues made quite an impression a couple of years back when they first ventured to Europe.  Their impact was such that they were even invited to contribute a cover of ‘Kashmir’ for a magazine’s CD tribute to Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
The courtyard of Somerset House seems like an incongruous setting for a band born out of the sub-Sahara and oppression.  But on a warm summer’s night it suits the vibrancy of Songhoy Blues’ performance just dandy.  They come onstage accompanied by The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, summing up their dilemma as guys who love their home but had to flee northern Mali for the capital Bamako, and they immediately begin to set the place alight with their energy.
Songhoy silhouettes at Somerset House
Right from the off they seem to offer a variety of influences and none. An early rolling groove with hints of drone sounds is a reminder that there are artists out there aiming to forge an Afro-Celtic sound.  Garba Touré’s lead guitar work is by turns brittle and jazzy, spiky and twirling, until he launches into a thoroughly guitar-heroic, wildly fuzzy solo.  Meanwhile Nathaniel Dembelé on drums and Oumar Touré on bass (yup, it’s a veritable tower of Tourés) lay down a shuffling rhythm.  Dembelé’s drumming may seem thoroughly Western in style, but the overall effect is subtly different, creating a singular sound.
Frontman Aliou Touré sings with conviction in both his own lingo and English, incorporating frequent call and response chants with his bandmates, while cavorting energetically about the stage.  Now and then he also straps on a guitar to thicken the sound, as on their theme song ‘Songhoy’ itself, with its chunky riff.
Garba Touré reaches for an acoustic guitar for ‘Hometown’, which shows off their range with an almost hill country bluesy riff while conjuring unexpected chords and directions.  In the next breath ‘Bamako’ is irresistibly funky, supplemented by trumpet and sax and featuring another sizzling guitar solo.  ‘Sahara’, on which Iggy Pop of all people guested on their latest album Résistance, takes a blues meets punk line, with GT’s guitar alternately pinging and then gritty.
But it’s probably ‘Ai Tchere Bele’, from their first album Music In Exile, that really underlines their range.  It’s a wacko collision of styles that recalls the wildness of early White Denim, with Aliou Touré’s dancing apparently infected by the spirit of Sam and Dave.

They close the night with an encore of ‘Voter’, from the new album, finishing the audience off with its pummelling riff.  For a band which grew out of the hardest of times, escaping sharia law, Songhoy Blues have a life-affirming energy about them.  “Music is the universal language” is a typical piece of between songs chat from Aliou Touré.  On this evidence, he knows whereof he speaks.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band - Lay It On Down

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a technically accomplished guitarist, with a reputation of long standing.  And if he’s good enough to be a collaborator with Stephen Stills in The Rides, then surely he can’t be easily dismissed.  So how come I have qualms about his new album Lay It On Down?
The trouble is that I find a chunk of the material here under-seasoned, and the condiments in short supply are personality and emotion.  There are times when things are just too neat and tidy.  For example the vocals of long-time KWS singer Noah Hunt, on ‘Baby Got Gone’
Kenny Wayne Shepherd driftin'
and the title track, sit at the upper end of his register, and are slickly thickened with harmonies, so that however sincere the sentiments might be, any individuality is squeezed out in favour of an identikit modern country singer.
That country reference isn’t accidental. The PR bumf for the album talks about Shepherd visiting to Nashville to work with a bunch of writers on the songs for this album, and if I say it shows I don’t mean it as an unalloyed compliment.  Songs like the two mentioned above, ‘Louisiana Rain’ (no, not a Tom Petty cover, but a paean to Shepherd’s home state), and ‘Hard Lesson Learned’ with its pedal steel guitar, sound like songwriting-by-numbers MOR country fare, albeit from experts in the genre.  It boils down to Shepherd playing it way too safe with stuff like this.
Happily a healthy portion of the material is more appealing.  For a start, I prefer it when Hunt drops to a lower key and they ditch the double-tracking, allowing his voice to sound both richer and more natural, enabling a degree of humour to permeate the likes of ‘Nothing But The Night’ and ‘She’s $$$’ (as in ‘She’s Money’).  The latter has a country rockin’ vibe akin to John Hiatt’s ‘Tennessee Plates’, and if it doesn’t have Hiatt’s level of wit at least there’s a spark of fun evident.
Things are always better when they step beyond those pesky country inclinations, as with the horns and squelchy guitar tones of ‘Diamonds & Gold’, and the funky undercurrent of ‘Nothing But The Night’, with the hint of staccato in its guitar riff and the phrasing of its verses, which does credit to the rhythm section of Chris Layton on drums and Scott Nelson on bass.  Similarly the strutting blues feel of ‘Down For Love’, with stabs of organ from Riley Osbourn, has a pleasing swagger that they take all the way to the bank.  ‘How Low Can You Go’, meanwhile, rocks’n’rolls in toe-tapping, rough and tumble fashion, with the insertion of a witty descending riff in imitation of the title.  ‘Ride Of Your Life’ closes proceedings with a chunky slab of a riff, a heap of automotive metaphors and a burst of guitar frenzy that may well tempt Shepherd into extended noodling onstage.

