Saturday, July 22, 2017

Swamfog Play The Meters - Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, 18 July 2017

A flurry of horns and then we’re straight into a chunky groove from the Swampfog rhythm section, with Jed Potts on guitar, kicking off a medley of early Meters material.  One of an interlinked ensemble of Edinburgh bands serving up a variety of R’n’B based recipes, Swampfog are well equipped to deliver a menu of The Meters’ N’Awlins funk – and tonight they’ve recruited some guests to add some extra heat to the jambalaya.
As the opening medley progresses, with jazzy horn arrangements from sax man Tom
Potts and Pickles serve up a tasty gumbo
Pickles and great syncopation from Jamie Graham on drums and Craig McFadyen on bass, it’s clear that tonight all concerned are in for a treat.  There’s nice interplay all round, plus some very NOLA chant-along passages, and a tasty trumpet solo from Charles Dearness.  By the time they get to the shuffling ‘Cabbage Alley’, with a trombone solo from Paddy Darley, there’s some wee fella dancing away on his own in the corner – but he certainly won’t be dancing alone all night.
An imaginative clapalong directed by Potts, and a trombone solo from Ross Lothian preface ‘Chicken Strut’, on which Potts conjures up a horn-like guitar tone for a juicy solo. Pickles’ sax solo could do with a touch more volume – but the horn riff is terrific.  On ‘Ease Back’ they – well, ease back.  It’s a mellow slow one, with more spot-on syncopation, and another grabber of a trumpet solo before it dwindles down to nothing.  Then BAM – they explode into ‘Ride Your Pony’, the groove embellished with a smattering of witty little musical asides.
The first of a series of guests appear in the form of New Orleans’ trumpet player Kevin Louis and local singer Nicole Smits, doing a slinky trio reading of ‘I’m Gone’ with Potts.  Smits sticks around for ‘Liar’ when the band returns, with Potts showing off some funky riffing.  It’s a prelude to some serious guitar wrangling to close their first set, on the jagged ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ – a wonderfully HUH invoking funkerama – and then on Dr John’s ‘Quitters Don’t Win’.
After the break Potts and the rhythm section set off on the laid back shuffle of ‘Here Comes
Steve Glenn doesn't play a tuba
The Meter Man’ until the horns re-enter, heralding a groovy sax solo from Potts, and then it’s time for another guest.  Local boy Angus Munro appears to sing on the excellent ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout New Orleans’, and along with a soul-freakish voice he has a grinning, energetic style that immediately triggers an outbreak of audience dancing.
With the temperature raised, N’Awlins players James Martin on sax and Danny Abel on guitar join the fray for ‘It Ain’t No Use’, Martin also contributing the vocal.  Abel shows off a biting tone, and a fluid, soulful style, while Martin contributes a wailing solo that resolves into a lovely riff from the horn section.
The stage begins to fill up as Kevin Louis returns, accompanied by Aron Lambert who delivers some all action drumming while Potts and Abel get into some quick-fire guitar duelling on the well danceable ‘Stretch Your Rubber Band’.  And then it’s time for the entry of . . . Steve ‘Tuba Steve’ Glenn on – no, not tuba, but sousaphone of all things.  Ever seen a drum and sousaphone showcase?  Well Glenn and Lambert give it a cracking go on the stonking ‘Fire On The Bayou’.
Angus Munro returns for the finale of ‘People Say’, and though it may be a slice of social commentary tonight it’s quite simply party time, as Munro leads the dancing in front of the band.  Eventually they bring down the curtain and depart the stage, and for a minute it seems that calls for an encore are going to be frustrated – until they catch us on the hop with the horns re-entering from the back of the Piccolo Spiegeltent.

