Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Evening Session - Edinburgh Blues'N'Rock Festival

Due to other commitments, I was only able to get along to the latter half of this year’s Edinburgh Blues’N’Rock Festival, promoted by the Edinburgh Blues Club.  But it has to be said that the sets delivered by The Rising Souls, Dana Fuchs and Ten Years After were still worth the price of the ticket, and then some.
Walking onstage as her band crank out a big fat soul groove, Dana Fuchs is revealed to be a tall woman – like, seriously tall.  And when she gets going with opening track ‘Ready To Rise’, all flailing ringlets of hair, the American singer quickly becomes a compelling
Dana Fuchs and band - a Stax load of soul
presence.  Rousing the audience after a lengthy interval, she and her 6-piece band soon garner a bigger crowd at the front of the stage.
Her sometimes lengthy song introductions about “all being in the boat of life” may seem corny to a British audience of a more laconic disposition, but as she peppers these monologues with interjections of “Fuck that”, she's still more down to earth than diva.  And there is a point to her chat, because the experience of pain and loss she describes, and her attitude to it, are what make her tick as an artist, and bring meaning to her material.
Drawing heavily on her most recent album Love Lives On, recorded in Memphis, it’s clear that Fuchs has the southern soul sound down pat, epitomised by her cover of Otis Redding’s distinctly blues-rooted ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’.  This turns into a genuine soul-funkathon, on which Fuchs ends up laying back on the monitors in acclamation of Aaron Liddard’s sax solo, while Walter Latupierissa shows off his grooving credentials.  She naturally taps into this kind of
A little bit country
vibe on her own ‘Sittin’ On’, which features a great chorus and hook, and turns into an extended workout with a great trumpet showcase from Simon Finch.  Meanwhile pork pie-hatted guitarist and co-writer Jon Diamond shines on the following ‘Sad Solution’, complementing its rousing, anthemic chorus with great funk guitar and a biting solo, while drummer Piero Perreli gets deep in the pocket.
It’s not just undiluted soul music that they have to offer though.  Both ‘Callin’ Angels’ and ‘Long Long Gone’ show that Fuchs have a handy way with injecting some countrification into the Stax vibe, the latter in particular being a “whiskey song” on which Diamond delivers seriously twangy, jangling guitar, and Latupierissa spanks the hell out of his bass.  And just to underline the point, Fuchs straps on an acoustic herself for the set closer of ‘Ring Of Fire’ – though I’m sure it really lends itself to the singalong she leads.
Generally though, Fuchs is the real deal as both a front woman and a vocalist, whether on the convincing slowie ‘Faithful Sinner’, inspired by her father’s troubles, the hazy, woozy ‘Sedative’, which she delivers crouched at the stage apron, or the upbeat songs she delivers with wit and energy throughout the bulk of her set. It all adds up to an irresistibly entertaining, booty-shaking performance.
Now I’ll be honest, and say that Ten Years After aren’t a band I’ve ever followed closely, having missed their late Sixties/early Seventies heyday.  A passing familiarity with the “best of” is the best I can claim. And I’m always a bit nervous about bands that are soldiering on without a late lamented main man – and strange to say, but I’ve never encountered Alvin Lee's successor as singer/guitarist Marcus Bonfanti live either.  But fair play to ‘em, TYA closed the festival with a set that blew away any doubts.
Right from the off Bonfanti weighs in with a good mid-range rocking vocal, with plenty of attack, and on something that may or may not have been called ‘Down The Road’ he also shows up as 
Marcus Bonfanti - post-Woodstock, ever so slightly
really kinetic guitar player, in addition to getting down to some lock-tight interplay with veteran bass man Colin Hodgkinson.  And by the time they get to the mid-tempo blues groove of ‘Hear Me Calling’ their fierce approach is stimulating some wig-out dancing among some of the audience.
Hodgkinson increasingly becomes a star of the show, underpinning some blues rock riffery with bass playing that’s powerful rather than overpowering.  Then he tops that with a solo bass and vocals rendition of Robert Johnson’s ’32-20 Blues’ that is simply extraordinary, playing both rhythm and lead guitar on bass, and bringing new meaning to the lyric “Gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my Gatling gun”.