All in all Lay It On Down is an instance of one step forward and one step back, as instances of genuine, well-seasoned blues rock vie with tame and glossy Nashville fare.  On the whole the real deal may just about win on points, but it’s a close run thing.  Shepherd would do well to find a producer who will make him rough things up more next time round.

Lay It On Down is released by Mascot/Provogue on 21 July.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening

I may not be a Bonamassa fanboy, but sometimes I feel sorry for the guy.  Having his named booed at the Blues Music Awards, getting dubbed “corporate lawyer blues” by folk on Facebook and so on – such reactions seem a bit OTT to me.  The guy may have some annoying habits – his very ubiquity being one of them - but the occasional accusation that he plays it too safe doesn’t really stand up, as this live effort recorded in January 2016 demonstrates.
Playing with an entirely acoustic 9-piece outfit, featuring familiar collaborators like Reese Wynans on piano and Anton Fig on drums, as well as some new faces, Bonamassa conjures up a fresh take on some familiar material.
Joe Bonamassa's penchant for guitar porn gets out of control
Wynans opens proceedings with the piano intro to Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’, as a nicely witty precursor to ‘This Train’, which rattles along with plenty of brio.  Cellist Tina Guo serves up some fills that nicely counterpoint the riff, and Bonamassa contributes a steam whistle-ish guitar break.  It heralds an impressive opening stretch that includes ‘Drive’ and ‘The Valley Runs Low’ from Blues Of Desperation (still to be released at the time of these shows), as well as ‘Dust Bowl’.  Along the way it’s apparent that this set-up suits Bonamassa’s voice, allowing him to throttle back and concentrate on feel.  But for your money there’s also some spooky erhu (a ‘Chinese fiddle’) from Guo and a pinging, steely solo from the main man on ‘Drive’; a Celtic feel to passages on the simple but exquisite ‘The Valley Runs Low’; and on ‘Dust Bowl’ some interesting percussion from Fig and also Egyptian maestro Hossam Ramzy (who once upon a time featured on Page and Plant’s No Quarter set).
The middle of the hour and a half long set gets a bit erratic, with some so-so song choices and overextended renditions – ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ and 'Blue And Evil' would be down the pecking order in my ranking of JB’s material - though 'Black Lung Heartache' is impressive.  Kicking off with a traditional, slide-inflected intro from Bonamassa, it also has Guo's cello to the fore along with mandolin from multi-instrumentalist Eric Bazilian.  But they really hit their stride again with a laid back arrangement of ‘Mountain Time’, featuring magnificent, perfectly pitched piano from Wynans, who is frequently the real star turn of this show.
Black Country Communion’s ‘Song Of Yesterday’ is another highlight, an extended epic with a brooding opening, atmospheric cello and moaning backing vox, all creating an air of Zeppelin in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ mode.  With its driving, uptempo coda, it may be long but it’s well worth it.  Then down the stretch ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ serves up a ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ style guitar and cello workout from Bonamassa and Guo, before things cool off towards the end with BB King’s ‘Hummingbird’ and an overlong encore of ‘The Rose’.

