Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bernie Marsden - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 28 September 2015

Anyone rolling up to Bernie Marsden’s current round of shows anticipating him weighing into the likes of ‘Fool For Your Loving’ with a four or five piece band should recalibrate their expectations.  This could be billed as ‘An Audience With Bernie Marsden’, as the former Whitesnake man, ably assisted by Jim Kirkpatrick on guitar, harp and a share of vocals, delivers a largely acoustic set of songs interspersed with stories and audience Q&A.
Avuncular and affable are adjectives that could have been coined for Marsden.  He’s self-deprecating about his roly-poly shape and his aged dad’s lack of trust in him to change a plug, but less self-effacing about his guitar-playing and writing ability and the quality of the classic Marsden/Moody Whitesnake line-up – and rightly so.
Bernie Marsden - a talented little sod
He eases into things with ‘Linin’ Track’, a field holler inspired blues that also opens his latest album Shine, and follows up with ‘Till The Day I Die’, which he points out is a David Coverdale composition – throughout the evening he’s as happy playing others’ songs as his own.  And it’s a never-released Rory Gallagher track, ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ that provides one of the first highlights, with Kirkpatrick’s vocal hinting at Rory’s singing style and a measured, tasteful solo from Marsden.
‘Time Is Right For Love’ is hauled out from the nether regions of Whitesnake’s first album, Trouble, a song that Marsden says was dismissed by the whole band after one outing.  But he’s right to suggest that it’s an unfairly overlooked little gem, which in this light but warm incarnation feels like Bernie is channelling his inner Van Morrison.  It’s a good example of how songs can realise their potential in different styles.  He introduces ‘Is This Love’ with a tongue in cheek suggestion that Coverdale should have given him a writing credit for it.  Like Robben Ford, say, Marsden has a light voice that lacks the oomph and personality of truly great singers, but he’s tuneful and has a decent spoonful of soul, and not for the last time delivers a vocal that probably does the song more justice than ol’ DC could do these days.
He takes the piss out of some of Coverdale’s pretensions in the way only a mate could, doing a fair imitation of his Redcar-gone-AWOL accent, but at the same time gives him credit where it’s due.  Peter Green’s monosyllabic chat is similarly mimicked in the intro to ‘Dragonfy’, an old Fleetwood Mac song penned by Danny Kirwan and covered by Marsden on Shine – Green agreed to collaborate on the song but then no more was heard from him for months.  It’s another standout though, as Marsden demonstrates a lovely tone and produces a wonderfully relaxed solo very much in the spirit of Green.
He plays ‘Dragonfly’ on a twin-neck electric, having already made use of its 12-string option in the service of ‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More Today’ – again, acknowledging that the song came from Micky Moody rather than himself.  Nevertheless, his playing highlights the lightly ringing chords to which the song owes much of his appeal.
A spare, earthy acoustic blues heralds the closing stretch, in which Marsden comments on the explosive success of ‘Here I Go Again’ in the years since he left Whitesnake.  Interestingly, in this twin acoustic rendition, with Jim Kirkpatrick supplying harmonies, the song sounds like something that could easily have been recorded by the Eagles rather than going global in the heavily-coiffed 1987 version of David Coverdale’s outfit.
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s ‘Ain’t No Love (In The Heart Of The City)’ is a temptation for a soulful singalong, before Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ brings the night to a rousing end.  Marsden introduces it by recalling how he was bluntly informed by Peter Green that he was playing the riff wrong.  Not an observation that would often be made of Bernie Marsden, I imagine.  He is, as Jon Lord apparently put it, “a talented little sod”.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Adventures in the South - Clarksdale, Part 1

