Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Black Country Communion - BCCIV

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” said Mark Anthony, according to ol’ Bill Shakespeare.  Well, I’m not here to bury Black Country Communion, but I do question the torrent of rave reviews BCCIV has been getting.
Cards on the table, I’m in that weird minority who may have some doubts about Joe Bonamassa, but still think he does some good stuff. More to the point, I’ve been resistant to the charms of Glenn Hughes and his much vaunted voice since way back when, and last year’s Resonate album did absolutely nothing to change my mind.
Hughes’ vocals represent one of my key reservations about the album. He has a good voice when he’s in his middle register and not pushing the envelope, but for an avowed fan of Stevie Wonder he can indulge in some godawful warbling when he lets rip.  ‘The Crow’ is a case in point, with Hughes going out to lunch over a wall of sound centred on a stuttering riff, detracting from a good bass showcase that leads into a swelling organ solo and a brief but high voltage offering from Bonamassa.  All in all it could add up to something impressive – if only Glenn Hughes would cool his damn jets.  And by the same token his diction is increasingly bad on ‘The Cove’, swallowing words in all too typical fashion, though the music, along with those phrases that do emerge – “alone in the silence”, “out on the ledge”, “in the darkness” etc – are enough to evoke a dramatic atmosphere.
Glenn Hughes opens his gob.  Joe Bonamassa closes his.
Photo by Christie Goodwin
The tendency for good quality material to be compromised by a kitchen sink approach is the other key issue.  Opener ‘Collide’ is a harbinger of things to come, with a lurching Zep-like riff and powder keg drums from Jason Bonham, while Hughes delivers a typically high-pitched vocal over rolling guitar lines from Bonamassa.  On the whole though, the bombast is just held in check.  The following ‘Over My Head’ shows more restraint, and is all the better for it.  Hughes is calmer vocally, mostly, and adds a nice falsetto touch to the chorus.  Bonham’s bass drum still pounds like a sledgehammer, but it’s rhythmically more interesting, and there’s a nice melodic guitar line in the middle.  But if ‘Sway’ has some subtle keyboard flourishes, and Hughes largely conquers his OTT tendencies, it also labours under a juddering riff and crash-bang-wallop drums that feel like driving over a cattle grid with no suspension.  ‘Awake’ makes a better fist of a twitching guitar lick and drum pattern, with a steady vocal melody on the verse, until they get into overdone overdrive on the chorus.
‘Wanderlust’ is a more positive showing, suggestive of late period Rainbow, with good guitar riffs and interplay with the keys during JB’s solo, while Hughes listens to his better angels.  A bit less Sturm und Drang in the drum sound would be welcome though. And the closing ‘When The Morning Comes’ is also nicely downbeat, with rippling guitar lines, more restrained drums, and injections of piano, while the bridge features bursts of organ over taut guitar chords.  At nearly 8 minutes it’s overlong, with an unnecessary “big finish”, but at least there’s some nuance along the way.
For me though, the best thing here is ‘The Last Song For My Resting Place’.  Tellingly, it features patient vocals from Joe Bonamassa.  At nearly 8 minutes, it’s top quality throughout, featuring a mandolin intro and fiddle breaks, and it has an epic quality making good use of quiet and loud passages. Recalling songs like ‘Last Matador Of Bayonne’ and ‘Black Lung Heartache’, it’s the sort of thing Bonamassa does really well, with or without the bone-crunching power chords augmenting his tasteful solo.

Too often though, BCCIV is like being on the wrong end of an artillery barrage in support of an assault by the Screaming Eagles, and producer Kevin Shirley has to take some responsibility for failing to tame the sonic excess. Great heavy rock isn’t solely about being loud, and too often the imagination evident on BCCIV is overpowered.  It's an okay album, but to these ears it sure as hell isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Steve Hill - Solo Recordings: Volume 3

