Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Samantha Fish - Stramash, Edinburgh, 27 November 2017

What a difference a day makes, as Dinah Washington sang.  In which case, how much difference can three years make?
The last time I saw Samantha Fish live was in 2014, about this time of year, on an another cold night in Edinburgh.  She was supporting Mike Zito, in an uncomfortably large venue for the size of audience, and borrowing his rhythm section.  As good as she was, and as good as Rob Lee and Scot Sutherland from The Wheel are, tonight's performance was from a whole other dimension.  Sam Fish has matured hugely in the intervening years.
Samantha Fish - have a cigar, boy
Whether it’s working with other producers and musicians, or honing her skills through incessant touring, young Ms Fish has become a band leader, full of poise and confidence to go with her vocal and guitar skills.
And what skills.  As a singer, Sam Fish is astonishing.  With her range and control, soaring and swooping with incredible clarity, she has a singular vocal style.  And she makes the most of it with her delivery, telling stories expressively, whether it’s the cute humour of ‘Chills And Fever’, the smoky call and response passage with Mark Levron’s trumpet on ‘You’ll Never Change’, or the stunning simplicity of ‘Go Home’.  How the hell she turns this in night after night is beyond me.  Take good care of that voice girl.
As for the guitar, anyone thinking that song selections from the soul’n’rhythm’blues led Chills and Fever and the Americana-spun Belle Of The West would be lightweight reckoned without the rollicking rock’n’roll of her soloing on ‘Little Baby’, complemented by great bass runs from Chris Alexander.  Or the slide guitar on ‘Blame It On The Moon’, building into a southern rock style crescendo before falling away into a delicate piano coda from Phil Breen.  Or the extended and inventive, effects-tinged solo in a slowed down segment of ‘Somebody’s Always Trying’.  Or the big licks with cigar box guitar on set closer ‘Crow Jane’. Or – well, you get the picture.
For me the absolute pick of the set, where all this comes together, is the aching torch song ‘Nearer To You’, culminating in a gut-wrenching finale of wailing vocals, interleaved with wild guitar that’s underpinned by walloping drumming from Kenny Tudrick.  It’s a performance that completely transcends the album version.
Not much point in being a good band leader unless you have a crack band, of course, and
Acoustic, Americana, stunning simplicity
the boys backing the front lady deliver on that front, deserving their showcases on ‘It’s Your Voodoo Working’, Breen kicking off with a wicked organ solo.  Levron and sax man Travis Blotsky offer up an impressive horn duel, and Chris Alexander a cracking bass solo – and that’s a phrase I don’t use very often – before Tudrick does a brief but telling bit of tub thumping. Alexander in particular offers a good foil for his boss, grooving and grinning in equal measure throughout.
As for the audience, she develops an effortless rapport with them, playful and funny, down to earth – and visibly into it, with her stylish Marilyn-style mop flailing around as she gets stuck in to a solo.
Regrets – I have a few.  Nice to have her do a solo acoustic number for sure, but I reckon Belle Of The West offers stronger options than ‘Blood In The Water’, such as ‘Need You More’.  I’d have loved to hear her amped up version of ‘Gone For Good’ as well.  And it’s a shame she turns her back on material from before Wild Heart, as there’s still really good stuff in there, such as ‘Kick Around’.

There are times though, when you just need to take your sense of proportion, and chuck it out the window.  And when the crowd were roaring “Right now, right now” on cue, as Sam and co rocked out on final encore ‘Bitch On The Run’, that time had long since passed. Don’t be a stranger Samantha.

Read the review of Belle Of The West here.
Read the Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish here.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Rufus Black - Rise Up

