Friday, August 26, 2016

Russell Morris - Sharkmouth

If you haven’t heard of Russell Morris before, that’s probably because he comes from Down Under.  No spring chicken, he first had a hit in Australia way back in 1969, since when his career has had its ups and downs.
The latest upswing came with Sharkmouth, an award-winning platinum-selling album in his homeland that’s been kicking around since 2013.  But with a US release coming up in September it’s now being given another push, which is how it’s come to be on my radar.

Russell Morris hides in plain sight
What we have here, folks, is a lesson in less is more.  Sharkmouth has a semi-acoustic vibe, creating room for Morris’s groaning vocals and excellent diction, often reminiscent of Nils Lofgren, as he spins a bunch of yarns about the characters and ambience of early 20th Century Australia.
But this still leaves scope for the kind of rootsy blues-meets-rockabilly that Sam Phillips probably hankered after as he recorded wannabe stars at Sun Studios in the early Fifties.  Opener ‘Black Dog Blues’ may be a tale of personal disaster and depression, but it’s also as tasty a slice of swinging, witty-rhyming, good-timing, back porch boogie as you could ask for.  ‘Walk My Blues’ is a similarly upbeat, chugging  descendant of Delta blues, and ‘Money Don’t Grow On Trees’ plays its cash-straitened lyric off against a jump blues feel incorporating fresh harp sounds and bursts of shouted backing.
Elsewhere there’s an air of Tony Joe White in ‘The Drifter’, with its brooding, metronomic feel, enlivened by occasional twangs of electric guitar, dashes of distant harmonica, and gospelly backing vox.  It’s a recipe repeated successfully on the sparse ‘Bout To Break’, with its brief injections of buzzing electric guitar notes, and on the restrained title tack, with its soft, atmospheric drums and sprinklings of lead guitar.
Morris’s storytelling is literate and imaginative too, as he conjures up tales such as ‘Ballad Of Les Darcy’, about a boxer who died of septicaemia in Memphis in 1917, at the age of just 21, after 56 fights that took him to Australian titles before he emigrated to the States to avoid World War I conscription issues.  ‘Sharkmouth’ celebrates con man Thomas ‘Shark Jaws’ Archer, whose picture graces the cover, while ‘Squizzy’ recalls the self-publicising Oz gangster Squizzy Taylor.  There’s even room for a horse – ‘Big Red’ is titled after the nickname of famed racehorse Phar Lap, the Australian equivalent of Seabiscuit as a Depression-era equine hero.

I gather that Morris has followed up Sharkmouth with two further albums exploring the chequered history of Australia.  The way in which this first volume successfully weds the blues to some fresh subject matter whets the appetite for those successors, and demonstrates why it won a Best Blues & Roots Album award in Australia back in 2013.

Sharkmouth is released in the United States on 30 September.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

James Brown Is Annie - Merchants Hall, Edinburgh, 14 August 2016

Regular readers will know that now and then I describe a band or a song as "funky". By which I usually mean there's a particular mix of swing, syncopation and danceability going on. Well that's not James Brown Is Annie. Don't get me wrong, JBIA do all those things - but they put them together to produce a sound that's hot buttered, "Where's The One?", FUNNKAAYY!
James Brown Is Annie get their name from an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine, apparently.  Whatever, they constitute 2 guitars, 2 saxes (tonight at least), keyboards, bass and drums,
Ahmed Remally and Jonny White look for the bridge
with lead vocals from Ahmed Remally of a rich and laid back quality that recalls Gil Scott Heron.  And they’re devoted to the kind of grooves purveyed by James Brown himself, the Average White Band and Steely Dan.
As with Charlotte Marshall & The 45s gig in the same venue last week, the acoustics  take some getting used to.  The more trebly guitar parts sound, but when Eddie Miller's keys lean towards the bottom end they seem to be buried in the mix.
But hey, let's hear it for the bass man!  Creative bass playing that’s right in the pocket is essential to good funk, and whatever sound issues there may be, Brett Allan’s bass cuts through them and show that he knows his funk onions.
The funk is wide-ranging as well, folding in Southern rock facets in a Little Feat kind of way on ‘Jane Badler’ (titled, bizarrely, after the actress who played the arch villain in the original version of the sci-fi telly series V).  Meanwhile ‘Thomas Wolfe Is Right’ sounds like someone went to sleep listening to The Band’s ‘Rag Mama Rag’, then woke up and wrote a funk track – again with a Little Feat feel, plus some nice slide guitar and sweet guitar harmonies for good measure.
A cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ features nice interplay between Remally’s guitar and the horns, while Eddie Miller’s piano – audible on this occasion – brings up the rear effectively.  Allan’s bass continues to be irrepressible, and they stick in a slick key change to good effect.
‘Got That Crazy Feelin’’ keeps up the momentum of their second session, showing that they know how to build a set, and featuring a scudding slide solo and a neat shift into double time to boot.  ‘Popcorn’ highlights a wailing sax solo, and some Santana-esque guitar from Remally – in spite of the fact that the whammy bar falls off his Strat.
James Brown Is Annie are a bit of a scruffy bunch, truth to be told.  A bit more sense of style wouldn’t go amiss – more Hawaiian shirts, sharp suits and skinny ties please, gents!  But when it comes to laying down the funk, they sound the business.  “Oh yeah, uh huh!”  As their enigmatically titled song ‘Yasmine Bleet Plays Drums For The Fat Boys’ would have it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sari Schorr - A Force Of Nature

