Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Endless Groove - Buddy Guy's Sweet Tea

Nice to see Buddy Guy getting a ‘Best Blues Album’ Grammy for Born To Play Guitar.  But listening recently to his 2001 album Sweet Tea does rather put his latest outing in perspective.  Because as enjoyable as BPTG is, Sweet Tea is a whole other ball game.
If you’re already familiar with it then you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If not, then it’s worth telling you, because it’s not exactly widely available, and unless you get a used CD you’re likely to have to shell out 20 quid for it.  I got it partly out of curiosity, because Ian Siegal’s collaborator Jimbo Mathus features on rhythm guitar.  What I got for my money though, is a monster of an album.
Recorded while he was still signed to Silvertone, Guy may have been 65 at the time, but this set doesn’t present him in the cheerful old grandad mode that seems familiar now.  Even the cover photos set a different tone, with a frizzy haired Guy in half shadow, and looking as moody and enigmatic as Miles Davis wondering if he’s left the oven on.
The album was recorded at the Sweet Tea recording studio in Oxford, Mississippi, and produced and mixed by the studio’s owner, Dennis Herring.  Unsurprisingly then, most of the nine songs here are drawn from the North Mississippi hill country canon.  Four of them are by Junior Kimbrough, who famously said: “My songs, they have just the one chord, there’s none of that fancy stuff you hear now, with lots of chords in one song.  If I find another chord I leave it for another song.”  Which maybe provides a clue to what has been described as “a hypnotic, grooving type of blues”.
Buddy Guy isn’t from Mississippi, of course.  He was born in Louisiana, before moving to Chicago.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the style explored on Sweet Tea represented some kind of weird experiment for him.  John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’ was one of his inspirations as a youngster, and while Hooker grew up near Clarksdale he learnt guitar from his stepfather Will Moore, who came from Louisiana.  Moore, according to blues historian Robert Palmer, was brought up on a brand of “hypnotic, one-chord drone blues”, with songs “that fitted traditional and improvised lyrics into a loose, chant-like structure”.  And if you listen to Louisiana’s Tony Joe White, from a later generation, what you hear is again a mesmeric, seemingly endless groove.
So the album opens with ‘Done Got Old’, with Guy playing solo on acoustic guitar.  But if something like ‘Come Back Muddy’ from his latest album has an air of sentimentality about it, this is dark, sombre, and reflective.  It’s a downbeat opening, drawing you into the mood.  The band then kick in on the following ‘Baby Please Don’t Leave Me’, which sets the template for much of what follows.  A doomy rhythm sound is the foundation for a simple lyric - forget about verses and choruses, you get a repetitive refrain, delivered in a plaintive wail, around which Guy weaves a succession of howling guitar fills, with swathes of reverb and hints of distortion to twist the knife even further.
This, I may tell you, is merely the little brother of the seventh track, ‘I Got To Try You Girl’, a 12-minute mantra of concentrated, determined lust.  Twelve gripping minutes, the overall effect of which is somehow primitive and timeless, but at the same time stratospheric and revolutionary.  It’s as if Guy has managed to vault back in time, dig up the very roots of his blues, then travel forward to the Sixties and fuse it with his own influence as a kind of proto-Hendrix, before re-emerging in the 21st century.  It is, as they say, something else.
In between there are examples of the more shuffling, syncopated side of hill country blues, such T-Model Ford’s ‘Look What All You Got’, and ‘She’s Got The Devil In Her’ with its relentless, buzzing bass riff.  The latter comes from the pen of Cedell Davis – who has had releases in recent years produced by none other than Jimbo Mathus.

