Sunday, December 10, 2017

Adventures in the South - Vicksburg to Lafayette

Now then, where were we?  Ah yes, Vicksburg.  For anyone new to the Adventures in the South travelogue down the Mississippi, you can go back to the beginning with the Prologue, or check where we left off with the Clarksdale to Vicksburg episode.
Vicksburg is generally recognised as the foot of the Mississippi Delta, the fertile plain spreading out from the Big Muddy.  It’s not a Delta in the classic sense, like the Nile Delta for example, occurring when a river branches out as it nears the sea.  What’s more, Vicksburg isn’t strictly on the Mississippi any more, having been left behind when the river changed its course decades ago.
Waking up in the Andrew Jackson Suite of the Anchuca B&B, we had Sunday breakfast in the airy dining room.  I decided to give grits another go, this time of the cheese variety, and it has to be said they were at least more palatable than the ones I’d sampled in Denny’s back in Memphis.
Just some of the local attractions in Lafayette that we didn't see
And then we were off, aiming for Lafayette, a couple of hundred miles away in Louisiana.  First stop though, was a Walmart on the outside of town.  I’d mislaid my shaver, so needed a replacement, and we took the opportunity to pick up a spare holdall as well.  And yes, the place sold guns, in all shapes and sizes.
Continuing down Highway 61, we stopped for lunch in a baking hot Baton Rouge, then took a sharp turn west to cover the last 50 plus miles along Highway 10 to Lafayette.  For a substantial chunk of this the road was on stilts over the bayou, with signs periodically advertising the presence of alligators in the area, which I think was designated a nature reserve or similar.  It was a dramatic example of the effort necessary to negotiate the swampy southern land.
Approaching Lafayette in the late afternoon, we were running low on petrol, and looking to the south there were dark clouds and flashes of lightning heading our way.  And sure enough, before we could reach a gas station, a tropical downpour arrived.  If you’ve ever visited Disneyworld, this was the same kind of rainstorm that seems to hit the Orlando area metronomically at 5pm each day in summer – short lived, but torrential.  And although it soon began to ease, it was still a bit disconcerting when you were struggling to find your way around town – which was a bit of a nuisance, as Lafayette was the one place on this trip where we hadn’t booked accommodation in advance.
After taking shelter and filling the tank at a gas station, we groped our way towards downtown, expecting that to be the obvious location for a hotel or two, we tripped over a Courtyard by Marriott.  Initially I went in just to see if they had a local map, but after a swift consultation we decided to take a room for the night.  We were feeling tired and grubby after the drive, and all too ready to avail ourselves of the very hospitable young staff, a decent room, and even laundry facilities.
The idea behind visiting Lafayette had been to seek out some Cajun music, this being the heartland of the style apparently.  This would turn out to be a bust though.  After having a rest, dealing with the laundry and getting freshened up, we emerged into the lobby looking decidedly more human.  “Hey, y’all clean up real good!” laughed the receptionist, which said it all about how bedraggled we must have looked on arrival.
We ordered a cab to take us downtown to a likely sounding restaurant, and had a drink while we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  A good 45 minutes later the cab finally turned up – and got us to the restaurant just in time to be told that the kitchen was closing.  In fact it seemed like the centre of Lafayette was closing all round, with the exception of a large sports bar, where we ordered a couple of beers and considered our options.
Cajun music was no longer on the agenda, we reckoned.  Options to eat out looked limited.  Our planning for Lafayette, we concluded, had been sadly lacking.  So we cut our losses, got a cab back to the hotel, and got fed and watered on a bottle of red wine and a couple of burgers and fries, while the hotel staff gave us tips for our next destination – New Orleans.

It may sound like a total cock-up, but it was one of those bizarre episodes you look back on and laugh.  Like WC Fields visiting Philadelphia, we’ve been to Lafayette.  It was closed.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

