Monday, October 31, 2016

Red Butler - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 28 October 2016

When I last saw Red Butler they were supporting Danny Bryant, and stepping up to headline status this time they don’t look out of place.  They may be young, but they’ve got more going for them than just youthful exuberance.
The energy is there though, as they kick off with the infectious boogie of ‘You Only Live Once’, sporting a riff that might have Rossi and Parfitt playing a bit of air guitar.  By the time they get to ‘Say Hello (To My Little Friend)’ it’s apparent that they’re a band that not only have bags of stage presence, they’re a well oiled machine, as main man Alex Butler and newly recruited rhythm guitarist Dan Spellman get wired into some vibrant twin guitar attack over the solid rhythm section of Mikey Topp on bass and Charlie Simpson on drums.
Alex Butler gets wired in
Vocalist Jane Chloe Pearce comes on a bit heavy with the rock chick persona to begin with, but she’s got a strong voice with a lot of control, and her performance gets better as she relaxes into it.  They close the first half of their set with ‘Old Love’, a daring choice given that the Clapton/Cray song has become a standout for King King in recent years, but they put their own edgy stamp on it by letting Pearce take the spotlight with an emotional vocal.
Other covers show off interesting aspects of their range.  They turn ‘Shakin’ All Over’ into a slow-ish bump’n’grind that’s convincing even if it’s still not up to The Pirates’ version.  Sandi Thom’s ‘Belly Of The Blues’ is evidently a song with a deal of meaning for them, and they do it justice with a brooding intro and a particularly affecting vocal from Pearce, its sensitivity increased by her diminishing reliance on the mic.  But ‘Hit The Road Jack’ is the prize selection, kicking off a party vibe, with a great, gruff vocal contribution from Spellman, and a call and response guitar and vocal routine between Butler and Pearce.
Their own material is a bit more mixed.  ‘Black Flies’ is a stab at a hard rock epic with quiet and loud passages that doesn’t entirely grab the ear, and the same is true of ‘Calm Before The Storm’. But the rocking title track from their new album ‘Nothing To Lose’ is more like it, with a good choppy riff, a quiet middle eight and some neat guitar harmonies, which pop up again in a Wishbone Ash-like style on the clap-along ‘Got To Make It’, with its heavy riff.  Alex Butler plays enjoyable lead guitar throughout too, with a distinctive tone, and without ever looking like he thinks it’s all about him.
They really hit their stride in the closing stretch though, with Mikey Topp donning a wolf
Georgia Gordon feels the vibe
mask for the irresistible, neck-snapping hook of ‘Big Bad Wolf’. Then they take Buddy Guy’s ‘Show Me The Money’ and turn it into a riot of audience engagement, firstly with Butler, Topp and Spellman laying hands on each other’s guitars, and then with Butler, Pearce and Spellman going walkabout in the audience.  Buddy would be appreciative of the showmanship, I reckon.
Red Butler are coming.  They’re not quite the fully-fledged article yet, but they’re getting there.  They’ll write better songs to replace some of the material in this set.  In the meantime though, they’re more than capable of stirring things up when they go for a good-time vibe.
Support act Georgia Gordon has something going too, though she and her band still have a long way to go.  Their set includes a couple of decent originals from their forthcoming EP, such as ‘Prettiest Criminal’ with its chunky riff, and ‘New York’s Army’ with its prickly rhythm.  Gordon needs to develop more of a range with her voice, but it does have an interesting drawling quality. Meanwhile their arrangements are pretty tight, well-anchored by the rhythm section.  And while a cover of the Black Keys’ ‘I Got Mine’ provides some welcome drive, they need to match it with much more stage presence.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Roadhouse - City Of Decay

