Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Stumble - The Other Side

You can’t beat a bit of good home cooking, can you?  A big, satisfying beef casserole maybe, made with love and the best of ingredients, perfectly seasoned and with a bouquet garni chucked in for extra flavour.  Dished up on a proper plate, with a hefty serving of mashed spuds to soak up the gravy.  Sounds pretty good to me.
What’s all this about, you’re asking?  I’ll tell you what.  I’m talking about the kind of kicks I get from listening to The Stumble cook up a storm on The Other Side.  None of your teenage guitar sensations, fancy-dan producers for hire or big name collaborators
The Stumble - the next big boy band?
Pic by Alan Partington
necessary here.  This is no nonsense, honest to goodness R&B, delivered with passion, imagination, and buckets of musical nous by a bunch of old lags based in Lancashire who sound like they’re having a ball.
The Other Side is an ensemble piece for sure, but the obvious place to start is with singer Paul Melville.  If there’s a sandpaper rasp to Melville's voice, it’s of the finest grade, as he lends a towering, soul-shaking dimension to each of the various blues and rock’n’roll styles explored by chief songwriter and drummer Boyd Tonner and the rest of the gang.
And it sure is a varied collection.  It ranges from the stonking boogie woogie of opener ‘New Orleans’, with honky tonk piano from guest keys man Justin Randall, to the Madness-like bopping rhythm of ‘Only You’, emphasised by the honking sax of Simon Anthony Dixon; from the crooning Fifties rock’n’roll of ‘Under Your Command’, with its sweet slide guitar, to the country-tinged folk of ‘One True Rock’ with Celtic fiddle from Richard Curran.
In between all of these diversions there’s plenty of raunchy, expansive R&B, epitomised by
Paul Melville does some soul-shaking
Pic by Alan White Photos
the blast that is ‘Be My Slave’, while on ‘Freedom Like A Woman’ some Bruce Hornsby like piano frills give way to a scorching guitar solo from Colin Black, like Tonner a founder member of the band.  It’s not the only time Black gets let off the leash either, his outing on ‘Heat Of The Night’ being just one of several instances where he lights the blue touchpaper.
The sheer quality of some of Tonner’s songwriting shouldn’t be overlooked either.  The aforementioned ‘Freedom Like A Woman’ is full of light and shade, providing the foundations for Dixon to lay down some smouldering sax, and Melville to demonstrate both control and passion.  ‘Bullet For The Blind’ is similarly dynamic, with an earworm of a hook, while on ‘Evening’ they fan the flames of a smoky, jazzy, late-night vibe.
Overall the sound is a potent mix, with the rhythm section of Tonner’s drums and Cameron Sweetnam’s bass always in the sweet spot, and further solidified by Ant Scapens guitar, with added colour from both Dixon’s sax and Randall’s piano.
I’m left with the inescapable impression that The Stumble not only know what they’re doing, they aim to have a damn good time doing it.  So get on your dancing shoes, turn the volume up, and shake yer booty!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Eric Gales - Middle Of The Road

Given that Gary Clark Jr pops up to lend a hand on the fourth track here, a cover of Freddie King’s ‘Boogie Man’, it’s no surprise that for much of Middle Of The Road Eric Gales heads towards similar territory as said Clark – to wit, 21st century bluesy guitar melded to trippy, hip-hop inflected soul and funk stylings.
Gales doesn’t push the envelope as far as Clark, and to these ears that results in a rather smoother, less edgy listening experience.  He has a rich, treacly voice well suited to a soulful sound, and for the most part weds it to an ultra-modern, squelchy guitar tone like a state-of-the-art Stylophone.
Eric Gales - modern boogie man
At its best this produces something like ‘Been So Long’, a catchy, laid back shot of reggae-fied funk, with a nifty little bass line – Gales also plays bass across the album – and a measured, piercing guitar solo.
The aforesaid ‘Boogie Man’ is built on easy, loping rhythm guitar and bass, with Gales and Clarke trading licks to good effect.  ‘Repetition’, meanwhile, has a verse melody that owes more than a fiver to Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’, but moves on from there to find its own place, with some spikier guitar playing courtesy of older brother Eugene Gales.
There are a few variations along the way, with varying degrees of success.  The opener ‘Good Time’, for example, is a supple slice of jangling, gospel-ish fun that is really no more than an hors d’oeuvre.  Even more peculiarly, ‘Swamp’ is an instrumental that weaves some minor variations and rhythmic tinkering around a briskly repetitive – and I mean repetitive – guitar line.  Rather more effectively, ‘Help Yourself’ features persistent chugging guitars that nod vaguely in the direction of North Mississippi hill country, Gales being assisted on this occasion by 16 year-old guitarist Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram.  And for a denouement Gales combines acoustic strumming and minimal percussion to deliver something simple and sensitive with ‘Help Me Let Go’.
By all accounts MiddleOf The Road is the story of Gales’ renaissance after a 2009 jail sentence for possession of drugs and a weapon.  As comebacks go it’s a solid piece of work, well put together with just enough quirkiness and stinging guitar to stand out from the herd.  Personally I’d have liked a tad more seasoning in the song writing at times, a bit more light and shade, a bit more edge.  But if you’re up for some adventures in post-Prince guitar-orientated soul, Eric Gales is a good place to start.

