Monday, May 30, 2016

Witness To The Blues - Interview with Joe Louis Walker

One of my most pleasing “discoveries” since taking a serious interest in blues music has been Joe Louis Walker.  After taking a complete punt on his album Hornet’s Nest a couple of years back, I picked up on earlier stuff like Witness To The Blues and Between A Rock And The Blues.  The latter in particular has become a personal favourite, ranging across a number of blues styles and marking Walker out as a key inheritor of the electric blues tradition.  Not blues rock, please note.  Though Joe can certainly rock, to these ears he’s part of that more classic blues lineage for which Buddy Guy is now “father of the house’, as it were.
So with Joe about to head over to the UK and Europe for a series of gigs in the wake of his latest album Everybody Wants A Piece, it was great to get the opportunity to chuck a few questions his way, and see what he made of them.  First up was the involvement of Paul Nelson in the album, as producer.  How had that come about, and what did he bring to the album?
“I met Paul through Johnny Winter. Paul was his guitarist, producer, and best friend.  He'd worked wonders bringing Johnny back to the stature he so very much deserved to be at. So Paul and I have been working together in that spirit also. He was instrumental in the sound and cohesiveness of the cd. Being a guitar player, he knows instinctively how a guitar player wants to sound - as well as playing on the cd, producing, and contributing positivity. And on top of all that he's a Grammy winner, last year, for producing Johnny Winter’s last cd Step Back.”
Joe Louis Walker - an innovator in a classic tradition
Pic by Michael Weintraub
Some of the guitar tones and effects Joe contrives on Everybody Wants A Piece, on tracks like ‘Black and Blue’, ‘Gospel Blues’, and ‘Wade In The Water’, are strikingly – and wittily - out of the ordinary.  There’s wacky sounding wah-wah, and brittle sounding tones with very little decay.  Not being a guitarist myself, they’re a mystery to me –so how did he do it?
“It's some kind of crazy toys Jim Dunlop sent me,” he says.  “They've got some interesting effects that are fun and get the listeners attention. I'm not so much a traditionalist, so I've no problem trying new sounds. But it's not my complete sound. I've been known to push the envelope a bit.”
For me one of the cornerstones of the new album is the Danny Kirwan song ‘One Sunny Day’, which is built on a big, simple, strong figure around which Walker weaves a swathe of blistering guitar licks.  I wondered how he’d come across the song, and what drew him to it as a cover?
“I’m a big fan of the original Fleetwood Mac,” says Joe.  “The guitarists in the original lineup are incredible.  ‘One Sunny Day’ is a song I was aware of - it’s a great guitar riff song, something the original Fleetwood Mac were very good at. Being a big Danny Kirwan and Peter Green fan, it was a good feeling to give a nod to them.
‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, starts off reflecting its gospel roots, but then part way through seamlessly drifts into a heavy funk feel.  Was that a natural progression to make, I wondered, or was it a novel kind of arrangement?
“I’d recorded a similar version years ago. I felt if I did that song, I'd do it my way. So that was the way I was feeling at the time. I hope it reached people. If I do a cover, or traditional song, I feel it's important that I put my stamp on it.”
Given that Walker has played with a plethora of famous blues performers over the years, I wondered who the big influences were on his guitar playing.
“I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area,” he observes, “and around there we had the Fillmore Auditorium, the Avalon Ballroom, FM radio and so on - it  was fertile for ALL kinds of music.  But when I was coming up there was a rediscovery of the old guys who wrote the blueprint for generations of musicians to come. So I got to play, perform and meet quite a few of the guys I'd heard only on record. Like . . . John Lee and Earl Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Freddy, BB and Albert King, and and many more. That was my education, and it influenced me quite a bit.”
One of the things I most like about Walker’s albums is the variety of styles he explores.  So I asked him if this sense of range is something that’s important to him – and if there are particular songwriters who have attracted him to different styles?
“I try to stay true to my self. In the context that I don't want to sound like anyone, or make a living regurgitating old warhorse material that may be a crowd pleaser, or that’s been done over and over. I appreciate that people want a familiar song or tune, but I don't feel I can re-do ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and it'll give people a picture of where I'm at as an artist. It only proves I'm a good interpreter of other peoples music. So I try to take the audience on a journey of my musical world.
“As for songwriters, I like everyone from Muddy Waters, to John Lennon. As long as the music and artist, are for real, and I feel what they're putting forth.”
With Walker’s extensive CV of past collaborations, I suggest to him that he must have had some great jam sessions in his time.  His response serves to underline both his connection with blues tradition and with artists pushing boundaries.
“Jamming with people Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Snooky,Pryor, Otis Rush, Mike Bloomfield, Robert Lockwood, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Buddy Miles and others has been an education.”
What about people you’d really like to jam with, that you haven’t done so far?  That’s a question that produces a really unexpected answer.
“I'd like to jam with Yousou N’dour and Keith Richards at the same time - and I'd call the tune, because they're both versatile groundbreaking musicians. I think we could come up with some unique stuff!”
Well versed in blues tradition, but modern and progressive at the same time – that kind of sums up what Joe Louise Walker brings to the party.