They deliver a likeable unplugged segment, comprising ‘Don’t Want You Woman’, ‘Portable People’ and ‘Losing The Dogs’.  The first of these is a delightful, swinging affair, while ‘Losing The Dogs’, with its bright, spangly guitar, bobbing bass and pattering snare drum is eminently danceable.
‘Say Yeah’ offers a jagged, tasty riff, and nice piano runs from Chick Churchill, but I could do without the drum solo-centred ‘The Hobbit’. Ric Lee’s blistering drumming on the following ‘Love Like A Man’ more than makes up for it though, as a patient opening gives way to a memorable riff of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ proportions, and more guitar and bass interplay.  Indeed Bonfanti and Hodgkinson prove to be quite a pairing, contributing a guitar/bass duet/duel on a stonkingly heavy version of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ that’s another highlight of their set.
A rip-roaring rendition of ‘I’m Going Home’ incorporates bursts of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Hound Dog’, as well as incendiary guitar from Bonfanti in a display of rock’n’roll fireworks. They encore with the good-time rockin’ boogie of ‘Choo Choo Mama’, bringing the curtain down on a job well and truly done. Ten Years After are no museum piece – with Bonfanti and Hodgkinson out front they’re still a powerful blues proposition.
Earlier, Edinburgh locals The Rising Souls made their second EBRF appearance with a set of 21st century blues-inflected rock.  They’ve come a long way from the stripped back semi-acoustic trio I first encountered a few years ago, and now ally Dave Archibald’s soul-inflected vocals with Led-heavy backing on songs for which their toughened up cover of The Black Keys’ ‘Next Girl’ is a good fit.
They lay down a marker early doors with, er, ‘Lay Me Down’, which partners a bone-crunching riff with big, ker-chunking drums from Reece Braid, who adds a rocketing drum break for good measure.  The short and to the point ‘Set Me Free’ stirs dynamic shifts of volume into the mix,
The Rising Souls - get the Led out
along with an undulating riff and a strong, soulful melody.
This is just an appetiser for ‘Walk On’ though, a song that really suggests what they’re capable of as they crank out a huge, very Zeppelin-like swooping riff as a platform for Archibald in full-on Paul Rodgers mode.  They hold the pressure down in the verse before crashing into the chorus like a juggernaut.  A mid-section of scat duelling between Archibald and the guitar provides a breather, before Braid’s drums accelerate to kick start a brief, breakneck guitar solo. If I have a complaint, it’s that here and elsewhere they need to extend passages like this to round songs out to their full potential.  
They do change things up a bit though.  On ‘I’m Coming’ a bright, Hendrixy riff a la ‘Crosstown Traffic’ stops and starts around Archibald’s rasping vocal, and they break things down into a convincing subdued segment.  More downbeat still is the moody ‘Escape’, for which Archibald dons an acoustic guitar as they essay a modern day Bad Company sound, with Roy ‘Kelso’ Laing’s bass harmonising impressively with shimmering lines from their own, shades-sporting Jimmy on guitar.
What The Rising Souls need to do now, having broken onto the hard rock festival circuit this year, is stop faffing around with EPs and singles, and cut an album that will hammer a stake into the ground.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sari Schorr - Never Say Never

Sari Schorr’s theme song should really be something like ‘Gypsy Roadhog’, because the woman seems to be in perpetual motion. Even the making of this second album seemed to take in a few locations before settling into The Grange Studios in Norfolk.  But there are no signs of fatigue on Never Say Never.  Far from it.  This is an adrenaline-fuelled set, full of ideas both musical and lyrical.  So strap yourself in for the ride.
The intro to opener ‘King Of Rock’N’Roll’ is deceptive, a Dire Straits-ish bit of mood music that blends brooding guitar and tinkling piano until all concerned shake themselves into action, and Schorr weighs in with a husky vocal.  It climbs into a rousing chorus, and Ash Wilson gives it plenty with a scorching guitar solo and more fills besides.