It’s the cue for a joyous cacophony, a riot of a conclusion in which all concerned show their chops as they manage to hold it together while chucking the rules out the window.  Tonight was billed as Swampfog Play The Meters, but high fives all round for a night of funk, fun and frolics, as the Big Easy came to Auld Reekie.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Songhoy Blues - Somerset House, London, 16 July 2017

Malian desert blues honchos Songhoy Blues made quite an impression a couple of years back when they first ventured to Europe.  Their impact was such that they were even invited to contribute a cover of ‘Kashmir’ for a magazine’s CD tribute to Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
The courtyard of Somerset House seems like an incongruous setting for a band born out of the sub-Sahara and oppression.  But on a warm summer’s night it suits the vibrancy of Songhoy Blues’ performance just dandy.  They come onstage accompanied by The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, summing up their dilemma as guys who love their home but had to flee northern Mali for the capital Bamako, and they immediately begin to set the place alight with their energy.
Songhoy silhouettes at Somerset House
Right from the off they seem to offer a variety of influences and none. An early rolling groove with hints of drone sounds is a reminder that there are artists out there aiming to forge an Afro-Celtic sound.  Garba Touré’s lead guitar work is by turns brittle and jazzy, spiky and twirling, until he launches into a thoroughly guitar-heroic, wildly fuzzy solo.  Meanwhile Nathaniel Dembelé on drums and Oumar Touré on bass (yup, it’s a veritable tower of Tourés) lay down a shuffling rhythm.  Dembelé’s drumming may seem thoroughly Western in style, but the overall effect is subtly different, creating a singular sound.
Frontman Aliou Touré sings with conviction in both his own lingo and English, incorporating frequent call and response chants with his bandmates, while cavorting energetically about the stage.  Now and then he also straps on a guitar to thicken the sound, as on their theme song ‘Songhoy’ itself, with its chunky riff.
Garba Touré reaches for an acoustic guitar for ‘Hometown’, which shows off their range with an almost hill country bluesy riff while conjuring unexpected chords and directions.  In the next breath ‘Bamako’ is irresistibly funky, supplemented by trumpet and sax and featuring another sizzling guitar solo.  ‘Sahara’, on which Iggy Pop of all people guested on their latest album Résistance, takes a blues meets punk line, with GT’s guitar alternately pinging and then gritty.
But it’s probably ‘Ai Tchere Bele’, from their first album Music In Exile, that really underlines their range.  It’s a wacko collision of styles that recalls the wildness of early White Denim, with Aliou Touré’s dancing apparently infected by the spirit of Sam and Dave.

They close the night with an encore of ‘Voter’, from the new album, finishing the audience off with its pummelling riff.  For a band which grew out of the hardest of times, escaping sharia law, Songhoy Blues have a life-affirming energy about them.  “Music is the universal language” is a typical piece of between songs chat from Aliou Touré.  On this evidence, he knows whereof he speaks.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band - Lay It On Down

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a technically accomplished guitarist, with a reputation of long standing.  And if he’s good enough to be a collaborator with Stephen Stills in The Rides, then surely he can’t be easily dismissed.  So how come I have qualms about his new album Lay It On Down?
The trouble is that I find a chunk of the material here under-seasoned, and the condiments in short supply are personality and emotion.  There are times when things are just too neat and tidy.  For example the vocals of long-time KWS singer Noah Hunt, on ‘Baby Got Gone’
Kenny Wayne Shepherd driftin'
and the title track, sit at the upper end of his register, and are slickly thickened with harmonies, so that however sincere the sentiments might be, any individuality is squeezed out in favour of an identikit modern country singer.
That country reference isn’t accidental. The PR bumf for the album talks about Shepherd visiting to Nashville to work with a bunch of writers on the songs for this album, and if I say it shows I don’t mean it as an unalloyed compliment.  Songs like the two mentioned above, ‘Louisiana Rain’ (no, not a Tom Petty cover, but a paean to Shepherd’s home state), and ‘Hard Lesson Learned’ with its pedal steel guitar, sound like songwriting-by-numbers MOR country fare, albeit from experts in the genre.  It boils down to Shepherd playing it way too safe with stuff like this.
Happily a healthy portion of the material is more appealing.  For a start, I prefer it when Hunt drops to a lower key and they ditch the double-tracking, allowing his voice to sound both richer and more natural, enabling a degree of humour to permeate the likes of ‘Nothing But The Night’ and ‘She’s $$$’ (as in ‘She’s Money’).  The latter has a country rockin’ vibe akin to John Hiatt’s ‘Tennessee Plates’, and if it doesn’t have Hiatt’s level of wit at least there’s a spark of fun evident.
Things are always better when they step beyond those pesky country inclinations, as with the horns and squelchy guitar tones of ‘Diamonds & Gold’, and the funky undercurrent of ‘Nothing But The Night’, with the hint of staccato in its guitar riff and the phrasing of its verses, which does credit to the rhythm section of Chris Layton on drums and Scott Nelson on bass.  Similarly the strutting blues feel of ‘Down For Love’, with stabs of organ from Riley Osbourn, has a pleasing swagger that they take all the way to the bank.  ‘How Low Can You Go’, meanwhile, rocks’n’rolls in toe-tapping, rough and tumble fashion, with the insertion of a witty descending riff in imitation of the title.  ‘Ride Of Your Life’ closes proceedings with a chunky slab of a riff, a heap of automotive metaphors and a burst of guitar frenzy that may well tempt Shepherd into extended noodling onstage.

