Monday, October 30, 2017

Hello Stranger - Blues Enthused catches up with Samantha Fish

It’s been a while.  Samantha Fish is heading our way for a run of 8 British dates with a six-piece band in November. We haven’t seen much of her here over the last few years.  But she’s certainly been keeping herself busy.
First there was the release of her third album Wild Heart, produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, which she toured relentlessly for a couple of years.
Then this Spring, all of a sudden, there came Chills & Fever, an album of delicious Sixties covers that brings to mind a line from Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity (turned into a great movie starring John Cusack): “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”
And along the way Samantha has also found the time to record another album with Dickinson, Belle Of The West, which will be with us in a couple of weeks.  Given that some of the most successful tracks on Wild Heart were acoustically based songs like ‘Place To Fall’ and ‘I’m In Love With You’, the fact that the new album follows a similar path is promising.
Plenty to cover then, when I managed to collar a Q&A with Ms Fish, starting with the current album, Chills & Fever.

From the outside at least, when Chills & Fever came out it seemed like quite a left turn from where you were at with your previous album Wild Heart.  You’ve spoken about your long-standing affection for the kind of scrappy rock’n’roll that’s on it, but what actually prompted the idea to dedicate an album to it?  And how did the different
Samantha Fish - she wakes up looking like this, apparently
                                                                            Pic by Alyssa Gafkjen
components of how to do it come together – recording in Detroit with the Detroit Cobras, with Bobby Harlow producing, and the New Orleans horn players?

“I've wanted to expand the band for years. After Wild Heart, it seemed like a good time to do that. My favourite singers were always soul singers, but I never felt like I could do that style justice with a rock n' roll trio. Expanding the band for Chills & Fever was a natural progression. It gave me the opportunity to stretch out and sing in a style people hadn't really heard me do before. Detroit set the stage for this. Bobby hooked me up with former members of the Detroit Cobras, and my manager brought the horns from New Orleans. With my background and influences, I felt like we caught a really unique style and sound.”

Part of the charm of the album is that it brings together a bundle of singles that all feel like misfits, in a way – they’re all on the cusp of R’n’B, of soul, of Sixties pop, of rock’n’roll, but they don’t fit neatly into any of those categories.  And I don’t imagine many of the originals featured lead guitar licks either.  Was it a challenge to create a coherent sound of your own out of them, or did Bobby Harlow have a pretty good template in his head?

“Once we got the band in place, everything moulded around that. It wasn't a difficult puzzle to put together once we got into the studio. It was really fun recording those songs and allowing the bands personality to shine through.”

I’m guessing that the original songs were recorded pretty damn quickly back in the day.  Did you manage to do the same?

“We always record pretty quickly. I feel like the magic and energy is in the first few takes. That’s where the tension lies and everyone is almost uncomfortable. Once the band gets too comfortable, the recording can become stale.”

I read somewhere that Bobby Harlow insisted that you stay in a less than classy motel near the studio that was a traditional haunt for rock’n’rollers, in order to get into the spirit of the thing.  How did that go?

“I did it! The 45 Factory Studio is actually nestled into this crazy little motel. Bobby wanted me to immerse myself in this environment. We talked a lot about classic soul singers and how they really had to sing like their lives depended on it. Greatness coming from desperation. They might have only had one shot at singing a song. It was another way of putting me out of my comfort zone. It’s the same with getting a good track from the band, sometimes when you are uncomfortable, you bring an edge to the song. Which is what separates a good performance from a great one.”

It may sound obvious, but lyrically the songs are all told from a young, female perspective, and they have a real early Sixties feel - of torch songs, and teenage crushes, and sexual awakening.  All of which gives them a particular charm because they seem quite innocent and knowing at the same time.  Was that something you were conscious of as you put the songs together?  

“That’s the human condition. Love, desire, heartache . . . .  Lyrically that didn't happen on purpose. We picked the best songs for the session. I think it all fit in well though.”

Did you have to sift through a heap of songs to arrive at the stuff you recorded?  Were there any “ones that got away” that you’d have loved to do but didn’t for some reason, or recorded but didn’t put on the album?

