Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Fantastic Negrito - Fantastic Negrito Deluxe EP

If you’re looking for some guitar pyrotechnics, then you’re in the wrong place.  But if you’re in the market for a slice of blues and soul, freshly cooked with classic ingredients, then look no further.  If Prince were to wake up after a night dreaming of work songs, and head straight for the studio, the results might sounds something like this.  Maybe.
Fantastic Negrito may sound like a bonkers monicker, but apparently it’s the alias of one Xavier Dphrepaulezz – no, really.  And if that sounds bizarre, then California-based Negrito’s story is equally out of the ordinary.  The story goes that this is a guy who in younger days had a mega-bucks record deal
Fantastic Negrito - looking sharp
that didn’t work out, then later on had a car crash that left him in a coma and having to recover from critical injuries.  Coming back from these crises, he adopted the Fantastic Negrito persona to put together a new sound.  As his
website would have it, “Rather than update the Delta Blues, [he] leaves the original sounds of Lead Belly and Skip James intact, building bridges to a modern sound with loops and samples of his own live instruments.”
The opening songs of this seven track EP reflect that template.  ‘Lost In A Crowd’ and ‘She Don’t Cry No More’ both open with haunting field hollers.  The former adds a slow, stomping bass drum heralding the arrival of Negrito’s urgent, rasping vocal, over spare instrumentation interspersed with flourishes of organ and piano.  The latter is underpinned by subtle guitar, introducing an old-fashioned blues gospel singing, built around nagging refrains of ‘The rain falls down on me’ and the title line.
The melody of ‘An Honest Man’ evokes the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, but sung over understated piano and guitar, with bursts of vocal passion interjected by Negrito.  That stomping bass drum returns on ‘Night Has Turned To Day’, accompanied by sparse, modern beats and a gospel-like chorus.  The whole thing shifts to a different level over the repeated line ‘I ain’t back to the work’, accompanied by handclaps and bursts of slide guitar.
‘The Time Has Come’ offers something different, a slow, Sixties style soul-pop ballad with Negrito in Marvin Gaye mode, and a chord sequence that occasionally hints at sliding into Aretha’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’.  A relaxed piece of soul follows on ‘A Long Long Road’, founded on piano and swirls of organ over minimalist percussion, and featuring interchanges of falsetto and straight up vocals.  The closing ‘A New Beginning’ is funkier, with modern beats and more flashes of guitar, and coloured by female backing vocals.

The overall effect is redolent of the Black Keys, in the restrained vein of, say, ‘Psychotic Girl’ or ‘Everlasting Light’, but stripped down even further and at the same time more – well, black.  It all amounts to a promising start for the Fantastic Negrito imprint.  Can he evolve in the way the Black Keys did from their simple origins?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Flashback #6 - Pat Travers

In my old man’s garage I have a copy – in red vinyl, if I remember rightly - of Pat Travers’ album Live! Go For What You Know, acquired back around 1981.  But for the sake of convenience I recently got hold of a cd copy.  Why?  Well, partly because Pat Travers will soon be touring these shores. And partly because a couple of months back I heard Edinburgh band The Blueswater do a version of the classic blues track ‘Boom Boom – Out Go The Lights’, originally recorded by Chicago blues harp legend Little Walter.  In an otherwise excellent set, as I commented in a
review, this song seemed strangely underpowered.  But afterwards I reflected that this might be because I’m mostly familiar with the track from a version by Pat Travers, captured on the aforesaid live album.
I can’t say that I was ever a Pat Travers aficionado, but back in the mid-Seventies he seemed like a guy very much on the up. From the odd radio show, Whistle Test, and a Sounds compilation album I had picked up on tracks like ‘Statesboro Blues’, ‘Rock’n’Roll Susie’ and ‘You Don’t Love Me’, all of which had a gutsy blues-rock sound and piqued my interest.  So when a summer job a few years later allowed me to go on an album buying splurge, I decided to give Go For What You Know a shot, even though it didn’t feature much material that was familiar to me.
Stylistically, it focuses on straightforward hard rock more than the blues, with a shot of funk thrown in here, as on ‘Gettin’ Betta’ for example.  And there’s some impressive stuff in there, especially the likes of ‘Stevie’, ‘Makin’ Magic’ and ‘Heat In The Street’.  But at the end of Side 1 on the vinyl edition, ‘Boom Boom – Out Go The Lights’ grabbed my attention.
It’s a driving, revved-up blues singalong, with some sizzling guitar from both Travers and his guitar co-conspirator Pat Thrall, with emphatic lyrics matched by the music.  To a 19 year-old living in Scotland, it sounded like an innocent enough scene, the seething boyfriend threatened by a competitor, ready to punch someone’s lights out – I thought.  But a little while back, watching some blues documentary I think, it became apparent that the song reflected the darker reality of urban America, in which the ‘boom boom’ reflected the likelihood of a couple of gunshots aimed at the cheating girlfriend and the ‘other guy’.