Titling this album Solo Recordings: Volume 3 may be a bit prosaic, but Steve Hill isn’t kidding.  Even in the studio, Hill likes to record as a live one-man band. Which seems like an unnecessary constraint to me – why make life difficult for yourself?  But regardless of his approach, he manages to produce material of considerable variety and quality across this outing.
Hill sets out his stall in convincing fashion with ‘Damned’, a stomp reminiscent of early Black Keys, with fuzzy, scratchy guitar that hits the mark.  He continues in a similar vein with
Steve Hill - ain't nobody else there
‘Dangerous’, which a features a great riff crashing around a more soulful vocal of Paul Rodgers-ish depth. There’s a bit too much of a splashing cymbal sound in evidence, but that quibble aside it’s a cracker.
Hill doesn’t stick to the multi-instrumental template throughout though.  He introduces a lighter mood with the likes of ‘Slowly Slipping Away’ and ‘Troubled Times’, both of which feature twinkling, tasteful, Jimmy Page-goes-Bert Jansch acoustic guitar picking.  Hill adds harp to the mix on the former, along with vocals in a slightly higher register, producing a more relaxed vibe over a laid-back beat.  ‘Troubled Times, meanwhile, is a more reflective, shimmering piece, with plenty of variety in the guitar work to create a really interesting, excellent tune.
He takes it easy on ‘Emily’ too, with some fun acoustic strumming over a bouncing beat, imbued with summer sun and romantic hope. ‘Going Down The Road Feeling Bad, meanwhile, is a ripping and light acoustic number that manages to meld a gospel feel with a chilled vibe, vaguely recalling fellow Canuck Matt Andersen.
There are still some heavier grooves though, such as ‘Rhythm All Over’, on which Hill describes his usual modus operandi while adding a bit more variation to his typical stomp. It opens with a jagged riff that Hill proceeds to take in different directions around the chorus, and features a strong slide solo. ‘Walking Grave’ is an old-fashioned blues made heavy, and busy with some shifts in tempo, while Hill rips out some big guitar chords.
A couple of other stompers are satisfactory, if less dynamic. And I could probably live without both ‘Still A Fool And A Rolling Stone’ (aka ‘Catfish Blues’) and Hill’s version of ‘Rollin & Tumblin’, even if neither lets the side down.  The former is in a slow tempo a la Hendrix and adds an interesting coda, while Hill’s sonorous vocals continue to impress with their authenticity. The latter is a straight ahead reading, though it eschews the classic ‘shave and a haircut, two bits’ rhythm, but does feature some shuddering slide and a more arresting ‘Stop Breaking Down’ interlude that plays around with the rhythm.

Steve Hill explores some heavier dimensions than the aforementioned Matt Andersen, but as Solo Recordings: Volume 3 demonstrates, he too does a damn good job of carrying the torch for the true solo musician. This is an album with guts and taste, and I say more power to Steve Hill’s elbow.

Solo Recordings: Volume 3 is released on 6 October 2017 by No Label Records.
Steve Hill is touring Germany in September, and supporting Wishbone Ash on a 27 date UK tour in October and November.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Listened to lately . . .

Time to catch up on a couple of albums from the last year that slipped by without any Blues Enthused comment, but first of all a new single from a familiar name.

Mollie Marriott – Control/Truth Is A Wolf
Put Steve Marriott out of your mind.  Mollie Marriott isn’t some raucous blues-rock bawler like her dad.  As this single from her forthcoming album Truth Is A Wolf demonstrates, she’s
Mollie Marriott - blonde ambition
Pic by Rob Blackham
much more in Jo Harman territory, vocally and stylistically.  Co-written with Sam Tanner of Brother Strut, ‘Control’ kicks off in the vein of a modern work song, over a steady, throbbing drumbeat, while Marriott’s voice swoops and soars over it.  Gradually the tempo picks up, some impressive backing vocals add depth, and a gritty guitar solo puts icing on the cake.  ‘Truth Is A Wolf’ is a slower, haunting effort with a bluesy edge, on which Marriott demonstrates excellent vocal control as she imitates a wolf-like howl – in an entirely musical fashion, I should make clear.  These two tracks from Ms Marriott represent a promising overture for the album to come.

Truth Is A Wolf is released on 3 November.
Mollie Marriot tours the UK supporting Bad Touch in November and December.