“We talked about songs for months leading up to the session. There were songs that we decided not to do, but they didn't fit with the rest. There was a theme throughout, and when we finally started recording, we knew exactly what we were going to do.”

Touring, touring, touring - the road never ends
You’ve been touring and touring and touring the last couple of years – to the extent that you recently got a “Road Warrior” award in the Independent Blues Music Awards.  How many gigs did you do last year?


Does being on the road that much present particular challenges for you?  You’re a young woman, working in a genre heavily populated by middle-aged guys, and I don’t imagine Walter Trout has to spend much time worrying about his hair or his stage wardrobe!  But for good or ill you probably have some different expectations placed on you.

“Absolutely. I think it presents challenges for anyone. I feel like everyone misses home, but it's the love and passion for music that pushes me forward. As far as hair and makeup, I wake up like that, so its not that much harder.”

It must also be really hard work for your voice, which for you is your instrument just as much as the guitar.  Is that something you have to be careful about?

“Absolutely. Singers need to stretch and warm up, just like an athlete. It’s the key to stamina and longevity. Also, trying to stay as healthy as possible.”

Is it a different dynamic now that it’s a six-piece on the road?  When you just had a trio I imagine you all got to know each other’s habits very well.

“It's just more people to manage. It honestly hasn't been as difficult of a transition as I thought it was. The drives are longer because we have to stop more. Everyone has a great work ethic though. That helps a lot.”

Mike Zito wrote that song ‘The Road Never Ends’, with the line “By the time I get home, you know I’m already gone”.  Is it difficult to wind down when you get off the road for a break?  What do you do for relaxation?

“It's difficult to shift gears. I feel like a workaholic sometimes. When I'm not touring, we're putting albums together, or doing photo shoots or videos. Everything is centred around music. On nights off, I usually end up watching another band play. I love spending time with family and friends though, so I try to sneak that in as much as possible.”

Working with Belle Of The West producer Luther Dickinson
You’ve also got an album coming out in November showcasing an acoustic side.  Is that based on the sessions you did with Luther Dickinson after you released Wild Heart?

“It's called Belle of the West, and it’s due out on November 3rd. We got the idea during the Wild Heart session. We went back to Zebra Ranch Studio in northern Mississippi. Luther produced, we brought in Jimbo Mathus, Lightnin' Malcolm, Sharde Thomas, Lillie Mae, Amy Lavere, and Tikyra Jackson. It's mostly original and semi acoustic. Its kind of like my Nashville meets North Mississippi record.”

Where did the material for Belle Of The West come from?  Covers of old blues tunes, or original material?  Is there anything on there that you’re particularly pleased with?

“Most are my songs. I covered an RL Burnside song as a duet with Malcolm, covered and did a duet with Lillie Mae, and Jimbo Mathus penned the title track. I'm really happy with all of it. It’s an incredibly personal album.”

You started having a go at lap steel back then as well, didn’t you?  How did you get on with that?

“I'm still terrible, but working on it.”

It’s probably a bit early to ask where you might be headed next on the recording front.  But are you writing new material, for when the day comes around?

“Definitely. Always looking ahead.”

While Sam Fish is looking ahead, I won’t be the only one looking forward to seeing her live, and to hearing Belle Of The West (reviewed here), in the next few weeks.  With a soaring voice that she injects with bundles of personality, zinging guitar to match, and a body of cracking material reaching back to her debut album Runaway, she’s not just a road warrior, she’s the kind of young artist keeping the blues genre fresh and exciting.

Full details of Samantha's UK tour dates can be found here.