We were about ten minutes away on Highway 61 when the iPod’s American playlist coughed up the title track of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s album ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’.  The song was appropriate not just because of it’s timing, but because in a sense the song was the inspiration for being here in the first place.  When the album came out I had read a feature in which Plant (I’d guess, Page being a less likely interviewee) explained the inspiration for the song.  That article gave a name to the kind of small town in the South that had real significance in the development of the blues, and also gave me the notion for the first time of travelling down the Mississippi.
A short while later we parked up to take some pictures at one of the key reasons Clarksdale has long been a key focal point in blues folklore – ‘the Crossroads’.  Later that afternoon it was to be
The Crossroads - no devil in sight
the subject of an entertaining conversation with Roger Stolle, owner of Cat’s Head Delta Blues and Folk in the town centre.  In the course of giving us some directions, Roger referred in a withering tone to “the so-called Crossroads”.  I laughed in response, and Jill asked why.  Between us Roger and I explained that people often attributed the significance of Clarksdale’s crossroads to being the location of Robert Johnson’s legendary midnight deal with the devil, but that this was nonsense.
“So why did we bother to stop there?” asked Jill.
“Oh, you’ve still got to go and get a picture!” laughed Roger.
And you do, because the real significance of the Crossroads is that is the intersection between Highway 61 and Highway 49, two key roads that carried many a bluesman out of the Deep South towards a new life in northern cities such as Chicago, during the Great Migration.  No, there’s not much to it, and precious little sense of mystique as you dodge traffic to get a picture of yourself taken with the tell-tale signage, but it’s still an iconic spot in blues history.
Leaving the crossroads, we carried on into town to the Delta Blues Museum, a neat and worthwhile attraction.  Founded back in 1979, it moved to its current location in the old railway depot in 1999, and has an interesting collection of blues memorabilia, and one key exhibit – the house in which Muddy Waters grew up at the Stovall Farm plantation, reconstructed from the original rough and ready timbers.  I say house, but it is the definitive shotgun shack, essentially one room, and with cracks between the planks of the walls that may well have been filled and covered with nothing more than paper.
There is another exhibit that can often be seen in the museum, when it’s not touring Hard Rock Cafes around the country in order to raise money – the “Muddywood Guitar” designed by Billy Gibbons and made from a cypress timber recovered from Muddy’s cabin. It’s a relatively simple but idiosyncratic design that I’d describe as a squared-off cross between a Telecaster and a Firebird, although I imagine nobody would agree with me.  Coloured white, it features a Mississippi River graphic painted on the neck and body, because as Billy Gibbons put, painting it blue would be “too corny”.
We left as a group of day tripping Stax students were scurrying around taking the place in, and as we exited I picked up a copy of Steve Cheseborough’s excellent book Blues Travelling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues.  Have to say I’m not that interested in the gravestones of long-dead bluesmen, but the book provides a wealth of information about towns and characters instrumental in the development of the blues.
Outside Ground Zero
Strolling around the town centre, it was striking how quiet it was.  Partly this was because of the blistering midsummer heat, but it was also noticeable how many retail units lay empty.  Much of the town’s economy seems to have migrated to the strip mall outside town where our hotel was located.  But sadly the place also just seems to be up against it.
We wandered into Ground Zero, the bar and venue that gets plenty of attention because it’s co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and had a quiet drink out of the sun.  It’s a good space, with a lengthy bar down one side.  But it’s also a bit odd – a refurbished and buffed up bar that features floor to ceiling graffiti, and toilet cubicles with what seem like shower curtains for doors.  Seems to me this is taking fake authenticity a bit too far, though the place does provide another focal point for the town.

Roger Stolle’s store, meanwhile, is a treasure trove of blues and folk-art artefacts, and the man himself, a noted ambassador for the blues, is more than happy to dispense directions and advice.  When we mentioned that we were hoping to take in some music that night, he immediately produced a leaflet listing the week’s gigs, and recommended us to take in Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and the Blues All-Stars, who were playing at Red’s Blues Club.  Which, as it turned out, was a good call.

You can find Part 2 of our Clarksdale visit here.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lil' Jimmy Reed - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 17 September 2015

Set lists?  For wimps.  Song titles?  Nah, knowing what key it’s in enough.  Saying Lil’ Jimmy Reed has a back to basics approach is putting it mildly.  But you know what?  This show was a classic example of the elemental power of Mississippi blues - a tour de force of less is more that had this observer grinning from ear to ear.
Lil’ Jimmy, if you didn’t know, is a vintage Louisiana bluesman, real name Leon Atkins.  He got his stage monicker because his breakthrough arrived when he stepped in for the real Jimmy Reed at a gig back in the fifties, his hero being overly tired and emotional.  His chief partner in touring crime is London boogie woogie pianist Bob Hall, a founding member of The Groundhogs and in his time sideman to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and a list of others the length of your arm.
Lil Jimmy Reed and pals - not your average young gunslingers
They get the show on the road here with a cranked up ‘TV Mama’, from new album Blues In Paradise, with biting slide guitar from Reed, and great interplay with Hall’s keys, played out over a chugging rhythm.  It’s the start of a set that features originals and a smattering of blues classics.  On the slow groove of ‘Tell Me Baby’ Reed adds the proverbial wailing harp to the mix, before shifting into ‘Big Boss Man’ from Jimmy Reed the Elder.
There’s a lengthy debate about the next song, which seems to establish nothing more than that “it’s in G”.  How this helps drummer Simon Pooley is anyone’s guess, but it’s a belter of
"It's in G!"
a track nevertheless.  Reed kicks off with sparse, skidding licks, before Bob Hall demonstrates that he knows precisely what’s what, intuitively complementing Reed’s guitar fills as the song resolves into ‘When You Leave Don’t Take Nothin’’, also from the new album.  Playing without a pick throughout, Reed’s long, spindly fingers work their magic on something that might or might not be titled ‘Down In The Jungle’, as a prelude to a blistering solo from Hall.
On (big) Jimmy Reed’s ‘Can’t Stand To See You Go’ the combo conjure up a simple groove and plunder it to the hilt.  The drive and swing in that groove is remarkable, produced by just guitar, drums, piano and Hilary Blythe’s short-scale acoustic U-Bass.  ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ features ringing guitar, before Reed goes down dome different roads with his licks on a slowish blues, showing the value that can be extracted from what might be regarded as bum notes.  (I seem to remember reading about Captain Beefheart telling someone that he tried to find every wrong note he could.)
The set closes with a stonking version of ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’, concluding when Reed “retires hurt”, as Bob Hall puts it, with a cramp in his left hand.  Such are the challenges for a veteran bluesman, who can still show younger generations a thing or nine.
Support act the Al Brown Band are a mite too jazzy for these ears, but that’s just personal taste.  They’re an accomplished outfit, and turn out a good version of Louis Jordan’s ‘Early In The Mornin’’, working around a jungle-like rhythm. On the slow blues of ‘Jelly Roll’ Brown
Brian Carpy and Al Brown - jammin'
on guitar and Matthew Bell on keyboards combine naturally, and Brown’s solo never lets the melody get entirely out of earshot.  But mellow is very much the name of the game.