Middle Of The Road is released by Mascot/Provogue on 21 February 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Toronzo Cannon - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 19 January 2017

Are you ready for the Chicago Way?  You’d better be, because Toronzo Cannon is here to demonstrate that the citadel of electric blues can still produce a contender.  And then some.
On this first night of a lightning quick first trip to the UK, Cannon and his band the Cannonball Express fired up a packed audience that included blues nuts from all points of the compass, put smiles on their faces, and left them wanting more.  Leaning heavily on material from last year’s album The Chicago Way, Cannon showed off scintillating guitar work, a rich and soulful voice perfectly suited to the blues, and a range of fresh and convincing original songs, kicking off with the bright shuffle of ‘Mrs From Mississippi’.
Toronzo Cannon makes himself at home in Scotland
‘Midlife Crisis’ is a perfect example of Cannon’s penchant for tongue in cheek wordplay, accompanied by a solo in which he shows his readiness to go off piste in search of unexpected notes.  There’s more humorous storytelling on ‘Bad Contract’, by which time two more things have become clear:  Cannon has charisma to match his chops, and the Cannonball Express don’t half swing, punctuating and syncopating with ease.
The slow blues of ‘When Will You Tell Him About Me?’ confirms how tight they are, like a perfectly fitting jigsaw, with drummer Pookie Styx key to holding it together.  I know jackshit about drumming, but the way that Pookie sets the rhythm but also knows exactly where Cannon is going and how to enhance it is a joy to watch.
By the time they get to ‘Fine Seasoned Woman’ Cannon’s bonhomie and effortlessly pleasing guitar work have everyone in a good mood, as he engineers a singalong with some relaxed patter.
After a break they open a second set with ‘She’s Too Much’, which comes across more or less like a more laid back, funkier version of ‘Mrs From Mississippi’, with Sonny Edwards’ keys offering
Cannon feels the rhythm from Pookie Styx
subtle and complementary colour behind Cannon.  They get heavier on the opening of ‘Chickens Comin’ Home To Roost’, with a playful solo from Cannon to follow, and synchro-meshed dynamics as they drop the volume.  Cool Hand Luke bassman Dave Forte furnishes a classic rolling
bass line on ‘Strength To Survive’ to complement funky, chiming guitar chords from Cannon on a song about the pressures of everyday living.
And then they really get down to business.  With ‘John The Conquer Root’, the brooding, hoodoo voodoo seduction tale that’s the title track of Cannon’s 2013 album, he cranks things into overdrive and gets all Hendrix on our collective asses.  It’s full of depth and attack, with Pookie well and truly in the pocket, driving things along while Cannon gets down to some serious guitar wailing, before casually fishing a whammy bar out of his gig bag and fitting it to his Strat for a crunching finish.  They dig in again for a slice of boogie as a finale, Cannon never overplaying but getting his thumb working to beef up the bottom end, before they close with a rocking coda that echoes ‘You Really Got Me’.
Toronzo Cannon is continuing a great tradition, but he’s also an original.  He writes his own stuff, it’s fresh and modern, and he and his band more than do it justice.  It was a coup for the Edinburgh Blues Club to get him here, and here's hoping we see him here again soon.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Aaron Keylock - Cut Against The Grain