Ash Wilson and Sari Schorr - fireworks abound
Pic by Rob Blackham
And right there you have the twin engines that will power this album into your consciousness, in Schorr’s powerful, versatile vocals and Wilson’s fizzing guitar work.  Oh, there’s plenty more besides, in the form of quality songwriting, the tight but flexible rhythm section of Mat Beable’s bass and Roy Martin’s drums, and the colour added from Bob Fridzema’s keyboard palette.  But there’s no getting away from the Schorr/Wilson axis – and believe me, you won’t want to.
‘Thank You’ features a squelching wah-wah intro, and supercharged guitar chords and organ on its pre-chorus, with Schorr delivering catchy ascending vocals in the chorus itself. It makes good use of dynamics, and Wilson gets mightily stuck in again with a solo.  Then they cool things off with a reading of Bad Company’s ‘Ready For Love’ that respects the original but adds its own seasoning.  It’s a perfect fit for Schorr’s blues rock tendencies, and her ability to be sensitive as well as towering.  There’s a nice interweaving of guitar and keys to deliver the signature theme, and Fridzema delivers a delicate, halting piano solo ahead of an elegant, dying fall to close.
‘Valentina’ and ‘The New Revolution’ display different faces of Schorr’s wordsmithing skills.  The former features a narrative about a lonely woman “living in a trailer by the sea”, and is a no-nonsense, straight-up rocker with a gritty riff, another impressive solo from Wilson, and full-on vocals from Schorr.  The latter convincingly expresses Schorr’s political ethos with a
Sari Schorr unleashes a vocal tsunami
Townshend-esque lyric, set to a curious amalgam of a taut, Stonesy riff, like a slowed down ‘Jack Flash’, and a melody on the verse that brings to mind Robbie Williams’ ‘Let Me Entertain You’ of all things. Whatever, it works.  And later, penultimate track ‘Freedom’ plays a similar lyrical card, with a literate rant laden with irony about the agenda of “bible and gun” as it whips up a righteous storm.
At the mid-point of the album, ‘Beautiful’ ushers in  a shift towards Diane Warren-ish AOR territory on some of the remaining songs, on which Schorr’s resonant voice takes on a remarkably Cher-like complexion at times.  ‘Beautiful’ itself is a ballad with a low key opening, and piercing guitar from Wilson as he adds another couple of well-pitched, emotive solos to the mix. ‘Turn The Radio On’ is musically in a more upbeat vein, although a tale of relationship pain and envy, with Schorr unleashing her voice on the chorus, while ‘Back To LA’ has a sunny feel, and a strong hook, over a snapping snare drum from Roy Martin.  Meanwhile Schorr’s vocal reaches tidal wave proportions at times, to the point where you could imagine ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ being next on the track list. 
In and around these big, glossy affairs, ‘Maybe I’m Fooling’ seems a bit slight, though it’s still appealing enough with its bumping rhythm and catchy chorus.  But the aforementioned ‘Freedom’ raises the roof again, with both Fridzema and Wilson letting rip, before Ian McLagan’s titular ‘Never Say Never’ rounds things out in restrained and soulful fashion – maybe a more downbeat conclusion than ideal for me, but still a strong song, with imagery that’s a good fit for Schorr’s style.
Never Say Never is an album that will grab you by the scruff of the neck and not let you go. I may prefer the blues’n’raunch side of it to the slicker, more constructed later songs, and I’d have liked a pinch more of the funkiness evident on A Force Of Nature to be added to the recipe somewhere.  But it is, quite simply, a bang-up job.  Schorr’s commitment to her material is absolute, the guitar fireworks from Ash Wilson are often stunning, and the musicianship from all concerned is top drawer.  And guess what, the album’s not even out yet and the gypsy queen is back out on the road. Go see her and enjoy this stuff live.

You can find Sari Schorr's tour dates here.