Joe Louis Walker is playing the following European dates in June:
June 9   – Dingwall’s, London
June 10 – Worthing Piers Southern Pavilion, Worthing
June 11 – The Brook, Southampton
June 12 – The Globe, Cardiff
June 13 – The Convent, Stroud
June 16 -  The New Morning, Paris
June 17 – Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval, Hauterives, France

June 20 – Z-7, Pratteln, Switzerland

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ian Siegal and Jimbo Mathus - Cluny 2, Newcastle, 22 May 2016

No, this wasn’t directed at me.  Nor was it me having some delusional moment, and deciding that I really didn’t like the acoustic show being delivered by Ian Siegal and Jimbo Mathus.  It was getting close to the end of their set, and my patience had finally snapped
Captain Catfish - aka Jimbo Mathus
with the couple sitting about 10 feet from me, who had been talking to each other throughout the show.  Incessantly.
Let’s park the unwelcome distractions though, shall we?  Ian Siegal and Jimbo Mathus form a charmingly, expertly ragged acoustic Transatlantic duo, alternating their own songs and excavating blues and roots classics to recreate a Deep South, on-the-porch-with-a-beer, musical session in a venue near you.
Siegal switches between guitars, and resorts to slide playing when the mood takes him.  Meanwhile Mathus variously deploys mandolin, harp, and what I suspect he’d describe as his own “raggedy old piece of shit” guitar.  Together they go in search of the right arrangements to do justice to some great songs.
They’re also a delightfully irreverent pair, with between songs patter that latches onto the ridiculous, or summarises the material in down to earth fashion.  So introducing Jimmy Rogers’ 1950 blues ‘Ludella’, Mathus declares that it’s so swampy “you’re gonna need a tetanus shot after this one!”
Oh yeah, and they can sing some too.  On ‘Too Much Water’ we get some great country-ish harmonies, and guitar that twangs so much it verges on bum notes – in the manner of Captain Beefheart “looking for every bum note I can find”.
Ian Siegal - aka Overseas
The set may not seem as spontaneous as on their debut tour together back in 2014, but on the other hand they’re ready to deliver a great set piece such as the medley of Siegal’s ‘I Am The Train’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ (made famous by Elvis), on which they exhibit a masterful interweaving of guitars and use of dynamics, building the atmosphere up and bringing it down.
Needless to say, the arch vocal mimic Ian Siegal captures the essence of Johnny Cash on the ‘Folsom Prison’ section.  And he goes on to deliver the most Howlin’ Wolf of Howlin’ Wolf vocals on ‘Dirt Road Blues’ (aka, I think, ‘Ain’t Goin’ Down That Dirt Road’, which shares plenty DNA with ‘Smokestack Lightning’), as well as an impassioned performance on the gospel outing ‘I’ll Fly Away’.
Along the way Mathus chips in some ear-catching mandolin solos, and adds atmospherics to ‘Gallo del Cielo’, and there’s the inevitable singalong on ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, while the audience are also swept into the melancholy of Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

It’s rootsy music that explores the evolution of blues, country, and balladeering tales, delivered with wit and feeling, and I hope I get to hear them do it again - without contributions from ‘Silence Thieves’ in the audience.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ron Sayer Jr & Charlotte Joyce - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 May 2016

