Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Laurence Jones - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 June 2015

To paraphrase George Peppard in The A-Team, I love it when a band comes together.
Laurence Jones is undoubtedly a whizz kid in the guitar stakes, but the smartest thing he has ever done musically is probably to recruit the excellent Roger Inniss on bass and Miri Miettinen on drums as his band.  As this belter of a show demonstrates, these guys have the chops to form a trio that knits together in the most relaxed way, whilst really letting the Jones boy take flight.  The chemistry is evident throughout, whether in the way Inniss and Jones bounce off each other, or in the sense of playfulness that comes about because they’re all sympatico with each other.
Laurence Jones goes for lift off
Photo courtesy of Stuart Stott
The sound is big and meaty right from the opening ‘What’s It Gonna Be’, and if ‘Touch Your Moonlight’ is a rather slight song on record it comes alive more here, with Inniss carrying the riff asJones solos. The rocking ‘Don’t Need No Reason’ cranks things up another notch, and paves the way for the highlight that is ‘Good Morning Blues’.  The blues have got us alright, as Jones plays a blinder with a squelchy wah wah solo before making his Strat howl big time with a few shots of whammy bar – and then getting into some lock tight harmonised guitar and bass runs with Inniss as icing on the cake.
A tribute to B.B. King in the form of ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ offers a breather, and demonstrates Miettinen’s effortless sense of time and space, and ability to subtly vary the beat.  They go on to tackle ‘All Along The Watchtower’, and while I might often regard that as a redundant exercise, Jones sensibly doesn’t go for Hendrix but follows his own path, with some funky messing around before really taking off – and then briefly quoting ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for a bit of extra fun.  (And here, just to underline the point, my notes go on to say: “LOVE the rhythm section!”)
Maturity is a word Laurence Jones must hear a lot these days.  His voice is in the zone now, and his song-writing is getting stronger – it’s no surprise that the set draws most heavily on his latest album What's It Gonna Be.  There’s still room to grow though – there are fireworks aplenty on the guitar front, and he has his own character rather than being beholden to some obvious influence.  But I sense he can still acquire more soul, more sense of light and shade.
Jones and Inniss - a successful chemistry experiment
Photo courtesy of Stuart Stott
But hey, this isn’t about damning with faint praise; it’s about a recognition of more to come.  Jones’s guitar playing, it has to be said, took me aback with its range and confidence, and he is trying to break new ground on the song front – new song ‘Whisper In The Wind’ shows his adventure, with shifts in mood, reflective lyrics inspired by his late uncle, some neat finger picking, and an exploration of a Bad Company like style that’s more interesting than his cover of ‘Can’t Get Enough’ on his latest album.
Enough of all the discerning critic bit.  The crunching boogie of ‘Evil’ makes for a satisfying set closer, and they come back for a roof-raising encore of ‘Stop Moving House’, epitomising the effervescence and fun of the whole night – and of Laurence Jones himself.

In the support slot Blueprint offer up a set of 70s blues rock ranging across the likes of Rory Gallagher, Robin Trower and Led Zeppelin.  That’s a challenging palette, and they still have work to do to give it some coherence, imbued with their own voice.  But Chris Drysdale on lead guitar and vocals throws himself into some Jimmy Page moves with gusto, and if they can give that energy and enthusiasm greater focus they should get tighter.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Living the Blues - Marcus Malone interview

