Thursday, April 26, 2018

Wayward Sons - The Mash House, Edinburgh, 22 April 2018

If you’ve passed this way much before, you may have clocked that when I’m not on the blues beat I’m still partial to a bit of hard rock. It’s what I grew up with, after all. So last weekend took in a premier blues-roots performance from Ian Siegal on Saturday, and this show from rockers Wayward Sons on the Sunday. And if the former was full of heart and soul, Sunday was simply a blast.
Led by former Little Angels front man Toby Jepson, the Sons carry off the impressive trick of marrying sophisticated classic rock stylings with a rock’n’roll energy rush that evokes anything from Slade to ‘Teenage Kicks’ to the Foo Fighters.  The result is a live set that’s like being slapped in the fizzog by that orange bloke from the old Tango ads.
Toby Jepson - still kicking up dust!
Catchy tunes abound from the album The Ghost Of Yet To Come, ranging from ‘Ghost’ early on to the brooks-no-argument set closer ‘Until The End’.  On ‘Crush’ they knowingly pick up on a phrase and pivot into a rocking rendition of Blondie’s ‘Union City Blues’.  And if there’s a typhoon-like intensity throughout, they also bring a convincing slower groove to ‘Something Wrong’, powered by Phil Martini’s howitzer drumming.  By this time there are outbreaks of air guitar among the already buzzing crowd, and the place is starting to sweat.
And it’s not just the songs that produce this state of affairs.  Wayward Sons are delivery men on a mission.  Jepson is a born front man, preset to the same wavelength as his audience, and looking like Robert Plant’s rather less grizzled nephew.  What’s more, his pipes are still in full rocking order, and he has a more than handy way with witty, real-world lyrics such as that on ‘Be Still’.  At his side, Nic Wastell is a blur of bass-thrusting energy from start to finish, frequently in danger of a head-on collision with ducting paraphernalia at the side of the stage. His rhythm buddy Martini comes on in shades, and completes the cool dude look with a Jeff Beck-ish barnet, but he goes at it hammer and tongs.  Keys man Dave Kemp, it has to be said, is an elusive presence hidden by a
speaker stack from where I’m standing, only his disembodied hands visible like Thing from The Addams Family.
Lead guitarist Sam Wood is the baby of the outfit, letting rip and evidently having a ball, but with an occasionally bemused air about him that calls to mind the whale in The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy: “Wow, that was a bit of biff, wasn’t it? And a bit rough too.  I think I’ll call it a riff!”  Happily his playing meets with a friendlier reception than the whale though.
They fling in Little Angels’ ‘Kicking Up Dust’ along the way, but are adventurous enough to add some new songs that fit in seamlessly, rather than relying on Jepson’s former glories.  They even encore with new tune ‘Backslide’, before going out in a blaze of screaming Les Paul and an exhalation of the outro from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.  Crowd happy, job done.
Filing out with the house lights up, I turn and find myself looking straight into the face of Toby Jepson.  “Not bad,” I say with a smile and a nod.  “Alright?” he grins, with a twinkle in his eye.
Yeah Toby, alright. ‘Nuff said.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ian Siegal - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 April 2018

They really should have played ‘In The Mood’ as an entry tape for this performance, because Ian Siegal was well up for for it – and his band weren’t about to be left behind.
This is the third time I’ve seen Siegal play with his band – alias The Rhythm Chiefs when they’re on their own dime – and if the other occasions were good, tonight is something else. It helps of course, that guitarist Dusty Cigaar is restored to the line-up, after being unavailable back in 2016. Cigaar is a guitar-picker who can sprinkle all kinds of stardust over proceedings, and tonight he’s often to be seen grinning wickedly as he ponders his next trick to complement his boss.
"Okay kid, good solo. But watch this!"  "Wow - great E chord boss!"
They open up in cruise control with the sweetly Americana-styled ‘Won’t Be Your Shotgun Rider’, its a capella interlude moving Siegal to proclaim with a grin that “it sounds like the fucking Eagles up here”.  It’s the start of a four-song stretch drawing on new album All The Rage, during which Siegal cranks out some riveting slide on ‘The Sh*t Hit’, while Cigaar gets into characteristically super-twangy mode for the first time on the withering ‘Ain’t It Great’. On the latter, a caustic jeremiad about the state of the States, Siegal’s relish for an acid lyric ensures that the song thuds into the bullseye.