A review of Samantha's Edinburgh gig from this tour, on 28 November 2017, can be found here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Mollie Marriott - Truth Is A Wolf

Yes but, no but.  Or to put it another way, I’m at sixes and sevens about Mollie Marriott’s new album.
Is it any good?  Yes, it is.  Do I like it?  That’s a different question, but yes, although it’s not really my thang.  What does it sound like?  Er, let’s see how we go with that one, shall we?
Truth Is A Wolf is a very polished, highly professional piece of work.  There’s no doubting the quality of the individual songs and their arrangements, which are very well put together. 
Mollie Marriott raids her jewellery box
Pic by Rob Blackham
The production is glossy, especially the construction of a sound that occasionally contrasts Marriott’s clear-as-a-bell singing with an undercurrent of fuzzed up guitar to good effect, notably on the top notch co-write with Paul Weller ‘King Of Hearts’, on which he also plays.  Keyboards are layered cleverly in places, and there’s even a cello to the fore on the subdued and sensitive ‘Love Your Bones’. 
Mollie Marriott has an exquisite and flexible alto voice - if you’re expecting a female version of her old man Steve’s raucous holler then do not pass go, do not collect two hundred quid.  She may have a bluesy, roots side, as her guest spot with Bad Touch on Tina Turner's 'Baby Get It On' suggests, but it's kept mostly under wraps, and while she displays a soulful vibe on some songs it’s of a very British variety.  Technically though, she makes very good use of a great range and exceptional control.  Credit too, for supplementing her on several songs with backing vocal arrangements that are simply luscious – ‘My Heaven Can Wait’ being a prime example with its dynamic crescendo, rising and falling in waves.
Myself, I’d like a bit more in the way of rough edges, but that’s a matter of personal taste.  Each song is well constructed, and if at first blush they don’t seem to have the strongest hooks, after repeated listens I find myself getting up in the morning with the likes of ‘Control’, or the title track with it's tuneful mock wolf howls, swirling around my head.
Truth Is a Wolf strikes me as the kind of polished British pop-rock that had  its origins in late period Beatles and the production ethos of George Martin, and continued through the post-prog phases of Peter Gabriel and, less adventurously, Genesis.  Or maybe it takes its cue from the kind of mainstream rock that Buckingham-Nicks era Fleetwood Mac nailed so successfully.  Either way, with a female lead vocal in the mix, there are also faint echoes here and there of Kate Bush, as on the opening of ‘Run With The Hounds’, and KT Tunstall and Nerina Pallot also spring to mind.
Marriott doesn’t quite stamp her personality on the album as a whole, despite the fact that she’s often telling some heartfelt and personal stories, such as the reflections on her relationship with her daughter on ‘Broken’.  A stronger emotional connection between the lyrics and the music would really have made me sit up and take notice.  But Truth Is A Wolf is still an impressive down payment on what Mollie Marriott could be capable of.

Truth Is A Wolf is released on 3 November.
Mollie Marriott is touring the UK with Bad Touch throughout November.
'Baby Get It On', by Bad Touch featuring Mollie Marriott, is a free MP3 download available here.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Elles Bailey - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 20 October 2017