When I caught up with Marcus Malone for a chat it was at the end of a long couple of days for him and his band, having set off from London at dark o’clock the previous morning, before playing a couple of shows in Glasgow and Ardrossan.  Marcus wasn’t long off the stage from their Ardrossan set, reviewed a couple of weeks ago in these virtual pages, but how had the Glasgow Blues Club gig gone?
That was good,” he says, “that was hot – at the Record Factory, a good crowd, put on by George Lindsay.  He has a band in Glasgow, and I called him up to see if he could help me out with a gig, because we were coming up here to do Ardrossan, and he said you called at the right moment, he was just starting up a club there.  A lot of people came out to support it, we did a good show, and sold a lot of CDs, so everybody’s good and that’s really neat!”
Speaking of CDs, there had been mention recently about Marcus getting a new album out in the autumn, following on from 2014’s Stand or Fall, so I asked him how it was shaping up.  But he had a surprise to offer in response.
“Well, I think we may end up doing a live album,” he says, “because I don’t have one, and everywhere we go, people are asking, ‘Do you have a live album, do you have a live album?’  We’ve recorded the music for another regular album, but I think the live album might happen first.  So we’re going to be recording at a gig we have coming up in Chislehurst in about a month’s time – we’ll record a few gigs, we’ve got a great guy who mixes, and we’ll see how it goes.
Marcus goes for it
A new studio album is indeed making progress though, he says.  “That’s going well.  I’m mixing a bit of it – that’s the same band that did the Stand or Fall album.  When we did the Stand or Fall album we had about six cuts left over, so it’s basically a continuation – kind of ‘Part 2 Stand or Fall’, and it’s gonna be called Better Man.  It’s the same musicians, and we’re recording about eight new songs.  That’s going well, so it could go either way with the live album, but they’ll be in quick succession.”
Any tracks you’re particularly enthusiastic about?
“Yeah, you heard ‘em tonight – ‘Feeling Bad Blues’ and ‘House of Blues’.  Then we’ve got some more – don’t know if they’re gonna work or not, I’ve been playing with ‘em – but they’re kind of like Otis Redding, kind of short, three minute songs and they got that 60s kinda energy to ‘em.  So – it might work!”
Noting that his 2011 album Let the Sunshine In has a lighter, funkier feel than Stand or Fall, or 2007’s Hurricane, I wondered how an album might develop its own vibe during the process of being made.
“I don’t really get up in the morning and say I’m gonna write that,” Marcus offers.  “I just kind of get an idea for a song, and as it develops that’s the way it goes.  Like I said with these new songs I’ve been writing I’ve just been coming up with this Otis Redding vibe, they’re like really high-powered soul songs.
“But Let the Sunshine In, a lot of people said the writing on that they liked it better than Stand or Fall, but with Stand or Fall the concept of the album from beginning to end is better, ‘cause it feels like ‘this is a blues rock album’, whereas Sunshine feels a bit more scattered.”
Noting that some of the songs on Stand or Fall had different instrumentation, female backing vocals or other production flourishes, I asked what it was then like to strip them back again for live work with a straightforward guitar/bass/drums set-up.
“Well, a song’s a song, it’s a good song,” says Marcus.  “I mean we actually do those songs where we play venues where we do acoustic – where I play acoustic, we have two acoustics – the same songs can be broken down to just two people.  Then we play some songs where we might have bass, we might have a harmonica player come along, but it’s all acoustic.  A song’s a song – I think people go for the voice mainly, it’s the main melody.  All those other things are good around it – it’s like,” he laughs, “y’know, dessert!”
I mention the tendency among some blues artists to have more of a rotating cast of sidemen than a regular band, but if anything Marcus feels that lately he’s been moving towards the latter approach.
“Lately it has been, for the last couple of years, with Chris (Nugent, on drums) and Sean (Nolan, on guitar).  Mine is original music, so I almost have to have, really, a close-knit band.”
Having seen them play a couple of times now, I suggested that Marcus is pretty generous as a guitar player, not someone determined to have the limelight when it comes to soloing.  That raises a chuckle.
“Well, I don’t consider myself a Hendrix or something, but I do like to play – given the opportunity I will go for it!” he says, laughing.
On the vocal front, Marcus has now and then been compared to Paul Rodgers, and occasionally there are similarities, if no more than that.  But it seemed a bit ironic, I thought, that a black guy from Detroit gets compared to a British white guy who was inspired by the likes of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Motown.  Marcus laughs loudly at that observation.
Doubled down on guitar - Marcus and Sean Nolan
“I’m influenced by the same people!  To me, realistically I don’t sound anything like him – if he were here, singing this stuff, you’d realise I don’t sound anything like him.  I have a similar ‘feel’ as he does, a soulful feel, and I happen to be doing rock music, so that’s the closest thing that people can think of.”
And as a guitarist does he have any particular influences?
“I listen to a lot of different people, I listen to obvious people like Hendrix, soul players that played behind James Brown on the funky things.  I mean, you know, I listen to a lot of different things.  BB was also one of my favourite guitarists and I was fortunate to meet and open up for him at the Albert Hall.  A great guy and will definitely be missed.  And you can’t love Hendrix without appreciating Buddy Guy.”
Mentioning that from time to time he likes to drop the odd Lizzy-ish guitar harmony into a song, I wondered if that came from anywhere in particular.
That’s something I’ve always done, since the late 70s and the original Marcus band,” he says, referring to the heavy metal band he formed in the States.  “If you listen to that album you’ll hear like, triple harmonies – it’s always been there.  I used to have two guitars, at one point I had three back in the late 70s, and I used to hum the lines and they would play ‘em – so I’ve been doing that for ages!”
Latching on to Marcus’s Detroit background, I dropped his fellow Detroiter Ted Nugent into the conversation.  There’s a whiff of his ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ about the riff to ‘Can’t Stop’, I reckon.  Marcus is well tickled by the notion.
“Oh Teddy, yeah!  Okay – well actually Sean wrote the music to that, but I’m sure he’s not familiar with Ted Nugent,” he says, laughing – I thought it was more Aerosmith!  But I know Ted Nugent.  It’s funny how I met him, ‘cause he stole one of my drummers.  And then he picked me up once hitch-hiking – it was about 5.30 in the morning, I was on my way to Ann Arbor, that’s where he’s from as well.”
And from Detroit back in the day it was then back to the present.  Kaz Hawkins and her Band O’Men could be heard taking to the stage in the Ardrossan Civic Centre, and it was time for us to wrap up, and for Marcus and his band to get some down time ahead of their next gig in Warrington the following night.  The road, as they say, never ends.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Adventures in the South - Memphis, Part 2