Selwyn Birchwood – Pick Your Poison
Floridian Selwyn Birchwood’s first album Alligator album in 2014, Don’t Call No Ambulance, was a strong calling card, and if anything this follow-up released back in May is even stronger.  ‘Trial By Fire’ kicks off the album with Othar Turner-like fife and drums as an intro to a distinct air of hypnotic North Mississippi hill country, a slitheringly convincing first stop on a tour of blues styles.  Birchwood’s lap steel guitar gets a rollicking workout on ‘Guilty Pleasures’, while they do a nice mash up of funk and a reggae beat on the title track, and ‘Reaping Time’ follows in an old blues tradition - the solemn contemplation of death.
It’s all drawn together by Birchwood’s gravelly voice, and a meaty sound bolstered by the sax playing of Regi Oliver.  Musically the material is both original and mature, and Birchwood also has a knack for a lyric, getting fiery with the political statement of ‘Police State’, and witty on the likes of the gospelly, N’Awlins-tinged ‘Even The Saved Need Saving’.  No two ways about it, Selwyn Birchwood is a rising star.

Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days Of Oakland
I bought Fantastic Negrito’s latest offering last year, but somehow it slipped my mind for ages afterwards.  Which is a shame, because it’s as adventurous an affair as his earlier Fantastic Negrito Deluxe EP, reviewed here back in 2015.  Multi-instrumentalist Negrito allies old blues stylings – going all the way back to the haunting traditional folk song ‘In The Pines’, popularised by Lead Belly among others – to loops and beats to create something that may not be unique, but manages to sound old-fashioned and modern at the same time.

If truth be told he overdoes the work song notion a bit, but there’s still plenty of mileage in the rock steady bass and drums, falsetto vocals and keyboard trills of ‘Working Poor’, the cantering syncopation of ‘Scary Woman’, and the Prince-like juddering staccato of ‘Hump Thru The Winter’.  Reprised from the EP, ‘Lost In A Crowd’ veers from tense stomp to wistful refrain, while ‘Rant Rushmore’ goes the other way with a fragile verse belying bitter, twisted lyrics before crashing into a heavy chorus.  Fantastic Negrito may not have quite cracked the formula yet, but he’s got enough going on to give Gary Clark Jnr a run for the money in the blues-meets-beats stakes.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

JW Jones - High Temperature

Got an album you stick on at times, that isn’t so downright irresistible that it has you singing your head off or doing bad dancing around the living room, but it’s still really good?  I don’t mean just okay.  I mean dependably, enjoyably good.  I think High Temperature, the new album from Canadian blues guitarist and singer JW Jones, may well fall into that category.
JW Jones - knows his way around a guitar
For a start, it features a good range of well-crafted, varied songs.  Produced by Grammy Award winner Colin Linden, also musical director of the TV series Nashville, it’s perhaps natural that its core it has a trio of country-tinged songs. ‘Away Too Long’ leads the way with its bright vibe and twangy guitar licks, followed by ‘Same Mistakes’, with its neat lyrics and nice organ work, and then the more reflective song of resignation ‘Leave Me Out’.  The latter features appealing piano from Kevin McKendree and a dash of lap steel, while Jones nails the storytelling country-style vocal.  He may not have an outstanding voice, but what he’s got he uses well, with personality and the ability to sell a song.
There are more hints of country elsewhere, but it’s not all Nashville-style.  Far from it.  Opener ‘The Price You Pay’ meanders and splutters into life in a distinctly Stonesy fashion, and maintains that mood with bursts of honky tonk piano and a decidedly Keef-like solo. Closer ‘Wham’ is a different proposition, an instrumental that recalls Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Travis Walk’ – a bit of a throwaway ending, in truth, fun though it is.
In between, the title track is a lightweight but enjoyable swinging shuffle, nicely driven along by drummer Bryan Owings, and featuring a great, old-fashioned rock’n’roll solo from Jones, with some jokey asides.  In contrast ‘Who I Am’ is a cool and introspective tale of a tough childhood and the positive influences that resulted in some solid adult values.  Autobiographical or not, it’s well put together lyrically, with reflective yet expansive guitar work played over swells of organ.  ‘Midnight Blues’, meanwhile, is an upbeat piece of bluesy rock’n’roll’n’pop with a catchy riff, and wouldn’t sound out of place on Samantha Fish’s Sixties R’n’B homage Chills & Fever.
Down the stretch there’s more variety in the form of ‘Already Know’, with its Motown-ish soul-pop verses, and Jones trying out a falsetto vocal to good effect.  Better still, ‘Where Do You Think I Was’ is an ironic road song over a Lizzy-style stop-time riff, winking at perceptions of the glamour of touring.
As you should have gathered by now, Jones peppers this material with entertaining guitar work, convincingly firing off licks in a range of different styles – makes me wish I’d caught him live a year or so back, when I last had the chance.  A couple of the thirteen songs may not add much to the equation, but overall High Temperature – naff title by the way – is a good album.  A genuinely, enjoyably good album.