There’s a saying, “the past is another country, they do things differently there”.  And the world of cotton picking, shotgun shacks, ghettoes and gun carrying is very different from the life many of us live.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sugaray Rayford - Southside

The passing of B.B. King didn’t just mean the loss of one of the seminal guitarists of blues history.  It also entailed the loss of one of the great blues voices – deep, rich and resonant – and the touchstone for a particular blues style, with a warm, jazzy, big band feel.  It’s comforting, then, to find that a band leader and singer like Sugaray Rayford aspires to similar vocal and stylistic capabilities.
On Southside Rayford, together with his bass player and writing partner Ralph Carter, opens up with a couple of tracks that are right in the BB vein.  ‘Southside Of Town’ and ‘Miss Thang’ are steady, relaxed, rolling numbers, characterised by Rayford’s deep timbre and quality phrasing, classy horns from Allan Walker on sax and Gary Bivona on trumpet, and some stinging lead guitar fills from Gino Matteo.  The following ‘Live To Love Again’ inhabits a still more laid back and soulful groove, before Rayford co pull a couple of rather different rabbits out of the hat.
Sugaray Rayford - taking it easy
‘Texas Bluesman’ ups the ante with a tribute to the blues greats of the Lone Star State, with Rayford shifting gears and summoning up extra vocal rasp and grit, while Matteo puts his foot down hard on guitar.  Then ‘Take It To The Bank’ affects an off the cuff acoustic jam on the back porch, rendered all the more authentic by Bob Corritore guesting on some down home blues harp.
With those songs bringing variety to the mix, ‘Call Off The Mission’ reverts to a Stax-ish Memphis groove, as a frame for lyrics expressing concern about the environment, violence, and armed conflict.  ‘All I Think About’ inhabits funkier territory, built around a rolling piano line from Leo Dombecki and brassier horn parts, and with some wah-wah guitar thrown in for good measure as Rayford describes his lipsmacking appreciation for his woman.
‘Take Away Those Blues’ is a slow-ish blues of ‘steady as she goes’ quality, adding little to the big picture beyond a twanging guitar solo from Matteo.  But ‘Slow Motion’, rather daringly for an album closer, does what it says on the tin.  It may not be a classic, or as intimately romantic as it aims for, but with its hushed, restrained and extended delivery it shows an impressively different slant to their repertoire.

Southside, Rayford’s third album, is a polished take on mainstream, soulful blues, from an accomplished ensemble.  But it’s the songs that shake things up and show more of what they can do that reveal the potential for future progress.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Blues! Roots Of The Blues - The Space, Edinburgh, 7 August 2015

“Blues!” has been offering a variety of blues music shows on the Edinburgh Fringe for a few years now, but Roots Of The Blues is a new addition to the family.  Hosted by Toby Mottershead from Edinburgh blues outfit The Black Diamond Express, it’s a little gem of a one-man acoustic show, in an intimate studio setting.
Presenting a selection of songs from some of the early blues masters, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure, Mottershead’s love for the music shines through.  He’s knowledgeable, witty, and sensitive to the material – and that’s just his between songs chat.
Toby Mottershead - fingerpickin' good
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
He starts the proceedings with an a capella version of Dillard Chandler’s ‘Short Time Here, Long Time Gone’, an Appalachian ballad that demonstrates he doesn’t feel constrained by narrow-minded definitions of the blues – and also shows off his strong voice.  Then he picks up his Dobro and sets off into slide guitar territory, opening up with Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, a song famously included on an album of music played on the Voyager spacecraft, and a excellent introduction to Mottershead’s great fingerpicking.  He segues it into a variant of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, and it’s interesting to follow the rhythm in a solo version of something that would often feature a distinctive “shave and a haircut – two bits” beat on drums.
He follows up with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down’, before switching guitars and ditching the slide for a batch of straight-ahead acoustic songs.  First up is Mississippi John Hurt’s delightfully titled, folksy ‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me’, which Mottershead introduces as “a classic blues fusion of sex and death” (you can here the original here).  Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Dying Crapshooter’s Blues’ is perhaps more down to earth, but features equally imaginative lyrics.
Mottershead drives these songs along with a great sense of rhythm, but he also demonstrates his grasp of the tradition as a writer as he plays his own ‘Good Woman (You Can Do No Wrong)’ – intended, he says, as a corrective to the bad rep women tend to get from many blues songs.  He then offers up another modern day example of the style, with ‘Jailhouse Blues’ by Australian singer C.W. Stoneking.
No good blues set should be without a ‘train’ song, and there are two to choose from here, the pick being Charlie McCoy’s rattling ‘That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away’.  Along the way Mottershead switches to another guitar, which he describes as “a piece of shit he got for a few quid on eBay” and says is more typical of the kind of instrument these blues originators would have played.  Frankly I think it’s still a cut above what those guys might have had at their disposal, but that’s by the by.  He coaxes some damn fine slide out of this model, before going back to his Dobro for Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘Write Me A Few Lines’ (covered in recent years by Seasick Steve, with some help from Jack White).
He closes with another a capella song, ‘The Parting Glass’, a folk song of obscure Scots/Irish origins which may not obviously be connected to the blues, except that as Mottershead rightly points out, cross-fertilisation was part of blues, country and folk music in America.  And it’s also interesting to contemplate the evolution of the blues over the decades from these stripped down beginnings.