To start Adventures in the South from the beginning, click here.
To read Memphis Part 1, click here.

Our second day in Memphis opened up with the return leg of our visit to the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum, picking up where we’d left off, and among other things learning more about the development, and ultimate demise, of Stax.  But Stax was just one of a number of significant studios and labels in Memphis in the 60s/70s, and the museum painted the broader picture too.  And it also showed how black music reflected an increasing assertiveness in the black community in the wake of the civil rights movement, epitomised by major stadium gigs headlined by the Isaac Hayes and others.
Dynamic Duo left, Million Dollar
Quartet right
Another “museum” visit took up the middle of the day – to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio.  For such a legendary rock’n’roll location, it’s a small space, and it doesn’t take long to do the tour of the upstairs exhibition space.  But of course the highlight is actually the visit to the studio floor itself, where you can pose with one of the original mics used in the 50s, on the actual spot where Elvis recorded his vocals – an X literally marks the spot.  On the wall is the famous picture of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and it’s fascinating to hear about the one-off, unplanned jam session that took place between them – and which Phillips astutely recorded. I especially liked the letter sent by the studio manager Marion Keisker to her son, serving in Germany at the time, which recounted the story in her own folksy way, oblivious to the momentous nature of what had just occurred.
While we were at Sun we bumped into a couple from Dublin, who told us they were staying at the actual Heartbreak Hotel – and it was “a shit hole”.  Laughing, they went on to say that the only option to eat seemed to be “Elvis’s favourite burger joint”, to which the hotel had a direct line to make bookings, and to which they could be chauffered in a pink Cadillac. It was, the couple reckoned, a too cosy arrangement – and the burger place was rubbish too.  Be warned, folks!
And on that note we were off to Graceland ourselves a little while later.  What to say about Chez Elvis?  Well, it’s the Valhalla of kitsch, perhaps.  The house itself is surprisingly small – but jeez,
Wheels of Steel in Beale Street
the decor!  Whether it’s the ‘Jungle Room’, with its collection of wild animal carvings, or the basement pool room with its suffocating drapes, the ambience is OTT.  There are a number of outbuildings as well, where back in the day Elvis and ‘the boys’ would mess about with whatever the recreational flavour of the month might be – a racquetball court that now houses his costumes, for example.  Just who were ‘the boys’, I kept wondering?
Back in town, we grabbed a decent bite to eat, and set out in search of our own recreation – to discover that Wednesday night is ‘bike night’ in Beale Street.  On a warm summer night, the place was mobbed with happy go lucky biking types and their pimped up, customised hogs, making for a noisy, colourful scene.