All in all Lay It On Down is an instance of one step forward and one step back, as instances of genuine, well-seasoned blues rock vie with tame and glossy Nashville fare.  On the whole the real deal may just about win on points, but it’s a close run thing.  Shepherd would do well to find a producer who will make him rough things up more next time round.

Lay It On Down is released by Mascot/Provogue on 21 July.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening

I may not be a Bonamassa fanboy, but sometimes I feel sorry for the guy.  Having his named booed at the Blues Music Awards, getting dubbed “corporate lawyer blues” by folk on Facebook and so on – such reactions seem a bit OTT to me.  The guy may have some annoying habits – his very ubiquity being one of them - but the occasional accusation that he plays it too safe doesn’t really stand up, as this live effort recorded in January 2016 demonstrates.
Playing with an entirely acoustic 9-piece outfit, featuring familiar collaborators like Reese Wynans on piano and Anton Fig on drums, as well as some new faces, Bonamassa conjures up a fresh take on some familiar material.
Joe Bonamassa's penchant for guitar porn gets out of control
Wynans opens proceedings with the piano intro to Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’, as a nicely witty precursor to ‘This Train’, which rattles along with plenty of brio.  Cellist Tina Guo serves up some fills that nicely counterpoint the riff, and Bonamassa contributes a steam whistle-ish guitar break.  It heralds an impressive opening stretch that includes ‘Drive’ and ‘The Valley Runs Low’ from Blues Of Desperation (still to be released at the time of these shows), as well as ‘Dust Bowl’.  Along the way it’s apparent that this set-up suits Bonamassa’s voice, allowing him to throttle back and concentrate on feel.  But for your money there’s also some spooky erhu (a ‘Chinese fiddle’) from Guo and a pinging, steely solo from the main man on ‘Drive’; a Celtic feel to passages on the simple but exquisite ‘The Valley Runs Low’; and on ‘Dust Bowl’ some interesting percussion from Fig and also Egyptian maestro Hossam Ramzy (who once upon a time featured on Page and Plant’s No Quarter set).
The middle of the hour and a half long set gets a bit erratic, with some so-so song choices and overextended renditions – ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ and 'Blue And Evil' would be down the pecking order in my ranking of JB’s material - though 'Black Lung Heartache' is impressive.  Kicking off with a traditional, slide-inflected intro from Bonamassa, it also has Guo's cello to the fore along with mandolin from multi-instrumentalist Eric Bazilian.  But they really hit their stride again with a laid back arrangement of ‘Mountain Time’, featuring magnificent, perfectly pitched piano from Wynans, who is frequently the real star turn of this show.
Black Country Communion’s ‘Song Of Yesterday’ is another highlight, an extended epic with a brooding opening, atmospheric cello and moaning backing vox, all creating an air of Zeppelin in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ mode.  With its driving, uptempo coda, it may be long but it’s well worth it.  Then down the stretch ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ serves up a ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ style guitar and cello workout from Bonamassa and Guo, before things cool off towards the end with BB King’s ‘Hummingbird’ and an overlong encore of ‘The Rose’.

Apparently this is Joe Bonamassa’s 22nd solo album release in the last 15 years, never mind all his collaborations.  That may feel like a relentless stream of product, but don’t let that put you off this outing.  Live At Carnegie Hall is something refreshingly different, and contains some real gems.