But all this just seems like limbering up when they get into long-standing favourite ‘I Am The Train’. Cigaar chooses this as the moment to really let rip with a cascade of devastating Duane-Eddy-on-speed licks, and when they swoop seamlessly into an interpolation of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ the chemistry between him and Siegal is evident.  Hell, between them they even manage to whip that famously wonky ‘Folsom’ guitar solo into shape.  Not content with that, Cigaar then adds buckets of Hispanic sabor to the Tom Russell classic ‘Gallo Del Cielo’.  I do wish the crazy old chicken would pull through one of these times though.
Siegal then gets another bird in his sights with ‘Eagle-Vulture’, all Biblical imagery over a pattering rhythm from drummer Rafael Schwiddessen, to which Siegal adds tense slide on his Telecaster.  
Siegal skips the stage to give The Rhythm Chiefs the chance to display their versatility with an uptempo jazzy blues instrumental, and when he gets back ventures into North Mississippi hill country with a rendition of Cedell Davis’s ‘She’s Got The Devil In Her’, which featured on Buddy Guy’s 2001 album Sweet Tea. Prowling and menacing, it’s a song with a real juke joint vibe – and Siegal chucks in an effortless falsetto passage just to underline his vocal skills.
‘Sailor Town’, from the new album, is an irresistible funky stroll, with bassist Danny Van’t Hoff digging a groove and Schwiddessen deliciously behind the beat to the extent he might arrive next week.  And then with Siegal referencing Little Milton and Sam Moore they teasingly morph it into the riff from some old Atlantic soul classic – ‘Soul Man’ maybe? It just doesn’t get any better than this.
"Er, how does this one go again?"
Except it does, with another staple of Siegal’s repertoire, the Big George Watt classic ‘Take A Walk In The Wilderness’, a song with a transcendent quality that Van Morrison would be proud of.  Tonight Siegal and co take it to a new level of intensity, with Cigaar pulling out a searing, fiery solo.
They come back for an encore with the yearning ‘Sweet Souvenir’, and then with the curfew shot to hell they haul support act the Dawn Brothers onstage for ‘Don’t Do It’, merrily going to town on The Band’s reading of the Marvin Gaye hit, giving it an Allmans spin, and generally pleasing themselves almost as much as the crowd. And as a last word on Ian Siegal’s ability to cross over genres with style and conviction, that takes some beating. Like I said, he was in the mood.
Support for the tour are the aforementioned Dawn Brothers, also featuring Schwidessen in the drum chair, and they deliver an enjoyable set that’s short and to the point.  Or maybe short and to several points, because they meld genres with freedom.  Kicking off with some sunny soul about getting down the road back to California, that blends in four part harmonies and twanging guitar from Bas van Holt, they subsequently offer a slowie that hints at Vintage Trouble.  Then there’s a country ballad affair that lifts off into more vigorous terrain before a rather ragged segue into an organ solo, followed by a West Coast rock’n’roll affair.  And just for good measure they close with ‘Staying Out Late’, a piece of jazzy funk with more guitar twang to the fore.  Their set is a brief but interesting tour of styles, strong on musicianship and encouraging further acquaintance.
First up on a three-part bill is Stirling-based Reece Hillis, last seen by this correspondent supporting Matt Andersen.  He delivers a similar mix of covers and originals tonight, with his trademark intensity.  Hair screening his face, he gives his 12-string acoustic a rare old seeing-to, while singing in a powerful rasping voice, his forehead practically leaning on the mic.  Hillis ain’t kidding when he delivers ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and he provides a rousing opening to the night that puts the early arrivals in the mood for the fireworks to follow.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Steve Hill - The One-Man Blues Rock Band

One good thing about reviewing Steve Hill - there’s none of that having to go checking the names of his bandmates.  That album title, The One-Man Blues Rock Band, is the literal truth.  Credit to Hill though, I didn't spend the duration of this live album, recorded in Quebec last autumn, brooding about the truly solo nature of his enterprise.
The album opens with the spiky guitar intro of ‘Rhythm All Over’, leading into a jagged, ringing riff. And the rhythm in question is stomping. When Hill sings “I’m beating on your door”, you very much get the idea.