Apparently this is Joe Bonamassa’s 22nd solo album release in the last 15 years, never mind all his collaborations.  That may feel like a relentless stream of product, but don’t let that put you off this outing.  Live At Carnegie Hall is something refreshingly different, and contains some real gems.

Live At Carnegie Hall is out now in both CD and DVD formats.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

New King King single reviewed: (She Don't) Gimme No Lovin'

Well, it’s all going off on this one, isn’t it? ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ is a chilli-hot appetiser for King King’s new album Exile & Grace, due in October.
Check out the basic ingredients: a prickly guitar intro as a prelude to a bone-crunching
Alan Nimmo racks his brain for the next line
guitar riff; driving bass from Lindsay Coulson; monster drums from Wayne Proctor; waves of surging organ from Bob Fridzema, who channels his inner Jon Lord on a brief solo; a neat guitar break and rocking vocals from Alan Nimmo, deftly bolstered by harmonies from Proctor and Fridzema.
Then there’s the lurching, neck-snapping bridge into the chorus, which should come with a health and safety warning when they preface it with a pregnant pause mid-song – then crash it into a sumptuous key change that’s the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Okay, so it’s not the most profound lyric they’ve ever written, but who cares?  Coming on like a mash-up between Whitesnake’s ‘Lie Down’ and Thunder’s ‘Dirty Love’, this is a shot of rock fever, served straight up.  So what are you still reading this for?  Watch the video – and get ready to rock!

Exile & Grace is released by Manhattan Records on 6 October.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Robin Trower - Time And Emotion

Now, I'm not going to tell you that I know Robin Trower's oeuvre inside out.  But he's been in the margins of my musical experience since I was in my early teens, back in the mid-Seventies, and saw some live footage of him on the Old Grey Whistle Test.  Which tells you something about how old I am – and that clearly Trower is no spring chicken nowadays.  I’ve also got a copy of Bridge Of Sighs, I’m pleased to say.  And at some point I also picked up a copy of his last album, Where Are You Going To, some of which I must admit I found rather soporific.
Robin Trower - an old fox not a spring chicken
So what I have I gleaned from my limited exposure to Trower over the decades?  Well, that OGWT appearance suggested a penchant for weird face-pulling while soloing which me and my juvenile mates found pretty comical.  Also, Trower's critics tend to view him as a Hendrix copyist, while his supporters regard him as a master of tone.  And last but not least, Trower's heyday benefited from the distinctive and soulful vocals of Jimmy Dewar.
That last point is important.  Because great vocals add a whole other dimension to great guitar work.  And knowing that Robin Trower had taken on vocal responsibilities himself on Time And Emotion, I approached it with some trepidation.  Could he really deliver?  Well, no and yes.  Okay, so he's no Jimmy Dewar.  But if my expectations were low, then Trower has managed to exceed them.  He may lack range and power, and his diction may be be a bit curious at times, but apart from all that – actually, he groans away satisfactorily throughout, in a sub-Knopflerish kinda way.
So having got all that out of the way, is Time And Emotion any good?  Well yeah, as it happens.  Right from the off, with the mid-paced shuffle of 'The Land Of Plenty', Trower sets a benchmark for well constructed songs and the mastery of guitar tones for which he's celebrated, often layering guitar sounds to create interesting textures, as on the slower, more reflective 'What Was I Really Worth To You'.
'Bitten By The Snake' is one of the most immediate tracks on show, with spiky guitar lines set off against an addictively toe-tapping rhythm from drummer Chris Taggart, and a good solo to boot.  'You're The One', meanwhile, is essentially a fairly slight song, but all the component parts fit together beautifully.  It has a winning melody over a lazy beat, and the guitar, bass and drum sounds are all perfectly placed in the mix, while Trower serves up an effects heavy, quavering guitar tone for his solo.
If you like a dash of funk then the loose-limbed 'Try Love' should fit the bill, with its engaging bass groove (Trower also plays bass, along with Livingstone Browne), while in a similar vein 'If You Believe In Me' is upbeat, with a strutting rhythm and bass.  It also features a sparkling little guitar refrain and a nicely fuzzy guitar solo, before veering off into a complementary slower section to close.
Trower can keep it simple too however, as he demonstrates on 'Make Up Your Mind', an old-fashioned blues slowie on which he deploys a more straight ahead guitar sound that makes for a pleasant change.
I sense that Trower has also put some effort into the lyrics throughout, although as his vocal delivery lacks the zest evident on, say the Starlite Campbell Band's album Blueberry Pie, they don't have the impact that they could.