No time for an encore on a tight Fringe schedule, but this is an hour well spent, in the company of an excellent guide.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Rising Souls - Tron Kirk, Edinburgh, 2 August 2015

Festival time is upon us in Edinburgh, and The Rising Souls are busy.  Hotfoot from doing a set at the Hard Rock Café Festival stage in St Andrews Square, they pitch up at the Tron Kirk, plug in, get miked up, check the monitors, and get straight on with the business of delivering their ‘stripped back soul’.
The Tron is an atmospheric venue, and fills up nicely with a mixture of tourists and, I suspect, Souls fans.  With a new album in the offing, the band deliver a 45 minute set that leans heavily on new material, starting off with the rhythmic ‘Give To The Women’.  Right away it’s apparent that the be-hatted Tom Reed has everything going on in the percussion department – cajón, cymbal, and tambourine and shakers on his feet.  ‘Down By The River’ follows, a simple, slower song with a dash of country in the mix.
The Rising Souls heat up the Tron Kirk
But it’s with ‘That Girl Is A Hurricane’ that the set takes flight, as Dave Archibald’s acoustic guitar and Roy ‘Kelso’ Laing’s bass combine with Reed’s box on quiet verses and a stomping chorus, with some tasty harmonies thrown in for good measure.  It begs for, and ultimately kicks off, a ‘Hey Jude’-ish singalong, which in turn is the springboard for a storming crescendo.  Dave Archibald may have a barnstormer of a soulful voice, but this is one of numerous songs that demonstrate he’s also a stonkingly good songwriter.
‘Lay That Tango Down’ is bluesier, rocking along over a nagging, picked guitar line.  They follow it up with a cover of ‘Pressure And Time’ by Rival Sons, Archibald’s favourite current band, which slots into their sound perfectly.  Choppy and funky, it shows just how tight they are, with Laing’s bass locked into Reed’s cajón.
The format may be acoustic, but they make terrific use of dynamics and changes in pace to bring variety to their sound, qualities that are clearly in evidence as they bring things to a peak.  ‘The Boxer’, from their 2014 mini-album (previously reviewed here), has a great hook from the very first chord, and by way of a cheeky bass solo from Laing (which I do believe quotes MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch This’, of all things) segues into ‘The Boxer Part 2’ from the forthcoming full-scale album.  With a riff that has distinctly Keef-like undertones, and a vocal straight out of a Stax single from the late Sixties, it cranks up the atmosphere big time.  ‘She’d Better Lift It Up’ features funky, wandering bass, and by this time Tom Reed is sweating bullets, drawing an extra loud cheer of appreciation when he’s introduced by Archibald.
‘Steady As She Goes’ is more laid back, and perhaps not as strong as the other material on display, despite some nice guitar towards the end.  But ‘Sorry That I Love You’ is a rousing set closer, with great vocal phrasing from Archibald, and a great chorus that drives the crowd into clapping along.

The Rising Souls are a singular kind of three-piece, with their no frills approach.  But this short set offers yet more evidence of their quality.  They’re playing here and there in Edinburgh every couple of days in the coming weeks.  If you’re in town, go see them.