When Glasgow chum Brian Carpy, now emigrated to Chicago, gets up to jam on Freddie King’s ‘Sidetracked’, it provides a welcome shot of electricity.  Brown immediately raises his game, Carpy fires a solo in from unexpected angles, and even Bell gets off his stool, presumably to follow more easily what the two guitar players are up to.  ‘T-Bone Shuffle’ similarly demonstrates how the challenge of jamming can charge a set with additional energy.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Gerry Jablonski and the Electric Band - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 5 September 2015

Balance and variety.  When Gerry Jablonski and the Electric Band get those two elements working in tandem, they’re very good.  The balance is between Jablonski’s guitar and Pete Narojczyk’s harp, personifying a happy collision between mainstream (but not derivative) blues-tinged rock and a throwback to the days when harp players were often the star soloists in Chicago R&B outfits.  In itself that synthesis is an original approach.  But like Bad Company, or in more recent years Thunder, Jablonski and co also broaden their repertoire with excursions into other territory.
Their strengths are immediately apparent as they kick off their set with some grinding, pulsing riffing before Narojczyk kicks in on harmonica with punkish intensity, as a preface to some classic call and response with Jablonski.  None of the individual elements may be new, but with a driving rhythm section the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  The following ‘Hard To Make A Living’ ramps up this formula, with a surge of wah-wah guitar from Jablonski followed up by a ferocious harp solo from Narojczyk.
'Blow that harp, Pete!'
They follow that up with differently original stuff, Jablonski contributing jazzy chords to the delightfully upbeat ‘Lady & I’, on which Grigor Leslie on bass and Lewis Fraser on drums show how they can swing.  By the same token ‘Rich Or Poor’ has the kind of restrained but funky feel of some of Bad Company's more laid back offerings.
They throw themselves into the title track from their latest album, ‘Trouble With The Blues’, with some squelching bass from Leslie a prelude to fierce harp and guitar solos.  The following ‘Hard To Make A Living’ builds from mournful harp into a swell of power, in classic slow blues territory.  Balance is in evidence throughout all of this, the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Variety comes with ‘Anybody’, a plaintive, almost Beatle-ish ballad on which Lewis Fraser shows off his vocal talents.  ‘Big Bad World’, meanwhile, illustrates their willingness to take on big subjects lyrically - the reference to Putin’s Russia flexing its muscles understandable given the Polish origins of Jablonski and Narojczyk.  ‘The Dance’ follows, one of their best pieces of writing, spinning off from mainstream rock in a similar fashion to something like, say, the Stones’ ‘Under Cover’. ‘Virgil Cane’, an apparently seldom performed track from their Life At Captain Tom’s, offers another instance of out-West type Bad Company or Eagles sounds.
And then . . . and then the balance is lost for a while with the likes of 'High On You', a prosaic, 70s style power ballad, where the harmonica may still be present but takes a back seat to epic guitar soloing.  Gerry Jablonski’s axe hero capering wears thin when not balanced with Narojczyk’s twitching urgency. The guy has guitar-playing chops, but they are best deployed in combining with the strengths of his fellow band members, rather than exploring epic guitar wig-out horizons.
Thankfully, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ saves to the day, closing the set with the kind of funky, original sound that they’re capable of at they’re best, before they brew up a rabble-rousing racket of an encore with the boogie of 'Sherry Dee', whipped up out of all recognition from its recorded version.

Openers the Simon Brett Band are admirably tight but loose through much of a set exploring Clapton/Cream/Cale stylings.  Brett’s guitar injects a jolt of energy into the all too often soporific ‘Call Me The Breeze’, while Dougie Hamilton on drums looks like he’s having a whale of a time delivering some excellent drums on ‘Crazy Mama’.  Meanwhile Tracy Shaw on bass gradually ups the ante from a casual stroll to jazz it up and gel with her bandmates’ vibrancy.  John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’ is a similar high point, with plenty of dynamics thrown in.  But by the time they reach the closing ‘Pack It Up’ they’re in danger of gilding the lily, giving it plenty apart rather than together.  Less is more sometimes folks – the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts.