Friday, March 31, 2017

Matt Andersen - Honest Man

Pay attention now, there’s a big beardy guy doing something interesting by melding hip-hop beats with rootsy, soulful songs – and I don’t mean Rag’n’Bone Man.  Nope, I’m talking about Canadian singer-songwriter Matt Andersen, whose album Honest Man shows off the quality of both his supple, resonant voice and his songwriting collaborations.
Matt Anderson - disguised as Roy Wood
The use of beats was the idea of New York producer Commissioner Gordon (yes, really), giving a modern twist to an artist who generally starts from an acoustic base.  And it has to be said it works like a charm, whether it’s on the likes of opener ‘Break Away’, with its summery, Jack Johnson-like feel and sprinklings of bright guitar, or the similarly reggae-fied ‘All The Way’, which has a steadier groove reminiscent of Clapton’s version of ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.
The title track juxtaposes a shuffling beat with soulful horn riffs and dashes of organ, while Andersen effortlessly demonstrates that he knows what he’s doing vocally – he’s got a great range, great control over long extended notes, and great sense of dynamics as he goes from booming to muted to bring out the best of the material.  Meanwhile ‘Quiet Company’ adds some country stylings to the beats to convey a rural idyll.
The beats don’t dominate entirely though.  Andersen can do sombre alright, as on the gorgeous piano-and-vocal ballad ‘I’m Giving In’, with its chorus of earnest submission and big bridge.  And there’s a straight-ahead, simple rhythm on ‘Last Surrender’, a sublime piece of aching, soulful pop worthy of Motown.  Current single ‘Who Are You Listening To?’ has more of a kick to it, recalling Gerry Rafferty in one of his more upbeat moments, with crackling electric guitar from Benji Bouton and some bubbling piano.
The album closes with ‘One Good Song’, a dreamy, more country-acoustic piece featuring flute accompaniment, about the vicissitudes a musician is prepared to endure in pursuit of the elusive prize of the title – with plenty of evocative lines such as “I’ll take Christmas alone in Australia, I’ll take ‘Hi, how are you?’ on the phone”.
The PR bumf says that Andersen has no need to worry about having just one good song, and for once it’s not empty rhetoric.  Quite how these songs will work when he takes them on the road for his upcoming solo tour, I couldn’t say.  But if you’re looking to bathe in a soulful voice singing some seriously good songs, then give Honest Man a spin.

You can catch Matt Andersen playing the following solo dates:
18 May            Dublin              The Grand Social
19 May            Fochabers       Fochabers Public Institute
20 May            Inverness        Tooth & Claw
21 May            Aberdeen        The Tunnels
22 May            Edinburgh        Mash House
24 May            Manchester     Night And Day Café

25 May            London            The Borderline

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Nine Below Zero - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 23 March 2017

It strikes me that a mandatory requirement for being a member of Nine Below Zero must be a dirty great grin.  This is a band who have fun – and no wonder when you’re cranking out a set centred on party-time R’nB, and doing it in fine style.  Not to mention the fact that front man Dennis Greaves scatters a rather nifty line in humorous patter throughout the proceedings, coming over like a regular from Minder.
When I got hold of Nine Below Zero’s latest album 13 Shades Of Blue last year, I was
Greaves and Feltham - no messing
surprised to find how laid back and funky they were.  My image of them from back in the day was of post-punk blues blasters in a Dr Feelgood-meets-The Jam vein, all sharp suits and sharp edges.  But true to its title 13 Shades Of Blue showed them exploring a wide range of blues and soul styles.
That variety is on display in their live show too, but they ain’t so laid back about it.  Live, Nine Below Zero are a punchy, horn-honking, high revving proposition, propelling the crowd to a good time.  They’re well-honed, and they don’t mess about.  Opener ‘Don’t Lay Your Funky Trip On Me’ is, of course, funky, and sets the tone with a good time vibe underlined by the barefoot shimmying of singer Charlie Austen.
And whether it’s the classic R’n’B of ‘Can’t Do Your Homework Any More’, or the scorching take on John Mayall’s ‘Crawling Up The Hill’, that good time vibe infects the crowd.
A highlight of their first set is the gorgeous ‘Don’t Play That Song For Me (He Lied)’, a hit for Aretha Franklin that gets an impassioned delivery from Austen, while Greaves and Mark Feltham add some great harmonies.  Another is B.B. King’s ‘You’re Still My Woman’, sung by Feltham and featuring some dreamy, string-bending guitar from Greaves as well as a blazing trumpet solo from Paul Jordanous meshed with some discordant piano from Andrew
Noble.  And they can boogie too, as they demonstrate to good effect on the short and sharp ‘Don’t Point Your Finger At The Guitar Man’.

No shrinking violets, they play pretty loud even for this old metal fan, and it has to be said that when they all get wired in and start competing for space it can all get a bit shrill at the top end.  Thankfully that doesn’t happen often, or my ears would have been ringing even more by the end.
Charlie Austen - impassioned barefoot shimmying
They open the second half with a swinging instrumental dedicated to Georgie Fame, on which Andrew Noble contributes another big jazzy keys solo, and Chris Rand shines on alto sax.  ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ is another showcase for Charlie Austen’s vocals, and also for some elegant harp from Mark Feltham, who elsewhere shows off everything from subtle background trills to sizzling solos.
Then it’s time for more fun, as they go through the gears on the Chas’n’Dave-leaning ‘Three Times Enough’ and the Jam-like ‘Eleven Plus Eleven’, before kicking off the encores with ‘Woolly Bully’.  It’s a recipe for dancing, and the roars of approval from the audience at the end are testimony to Nine Below Zero having delivered on their mission.
Earlier The Troublemakers warmed up proceedings with a semi-acoustic set featuring Sandy Tweeddale on guitar vocals and Tim Elliott variously on resonator, harp, washboard and even kazoo.  Special mention has to go to Laurie McMillan, drafted in earlier in the week to dep on stand-up bass and not only doing so seamlessly, but also contributing spot on vocal harmonies throughout.

They explore a range of blues styles with ease, especially on ‘Peg Leg And Barbecue Bob’, with some neat slide from Tweeddale and a great guitar/harp riff, and Champion Jack Dupree’s ‘Early In The Morning’, with its tasteful harmonies and a grabber of an electric guitar lick from Tweeddale on his particularly luscious looking ivory-coloured Gretsch semi-acoustic.  Blues’N’Trouble may be about to call it a day, but with The Troublemakers Tweeddale and Elliott have a different string to their bow.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blade Runner Meets The Blues - Ash Wilson interview Part 2

We closed Part 1 of the interview by discussing Ash Wilson's tussle with the emotional vocals required for the good old-fashioned smouldering soulful numbers on Broken Machine.  Less traditionally though, there are quirky aspects to some of the opening tracks on the album – like, I suggest, the snippets of synthesizer on the title track.
“The synthesizer’s an interesting story," is his response.  "I had a part-time job in a little piano academy, and they had a bloke come in and donate a load of stuff, and the lady who ran the place didn’t want any of it.  So I got this old 1980s Korg organ-string synth out of it, which I think is a similar one to what Vangelis used when he did the soundtrack to Blade
Ash Wilson auditions for guitar modelling work
Runner, it had that sort of sound to it.  So I played it to my brother and said ‘Look mate, you can play the Vangelis thing’.  And he said, ‘We’ve got to play this thing on the album.’  And I’m like – ‘Come on, this sound and our record?  How’s it going to work?’  So Phil took it home with him, and came up with this synth part that’s on the title track, in the chorus.  There’s this low end thing, and a little melody that sort of skips away in the background.  He put it on the title track for a joke, and sent me it, and I thought it was really funny and was like, ‘Yeah, wicked man, take it off though’.  So he took it off, and the pair of us were like, ‘Oh, I think it was better with it on!’” he laughs.
It helps to create a sense of alienation though doesn’t it, I suggest, that Blade Runner-ish sound going with the ‘broken machine’ metaphor?
“Yeah definitely!” Wilson agrees.  “That’s kind of how we sold it to ourselves, because at first we were like – no-one in their right mind would put an organ synth on a blues album!  But then we started talking about this whole ‘broken machine’ thing – I’d got the lyrics by this point, and I was ‘well actually mate, it kind of contextually makes sense, because this thing isn’t working right!’”
All of which leads me to observe that the Wilson boys had learnt something about the different sounds that they could pursue.
“Yeah, for sure.  You don’t need to just stick to guitar, and bass and drums.  If you’re trying to create an interesting thing to listen to, and an interesting thing to sing over as well, from my own point of view as a vocalist the music inspires you a certain way, and if the music pushes you in a certain direction then – it’s that honesty that I was trying to get across.”
If by now you’ve picked up the idea that younger brother Phil Wilson was a key component in the development of Broken Machine, then you’d be right.  He not only plays drums, he’s credited with producing and mixing the album – and as a co-writer of the material.  He may be the junior partner in years, but since the age of 16 Phil has been on the road with guitarists like Scott McKeon and Jesse Davey – much to the chagrin of his older brother, who explains how their musical relationship developed as a result.
Phil Wilson - it's a family affair
I’m ‘Oh man, you just keep playing with these people, that I’m not even fit to stand in the same room as!’  So what that did create was first of all a respect for my brother, because he’s operated on a totally different level, and also because he’s my brother I’m really happy to play things I can’t play in front of him, and sound really bad on the journey of trying to find something that sounds really good.  Because he’s my brother, and it doesn’t really matter.
So I’ll come in with ideas, and play them to Phil, and he’ll go ‘Have you thought about doing this?  Have you thought about doing that?’  And generally I’ll go ‘No. That’s a really good idea, let’s do that.’  What’s really cool is Phil has no knowledge of harmony, so he can’t tell me what chord to play or what type of chord to play, or where it needs to go – so I have to find it.  So we have this bizarre relationship where I generally bring the ideas, and he says things that then create new ideas.”
As Wilson says, it’s a relationship that works for him.
“It works really well, because I can write songs myself, but there’s a certain sound when I write with my brother, and that why I’ve always said ‘We wrote this together’.  Because he pushes me in a different direction, and makes me sound not like me any more, and I can’t do that the same way without him.”
Just as the album came to completion though, Phil got the call from Laurence Jones, and so is otherwise engaged as Ash Wilson starts to take Broken Machine on the road.  Roger Inniss has signed up full-time however, and the breaking news is that he’s now joined by Russ Parker on drums (formerly with Scott McKeon – those connections again!) to form the trio that will be the Ash Wilson Band for 2017.
“There’s a long term plan,” says Wilson, “of trying to get it so that there’s a formidable unit and it’s a regular unit.  And Rog and I have got a few things up our sleeve.
I’m quite restrained on the album with my guitar playing,” he adds.  “I don’t really go bonkers.  But live I have the facility to be a little bit more exciting with my guitar playing, so I think that’ll be one element where hopefully people who are into that will say, well the album’s great, but live he does all this other stuff with the guitar.”

Broken Machine comes out in April.  The road beckons.  Either way, make a point of catching Ash Wilson.  In the meantime, you'll have to make do with the video of the title track - 'Broken Machine' itself.

ICYMI, check out Part 1 of the Ash Wilson interview - 'Scratching The Itch'

Broken Machine is released on 21 April, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
Check out Ash Wilson's forthcoming tour dates.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Scratching The Itch - Ash Wilson interview Part 1

Basically, every plan we had didn’t work out,” says Ash Wilson.

The recording of some albums may go like clockwork.  Bish bash bosh, in and out of the studio on schedule.  Done.  Others are a matter of evolution, and so it was with Ash Wilson and the making of his debut album, Broken Machine, as I discovered in the course of a wide-ranging chat with the Skegness guitar man.
At the age of 32, Wilson had played in tyro blues band The Melt in his late teens, been a full-time teacher, worked part-time in a piano academy, and most significantly, was now a year into playing guitar with gritty soul-rocker Sean Webster.  But in 2015 he found himself at a crossroads.

“I was spending time away from home,” he explains, “and I have a young daughter, and I thought if I’m going to be away from home I should be doing what I really want to do, rather than something that I’m into and I love doing.  The social side of Sean’s band was really great, and Sean’s a great guy, and I enjoyed playing his songs, but I think I’d got a bit of an itch that I needed to scratch.
Ash Wilson - "How does that 'Thrill Is Gone' thing go again?"
“So this album started off as a side project, very much.  It was like I’ll keep playing with Sean and then I’ll do this little album in my spare time when I’ve got a chance.  And then it became a bigger thing, and it got to the point where by the time I was three-quarters of the way through I thought, well I really just want to work on this now.”
By that stage though, the album that was emerging was rather different from his original conception.
“When we went into the studio,” he says, “the aim was to record a really traditional kind of Jimmie Vaughan sounding sort of thing, a band in a room, a very lively sounding album, not many overdubs, everything was going to be a 12 bar.”
The ‘we’ in this comment includes Wilson’s younger brother Phil, currently drummer to Laurence Jones and Wilson’s collaborator-in-chief.  And given some of the brothers' collective music experience it may have been a bit short-sighted to believe a straight-ahead blues album was in the offing.  For a start there was their parental influence.
“My parents,” says Wilson, “although they’re not musicians, they were really into music.  So my brother and I were brought up on, not particularly bluesy music, it was more progressive rock really, like Genesis, Pink Floyd, bands like that.”
These weren’t the directions Wilson took with the guitar though, after getting started with it in his early teens.
“Dave Gilmour, when I was 13 or 14 years old, was just too far in front of what I could imagine you could do on a guitar.  So I got into bands like Oasis and stuff like that first of all, because it was chords.”  And after The Melt split up, “I went off in another direction really, and for a long time I was playing indie music and alternative rock music.”
Little wonder then, that the first attempt the Wilson brothers made at recording together had been in a genre slightly at arm’s length to the blues, with a 2014 project they dubbed Infamous Vampires that resulted in an album released on iTunes.
“The Infamous Vampires thing – I suppose it was really a blueprint for this album,” says Wilson, “because it was something we did at home, and it was very much in the vein of bands like Queens Of The Stone Age and bands like that.  We’d both love to be in Queens Of The Stone Age, but obviously there’s not really much chance of that happening, so we just put our own version of it together really!  It was a really fun album to do, and if you were ever to listen to it I think you’d hear elements of what’s in this album – it’s not like a heavy rock, thrash thing, it’s sort of rooted in that blues thing again, but very much more on the rock side of it.”
This time around though, they weren’t planning on home recording.  They’d booked studio time, and finding Wilson’s long-standing bass playing buddy Greg Smith (also now with Laurence Jones) unavailable, they had to look elsewhere.
“We’d worked with Roger Inniss before, with Sean Webster,” says Wilson.  “So to me it
Roger Inniss - something wicked this way comes!
made the most sense to ask Roger, first and foremost because he’s such a good player, and we didn’t have much time booked in the studio.  But also he’s very cool, he’s wicked, and that’s really important if you’re trying to capture a moment, you want everybody to be in a good mood, because I think that really comes across in your playing. And it did, but what manifested itself instead of a 12 bar blues album was what you’ve heard, which wasn’t necessarily the idea, but I’m glad it came out the way it did.”
Not that the studio sessions with Inniss got the job done, of course – remember that plan that never worked out?
“We came out of the studio with the majority of the backing tracks and no vocals, because we just ran out of time” explains Wilson.  “So we had to finish the album at my parents’ house, in their spare room.  In fact all the vocals were recorded in an airing cupboard, with me surrounded by towels and duvets!  So we did the main part of the recording, and then we started doing the vocals, trying to find the songs within the music we’d created.  And then it became obvious, in terms of where the album had gone, it was kind of, half of it worked really well, and the other half of it didn’t, so we had to go back into the studio to record the rest of the music, and that’s when we drafted Bob in.”
‘Bob’ being than Bob Fridzema from King King – another example of the blues network in action, as Wilson reveals.
“My brother is really good friends with Wayne Proctor – and I am to be honest.  And Phil mentioned our album to Wayne, and played a bit of it to him, and Wayne said: ‘Oh, it sounds really great, maybe if you put some Hammond organ on it, you should give Bob a ring, he only lives down the road from you.’  And that was it.  So we went to Bob’s, and we recorded nine songs in one day – he just absolutely tore it out, it was amazing.”
Bob Fridzema - all in a day's work.
Broken Machine ultimately does feature some soulful blues, but the opening tracks suggest a more distinctive vein, and if this derived from a number of different factors, one of them was Wilson’s singing – or as he sees it, his limitations in that department.
“We picked keys that I can get my voice to sound good in.  I’m not a naturally gifted singer, as I’m sure you’ve heard from the album.  I’ve done a bit of vocal coaching and to strengthen it, and something I learned from the Infamous Vampires thing is that in order for my voice to sound cool I have to write melodies a certain way.  And melodically make it quite rhythmic.
“And then,” he goes on, “because I started off listening to progressive rock, and then went through the whole indie thing, and then the Infamous Vampires, there’s an awful lot of influence to draw from, so from a songwriting point of view once these songs started to sound less bluesy, it was almost a natural thing where we went: ‘Let’s arrange these songs as interestingly as possible, and then work to create something that we would really want to listen to.’”
Not that this approach got him entirely off the hook in terms of vocal challenges, as he explains in relation to the closing track on the album, the emotional ‘Holding Hands’.
“The hardest song was ‘Holding Hands’,” he says.  “Because as I say we played a lot of that sort of thing with Sean Webster, and Sean has got the sort of voice where I don’t think it would matter what he sang over it, it would sound amazing. Which then made me feel like I really had to, you know, man up.  And I think it took me a long while to work out how to sell an emotional story.”
I mention that he makes good use of falsetto in the process, and he agrees.
“Yeah, and that was because for the choruses I couldn’t do the big male vocal.  So I thought well, there’s certain artists I’m into that have girls singing with them, and maybe I can sing in falsetto.  If I just double the chorus, and try and take the melody there, maybe that’ll make it more interesting.  And then it started to make more sense of the song. And while I wouldn't say it’s the best song on the album it’s the one I’m most proud of, because I really had to dig deep.”
I offer the observation that Wilson’s guitar playing also shines on ‘Holding Hands’ – it sounds like he really gets into the zone, and builds off the melody in a way that connects with the words.
“I really appreciate that,” he says.  “You try to create that – and it’s a lot easier to do live, you know, when you’re on stage, there’s nothing else around you, you’re in your zone.  But when you’re in a studio it’s more difficult.  When you’re in your parents’ spare room it’s more difficult – I recorded the solo for that song in a conservatory!”

It’s a homely picture, but some other songs on the album suggest rather different images – as revealed in Part 2 of this interview, ‘Blade Runner Meets The Blues’.  But while you're waiting, here's the delightfully wacky video for 'Peace And Love' for your edification and delight!

Broken Machine is released on 21 April, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
Check out Ash Wilson's forthcoming tour dates.