JW-Jones - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 3 December 2017

JW-Jones knows his onions, as they probably never say in his hometown of Ottawa.  Spruce looking in his shirt and tie, in a manner Muddy and the Wolf would have approved of, he and his band display an intuition for the blues, in numerous hues and shades, that guarantees a good night out.
They kick off with the energetic Lonnie Mack instrumental ‘Wham’, its influence on SRV clear, before getting into a brace of originals from his latest album High Temperature.  On the title track he shows off his ability to coax delightfully wonky notes from his gold top Les
JW-Jones - covers plenty of blues bases
Paul, before taking ‘Price You Pay’, and kicking its ass in a live setting by applying some very Stones-like grit to the riff.
Having introduced his own style, he and his compadres then apply themselves to some serious workouts around covers of a couple of Kings, namely BB and Albert. On the former he capitalises on some well jazzy bass and drums from Laura Greenberg and Will Laurin respectively, displaying effortlessly good tone with both finger picking and a pick, and conjuring up a fiery, swinging solo.  On the latter – ‘You’re Gonna Need Me’, I reckon – he then reinforces his command of the masters with a fluid and at times sotto voce (ie quiet, folks) solo in the midst of a chunky sound aided by a great bass groove from Greenberg.
‘Watch Your Step’ is a slice of rock’n’roll over a syncopated rhythm and heavy, rumbling bass, with Laurin and Greenberg, respectively, well in synch.  But as the set wears on Jones’ command of the genre becomes steadily more apparent, whether it be the imaginative solo he revs up to big proportions on a Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper, the slinkiness of ‘Some Mistakes’, or the heaviness he brings to Buddy Guy’s ‘Tell Me What’s Inside Of You’.  Jones covered the latter on his 2014 Belmont Boulevard, and the heaviness is entirely appropriate given the extent to which Buddy drew on the riff from Freddie King’s ‘Going Down’, but he gives it his own spin here with some more interesting guitar wrangling over bubbly, funky bass from Greenberg.
As the set progresses they loosen it up more, with ‘Magic West Side Boogie’ developing from a spangly intro into some seriously chug-along boogie and a touch of Dick Dale, while Laura Greenberg’s bass skills become steadily more evident.  Little wonder that the lady is on the end of a Maple Blues Award nomination.  Jones, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to segue into a ‘Voodoo Chile’ orientated solo and some more Jimi style avenues, conjuring up some shimmering sounds and good use of harmonics, before returning explosively to the tune at hound.
‘French Toast’ is an instrumental that allows them to have some fun, swapping instrumental
Laura Greenberg and JW-Jones - who plays what around here?
parts around, with Jones on drums and Greenberg striking a suitably rock chick pose on guitar in between paying homage to great rock riffs and even TV themes we have loved, to the evident delight of some of the punters.  Some behind the heads guitar playing from both Jones and Greenberg
They encore with the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ ‘Rock With Me Tonight’, on which Jones again offers up some tasteful playing to round off proceedings, following on from an impressive bass solo from Greenberg.
JW-Jones is a real student of the blues, and it’s apparent in the variety and wit of his guitar work.  He and his band put on a seriously good show.  Personally I think that if he played some more of his own songs towards the end instead of doing a bit of a blues-rock jukebox, then it would be even better.  But that’s just my preference – there were plenty in this crowd who lapped up Jones' performance regardless.
Support comes in the form of local two piece outfit Dixie Fried, with guitarist/vocalist Craig Lamie and drummer John Murphy going on a tour of North Mississippi hill country blues.  Lamie produces some satisfying guitar passages, picking bass notes with his thumb while playing over drumming from Murphy that’s often minimal.
There’s a touch of the White Stripes ‘getting away with it’ philosophy as they get into a Junior Kimbrough-referenced song with a Celtic lyrical twist, called ‘That Old Black And White’, which has nice rippling guitar over a simple kick drum beat.  Occasionally things feel a little bit stiff, reminiscent of the adage “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  But on the whole Dixie Fried show a commendable readiness to explore their very own slipping and sliding Mississippi vocation, with some real drive and grit on their set closer – and enough cowbell to make a hit of ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’.

Read the exclusive Blues Enthused interview with JW-Jones here.
And read the review of his latest album High Temperature here.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Flashback #9 - Texas

A month or two back I came across an interview in The Times with Sharleen Spiteri of Texas.  It was ghastly.  Full of celebrity tosh about how the best haircut she’s ever had was done by Kate Moss at her kitchen table, it seemed like a singularly naff means of promoting the latest Texas album, Jump On Board.  But given that it was apparently a top ten album in both Britain and France, what do I know?
To be honest, I didn’t even realise Texas were still in existence.  I imagined that they’d withered on the vine years ago.  But once upon a time, when they just out of the starting blocks, this was a band that managed to get bluesy, soul-inflected pop music into the upper reaches of both the singles and album charts.
Texas - all the young dudes
And they were hip too, part of a wave of Scottish bands such as Deacon Blue that achieved success in the late 80s and early Nineties.  When they played at Glasgow’s ‘Big Day Out’ festival, part of the city’s year as European City Of Culture, Maria McKee guested with them.  Unlike Sheena Easton, returning from the States for the event with a cod American accent to widespread scorn, Texas had credibility.
I remember seeing them at a sold out Edinburgh Playhouse, probably around 1991 on the release of their second album, Mother’s Heaven.  The place looked sold out, and they strolled on stage to guaranteed acclaim.  They were on home turf of course, but it was still good to see proper band, playing honest to goodness music, getting so much attention.  You could identify with them.
Their debut album Southside had a bone fide hit single in the form of ‘I Don’t Want A Lover’, a string of other strong songs for which bassist John McElhone wrote the music, and as a title track a nifty little blues guitar instrumental from Ally McErlaine.  The drumming was a bit stodgy mind you, mostly relying on the same rhythm throughout.  With a new drummer in Richard Hynd and the addition of Eddie Campbell on keyboards, I found their sound on Mother’s Heaven had more range and colour on songs like 'Why Believe In You' and the moody 'Walk The Dust'.  Chart wise they were already slipping though, and the following album Rick’s Road didn’t really hit the mark for me.  Strangely the CD seems to have gone AWOL, so whether that was a fair assessment I don’t know.
And then, of course, they came back a few years later with the spectacularly successful White On Blonde, featuring hits like ‘Say What You Want’ – with its pretty blatant nod to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ – and ‘Halo’.  It also focused their image almost entirely on Spiteri, an approach they’ve generally stuck to thereafter.
Well, I suppose musicians do what they have to do in order to get by, and major labels are all too ready to influence the marketing .  And it’s not as if Texas has morphed into Spiteri and a bunch of hired hands – she, McElhone and McErlaine have stuck together throughout, and good on them for that.  But still, it feels as if the down to earth ethos Texas had in the beginning, of a real band committed to following in the traditions of their influences, got lost along the way.
Ah well, c’ést la vie, the past is another country and all that.  Maybe I should give Jump On Board a listen, and see if they still show their roots beneath the sheen of success.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Samantha Fish - Stramash, Edinburgh, 27 November 2017