Sari Schorr is “described by many blues pundits as a modern-day hybrid of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner”, it says here.  Meh.  Listening to ‘Demolition Man’, the seventh track on her new album, the thought that struck me was that she could be a new David Coverdale.
I'm kidding, a bit.  I don’t mean that Schorr sings like an old bloke in the strained manner of latter day DC.  But with its chugging blues-rock groove, pushed on by Julian Maeso’s organ and embellished by slide guitar from Innes Sibun, and Schorr hollering away powerfully over the top, ‘Demolition Man’ bears a passing and pleasing resemblance to early 80s Whitesnake.
There’s a similar spirit abroad in the opening tracks on A Force Of Nature.  ‘Aunt Hazel’ in particular, titled after a slang term for heroin, rides in on rough’n’ready rhythm guitar over reined in, choppy drums in a manner that evokes Bad Company.  Schorr’s raunchy vocal is interspersed with guitar licks from Sibun, who adds a big solo as they pick up the tempo the end.
Sari Schorr - more than just a powerhouse
In fact Sibun is on sparkling form throughout his contributions here, providing a convincing foil for Schorr’s gutsy, soulful voice, with its hint of vibrato.  They get funky on ‘Cat And Mouse’, with interesting, squelchy guitar tones and Maeso’s organ bubbling around rhythmically in the background.  And when Oli Brown takes over guitar duties, on ‘Damn The Reason’ and ‘Oklahoma’, he delivers the goods too.  The latter is just one example of Schorr’s range as a songwriter, with its jazzy, understated feel and riff that carries echoes of ‘Riders On The Storm’, before it builds in intensity.  They get jazzier still on ‘Letting Go’, a song about bereavement with repeated piano chords and judicious use of harp contributing to a mournful Gallic mood, redolent of Gary Moore’s ‘Picture Of The Moon’.
In another different vein is ‘Black Betty’, currently released as a single in a radio edit.  No, it’s not a cover of the Ram Jam hit.  It begins with a distant, antique-sounding work song vocal, before electrifying the Leadbelly original with a stomping rhythm that approaches Zeppelin territory, ahead of a downbeat outro.
There are some efforts that don’t quite hit the bullseye.  A song contributed by Walter Trout, ‘Work No More’, never really rises above the workaday, even with the injection of some weeping guitar from Trout himself.  And ‘Kiss Me’ aims for the sultry but never quite gets there.
But there’s some interesting variety to finish.  Schorr takes the poppy soul of The Supremes’ ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ and powers it up into something angsty and plaintive, without entirely discarding its Motown roots.  (Mind you, if she's looking for covers I'd prefer her to dig out a funky Deep Purple obscurity, like 'I Need Love' from Come Taste The Band.)  Meanwhile the closing ‘Ordinary Life’ is a simple ballad with an intricate piano arrangement, which could be from the pen of Carole King or Jimmy Webb.
Schorr is undoubtedly a find, writing strong songs in a range of styles, with interesting lyrics.  Vocally she has the goods to do justice to that range too, with a bluesy voice that can deliver both power and delicacy.  The partnership with Innes Sibun is a winner too, and his presence in Schorr’s new band The Engine Room is encouraging – hopefully it’s a lasting relationship rather than a marriage of convenience.