Tour de force, blockbuster, call it what you will, Sweet Tea really and truly demonstrates Buddy Guy’s genius.  Somehow I doubt that he’ll be playing much of this stuff when he tours the UK this summer – but it would be incredible if he did.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters - Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 21 February 2016

Guitarist, singer and occasional banjo player Jed Potts is a mainstay of the Edinburgh blues scene whose playing I’ve enjoyed in various different contexts at times over the last couple of years.  But when it comes to his blues trio Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters, their schedule and my diary have conspired against me catching them again since the launch of the Edinburgh Blues Club two years ago.  No matter, this week the planets were aligned for once, and I managed to catch them at the Jazz Bar – and, as a special bonus, with a horn section drawn from some of Jed’s compadres (the Hillman Husky Horns, no less).
Jed Potts - Eyes Wide Shut
They kick off in trio format though, with a Freddie King instrumental, and from the off there’s great guitar from Potts, attacked with funky exuberance.  The following ‘Fishing After Me’ – essentially ‘Catfish Blues’ by another name – reinforces that sense of gusto.  Over a shuffling rhythm, Potts gets physically engaged in his soloing, responding to the rhythm of the song.  And on a subsequent slow blues his guitar licks go in unusual directions, with variations in tone including some nicely squelchy notes.
The horn section enters the fray for BB King’s ‘Days Of Old’ – which, let’s face it, would be better titled ‘Gonna Ball Tonight’ – and immediately hits the bullseye.  By the time they get to Larry Williams’ proto-rock’n’roll jump blues ‘Boney Maronie’ the whole outfit is in top gear, with a great sax solo from Tom Pickles, rumbling guitar from Potts, and a belting horn ensemble passage.
They drift through something which Potts characterises with a Neil Young quote as “starting off slow then fizzling out”, but which actually features nicely woozy horns and a tense, piercing guitar solo.
One of the key things about Jed Potts, I think, is his pervading sense of fun, whether it’s on Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson stuff of a ‘Blueberry Hill’ mode, with biting guitar sounds and Hispanic undertones, or when blasting through Chuck Berry’s ‘Back to Memphis’, with the horn guys showing well-drilled synchronicity – or indeed on Gary US Bonds ‘New Orleans’, where his guitar solo demonstrates his happy knack of taking you where you want to go, but surprising you with how you get there.  And into the bargain, he’s capable of taking blues of different modes, and elements of New Orleans funk, and melding them into something coherent.
Potts was ably assisted here by Jonny Christie on drums, Craig McFadyen on bass, and the horns of Tom Pickles (sax), Charles Dearness (trumpet) and Ross Lothian (trombone).  For his next adventure I’d like to see whether he’s got some original material up his sleeve.
Support act Piranha Blues also feature a tasteful selection of blues covers.  ‘Help Me’ is restrained and reflective, with an interesting guitar solo from Richard Price and mournful harp from guest Roy Mitton.  ‘Mean Old Frisco’, meanwhile, hits the mark as a shuffling country-ish blues, with a nicely twangy slice of guitar from Scott Hannah.  Personally I’d like stuff like ‘Tore Down’, ‘Walking By Myself’ and ‘Ice Cream Man’ to have a bit more welly – just kick it in the nuts, guys! But that’s probably more to do with my previous acquaintance with these tunes with anything else. To be fair though, on the set closer of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘The House Is A Rockin’’ they duly deliver the kind of rough and tumble that keeps me happy.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Rising Souls - Yardbird