How did this one get past me?  Maybe because Rufus Black is a bit of misdirection – there is, in fact, no-one called Rufus Black in Rufus Black, a band led by guitar hot shot and sometime Tom Jones sideman Scott McKeon. Whatever, released back in August, this debut album may have taken a while to appear on my radar, but it’s going to be getting repeated plays from here on.
Opening up with the clanking funk rhythm of ‘Shut Up’, the immediate impression is of Free having overdosed on James Brown for a weekend – not least because Gavin Conder’s voice is going to draw obvious comparisons with Paul Rodgers.  The following ‘Make A Move’ underlines the Free vibe, but more to the point demonstrates the subtleties the band are capable of deploying, keeping it fairly spare, and closing with a lengthy coda of swirling vocal harmonies as a backdrop to a stinging guitar solo from the fingers of either McKeon or his fellow guitar-toter Ben Jones.
Scott McKeon and Gavin Condor - not Rufus Black
They chuck in a few covers that pin their soul-funk influences on their sleeves. The Isley Brothers’ ‘It’s Your Thing’ is the funkiest angle, complete with horns, while ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘Take Me To The River’ both add twists to the originals to keep them fresh, with the rhythm section of Russ Parker on drums and Leighton Allen on bass laying down interesting grooves.
‘Still Haven’t Seen You Cry’ is an expansive slice of funk that Paolo Nutini might have fancied for Caustic Love, and features some innovative guitar licks and scratchy sounds.  ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, on the other hand, takes a rather naff example of modern R’n’B from The Weeknd, and recasts it perfectly as an aching soul ballad on which Conder channels his inner Percy Sledge.
‘Get What’s Mine’ is a straight ahead reading of a restrained funk outing by Devonian singer-songwriter Jon Allen.  Nope, I’d never heard of him either.  It may not be the strongest tune on show here, but I reckon Signor Allen is still deserving of a bit more research.
The most dramatic venture on display is ‘Whisky Town’.  From a moody, minimalist opening, Conder gets cooking, demonstrating great feel in speeding up and slowing down his phrasing, as well as deploying some bluesy moaning to good effect. Then the guitar – McKeon’s, I’m guessing – stretches out beautifully with a controlled, clear-toned, piercing solo.  It’s seven minutes worth that goes by in a flash.
The title track brings the curtain down.  Firmer and a tad less funk-laden than what’s gone before, it has a suitably anthemic Free-meets-Humble Pie feel on which to close.
Rise Up is another in a catalogue of impressive albums released in 2017.  I’m hoping that Rufus Black isn’t going to be just an occasional side project for Scott McKeon and co.  I wanna hear more of 'em.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Little Steven and The Disciples Of Soul - O2 Academy, Glasgow, 12 November 2017

Onstage is a man who is a walking encyclopedia of scrappy, underdog American pop, a champion of the music of the urban outsiders.  He’s also a singular guitarist and horn arranger.  He’s backed by an 11-piece band, like he means business.  And three backing singers too.
Oh yeah, the backing singers.  Now, I’m not talking about some autopilot mannekins here.  These are the sassiest trio you’re ever likely to come across.  They're wearing violet silk thigh boots, and these ladies ain’t shrinkin’ from nothin’.  To paraphrase a line from The Commitments, “Inspired management, Brother Steven”.
Steve Van Zandt rides the night away
Yes friends, I am talking about Little Steven, aka Steve Van Zandt, here with his Disciples of Soul.  And joking apart, he rightly tells us at one point that those singers are “dancing their asses off”, setting the tone for a night of sweaty R’n’B and soul and rock’n’roll that demands you shake your booty.
The set is based firstly around the material from new album Soulfire, before winding around to some stuff from his Eighties albums, but before getting to any of that Stevie leads them into the fray with a downright perfect rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘Even The Losers’.
‘I’m Coming Back’, originally crafted for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes before re-surfacing on the new album, has a classic Jukes style horn riff, a chorus so great that it seems simply inevitable, and a scything solo from Van Zandt – and is just one example of thunderous drumming from Rich Mercurio.  Mercurio may work with just a small kit, but he is a veritable beast.
Thereafter Stevie punctuates the set with a guided tour of his inspirations.  Highlights include the likes of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, featuring stabbing horns and a wild organ solo from Andy Burton, and ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’, on which he channels “the King of Despair”, David Ruffin, nailing the soul mood and the phrasing.  There’s ‘The City Weeps Tonight’, a eulogy to post-war harmony groups on which the sheer passion of Van Zandt’s singing is apparent.  Then in complete contrast there’s the restless funk of ‘Down And Out In New York City’.  Originally recorded by James Brown for the movie Black Caesar, it features a succession of flute and horn solos, and a crescendo into which Austin Powers-garbed guitarist Marc Ribler casually slips a reference to the riff from ‘Hey Joe’.
The Unshrinking Violets
Along the way there are other delights, like Van Zandt and Ribler ripping into a guitar duel on ‘Angel Eyes’, the irresistible horns on ‘I Saw The Light’ and Stevie uncorking an eyeballs out solo at one point to get everyone shakin' all over.
Down the stretch though, it’s an absolute melting pot of soul and New York punk and even reggae.  At the outset he may have said with a twinkle in his eye that back in the Eighties he felt the need to do music about politics, but now there was no need so tonight would be “a sanctuary from politics”.  Still, there’s no shaking the relevance of songs like ‘Solidarity’, with its haunting mid-section, as well as ‘I Am A Patriot’ and the Latin-inflected, floor-shaking rhythms of ‘Bitter Fruit’.
He throws in a couple of other Southside classics just for fun, with the rifferama of ‘Ride The Night Away’ and the romance of ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’.  But there’s no way the night could end with anything other than ‘Out Of The Darkness’, with the crowd pumping their fists and in full voice.