Steve Hill - full spectrum one-man blues
Pic by Szymon Goralczyk
To begin with this may seem like his default mode, with the grinding beat of ‘Go On’ and the pounding ‘The Collector’.  But the latter meshes single note guitar work with chords and slide in impressive fashion, while Hill delivers an original lyric with a rumbling vocal.  And once you get past the lurching, bluesy riff of ‘Damned’, Hill displays more variety.
‘Tough Luck’ ripples with steely, acoustic-sounding guitar played off against measured harp, in a slow and reflective outing featuring very bluesy lyrics.  ‘Never Is Such A Long Time’ meanwhile, is a tense affair, with Hill spitting out twitchy guitar licks over low key drums, before stretching out on a squealing solo on which he somehow manages to work in counterpointing figures.  How he does that is beyond me, but the bottom line is that he manages to conjure up the full sound of a band.
The uptempo classic R’n’B of Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’ – also recorded by the Stones - maybe demonstrates that it’s not so easy for Hill to do drums that swing like Charlie Watts.  But hell, I ain’t going to damn him for that, and with its ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ groove it still delivers plenty of voltage from the crunching chords and squalling notes of its intro to its eyeballs out solo.
But if he can’t quite pull off swing single-handedly, Hill still manages to get laid back and soulful on the simple, different, and romantic ‘Emily’.  And then he does a handbrake turn into the downbeat, brooding, ‘Nothing New’.  Its lyric, about how “I been thinkin’ ‘bout all the things I’m gonna do to you” has a dark, borderline obsessive vibe akin to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.  And in fact, in the midst of pondering the singularity of Hill’s musicianship, it would be easy to overlook his penchant for good words, whether his own or someone else’s.  But they keep cropping up - even if the Black Keys-ish ‘Still Got It Bad’ has a bit of a plodding air, it manages to tell a tale of marital deceit in withering fashion.
‘The Ballad Of Johnny Wabo’ is a down home blues with a low key opening, that then rouses itself into a slide bonanza over nothing, it seems, but a bit of hi-hat – and appears to have the crowd going nuts.  It’s a good warm-up for the set closer of ‘Dangerous’, an iconically strong track with a grabber of a riff over a great, simple rhythm.
Personally I could do without the encore of ‘Voodoo Chile’, mountainously OTT guitar solo and all. Going toe to toe with Jimi seems like a futile exercise to me, but I’d hazard a guess I’m a minority on that point. What I will say though, is that the mastering of the album could have been better.  The whole damn thing should simply be louder – I had to whack it up to 11 to get an acceptable degree of punch – and on a few occasions crowd applause is clipped off so abruptly that it undermines the live experience.  And on another tack, I’d have liked Hill to take a real time-out to deliver the kind of shimmering acoustic playing he demonstrated on the likes of ‘Troubled Times’, from his last studio album.
Steve Hill may be The One-Man Blues Rock Band, but he’s not a one-trick pony.  He may not be a game-changer, and his approach may wrap him in some artificial limitations, but there are layers in his material that I think we’ve still to fully grasp.  What this outing proves though, and what I already knew from seeing him live, is that Steve Hill is a guitar-totin', cymbal-whackin', drum-bootin', ass-kickin' joint-rocker.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Kris Barras Band - The Divine And Dirty

Appearances can be deceptive.  I’ve been aware of Kris Barras as a name for a bit, but without ever encountering his stuff. So when I see pictures of said gent, in a t-shirt with extensive tats, with hipsterish beard and slicked back hair, and read that he’s a former MMA combatant who’s “unleashing southern-fried blues fury” on his album The Divine And Dirty, I’m expecting to hear an avalanche of very modern, heavy duty, greasy boogie.  Which it isn’t.  It is, however, really good.
Sure, there’s some bluesy stuff in The Divine And Dirty, and some kinda southern rock riffs based on licks not power chords.  But with Barras’s airy voice to the fore, it heads in a direction that reminds me of the Paul Nelson Band’s Badass Generation, an album that used blues and southern rock influences as a launchpad to get into 80s style AOR.  And the end result is something breezily refreshing.
Kris Barras - Let's get ready to rumble!
Okay, so when you really get down to it a couple of songs like ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Stitch Me Up’ might be a bit slight.  But catchy hooks abound, the production from keyboard player Josiah J. Manning is strong and clear, and when it comes to vocals you can forget Ronnie Van Zant. Think Jon Bon Jovi – and believe that it works.
All this is true right from the outset, with ‘Kick Me Down’ and its swooping slide notes over a rolling riff and swells of organ, soon augmented by tasteful soaring backing vocals. But if you need convincing, check out ‘Propane’, which features a sweeping chorus straight out of the melodic rock playbook that sounds oh-so-like the Christopher Cross hit ‘Ride Like The Wind’ – a song, lest you forget, covered by NWOBHM stalwarts Saxon. ‘Lovers Or Losers’ similarly features a revolving guitar line, with injections of slide, and ends up hinting at Bon Jovi’s ‘Steel Cowboy’.  Penultimate track ‘Blood On Your Hands’ canters along on a choppy, hooky riff, with a melody and vocal that sound like Bryan Adams in his pre-wimpy heyday. It’s good tunesmithery, with a big sound incorporating attractive piano, and great backing vox to boot.
Manning’s piano is a recurring motif.  On the more rootsy ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, a rattling, uptempo melting pot of r’n’b, he throws some jazzy woogie into the boogie, to augment Barras’s spot-on rock’n’roll solo – make that solos, because he chucks in another satisfying outing at the end too.  It’s there again on ‘She’s More Than Enough’, which has a crisp rhythm from Will Beavis on drums, a fast-paced Southern-ish riff – and bags of energy and just-harvested freshness.  Oh yeah, and another pretty damn fine hook.
Initially I could live without ballad ‘Hold On For Tomorrow’, but it as it grows it also grows on me.  With another strong vocal, lush organ and vocal harmonies underpin another tasteful solo from Barras.  The closing ‘Watching Over Me’ is probably stronger, a Bonamassa-style ballad that rises to a big peak before dropping off into delicate closing phrases.
Is The Divine And Dirty something revolutionary? No, it’s not.  But it’s a breath of fresh air that’s delivered with brio, and it plays to its strengths throughout.  Summer must be coming soon, surely, and this will make for a good soundtrack for when you stick on your shades and wind down the window in the car.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Danny Bryant - Revelation

Truth be told, I’ve never been entirely sure about Danny Bryant.  I’ve got a few of his albums, and saw him live a few years ago.  But there were a couple of things made me think . . . aye, well, mmm.  For one thing, I’ve always found his voice a bit grating.  And that live show just felt – predictable.
Fair play to him though, Danny Bryant seems to have been striving for more variety.  I haven’t managed to catch him with his big band, but that at least suggested some new horizons.  The pre-release chat about Revelation has also been about him trying to dig deep and make it something more personal in nature, in the face of some troubled times lately.  And you know what?  I do believe this album shows progress – with a few reservations.
But let’s accentuate the positive for a bit, eh?  From time to time here Bryant reminds me of
Danny Bryant ponders what to do with this strange device before him
Pic by Rob Blackham
Clapton on a good day.  ‘Isolate’, for example, where an EC-like intro gives way to delicate piano, 
and then his guitar plays around the melody on the chorus. Brief guitar fills follow as the song progresses, biting but elegant.  And still not satisfied, he comes up with an impressive solo with bags of feel, followed by a downbeat interlude featuring piano, and then another guitar solo – good enough not to feel like overkill, and buoyed by some tasty bass lines from Alex Phillips.
A buzzing keyboard riff hinting at Chariots Of Fire gives a twist to the opening of ‘Shouting At The Moon’, and Bryant has an adventurous go at a falsetto vocal on the chorus as he pursues a daringly personal - and resonant - lyric about the death of his father, before another Clapton-esque moment as a patient, expressive guitar solo rounds off the song.
‘May I Have Talk With You’ is a not-the-bleeding-obvious Howlin’ Wolf cover given a BB King treatment, including horns.  And once again it’s a fine illustration of Bryant’s blues playing, fluid and then wrenching out notes in a fiery closing solo.  Bryant also produces a decent, sensitive vocal – at times at least.  If only his producer Richard Hammerton, who does a damn good job otherwise (including a lot of important keyboard playing), could get him to eliminate some of the growls and hiccupy yelps, the song itself could do the talking.