Robin Trower may be an old fox, but young gunslingers like Dan Patlansky could still learn a thing or two from what he's produced on Time And Emotion, as he lives up to his tone master reputation on a set of solid songs.

Time And Emotion is released by Manhattan Records on 4 August.
Robin Trower plays London's Islington Assembly Hall on 29 November.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Airbourne - Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh, 9 June 2017

Many moons ago, when I were a lad, I saw AC/DC playing at Sheffield Polytechnic, with Bon Scott.  Standing next to me in the audience that night was some guy togged out in the full Angus costume, schoolboy shorts and cap, the lot.  As their set got going he made repeated calls for “MORE VOL-YOOM”.  A few weeks later at a Scorpions gig at Sheffield City Hall, I saw the same guy crawling along the front of the stage in front of the PA stacks, while the support band was playing.
That lad would have been in his element watching Airbourne.  In the enclosed confines of
Joel O'Keeffe has "a bit of a CHINWAG" with the audience
the Liquid Rooms, with Marshall stacks filling the stage, they make a racket akin to being in the middle of the D-Day landings.  The rhythm section delivers a physical punch to the gut that makes you feel the need for a bulletproof vest.  And in the midst of all that, Airbourne are huge, huge fun.
It’s very easy to describe Airbourne as AC/DC juniors.  The younger Aussies have the same way with a steamhammer guitar riff, a thunderous rhythm section, and screeching vocals.  But they also inject a Motorhead-like frenzy into the mix, and a post-grunge sensibility that makes them more contemporary than their inspirations.
At the epicentre of this storm is lead guitarist and vocalist Joel O’Keeffe.  If Bon Scott came across like a casually lascivious, leering black sheep of an uncle, then O’Keeffe seems like a wild-eyed, manic cousin cut from the same cloth.  Wiry and bare-chested, his between songs patter features regular squawked encouragement to “get pissed on a Friday night, EDINBURGH”.  And this audience, no shower of curious casuals, is well up for both that challenge and Airbourne’s set.  To say the joint starts jumping is putting it mildly - down the front there is clearly what I believe the young people call a mosh pit going on.
There’s some simple but effective choreographed guitar bashing, and Justin Street on bass and David Roads on rhythm guitar make frequent sprinted excursions from one side of the stage, while Street demonstrates degree-standard headbanging to further enliven proceedings.
Now, you might be asking about the music.  Well hell, what do you think?  Songs like ‘Girls In Black’, ‘No Way But The Hard Way’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild’ feature riffs as tight as a cork in a champagne bottle, while O’Keeffe effortlessly cranks out screaming solos in between working the crowd.  It’s rock’n’roll compressed to its core, a hurtling rollercoaster fuelled by adrenaline and beer.
But this is really all about the live experience, and the connection between the band and the crowd.  O’Keeffe does the Angus tour around the crowd solo thing, on a roadie’s shoulders.  He chucks cans of frothing beer to audience members, and – his party piece – smacks them off his head till they explode.  He encourages chants of “here we, here we, here we fucking go” – though they don’t need much encouragement, having got there first anyway.  Even his drummer brother Ryan gets in on the showmanship, kicking off the encores by hand-cranking an air raid siren.

Airbourne have been off my radar for a few years, since I saw them play the late, lamented Caley Picture House in Edinburgh back in 2010.  But clearly they continue to be an electrifying live force, with a committed fan base.  And they don’t half stand up for the liberating power of rock’n’roll.