What a difference a day makes, as Dinah Washington sang.  In which case, how much difference can three years make?
The last time I saw Samantha Fish live was in 2014, about this time of year, on an another cold night in Edinburgh.  She was supporting Mike Zito, in an uncomfortably large venue for the size of audience, and borrowing his rhythm section.  As good as she was, and as good as Rob Lee and Scot Sutherland from The Wheel are, this performance was from a whole other dimension.  Sam Fish has matured hugely in the intervening years.
Samantha Fish - have a cigar, boy
Whether it’s working with other producers and musicians, or honing her skills through incessant touring, young Ms Fish has become a band leader, full of poise and confidence to go with her vocal and guitar skills.
And what skills.  As a singer, Sam Fish is astonishing.  With her range and control, soaring and swooping with incredible clarity, she has a singular vocal style.  And she makes the most of it with her delivery, telling stories expressively, whether it’s the cute humour of ‘Chills And Fever’, the smoky call and response passage with Mark Levron’s trumpet on ‘You’ll Never Change’, or the stunning simplicity of ‘Go Home’.  How the hell she turns this in night after night is beyond me.  Take good care of that voice girl.
As for the guitar, anyone thinking that song selections from the soul’n’rhythm’blues led Chills and Fever and the Americana-spun Belle Of The West would be lightweight reckoned without the rollicking rock’n’roll of her soloing on ‘Little Baby’, complemented by great bass runs from Chris Alexander.  Or the slide guitar on ‘Blame It On The Moon’, building into a southern rock style crescendo before falling away into a delicate piano coda from Phil Breen.  Or the extended and inventive, effects-tinged solo in a slowed down segment of ‘Somebody’s Always Trying’.  Or the big licks with cigar box guitar on set closer ‘Crow Jane’. Or – well, you get the picture.
For me the absolute pick of the set, where all this comes together, is the aching torch song ‘Nearer To You’, culminating in a gut-wrenching finale of wailing vocals, interleaved with wild guitar that’s underpinned by walloping drumming from Kenny Tudrick.  It’s a performance that completely transcends the album version.
Not much point in being a good band leader unless you have a crack band, of course, and
Acoustic, Americana, stunning simplicity
the boys backing the front lady deliver on that front, deserving their showcases on ‘It’s Your Voodoo Working’, Breen kicking off with a wicked organ solo.  Levron and sax man Travis Blotsky offer up an impressive horn duel, and Chris Alexander a cracking bass solo – and that’s a phrase I don’t use very often – before Tudrick does a brief but telling bit of tub thumping. Alexander in particular offers a good foil for his boss, grooving and grinning in equal measure throughout.
As for the audience, she develops an effortless rapport with them, playful and funny, down to earth – and visibly into it, with her stylish Marilyn-style mop flailing around as she gets stuck in to a solo.
Regrets – I have a few.  Nice to have her do a solo acoustic number for sure, but I reckon Belle Of The West offers stronger options than ‘Blood In The Water’, such as ‘Need You More’.  I’d have loved to hear her amped up version of ‘Gone For Good’ as well.  And it’s a shame she turns her back on material from before Wild Heart, as there’s still really good stuff in there, such as ‘Kick Around’.

There are times though, when you just need to take your sense of proportion, and chuck it out the window.  And when the crowd were roaring “Right now, right now” on cue, as Sam and co rocked out on final encore ‘Bitch On The Run’, that time had long since passed. Don’t be a stranger Samantha.

Read the review of Belle Of The West here.
Read the Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish here.