About 56 seconds into ‘Hurricane’, the subdued first verse sweeps into a chorus with which everything about The Rising Souls clicks into place – a funky bass line from Roy ‘Kelso’ Laing, the rhythm Tom Reed creates on his càjon, a complementary acoustic guitar riff, and a catchy vocal melody from Dave Archibald.  It’s a hook so good that really it should be given a turn or two more around the block than it gets, even if it does morph into a singalong coda along ‘Hey Jude’ lines
Roy 'Kelso' Laing and Dave Archibald - bunnets ahoy!
Why start here?  Because it’s indicative of what this lot are capable of, even if the appeal of some of the material on this album is less immediate.
Patience and restraint are not commodities that are often in evidence in modern music, but they play a distinctive part in what The Rising Souls offer.  Partly this may reflect the confines of their semi-acoustic line-up, but it’s also indicative of Dave Archibald’s capability as a songwriter
The opening ‘Intro’ and following title track evolve from slow, restrained guitar picking and wordless humming with a crackly, 78 rpm feel, into a minimalist arrangement – a guitar chord here, some scattered bass notes, a swish of cymbal – underpinning a vocal from Archibald heavy on melisma, that stretching and bending of vowels typical of blues and soul singing.
Dave Archibald’s soulful voice isn’t the only aspect of their sound that occasionally brings to mind Bad Company.   ‘Preacher’ offers a tense, pulsing bass line that harmonises with Archibald’s guitar, carefully punctuated by Tom Reed’s box and percussion – and another simple but great hook.  The result is something reminiscent of, say, ‘Ready For Love’, or ‘Bad Company’ itself, though shorn of piano and Mick Ralphs’ chunky electric guitar.
Tom Reed - box master
A song like ‘Miss Hero’ is indicative of the Souls’ simple side.  Its easy, laid back melody is played out over a loping, country-style bass line and spare guitar chords, while Tom Reed supplies a trotting rhythm and interjections of harp.  Occasionally the recording could be a bit more intimate, as on the vocals of ‘Just Ask’ where a bit more warmth and less reverb wouldn’t go amiss.  But it’s still a song with appeal, the shimmering, gentle chords of its opening recalling Zeppelin’s ‘Rain Song’, of all things.
A couple of the slower efforts lack the distinctiveness of the best material, but on the other hand the Souls table a couple of trump cards in the course of this album.  ‘Don’t It Feel Right’ is three minutes of infectious danceability, propelled by a funky bass line from Laing, and featuring Motown-ish handclaps as well as great vocal phrasing from Archibald.  Meanwhile the closing ‘The Boxer Part 2’, following up a track from their earlier mini-album, sounds like James Brown going semi-acoustic to deliver a brief drama of the fight game, further enlivened by Laing throwing in a ‘Groove In The Heart’-like bass riff.
If Dave Archibald is the creative heart of The Rising Souls, he’s certainly found some kindred spirits in Laing and Reed, and together they’ve managed to get a lot out of their unconventional three-man line-up.  But Yardbird was barely released when they announced that they were adding a fourth member – electric guitarist Joe Catterson, who appeared with them for a few songs at the album launch.  With that extended line-up, Yardbird may be a stepping stone to new sounds and horizons.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Charlotte Marshall & The 45s - Stramash, Edinburgh, 30 January 2016

Due to unforeseen circumstances I found myself unexpectedly able to catch this Edinburgh outing by Charlotte Marshall and the 45s, but at the same time unable to get there until a few songs had passed by.  No matter, as Charlotte and her gang made it worth the effort.
Charlotte Marshall - no messing
Photo courtesy of Stuart Stott
About 9 months ago Charlotte Marshall and the 45s won a ‘Future Of The Blues’ contest co-sponsored by The Blues Magazine and the Mascot label, and this performance suggests three good reasons why.  First, the New Orleans jazziness of their sound offers something different from the herd.  Second, their musicianship is strong across the board.  And third – Charlotte Marshall is a no-messing, 24 carat, knock-your-socks-off performer.
Despite wrestling with a far from great sound on the vocal front, Little Miss M musters enough power to cut through in the end.  But she also inhabits the role of a Bourbon Street chanteuse with panache, selling the band’s Big Easy stylings both vocally and visually.
So it is that they can take material from different strands of the blues-soul-funk spectrum, and stir them into a NOLA-slanted gumbo, whether it’s the medley of ‘Walking The Dog’ and ‘Lucille’ with which they close their first set, or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ – or most entertainingly, their mash-up of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ with the guitar riff from ‘All Along The Watchtower’, which guitarist Fraser John Lindsay follows up with a Santana-esque solo.
Covers may still predominate in their set, just about, but the scattering of originals is encouraging, including their current single ‘Big Easy Blues’.  New song ‘Dig My Love’ is downright sultry, with its lush organ sounds, while the up-tempo ‘Devil With A Lipstick On’ is driven along energetically by the horns of Gordon Dickson (sax) and Fenwick Lawson (trombone).  And the horns are also insistent in the closing ‘Just Can’t Help Myself’, on which the 45s build up a serious head of steam, with Dickson’s sax squawking and Tim Brough giving it large on piano.
Throughout all of this Marshall is alive to every solo, crescendo, twist and turn of what they’re up to, in between giving it her sassy, dressed-to-the-nines best on vocals.  It may be a team effort, but she doesn’t half make a difference to the end result.