I like her.  I like her voice, I like her songs and I like the arrangements. I like her guitarist, and I like her amiable chat between songs. Less keen on her hat though.
I downloaded a copy of Elles Bailey’s album Wildfire a week or so back, and was pleasantly surprised.  Previously I’d only clocked a video of the title track, but as I listened to the album I kept saying “Good song” to myself about one track after another.  And after this gig I’m well impressed with what she and her band can do live as well.
Let’s start with her voice, shall we?  Ever so slightly husky, Elles Bailey isn’t just spot on with
Elles Bailey - good songs, good singer, good band
her musicality, she catches the tone of individual songs convincingly and conveys bluesiness, soulfulness and rootsiness as required.  And it has to be said that she’s a confident performer too, moving around the stage easily and selling songs well.
This set emphasises that her material isn’t just good, it’s varied too.  The quality threshold is consistently high, whether it’s the swinging soul of ‘Shackles Of Love’, with it’s doo-doo-doo interjections in the chorus, or the contemplative ballad ‘What If I’ that grows in intensity to underline its positive message; whether it’s the vaguely folky, vaguely Celtic feel of the acoustic ‘Waiting Game’, with its skipping drums, or the stomper that is ‘Let Me Hear You Scream’.  Pick a style, and Bailey and her band carry it off with polish.
No disrespect to the rest of the band, who are tight but relaxed and show good rapport, but guitarist Joe Wilkins is key to the whole affair.  He serves up a wonderfully gritty slide intro on the opening ‘Wildfire’, and follows it up with a strong solo, then another one on the following ‘Same Flame’. He makes marvellously spooky use of his whammy bar on the brief ‘Barrel Of Your Gun’, then there’s well-worked interplay with Bailey when she takes to the piano for ‘Believed In You’.  She looks like she’s having fun on ‘You Asked To Know’ with its
Joe Wilkins - decorator extraordinaire
Bo Diddley beat and riff, but it’s Wilkins who decorates the song perfectly.  The guy is no prima donna, he just makes really good choices on how to serve songs, then executes those choices with style.
And I still haven’t got to the real highlights.  ‘Time’s A Healer’ is an acoustic ballad with a catchy melody and a nice lyric. ‘The Big Idea’ is a sassy blues that’s musically witty and well punctuated, with an up-tempo jazzy closing section. And the set closer ‘Girl Who Owned The Blues’, a memorial to Janis Joplin, is a great tune that manages to blend tinges of country with the kind of white soul you might find in some stuff by Deacon Blue or early Texas.
I’m going to praise with faint damns and say that the encores are the only time the standard slips a little.  A reading of John Prine’s ‘Angel Of Montgomery’ is tidy, but tidy isn’t enough when you’ve heard the sensitivity Bonnie Raitt brings to it.  And while ‘Howlin’ Wolf’, her tribute to Chess records artists, has evidently been a mainstay of her set for ages, it’s feels
Logan's Close - truly, madly, deeply fun
a bit hackneyed, rescued only by a barnstorming instrumental round-up with an eyeballs-out solo from Wilkins.
Elles Bailey isn’t the finished article yet.  But she’s young and she’s got bags of potential.  Get the album. Go see her.
It’s credit to Bailey and her band that they stand up to the challenge of following Logans Close, who are as much fun as ever.  Carl Marah and Scott Rough could probably form a comic double act based on their between songs patter, but let’s focus on the music.  The jangly sound of ‘I Wonder Why’ is irresistible as a starter. ‘Funk’ is Kinks-like, with good harmonies even without the usual contribution from drummer Mike Reilly, and a great arrangement all round.  ‘Ticket Man’ is a highlight as usual with its rumbling bass riff, and Marah setting aside his guitar in favour of harp.  “Sorry I swore,” says Rough at the end of it.  “I forgot it was a seated gig.”  Which I imagine roughly translates as “hope I didn’t offend all you oldies”.
Their cover of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ remains manic, with a brilliant guitar and drums crescendo between Marah and Reilly.  But I still love the crisp rock’n’roll of ‘C’mon Pretty Lady’, with its bop-shoo-wop chorus, and ‘She’s Mine’ is a wild finish worthy of ‘Twist And Shout’.  This set feels a little ragged at times, but Logans Close are still fresh, danceable – and bonkers.

Elles Bailey is touring Britain and Ireland until 10 December.  Details here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers/Ronnie Baker Brooks - BB Kings, New York, 10 October 2017.