It’s good to come across a band showing a bit of imagination.  This album by Roadhouse has been kicking around for a few months, and having read about it elsewhere I thought I’d give it a whirl.  And I’m pleased to report that on City Of Decay Roadhouse not only show off a distinctive sound, they also make a bit of an effort with the aesthetics generally.
The title track mourns the decline of Detroit, the one-time powerhouse of the US car industry sunk in economic failure, and the cover art by Martin Cook extends that theme with atmospheric use of black and photographs of the bankrupted city.
Opening track ‘This House Is On Fire’ captures the freshness of their sound perfectly, crackling with electricity from the start as guitarists Gary Boner and Danny Gwilym compete to offer up fizzing, buzzing lead lines and chunky, jangling chords as a prelude to Boner’s gruff, croaking singing, lifted nicely by backing vocals from Maggie Graham and Sarah Harvey-Smart.  It’s a deceptively simple affair that benefits from a sense of urgency in the tempo laid down by Roger Hunt’s drums, has a neat middle eight with a riff reminiscent of Whitesnake’s ‘Sweet Talker’, and a piercing guitar solo for good measure.
The following ‘City of Decay’ is naturally one of the pillars of the album, its moody, twanging opening heralding a patient and contemplative meditation on the damage done to Motortown, USA.  Boner and Gwilym’s lead and rhythm guitars again play off each other nicely during successive solos, and the sound is a credit to the production by the two guitarists and drummer Hunt.
‘Blues Highway’ is another highlight, a drive down Highway 61 with a sense of dislocation that smacks of a road trip to anywhere, nowhere, as much as to the Delta.  It’s all played out with a haunting quality, exemplified by the shared vocals from the two girls.  Maddie Graham’s voice in particular has a Stevie Nicks-ish quality to it, though edgy rather than fey, and she makes an especially good job of her lead vocal on the shimmering ‘Midnight Rain’, which also features some weeping slide guitar in the intro and as an undercurrent throughout.
In contrast, ‘Night Of The Gun’ takes a stand on gun violence to the accompaniment of a tough Jack Flash riff, but also folds in quieter spells and changes of pace around its driving chorus and guitar solo, as well as a nice ascending bass line from Bill Hobley.
It’s not all out of the top drawer.  ‘King Of The Streets’ is acceptable if undistinguished fare, the lyric to ‘Queen Of The Mountain’ feels hackneyed, and I sense an over-fondness for diminishing vocal outros.  But ‘Turn Your Face Into The Wind’ closes proceedings with tinges of country and an uplifting chorus, generating a sense of hope to offset the sadness and anger elsewhere, and here a repeated vocal refrain is used to good effect.

Roadhouse have apparently been knocking around for years under the leadership of Gary Boner and his compadres Hobley and Hunt, releasing a succession of albums along the way.  News to me, I must confess.  All I know is that they’re a band with a fresh sound and an interesting take on American themes, and that, when they get it right, these elements turn City of Decay into an album with something to say, that’s worth listening to.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Blues Arcadia - Blues Arcadia EP

If variety is the spice of life then Blues Arcadia have managed to pack plenty of flavour into this self-titled mini-album.  Hailing all the way from Brisbane, Australia, they’ve produced a remarkably assured debut for a band only formed at the start of 2016.
They kick things off with the intriguing, restrained  ‘Corner Girls’.  It’s smoky and swaying, with jazzy ripples and chimes of piano over a halting rhythm, while the husky tinge to Alan Boyle’s voice adds a plaintive quality to lyrics about the seamier side of life.  The overall effect, with its vague air of chanson, conjures up the mood vividly.
Blues Arcadia - bonzer debut
Pic courtesy of Paul Troeger
They return to ballad mode later, with ‘Here Comes The Rain’.  It’s spare and delicate, with a pinging guitar solo from Chris Harvey, while Boyle begins to extends himself on vocals.  It’s something he does more of, and impressively so, on ‘Time And Again’, which opens slowly in a late night “the piano has been drinking” vein before building to a rousing crescendo.
Elsewhere they deliver some measured funk on ‘Take The Money’, with its novel, shuffling rhythm.  The song grows through swelling backing vocals and horns, there’s good interplay between Harvey on guitar and Parmis Rose on keys, and the syncopation from drummer Steve Robin adds some impressive icing to the cake.  If you like Ian Siegal in, say, ‘Brandy Balloon’ mode, then you’ll like this – and probably also ‘Operator Please’, which may be slight by comparison but still dishes up a strong chorus.
‘Miss Lonely’ offers a more old-fashioned, twitchingly danceable Sixties soul vibe, with Robin again shifting through the gears on drums to give the tune a dynamic feel.  But that’s just a down payment for the album closer ‘Rockin’ Chair’, a piece of stomping soul that puts me in mind of Wilson Pickett waiting till the midnight hour, and suggests this may well be the strongest suit in their already strong hand.

What we have here is some damn good songwriting across a range of styles, allied to some quality musicianship from all concerned.  Here and there I could do with the production delivering more oomph – that crescendo on ‘Time And Again’ could be more rousing still, for example.  And while their versatility is a strength, they may benefit from focusing more on a signature sounds to provide the spine for a full-length outing.  But overall Blues Arcadia have produced a confident calling card with this EP.  I’m betting they can underline their credentials when they come to paint on a broader canvas.

The Blues Arcadia EP will be released in November.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