Big Boy Bloater & The Limits - Luxury Hobo

Well, this is an unexpected pleasure.  Until this album fell into my lap, I knew two things about Big Boy Bloater: he hosts a blues show on Team Rock Radio; and I thought his nom de plume sounded – well, kind of dumb.  But pardon my ignorance, because with this album yer man Bloater has managed to produce something refreshingly different.
At its core Luxury Hobo is old-fashioned R’n’B, with a twist of 70s pub rock thrown into the mix.  But rather than echoing Feelgood, the initial impression is of something more akin to George Thorogood and the Destroyers in Half A Boy Half A Man mode – an album whose title track was penned by none other than pub rocker Nick Lowe.
Big Boy Bloater scans the horizon in search of a recovery vehicle
Opening track ‘Devils And Angels’ announces itself with a swirl of fairground organ from Dan Edwards, over a riff reminiscent of Quo’s ‘Caroline’.  It’s one of a couple of tracks that are a tad under-developed, but it’s a gutsy and energetic blast of boogie all the same.  Bloater’s voice could maybe do with some of the rough edges being sandpapered off - but what the hell, this is raw R’n’B not opera.
Credit is due for a bucketful of originality in the lyric department though.  You’ll wait in vain for anything of the “baby done left me” or “woke up this morning” variety on this collection.  Instead the Bloat (as I dare say he’s known to his friends) treats us to a range of funny, off-kilter tales such as the B-Movie stomp of ‘It Came Outta The Swamp’, with its stinging slide work, and the cartoon-ish Futurama of ‘Robot Girlfriend’.
There’s a bit more going on here than just some idle laughs though.  Bloater has suggested that the material on Luxury Hobo emerged partly as a response to a bout of depression a couple of years back, and there’s a sense of alienation about a number of the tracks, whether in the reaction of the townsfolk in ‘. . . Swamp’, or the user-mentality of the guy with the robot girlfriend.
The atmosphere is more unsettling still in ‘I Got The Feeling Someone’s Watching Me’, its air of paranoia underlined by an eerie arrangement that evokes French ‘tango-musette’, of all things.  ‘Luxury Hobo Blues’, meanwhile, finds Bloater asking why, in the midst of a more than acceptable lifestyle, “still everyday I got to medicate my brain”.  As an essay in plenty not being enough it’s a darn sight more original than Chickenfoot’s ‘Dubai Blues’ for example, which is essentially just an enjoyable hard rock reworking of ‘I Ain’t Got You’.
And that air of originality emerges as one of the strengths of the album, and not just in the lyrics.  The foundations may be R’n’B, but Bloater also samples other styles in pleasingly wonky fashion, rather like Bath’s indie-soul mob The Heavy.
Still, Bloater and his band The Limits can also do it (fairly) straight, as on the soulful take on differences among friends that is ‘All Things Considered’, and the good time pub rock of the acidly witty closing track ‘Not Cool Man’.  The end result is an album with a down-and-dirty charm that will doubtless have plenty punters giving it a thumbs up.

Luxury Hobo is released on 26 February 2016.