Which would be good, because his voice can still irritate me, right from the opening title track, on which a melancholy piano intro is swiftly followed by a typically herniated Bryant vocal, before it settles down into his default Trout-ish style.
Bryant says that ‘Liars Testament’ is influenced by Seventies Purple stylings, and yes, there’s something of DP MKII’s rawer moments like ‘Into The Fire’ about it. It’s an instructive comparison, because I can hear a resemblance to Ian Gillan in DB’s gruff, semi-strangulated singing.  But Gillan, in his heyday at least, had way more polish and range at
his disposal.  Danny may not be able to emulate that, but he really does need to find a couple more gears.  Still and all, it’s not bad, and I like the controlled ferocity of Bryant’s playing, underpinned by bursts of horns, on the hard-driving coda.
‘Sister Decline’ is powerful all round, with a sturdy, driving riff over a hard-kicking beat from Dave Raeburn, and loose, clever bass runs, and injections of horns and keys to add to the palette.
‘Truth Or Dare’ is fun too, a slab of good ol’ fashioned boogie with rocking horns and a signature Hammond solo from Stevie Watts.  There’s a key change.  And a quiet guitar/vocal call and response passage for dynamics.  And a big crescendo with lively guitar.  All it needs is a bit of cowbell and a false ending to pull off every trick in the book.  But at four and half minutes it’s kept on a leash – which is almost surprising, because Bryant does have a tendency to overdo it.  A few songs here could benefit from some editing, not least the repetitive acoustic rendition of John Mellencamp’s ‘Someday The Rains Will Fall’, and the rather humdrum closing power ballad ‘Yours For A Song’, which is only elevated by a nifty up tempo coda.
When Danny Bryant captures that Clapton-like feel on Revelation, he lives up to the hefty billing he has on the British and European blues rock scene.  But I’m not going to fawn over him and say it’s brilliant.  Danny Bryant deserves better than that.  He’s not the finished article, but he’s trying – and I think he’s getting there.

Revelation is released by Jazzhaus Records on 20 April.
Danny Bryant is on tour in Germany in April, and in Britain from 7 May.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Vitor Bacalhau - Cosmic Attraction

Portuguese power trio isn’t a phrase you read every day.  But guitarist and singer - and, I believe, 2018 European Blues Challenge entrant - Vitor Bacalhau demonstrates that it isn’t just a punchline with his second album, Cosmic Attraction.  Aiming to deliver energetic blues rock, he and his compadres Joao Ventura on drums and Luis Trinidade may not offer
anything groundbreaking, but they do rock’n’roll with a rough and ready charm.  Opener 'Happy Man' is a brisk affair with only a pause for breath, with Bacalhau whacking out some
That's Vitor Bacalhau in there, apparently
jittery, gritty slide guitar, and extra layers of stinging guitar licks, over pounding drums from Ventura.
  'Who Do You Think You’re Fooling' keeps up the momentum, with swatches of fuzzed up guitar and a squelching solo. 'Old Soul', with producer Budda Guedes guesting on guitar and vocals, downshifts into a mid-paced strut, but its robust riff is also the first of a few nods in a vaguely Black Keys direction, which is just fine by me.  They really hit that nail on the head with 'Dirty Little Girl', one of the highlights of the album with its fuzzed up guitars and catchy, Keys-like chorus, while 'Walk Through Fire' hints at Auerbach and Carney’s more jagged moments.  It’s itchy, scratchy, and urgent, with a rasping vocal from Bacalhau, and squealing guitar licks penetrating the storm.  The hidden closing track 'Only The Strong Live Long' is a good fit alongside this stuff, a distorted acoustic stomp that’s appealingly rootsy.  Okay, so along the way 'I’ve Been Dreaming' is a so-so slower blues, and the title track is just typical power trio fare, although punctuated by some intriguing channel-switching guitar chords.  But 'Let Your Soul Go Free' clatters along merrily like Mk 2 Purple in one of their more ramshackle moments.  And the reflective 'Shooting Star' may not be very original, but it’s still evocative with its twinkling opening and sweeping slide notes, before closing with a squall of feedback-laced guitar. Cosmic Attraction may be a bit insubstantial at times, but it’s a likeable effort nonetheless.