High Temperature is released on Solid Blues Records on 20 October 2017.
JW Jones starts an 18-date UK tour on 23 November 2017 - details here.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

King King - Exile & Grace

In which the King King boys go unashamedly rocktastic.  But then, is that really such a departure?
Alan Nimmo says Exile & Grace has a rockier feel and sound to it than their earlier output.  But the truth is that there’s always been a hard-hitting side to King King.  Go back to debut album Take My Hand – and hey, if you’ve only recently got on the KK bus, you really should – and you’ll find that it bolts out of the traps with three blasts of rocked-up R’nB headed up by live favourite ‘Lose Control’.  And they’re backed up later by ‘I’ll Fight My
Way’ and ‘Broken Heal’, just in case you didn’t get the drift.  So in the immortal words of Tom Jones, what’s new pussycat?
Well okay, so they’ve traded a measure of bluesy swing for a dollop of sheer rock oomph.  But trust me, the oomph works on the likes of ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ and ‘Long
Exile & Grace - laid back it isn't it
Time Running’.  There’s simply no arguing with the lead single, which rides in merrily on a neck-snapping riff, jackhammer drums from Wayne Proctor, swathes of Jon Lord-ish organ from Bob Fridzema, and a brief but squealing guitar solo from Alan Nimmo.  Lyrically it’s not Shakespeare, but that never stopped ‘Tutti Frutti’ being a rock’n’roll classic, did it?  ‘Long Time Running’ bursts into life with a catchy riff, interlaced with endearingly music box keyboard frills, and features some changes of gear from Wayne Proctor to keep you on your toes.  But more to the point, both songs have dynamite hooks that will have all and sundry singing their little heads off when they’re played live.
There’s a dark undertow present too though, to complement these grabbers.  The key words to describe both ‘Broken’ and ‘Betrayed Me’ are “tough and tense”.  ‘Broken’ explores state-of-the-world lyrical territory, in a fashion that’s the bleak flip side of brother Stevie Nimmo’s similarly gritty ‘Chains Of Hope’.  Meanwhile ‘Betrayed Me’ kicks off with interesting guitar tones from Nimmo played off against delicate piano colourings from Fridzema, which then develop into brooding swells of organ as the tension builds.  It’s a grower in a similar vein to ‘Stranger To Love’, with an intriguingly bitter lyric, and has the potential to become something mountainous live.
‘Find Your Way Home’ is a big power ballad, with a vibe carried largely by Fridzema’s Hammond that draws on 80s AOR as much as the blues.  As it progresses it develops an epic quality, but the big finish it hints at is never quite delivered.  Young Bob also has a Stevie Wonder-ish hand in the funkiness of closing track ‘I Don’t Wanna Lie’, which offers another earworm of a melodic chorus.  It brings the album to a close with an oddly perfunctory ending though, which suggests the sequencing could have been better.
Elsewhere, 'Heed The Warning' is full of muscular swagger, built on sturdily dovetailed chords from Nimmo’s guitar and Fridzema’s organ, and is a good each way bet to take over from ‘Lose Control’ as a set opener of choice.  ‘Tear It All Up’, celebrating the live experience of supporting Thunder in big venues, has a chunky riff pushed along by Lindsey Coulson’s pulsing bass, and is elevated by a decidedly Thunder-ous mid-section, but it begs for a more roof-raising chorus.
As a card-carrying member of the Standing In The Shadows Appreciation Society, I know King King are capable of more emotional depth than is evident here, and there's a studio album coming some time when they give us everything they've got and leave us gasping on the canvas.  But Exile & Grace, like Reaching For The Light before it, takes a big stride towards conquering the broader horizons of classic rock.  So for maximum pleasure, turn the volume up.  Louder.  I said LOUDER!  Go on, you know it makes sense.