I like ‘em.  In fact you’d have to be a real curmudgeon not to like Ron Sayer and Charlotte Joyce.  Here’s why.
Ron Sayer Jr - giving it the treatment
The musicianship is bang on the money, starting with the husband-and-wife out front, on guitar and keyboards respectively.  Sayer is a seriously impressive guitarist, delivering to gobsmacking effect in a range of styles, while Joyce adds colour on keys, not least with her N’Awlins honky tonk contribution to ‘Mojo Boogie’. Meanwhile  their rhythm section of Will Overton on bass and Paul Wooden on drums is tighter than a duck’s rear end.  The latter in particular is one of those drummers who get your attention not just for the rhythms they lay down with the bass, but for the way they interact with the guitar to punctuate matters brilliantly.
Together the four-piece lay down a swinging soul-funk foundation, which they then spice up with material that varies the emphasis.  Right from the git-go they demonstrate a liking for R&B, with a reading of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ that registers well on the raunch-o-meter, and not long after they give Etta James’s ‘My Mother-In-Law’ a whirl, starting quietly before opening up the throttle. Later they produce a spot on Stax-like reading of Lynda Lyndell’s ‘What A Man’.  Their funk leanings also take different twists and turns, from the moody ‘Hard To Please’ to the slinky ‘Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing’.
Charlotte Joyce - on fire
The vocals are pretty damn good too.  Sayer is certainly no bum as a singer – soulful when he puts his mind to it, and on ‘Any Time You Want’ delivering a pin sharp falsetto on a just-for-a-laugh singalong.  Will Overton also takes a couple of turns, surprising us the first time out with the high key he works in for ‘Mojo Boogie’.  But the star in this department is Charlotte Joyce.  Clean and pure on record, she manages to find more depth and strength, delivering a bravura vocal performance on her own composition ‘Mr Weatherman’.  What’s more, on the few occasions when she steps out from behind her keyboard to take centre stage, she has a presence that would give Jo Harman a serious run for her money.
Now I’ll grant you, there are times when matters begin to feel just a bit too easy-going, and could do with a bit more drive.  Partly this is down to their between songs patter, which is all very good humoured but so cosy it could fit into an episode of The Good Life – and no, Ron, managing to say ‘penis’ when introducing Al Green’s ‘I’m A Ram’ doesn’t alter that.  Not even saying it twice.  But fuck it, I enjoyed The Good Life when I was a kid – the real point is that too much chat can dilute the impetus of the music.
In any event none of that matters when they really decide to get down to business.  At the end of their first set Joyce smiles and says it’s time for her husband’s moment of self-indulgence.  Sayer then announces that “I like a bit of Rory Gallagher, actually”, and proceeds to give it the full treatment, getting into full-on gurning guitar hero mode and pulling out all the stops, aided and abetted by Paul Wooden giving it serious welly on drums.  I dunno about the Rory Gallagher reference, but I like a bit of Ron Sayer actually, when he goes for it.

As the set draws to a close they again shift into another gear, with a mash-up of ‘Fire’ by Etta James and the similarly-titled Hendrix ditty.  Playing to all of their strengths – the funky R&B, Joyce’s vocals, Sayer’s guitar, and the two of them getting wild out front – they surely make it live up to the title.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Albany Down - The Outer Reach

The authorities might say that Albany Down stretch the definition of blues a bit.  They’re more hard rock in a classic vein, but with some blues and funk components.  Whatever – they’re an outfit of some promise.
The musicianship is impressive, from Paul Turley on guitar, and the rhythm section of Donna Peters on drums and Billy Dedman on bass, while singer Paul Muir has a soaring, powerful voice.  All of which is put to good use on a variety of gutsy riffs, searing guitar solos, funky rhythms, and anthemic choruses.
Two Pauls for the price of one - Turley and Muir
There’s a definite hint of Thunder in the air, not least on the opener ‘Feeding The Flame’, with its chunky riff and neat harmonies.  The Eastern swirl of the mid-section recalls ‘Empty City’, or perhaps Rainbow in 'Midtown Tunnel Vision' mode, as a prelude to a big finish.  ‘Like A Bullet’ demonstrates a similar sense of dynamics, with its piercing guitar lines and restrained instrumentation.
‘Do You Want Me Now’ features a staccato riff with a hint of funk, some distorted, squealing guitar licks from Turley, and pounding drums from Peters, while Muir goes for a broke on one of several soaring choruses in evidence.
In fact the funk tendencies are in evidence on a number of songs.  On ‘Supersonic Girl’, which may be a bit lightweight but features a couple of nice touches of punctuation from Peters.  There’s also the off-beat rhythm of ‘Revolution’, which closes with Turley delivering a sizzling, wah-wah inflected solo over a riff of steady, climbing chords.  And there’s the tough funk underlay to the verses on ‘The Drop’, which makes use of some neck-snapping hesitations while getting on with business in a pleasingly direct way
Too often though, Muir’s vocals have to compete with an over-heated, dense production.  For a four-piece supposedly made up of just guitar, bass and drums there’s a hell of a lot of keyboards splashed around, along with some bursts of yer actual horns and strings, not to mention a surfeit of harmonies and double-tracked vocals.  As a result there are times when it feels like the different elements don’t have room to breathe.  So a song like ‘Mr Hangman’ has a good Zepp-ish feel, with a twisting guitar riff and twitching rhythm, followed up by some satisfyingly grimy slide, but the chorus feels over-egged.
The dynamics of ‘Like A Bullet’ feel like a blessed relief amid the relentlessness of some arrangements.  By the same token the closing ‘Sing Me To Sleep’ is a little gem – simple, restrained, and effective.  Placing it earlier in the album might have offered a timely breather from the full-on aural assault elsewhere.
Much as a big, fat rocking sound can appeal to me, I’d like to hear Albany Down strip things back a bit – and hopefully in a live setting the essence of their four-piece set-up will see them do just that.

The Outer Reach is released on 10 June.