Some folk say that nostalgia’s not what it used to be.  But when Steve Van Zandt revisits his roots and his repertoire with a two hour show of anthemic soul like this, it doesn’t half take me back to my youth.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wishbone Ash/Steve Hill - The Jam House, Edinburgh, 10 November 2017

Out in the shed I have a box of cassette tapes.  Remember them?  And among them is a C60 of a BBC broadcast of Wishbone Ash playing at the Hammersmith Odeon sometime around 1980, I guess.  That tape got played a lot, back in the day.  Yet somehow – don’t ask me why - I’ve never got round to seeing Wishbone Ash live until now.
Which is a pity, because they’re a band with a classy repertoire built on a unique mix of ingredients, and they absolutely have the skill set to do it justice.  They’ve been a revolving door over the decades of course, but led by Andy Powell on guitar and vocals the latest incarnation are still the real deal.
The signature
Heads down, no nonsense, mindless Renaissance folky prog rock
clean guitar harmonies are there from the opening instrumental, along with some of the folky elements that contribute to their distinctive sound.  They can also power out a good, gutsy riff though, getting the crowd going.  It doesn’t take them long to turn to one of their classics, ‘The King Will Come’, and when they do there’s immediate lift-off, with new guitarist Mark Abrahams contributing a stirring wah-wah solo.
It’s evident on ‘Warrior’ Andy Powell is still in fine fettle vocally, which can’t be said for some of his contemporaries, and his harmonies with bassist Bob Skeat are spot on.  Powell also manages to exude an affable elder statesman charm – without feeling the need to say very much he still makes an obvious connection with the audience.
They turn to acoustic guitars for ‘Throw Down The Sword’, and some more of those distinctive elements come to the fore in the almost courtly, Renaissance feel of some passages – yet they still swing.  They’re proggy, to be sure, but after their own particular fashion.  The following ‘Wings Of Desire’ is a bit more lightweight, but still features some tasteful interleaving of the two guitars.
‘F.U.B.B.’ is a whole other animal, built on a stonking bass groove, with passages of discordant guitar, precise guitar harmonies and a revved up, duelling ending – it’s an iconic instrumental.
They get down to some hard riffing with ‘Standing In The Rain’, with Powell and Skeat getting down in a neatly choreographed fashion.  It’s a good warm-up for them showing their blues roots with ‘Jail Bait’, a second cousin to ‘Roadhouse Blues’ if ever there was one.
Which just leaves time – well, quite a lot of time really – for them to get the crowd into hands aloft mode with the trademark epic ‘Phoenix’, before encoring with a brisk read through of ‘Blowin’ Free’ to end a set that clearly went down a storm with the aficionados.  Now, I wonder what state that C60 cassette is in?
Steve Hill - trapped in the middle of a drum kit
But first a word about support act Steve Hill, who has been doing the rounds with Wishbone Ash throughout this tour.  The Canadian is singular for his efforts in delivering hard-hitting blues rock as a one-man band, managing to play kick drum, hi-hat, cymbal and god knows what else in addition to guitar and vocals.  Now that runs the risk of being seen as a novelty act - except that he somehow packs enough punch to blow away a hell of a lot bands you’ll come across.
‘Damned’ is a Zeppelin-like stomp, and on the following ‘How Can I Go On?’ it’s clear that he relishes the rhythm he manages to build up.  For some light and shade ‘Change Your Mind’ features a howling solo and a neo-classical outro – on album he also demonstrates that he’s a dab hand with intricate acoustic guitar.
‘Rhythm All Over’ absolutely lives up to its title, with a great, ringing, Bad Company style riff, and the following ‘Dangerous’ is yet more rollicking rock’n’roll, and by now a good old chunk of the audience are definitely paying attention.
Hill closes with ‘Something That You Said’, on which he doubles up the tempo and takes an excursion into ZZ Top territory.  What he’s doing with the percussion must be a feat of concentration, unless it’s simply second nature to him after doing it for years, but he still manages to invest it with bags of energy.  He overdoes the outro for me – he could have got another song out there in the time he goes round the block – but the punters lap it up.  And shit, I think he deserves to do what he likes anyway with the effort he puts in.
Steve Hill may not sound anything like Motorhead, but I think Lemmy would applaud his rock’n’roll spirit.