In New York on holiday last week, and what better way to spend an evening than catching Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, and Ronnie Baker Brooks, playing at BB Kings?  And an interesting way too, with two bands taking different approaches to the blues.
Tommy Castro is nominally the headliner, but with the two outfits essentially co-headlining he’s opted to come on first tonight, and opens his set with ‘Rock Bottom’, from new album Stomping Ground, which he tells us has bounded to #2 on the Billboard blues chart.
Tommy Castro - "it ain't rocket surgery"
Recorded with Mike Zito guesting, it’s a breezy shuffle decorated with some rinky-dink piano from Michael Emerson.  They follow up with the title track from 2014 album The Devil You Know, with Emerson switching to organ to back up the strutting riff.  Right away it’s clear that Randy McDonald’s booming, funky bass locks everything together to underpin Castro’s guitar and vocals.
‘Lose Lose’ is the first offering from 2015’s excellent Method To My Madness, with more great bass from McDonald and expressive vocals from Castro, but that’s just a warm-up for ‘Ride’, from the same album.  A tale of steamy nights and wild characters in North Beach, California, during Castro’s younger days, it oozes atmosphere as it drifts along on McDonald’s loping bass line. Emerson contributes rippling, spiky piano, then they wind it down and segue perfectly into Tom Petty’s ‘Breakdown’, on which Castro turns out a beautifully controlled guitar solo.  As with the later ‘Nonchalant’, from the new album, Castro’s soloing serves the song, not his ego.
Dipping way into his back catalogue, ‘Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’, from Castro’s long ago second album has some sock it to ‘em shuffling from Bowen Brown on drums.  Down the stretch highlights from the new album are to the fore with ‘Old Neighbourhood’ and ‘Blues All Around Me’.  The former is a song of nostalgia for simpler times, with a Hispanic feel and a great sense of place – and some interweaving of licks from ‘Jessica’ too, methinks.  The latter, meanwhile, is a co-write with New Yorker Johnny Ace, who looks every inch the Big Apple bohemian as he gets up to join in on vocals.
As Castro says, his material is a soup of blues, soul and rock’n’roll, a product of the San Jose environment he grew up in – the stomping ground of the album title.  As he also says, in his Cheshire Cat grinning fashion, “it ain’t rocket surgery”.  But it’s good stuff, sometimes damn good, and the commitment of guys like him to performing new material is essential to keep the blues alive.
To be honest, Ronnie Baker Brooks was just a name to me before this gig.  I had seen a few mentions of his new album Times Have Changed, but didn’t realise he was the son of veteran Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who died earlier this year.  Coming on with the volume cranked up and going to work on his guitar right from the first bar, his set is a rather different proposition from Castro’s.
Brooks is a big guy, with a big personality that comes over through in-yer-face, wing-ding
Ronnie Baker Brooks - let's get this party started!
guitar playing that’s backed up by his tight band, with Maurice Jones in particular giving it plenty on drums.
Willie Dixon’s ‘My Love Will Never Die’ shows off a more soulful and subtle side though, with a pulsing rhythm and pinging guitar, and is a good showcase for the easy warmth of Brooks’ voice.  He follows that with a medley of blues classics that kicks off with the heavy R’n’B of ‘Born In Chicago’, on which he really starts to demonstrate that he’s a genuine guitar honcho, before easing through ‘Catfish Blues’ and into ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.  At this point he exercises top notch showmanship as he brings it down, before turning out a hilarious, spot on impression of what a John Lee Hooker take on the vocal would sound like. He doesn’t quite hit the bulls-eye with the following impersonation of Howlin’ Wolf, but makes up for it by bringing things to a wild conclusion.
After that he does turn to material from the new album, kicking off with the funky ‘Twine Time’, incorporating some great call and response stuff with keyboard player Daryl Coutts.  ‘Times Have Changed’ itself follows, with a very Buddy Guy feel and some nice counterpoint from waves of keys from Coutts, who also partners Brooks in a novel rap section (performed by Al Kapone on the album).  ‘Doing Too Much’ is a platform for some great riffing, as well as some smart contemporary lyrics.  A slow blues then provides a contrast, Brooks taking the volume right down low with some downright tasteful guitar before building it back up with witty soloing.
He gets Tommy Castro back to jam on ‘Let Me Love You Baby’, belts straight into ‘Honey Hush’ and then goes into a guitar impersonation of Albert Collins on which he makes his guitar talk in such a fashion that the crowd starts going nuts.  By the time they shut up shop for the night with Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillin’’ people are really on their feet, egging him on to create instrumental mayhem.

Brooks may include new material his set, but he’s readier than Tommy Castro to lean on blues classics as a catalyst for traditional guitar fireworks.  He does it brilliantly too, as the crowd reaction attests.  But at the same time it perhaps draws attention away from the new songs, leaving the audience sated, but not overly challenged to explore new horizons.  Whatever – Ronnie Baker Brooks still knows how to rock the joint.  Big time.

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers tour Europe and the UK in November and December, details here.