A Force Of Nature is released by Manhaton Records on 2 September.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Charlotte Marshall & The 45s - Merchants Hall, Edinburgh, 9 August 2016

You'd be hard pushed to find a more incongruous setting for a show by Charlotte Marshall & The 45s than the portraits, cornices and domed atrium of Edinburgh's Merchants Hall. A dark and sweaty gin joint in the French Quarter of New Orleans - now that would be appropriate for Miss Marshall and her jazzy, bluesy combo.
Charlotte Marshall - small woman, big performer
The acoustics don't seem terribly sympathetic either, to begin with, as Marshall's vocals echo around the room.  Whether it's the sound or the ambience, things seem tentative at first, with Marshall treading carefully around the small stage in her high heels as they open up with the moody, restrained 'Big Easy Blues'.
This is a well-honed outfit though, so it doesn’t take long for the spot on horn arrangements and swirling keys of ‘Miss Jane’ to impress. And there’s a reason Marshall’s name is out front – she may be small, but she’s a big performer.
‘One Last Kiss Goodbye’ is the point where things really click, and it’s a country song of all things – a ballad that nails the country mood, exemplified by muted, twangy slide from guitarist Fraser John Lindsay and Marshall’s storytelling.
They keep up the good work on the good time dance number of ‘Soulful Dress’, with solos all round and some rattling honky tonk piano from Tim Brough.  Then they show off their Stax soul credentials with ‘Shake For Me Baby’, with great horns from Gordon Dickson and Fenwick Lawson underpinned by funky bass from Tim Clarke, while Lindsay comes over all Steve Cropper with choppy guitar.
Their first set closes with ‘Bootleg Liquor’, the lead track on their current EP, which slides back towards the Big Easy with its trad jazz feel over Latin drum rolls, set off with more barrelhouse piano from Brough and great energy from Marshall.
That energy carries over into their second set, as Marshall channels her inner Bette Midler on the NOLA blues of ‘Spring Cleaning’, which is delivered with wit and humour and a dash of ‘Tequila’.   She’s been harping on about the need for dancing from the start, to no effect, but what Miss Marshall wants, Miss Marshall gets, as a number of couples now hit the floor.By the time they get wired into Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ they’ve hit top gear, with Lawson’s trombone solo a highlight and Lindsay emulating the delightful wonkiness of Berry’s solo.  And the way Marshall is working the stage she clearly no longer gives a shit about treading carefully.
Fraser John Lindsay does his Chuck Berry imitation
Marshall straps on a guitar of her own for ‘Who Do You Boom Boom’, which which opens by blending the tension of the Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’ with jazzy piano lines reminiscent of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Get It Right Next Time’, before developing a rhythm like a rumble of thunder, Clarke’s bass bubbling away while Lindsay adds stinging slide fills.
They then change the mood entirely ‘I Never Meant To Fall In Love With You’, a torch song in the vein of Etta James.  And while Marshall’s vocal style doesn’t resemble Etta’s, she shows her own worth with an aching delivery, hitting some beautiful notes along the way to make it the highlight of the night.  Just for good measure she sells the smoky soul ballad ‘Dig My Love’ with a similarly big vocal performance before they wrap up for the night with the gospel-style ‘I Just Can’t Help Myself’, full of pulsing horns and call and response.
Charlotte Marshall & The 45s offer something different.  The New Orleans vibe stands out from the crowd, and the musicianship is strong.  They’re assembling a body of original material that stands up well in the company of classic covers.  And when she gets going Charlotte Marshall is magnetic, with the pipes to back it up.  I wonder how far they can take this recipe?

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Afternoon Sessions - Edinburgh Blues'N'Rock Festival, 30 July 2016