But what we really wanted was some honest to goodness blues music – and we found it at the Rum Boogie Cafe.  For a couple of bucks entrance fee, we got treated to the Ghost Town Blues Band, and were chuffed to find that these guys were the business.  Playing classic (but not obvious) covers and originals, with horns, cigar box guitar, the works, these guys felt like more than a gang of local wannabees.  Subsequent investigation revealed that they’d taken part in serious ‘blues challenges’, and had released a couple of albums well worth acquiring – Dark Horse and Dust The Dust (and there's another released since). One of the guys from Jerry Lee Lewis’s place the night before turned up, and promptly got up on stage to jam.  They were having a good time, we were having a good time, and it was the ideal end to a great day in Memphis.
The Ghost Town Blues Band at the Rum Boogie Cafe

To continue reading Adventures in the South with Memphis Part 3, including the Stax Museum, click here.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Hamilton Loomis - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 11 June 2015

The House of Blues has many rooms, and Hamilton Loomis mostly inhabits the soul/funk apartments, with a sound that suggests Stevie Wonder suddenly taking a liking to some Led Zeppelin riffs.  His disposition on stage is sunny, generally reflecting songs with strong melodies and simple, straightforward lyrics, delivered with impeccable musicianship by him and his band.  He’s also a bit of a showman, given to sharing in some goofily choreographed moves with his compadres.
Has anyone seen that confounded stage?
These elements are in evidence early on ‘She’s Had Enough’, a typically soulful affair wedded to a great, rocking guitar riff and embroidered with harp from Loomis, while drummer Armando Aussenac weaves in some neat cross-patterns.  The following ‘Everything I Had’ is similarly emblematic of his style, a smooth song punctuated by a couple of bursts of funky staccato – Loomis has a particular fondness for funky staccato.  His perfectly pitched vocals are similarly smooth, and if there’s a sense that the overall effect lacks a bit of heft, as on the rather unremarkable new song ‘Let Your Feelings Show’, then the counterpoint is that it’s always pleasingly nimble.
Loomis and co have plenty tricks up their sleeve to ratchet up the performance levels though, starting with Fabien Hernandez’ eye-popping tenor sax solo on ‘Give It Back’.  And they close the first half of their set with ‘Bow Wow’, which incorporates the trademark Loomis walkabout in the audience for some extended guitar soloing around a medley of classic rock riffs such as ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘American Woman’.
That turns up the temperature for the second half, in which a succession of strong songs lend feature spots to his band members, starting with another wailing sax solo from Hernandez on ‘Get My Blues On’.  Dante Ware delivers a squelchy turn on 6 string bass during ‘Stuck In A Rut’, adding in a slice of ‘Crosstown Traffic’ for good measure. Meanwhile Aussenac gives his hired drum kit such a going over on ‘Partner In Crime’ that running repairs are necessary by the time he’s done.
The good time ‘Workin’ Real Hard’ keeps the mood going, before they pull out another party piece during the hot funk of ‘Take A Number (Stand In Line)’, as they all rotate their instruments and belt out a succession of solos that bring the house down – especially the synth spot from Aussenac and a blistering guitar workout from Hernandez.  Like I said – showmanship!

On a glorious June evening the Voodoo Rooms may not have needed warming up, but support band The Blueswater do a good job of it anyway, with a driving set of Chicago R&B.  With the ever impressive Jed Potts on guitar, when they cut loose it’s the real deal, even if Gordon Jones’ harp could have been higher in the mix.  ‘Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights)’ seems a bit under-powered, and I could do without front man Felipe Schrieberg channelling Screaming Jay Hawkins quite so literally on ‘I Put A Spell On You’.  But ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, and their all action version of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’, with Charlie Wild joining in with Potts on a guitar wig-out, really do cut the mustard.