John Verity - My Religion

John Verity played guitar with Argent and Charlie back in the mid-70s, and has kept at it ever since with a number of solo releases.  This latest features ten tracks, four covers and six self-penned songs, the latter ranging across a variety of styles.
Title track ‘My Religion’ is the most straightforward blues of the originals, an enjoyable and witty imagining of the ideal afterlife for a blues lover.  Verity may have a limited, slightly reedy voice, but he still makes a decent fist of his vocals, and he sprinkles a series of sparky guitar licks over the song to good effect.
John Verity plays the devil's music
But the pick of Verity’s own songs is ‘The Devil’s Music’, which sounds just like the kind of tune by his fellow Argent alumnus Russ Ballard that Rainbow might have snapped up for a radio-friendly cover back in the 80s.  Verity’s voice may strain a bit on the opening verse, but some excellent backing vocals then kick in to stand up to the big guitar chords deployed on the chorus, and Verity contributes not one but two fizzing solos to elevate the song to a higher level.
Verity explores some rather different avenues at the end of the album.  ‘Farkhunda’ is a simple acoustic guitar and vocal piece named after an Afghan woman who was beaten and killed by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran.  As a song it may not set the world on fire, but it’s a heartfelt performance by Verity nonetheless.  Closer ‘Oh Why?’ is similarly built around a simple acoustic motif, and confounds my expectations by never bursting into something bigger and instead majoring on some luscious choral vocals, beautifully recorded, which ultimately dominate a wordless outro.
The cover versions on display are all well and truly familiar, all good songs, and all captured well enough.  But ‘Chain Of Fools’ is really the only one that stands out as offering a fresh perspective.  It’s a tough and chunky reading, with choppy, aggressive riffing, a standout vocal from Bianca Kinane, and Verity doing a bit of testifying in the background.
‘Going Down’ seems to be the blues-rock cover du jour for numerous artists, and while it’s a reliable rifferama here it doesn’t really go the whole hog.   ‘Spoonful’ features some nice mournful harp from Lee Vernon, and Verity invests the vocal with feeling, to the degree that it compares well to the Fresh Cream version, probably less so to the Wheels of Fire cut – and inevitably pales beside Howlin’ Wolf.  As for ‘Cocaine’, well I’m sure it goes over well live, but I’m not sure I see the point in recording it here.

My Religion shows John Verity still laying down some interesting material.  It would be good if he could push that envelope even further, perhaps by complementing his own songs with modern treatments of some less obvious covers.  But meantime he’s still out there doing it, and more power to his elbow for that.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Wilko Johnson - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 8 October 2016

I wonder how much having become a national institution affects how Wilko Johnson goes about his business? Being a veteran of a well-loved and idiosyncractic English R&B band is one thing.  Sidestepping fatal cancer thanks to a second diagnosis, appearing in Game of Thrones as a grimly comic character, and acquiring lovable eccentric status through his contribution to the movie documentary Oil City Confidential is liable to make a person scratch their heads rather more.
Wilko gives the plank a bit of a spanking
Whatever Wilko Johnson may think about all that, onstage he seems relaxed and in his natural habitat.  This is the first time I’ve seen him live, and I imagine his performance might have been more tense and wired in days gone by.  But his approach to guitar playing continues to be entertaining in the most singular way.
At the outset, on something that may or may not be called ‘You’ve Got Me So Confused’*, his percussive style inevitably conjures up the influence of The Pirates’ Mick Green.  But in combination with his bass playing Blockhead compadre Norman Watt-Roy it emerges into its own domain.
Okay, so Johnson’s voice is rather flat, not in the sense of pitch, but because of its ordinary, nasal quality.  This we know, but while I might rail against naff vocals elsewhere, to be honest it doesn’t much matter here.  He gets by well enough on the reggae propelled ‘Dr Dupree’, the Feelgood crowd-pleaser of ‘Goin’ Back Home’, and a wild run through ‘Roxette’.  It’s only when he gets to ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ that it becomes apparent.
By the time we get to the eyeballs-out R&B of ‘It Won’t Be Long’* there’s a Wilko t-shirted commissar prowling the front row encouraging people to dance, and finding some willing accomplices.  And no wonder. Johnson is well into his rocket-fuelled scooting across stage, while Watt-Roy is hunched over his bass, apparently double-jointed in animation as he
whacks out peculiarly Anglo-angular funk beef to underpin Johnson’s jangling guitar.
To a non-musician like me, Wilko’s guitar-playing is a thing of mystery.  I’m used to seeing
Premier League bass funkster Norman Watt-Roy
talented guitarists whose left hands are relatively quiet on the fretboard, but whose right hand is finger-picking with incredible dexterity.  That’s not what Johnson does.  Somehow, as he appears to thrash his fingers across all six strings, precision notes get picked out en route as if by magic.
It’s also notable that while Johnson’s Canvey Island, Thames Delta sound draws heavily on Chicago R&B, he’s also a Chuck Berry devotee like Keith Richards, which gives the sound a lift.  The combination of influences reaches a highpoint on ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’, where the boogie woogie elements and Johnson’s machine-gunning solo eventually synchro-mesh with Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe to kick-start a flat-out R&B rave-up.
By the time we get to a set-closing segue-way of ‘Back In The Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’ the crowd are on their feet and going bonkers, and it carries on through a lengthy encore of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ mingled in with what goodness knows what.  They pull off that solo-into-riff crunch several more times along the way, and when they do so I feel like laughing out loud.  When you get down to it, when Johnson and Watt-Roy are on the money, what they do is emphasise and elaborate on the beats and rhythms laid down by Howe.  I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it.

*Confession: These song titles are approximate!