A confession.  Although Safehouse have been mainstays of the Edinburgh music scene for a loooong time, I have never actually seen them before.  Well, my loss evidently, judging by the way they stormed the citadel with this performance.
Actually, I say they’re from Edinburgh, but from their opening number ‘Hey Grandma’ it sounds like Edinburgh by way of Macon, Georgia.  Amid blasting guitar from John Bruce and a sandpaper vocal from the hyperactive Chris Peebles, the immediate impression is of Southern rock á la the Allman Brothers or maybe the Black Crowes.
Chris Peebles stands still for a mo
They keep up the good work with the Big George Watt classic ‘Take A Walk In The Wilderness’, this time featuring on-the-money piano from Ali Petrie in addition to a gritty, rolling guitar solo from Bruce as they give the tune a Strolling Bones feel.
There’s even more grit in Bruce’s rhythm guitar as they belt through some rousing Southern fried boogie, executing some welcome shifts in tempo along the way to vary the pace.
There’s a Jim Morrison feel to Peebles' vocals on what I’m guessing is ‘Travellin’ Light’, a strutting, funky effort with an insistent bass pattern, with Petrie and Bruce doubling up again to deliver boogie woogie piano and howling guitar.
They close by rocking the joint with ‘One Way Out’, joined by Gary Martin to lend some harp authenticity to Sonny Boy Williamson’s song even as they serve it up in Allmans fashion.  All in all a banging set, bringing a bit of rock to the roll for the first time in the afternoon.
They’re followed on to the stage by The Rising Souls, who since the launch of their Yardbird album early in the year have metamorphosed from a semi-acoustic three-piece playing bass, guitar and cajón to a full-on four-piece, with Joe Catterson on electric guitar and Reece Braid on drums.
Right from the off Catterson’s influence is apparent, as he brings fuzzy guitar tones to ‘I’m
Joe Catterson and Dave Archibald feel so alive
Feeling So Down’, which features satisfying use of dynamics.  Another new song finds singer Dave Archibald strapping on his acoustic once again to augment the shimmering electric sound Catterson produces, big on whammy bar.  It also has a sweet melody of the kind Rod Stewart might well appreciate.
‘I Feel So Alive’ has a pulsing start and a heavy chorus, with Archibald getting into his best Paul Rodgers vocal mode, before indulging in a burst of scat singing as a bridge to a scuzzy solo from Catterson.  After another haunting new song, ‘Feeling Like I’m Falling Down’, they wheel out ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’, from their self-titled mini-album, its field holler opening over bass drum now supplemented by jangling guitar chords, while Archibald gets into some serious testifyin’ at the conclusion.
Hearing ‘I Need You’ for the first time, with its echoes of ‘Roadhouse Blues’, restrained verses and big chorus, it seems that Catterson’s electric guitar has given the Souls a whole new weapon.  What’s more, he himself has come out of his shell big time since first appearing with them for a couple of songs at the Yardbird launch.
Neil Warden bends some Weissenborn notes
The Souls have a new EP scheduled to come out in November, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’ve managed to bottle their bigger sound in the studio.  Hopefully though, they can also manage to adapt some of the gripping songs from their early repertoire to the four-piece format – it’d be a shame to lose them.
The afternoon opened with the subtler strains of Gary Martin/Neil Warden – Blues and Beyond.  And I’ll say it again guys, get a snappier monicker, will ya?  Joking apart though, they bring a slinky, jazzy vibe to the post-lunch kick-off.  The Peggy Lee feel of ‘You Don’t Have To Hang Round Here No More’, with some great harp from Martin, is underlined by their smoky, offbeat take on Ray Charles’ ‘Ain’t That Fine’.
Sandwiched between these two songs is Tam White’s ‘Stonemason’s Blues’, delivered with conviction by two former Tam White alumni.  And they close with a spare version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready' – an unfamiliar arrangement for sure, but one that is soulful and full of feeling, with Warden putting his Weissenborn guitar to terrific use with both a bending slide intro, and later a beautiful, chiming solo.
The Al Brown Band follow, opening with an instrumental that shows off Brown’s warm and bright guitar tones.  They swing nicely, and there’s good interplay between organ and
Al Brown has a natural ball
Brown’s rhythm guitar.  There are shades of both BB and Freddie King, and Brown makes good use of tension and release.
It may be indoors on a warm summer’s afternoon, but they do a good job with ‘Early In The Morning’, with a relaxed, Latin feel and some funky bass, while the following James Harmon song ‘Lock Doctor’ evokes the third blues King, Albert.
Things can get too smooth at times though, even if Brown is always capable of producing some fiery, angular licks.  A slow blues finds Gary Martin jamming on some squawking, moaning harp – the man gets everywhere – while Brown digs into a biting solo.
Brown encourages the audience to make more use of the dance floor, which to these ears and feet would feel more natural if he introduced a bit more oomph into the equation.  But to be fair a number of couples do get up and shake their hips to a neat reading of Albert King’s ‘Let’s Have A Natural Ball’.

Al Brown’s set is just one of several sides to a multi-faceted line-up that makes for a stimulating inaugural Edinburgh Blues’N’Rock Festival though.  So who’s up for next year?