Live At Carnegie Hall is out now in both CD and DVD formats.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

New King King single reviewed: (She Don't) Gimme No Lovin'

Well, it’s all going off on this one, isn’t it? ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ is a chilli-hot appetiser for King King’s new album Exile & Grace, due in October.
Check out the basic ingredients: a prickly guitar intro as a prelude to a bone-crunching
Alan Nimmo racks his brain for the next line
guitar riff; driving bass from Lindsay Coulson; monster drums from Wayne Proctor; waves of surging organ from Bob Fridzema, who channels his inner Jon Lord on a brief solo; a neat guitar break and rocking vocals from Alan Nimmo, deftly bolstered by harmonies from Proctor and Fridzema.
Then there’s the lurching, neck-snapping bridge into the chorus, which should come with a health and safety warning when they preface it with a pregnant pause mid-song – then crash it into a sumptuous key change that’s the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Okay, so it’s not the most profound lyric they’ve ever written, but who cares?  Coming on like a mash-up between Whitesnake’s ‘Lie Down’ and Thunder’s ‘Dirty Love’, this is a shot of rock fever, served straight up.  So what are you still reading this for?  Watch the video – and get ready to rock!

Exile & Grace is released by Manhattan Records on 6 October.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Robin Trower - Time And Emotion

Now, I'm not going to tell you that I know Robin Trower's oeuvre inside out.  But he's been in the margins of my musical experience since I was in my early teens, back in the mid-Seventies, and saw some live footage of him on the Old Grey Whistle Test.  Which tells you something about how old I am – and that clearly Trower is no spring chicken nowadays.  I’ve also got a copy of Bridge Of Sighs, I’m pleased to say.  And at some point I also picked up a copy of his last album, Where Are You Going To, some of which I must admit I found rather soporific.
Robin Trower - an old fox not a spring chicken
So what I have I gleaned from my limited exposure to Trower over the decades?  Well, that OGWT appearance suggested a penchant for weird face-pulling while soloing which me and my juvenile mates found pretty comical.  Also, Trower's critics tend to view him as a Hendrix copyist, while his supporters regard him as a master of tone.  And last but not least, Trower's heyday benefited from the distinctive and soulful vocals of Jimmy Dewar.
That last point is important.  Because great vocals add a whole other dimension to great guitar work.  And knowing that Robin Trower had taken on vocal responsibilities himself on Time And Emotion, I approached it with some trepidation.  Could he really deliver?  Well, no and yes.  Okay, so he's no Jimmy Dewar.  But if my expectations were low, then Trower has managed to exceed them.  He may lack range and power, and his diction may be be a bit curious at times, but apart from all that – actually, he groans away satisfactorily throughout, in a sub-Knopflerish kinda way.
So having got all that out of the way, is Time And Emotion any good?  Well yeah, as it happens.  Right from the off, with the mid-paced shuffle of 'The Land Of Plenty', Trower sets a benchmark for well constructed songs and the mastery of guitar tones for which he's celebrated, often layering guitar sounds to create interesting textures, as on the slower, more reflective 'What Was I Really Worth To You'.
'Bitten By The Snake' is one of the most immediate tracks on show, with spiky guitar lines set off against an addictively toe-tapping rhythm from drummer Chris Taggart, and a good solo to boot.  'You're The One', meanwhile, is essentially a fairly slight song, but all the component parts fit together beautifully.  It has a winning melody over a lazy beat, and the guitar, bass and drum sounds are all perfectly placed in the mix, while Trower serves up an effects heavy, quavering guitar tone for his solo.
If you like a dash of funk then the loose-limbed 'Try Love' should fit the bill, with its engaging bass groove (Trower also plays bass, along with Livingstone Browne), while in a similar vein 'If You Believe In Me' is upbeat, with a strutting rhythm and bass.  It also features a sparkling little guitar refrain and a nicely fuzzy guitar solo, before veering off into a complementary slower section to close.
Trower can keep it simple too however, as he demonstrates on 'Make Up Your Mind', an old-fashioned blues slowie on which he deploys a more straight ahead guitar sound that makes for a pleasant change.
I sense that Trower has also put some effort into the lyrics throughout, although as his vocal delivery lacks the zest evident on, say the Starlite Campbell Band's album Blueberry Pie, they don't have the impact that they could.

Robin Trower may be an old fox, but young gunslingers like Dan Patlansky could still learn a thing or two from what he's produced on Time And Emotion, as he lives up to his tone master reputation on a set of solid songs.

Time And Emotion is released by Manhattan Records on 4 August.
Robin Trower plays London's Islington Assembly Hall on 29 November.