Exile & Grace is available for pre-order now:
Amazon LP: http://amzn.to/2fL0yeN 
Amazon CD: http://amzn.to/2wa1UGL 
iTunes: http://bit.ly/KKE_G
Merch bundles: https://kingking.tmstor.es/

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Pretty Things and Mike Sanchez - Edinburgh Blues'N'Rock Festival, 29 July 2017

It’s well into the evening at the Corn Exchange, and after a belter of a set from the Stevie Nimmo Trio it’s time for those Sixties veterans The Pretty Things.
They get the ball rolling with a bundle of R’n’B, including their own short and sweet ‘Honey I Need’, and ‘Mama Keep Your Big Shout’ which features rippling guitar from original member Dick Taylor and a great bass riff from George Woosey.  They also turn out an idiosyncratic take on ‘Big Boss Man’, with a harp solo from second guitarist Frank Holland and some nifty guitar work from Taylor, who cuts a stooped figure but has evidently got the spirit.
Dick Taylor and Phil May - pretty young things
But while the Pretty Things had their roots in the R’n’B scene of the early Sixties, they also delved into more experimental fare as the decade wore on.  Consequently they progress to songs like ‘Same Sun’, which provides an echo of the earlier set by Miracle Glass Company, followed by something heavier, wilder and more psychedelic that I suspect was ‘We’ll Play House’.  It’s good, but also points towards a particularly English style of whimsical psychedelia that just isn’t my cup of Joe.  So ‘She’s Next Door’ benefits from some chiming guitar lines and a pleasantly wonky Strat solo from Frank Holland, but the title track from their cult classic album S.F. Sorrow really doesn’t do it for me, while to my ears ‘I See You’ is just yawnsome.
Things buck though when they get back on the authentic R’n’B beat with ‘Can’t Be Satisfied’, propelled by a stomping bass drum from Jack Greenwood.  Taylor adds acoustic slide to that, and does an even tastier job with it on Robert Johnson’s ‘Come In To My Kitchen’, a song that always repays sensitive handling.
Phil May then announces that it’s time for them to get into Bo Diddley mode, and things duly get more electric on ‘Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover’.  ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ shows off the originality of Diddley’s material, with the band’s young dudes Woosey and Greenwood hunkering down and delivering bucket loads of energy, while Phil May lets loose with the trademark vocal squawk that can be heard on many a PT recording.
‘Ramona’ is based on the typical Bo Diddley beat, and could just as easily be ‘Not Fade Away’ or ‘Bo Diddley’ itself, but is set apart here by some call and response guitar and bass between Taylor and Woosey, and a powerhouse drum solo from Greenwood.  Which just leaves time for them to bow out with ‘Big City’, with its rousing chorus and an explosive finish.
I must confess that Mike Sanchez has passed me by before now, despite the fact that the piano man has been a long time associate of the likes of Mick Fleetwood, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, and a member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings.  I imagine their interest is due to his authentic feel for old-fashioned rock’n’roll, judging by his performance here.
If he eases in with the boogie woogie of ‘Back To The Highway’, he’s soon cranking it up.  ‘Red Hot Mama’ is driving rock’n’roll, while on ‘I Get So Hungry’ he and his band pick up the
Mike Sanchez does some ivory tinkling
swing baton from Deke McGee, with some corny lyrics worthy of Louis Jordan.  ‘I’m Ready’ has more of a Fats Domino feel than the wildness of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sanchez demonstrates that he has a good voice for it.   Contrastingly, there’s a New Orleans vibe to ‘Rock Rock Rock’, with a great tenor sax solo from Martin Winning just one illustration of what a crack band Sanchez has.
Coming down the stretch it’s just a catalogue of hits from all quarters, kicking off with an unusual take on John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom Boom’ that suddenly switches into ‘Shake Your Hips’, which is where Black Cat Bone started the day nine hours earlier.  Sanchez then embarks on a rollicking medley of Bo Diddley songs interspersed with god knows what else, including the likes of ‘Tequila’, ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Black Betty’.
By now it’s getting late, and a fatigued crowd is starting to thin out, but Sanchez keeps pounding it out for a while longer, concluding with a finale that includes ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Wild One’.  It’s a good rockin’ end to the night, but as with Deke McGee it feels rather lost in a big room like the Corn Exchange.  If I ever see Mike Sanchez again, I want it to be some place where the walls are sweating and the audience has a heaving dance floor shaking.  That’s where this stuff would get really red hot, mama.