First the good news.  Whenever Aaron Keylock gets a slide in his left mitt, some good things happen.  So a song like ‘Down’ features a slithery slide riff, with a skipping drum pattern in the verses, and a nice slide solo, played with conviction.  Similarly ‘Against The Grain’ kicks in with a tough and convincing slide-driven riff that hints at Page on ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, while the riff on ‘Sun’s Gonna Shine’ comes naturally, even if the rhythm plods a bit.
Aaron Keylock - young boy blues
Album closer ‘No Matter What The Cost’ suggests another string to Keylock’s bow, a dreamy sounding semi-acoustic number with a Stonesy feel that even hints at a Jagger-esque cod US twang.  ‘Just One Question’ also passes muster, a slow and moody blues, with a tasteful intro from Keylock and some of the best production on the album, decorated by some neat details.  
But here’s the rub.  Over the piece, Cut Against The Grain suffers from weaknesses in the material, the vocals, and the production.
Several of the melodies are weak or predicable, but the dodgiest examples come towards the end of the album.  ‘That’s Not Me’ may have an interesting drum rhythm and decent guitar solo, but there’s a Britpop feel to the rhythm guitar and the chorus, and the following ‘Try’ essentially seems like the same formula slowed down.  ‘Spin The Bottle’ has some Strolling Bones style details, and a gritty middle eight, but again these are wrapped around a song that Noel Gallagher might have considered too lightweight for Oasis – though I will admit that the chorus is strangely catchy all the same, as is the case with ‘Against The Grain’.  
Most of Keylock’s singing sounds ordinary at best, lacking depth and occasionally veering towards a thin and nasal quality, which may have worked for Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks but isn’t the best fit for blues rock.  He’s better when things are bit slower and more laid back, but it’s an area that needs work.
The sound is noticeably dry and thin on songs such as ‘All The Right Moves’ and ‘That’s Not Me’, and generally it lacks punch, which doesn’t do much to compensate for the material.
AK is okay.  He’s young and he’s got plenty time to develop.  But the people looking after him need to nurture his talent rather better, because being a “teenage guitar sensation” isn’t enough.  Bigger names than him need assistance in the writing department, so there’s no shame in looking for some.  If he intends to continue singing then a vocal coach to help him as his voice matures would be a good investment.  And next time around they should look for better value from his producer.
There are plenty of people who will tell Keylock how precocious he is.  If they really want him to succeed, some people need to help him address the areas that need work.

Cut Against The Grain is released on Provogue on 20 January 2017.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Flashback #8 - Stray Cats Struttin'

I was in a pub with my other half just before Christmas, when the music playing caught my attention.  I asked the barman who it was, and he said Lee Rocker.  The name didn’t ring any bells with me at the time, but I made a mental note to check it out.
When I came back to it a week or so later, I realised that this was the Lee Rocker who played wild stand-up bass with the Stray Cats – and that took me all the way back to the night I saw them at long lost Edinburgh venue Tiffany’s (later Cinderella Rockerfella’s) in the early 80s.  Looking to check exactly when, I came upon the remarkable, which tells me that it was on 9 March 1981.
Stray Cats get down and get wiv it
Tiffany’s was a standing venue, and mobbed that night.  I recall being down the front, with Slim Jim Phantom just feet away from me, as the Stray Cats proceeded to deliver a wild set of rock’n’roll.  The fact that Slim Jim could drive them along by whacking the living daylights out of nothing more than a kick drum, a snare and a cymbal seems bonkers.  But then Stray Cats were a pretty bonkers proposition altogether, what with the OTT quiffs, and the big tattoos at a time when they weren’t commonplace the way they are now.  They knew their onions when it came to performing rock’n’roll though, with Brian Setzer leading the way with raunchy guitar, and Rocker using his double bass like a piece of gym equipment.
It’s notable that the Stray Cats relocated to London* to make their breakthrough. Scoring a series of hits with rockabilly tunes like ‘Runaway Boys’, ‘Rock This Town’ and ‘Stray Cats’ may seem outlandish at a time when the New Romantics were the latest big thing, but it probably reflects the way that the British music scene had broken open in the aftermath of punk – in the UK singles chart in early 1981 you’d also have found Rainbow reaching number 3 with ‘I Surrender’, and even Motorhead combining with Girlschool to reach number 10, alongside Ultravox, The Who, The Teardrop Explodes, Talking Heads and Madness.  I hated the ‘Year Zero’ mentality that came with punk in 1976/77, but it did enable a thousand flowers to bloom – for a while at least.

The Stray Cats conjured up a stonkingly good debut album to reinforce the hit singles, though I’m not sure I’d have wanted to base foreign relations on the sentiments of ‘Storm The Embassy’.  They weren’t to built to last, but that night in Tiffany’s they didn’t half get the joint rockin’.  Check out this video of ‘(She’s) Sexy &17’ to remember their chutzpah.

*Referenced on 'String Bass, Guitar And A Drum', from his 2009 album for Alligator Records, Black Cat Bone.