Never Say Never is released by Manhaton Records on 5 October.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bad Touch - Shake A Leg

So here’s the thing, people. There are some reviewers out there who are going to tell you that Shake A Leg is a barnstorming album. These reviewers, I have to tell you, are wrong.
It’s all a matter of opinion of course.  But here’s my opinion.  Shake A Leg is a decidedly mixed affair – just like its predecessor, Truth Be Told.
Let me put this into perspective.  Bad Touch are not a bad band.  I’ve seen them live playing support slots, and they’re an entertaining bunch of rock’n’rollers who get it on with cheerful, head banging abandon.  In drummer George Drewry and bassist Michael Bailey they have a rock solid, driving rhythm section.  Guitarists Daniel Seekings and Rob Glendinning are capable of punching out powerful riffs, and the latter can produce some sparky lead work.  Front man Stevie Westwood has plenty of vocal poke under the bonnet to match the rest of them, and a few other tools at his disposal to boot.
Unfortunately though, no one seems to have a firm enough hand on the tiller when it comes to songwriting or quality control.  And as a result, the whole is often less than the sum of its parts.
Bad Touch - Hat's Alright Mama
Pic by Rob Blackham
Opener ‘Lift Your Head Up’ shows some promise, with cannon-like drums driving things along under a decent hook and a simple, catchy riff.  But while the following ‘Hammer Falls’ initially piques the interest with a winding figure on lone guitar that recalls Rush’s ‘Secret Touch’, melodically it offers an anthemic chorus and not much else.
This sets the pattern for several of the songs that follow.  There’s a crashing riff, a bit of dynamics and a chant-along chorus – not the last - over persuasive bass and drums on ‘Too Many Times’, but the lyrics are clichéd.  And so it goes on.  Westwood’s vocals seem stuck in the same gear, in spite of his handy way with a machine-gun delivery, though in fairness the sound is always strong and bright, and Glendinning adds some colour with the odd quickfire solo.
So it’s a relief when track 6 comes around, because ‘I Belong’ finally demonstrates some sense of feeling and identity as Westwood contemplates his home town, augmented by some attractive slide guitar and an air of southern rock, and some shifts in volume for further variety.  But then three more tracks muddle by, with only ‘Tussle’ doing much to grab the attention thanks to the buzzing guitar and stuttering drums of its opening, more rat-a-tat diction from Westwood, and a decent solo from Glendinning.
And then, lo and behold, the clouds begin to part.  ‘Believe In Me’ begins in more reflective fashion, and has a better melody. Showing a touch more restraint, it demonstrates that less can be more – it’s just a stronger song on several levels, structured better and with a guitar solo that sounds as if it has something to say.  The following ‘Movin’ On Up’ may not be a classic, but at least it maintains the momentum - chugging along merrily with all the dots joined up properly, it allies a not bad riff and an okay hook with another decent little solo from Glendinning.
They take their time over ‘Slow Tempest’, with acoustic strumming and an appealing melody, another neat solo, and some appealing harmonies into the bargain.  Then the closing ‘Bury Me (When I’m Gone)’ finds them in what strikes me as their natural, Black Crowes-ish territory.  It opens with subtle guitar and vocals, and Westwood shows off his vocal chops to good effect throughout.
If Shake A Leg had a beginning and middle to match the closing tracks, it would have been a markedly better album.  Still not a great album, but perhaps at least a good one.  Bad Touch have some talent, but if they really want to make it, I suggest they find a producer who will kick their collective ass for a month of Sundays until they deliver material of more consistent quality.

Shake A Leg is released on 5 October on Marshall Records.
Bad Touch tour the UK from 17 October.  Tour dates available here.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Joe Bonamassa - Redemption

Bonamassa is back. Like he ever went away, right? And what he’s offering this time, after numerous other forms of “product”, is Redemption, his first studio album of all new material since 2016’s Blues Of Desperation.
Now, JB has his acolytes, who apparently regard him as the non-pareil of blues rock guitar.  And he has his knockers, who seem to regard him as a soul-less fake.  Me?  I think he’s released some pretty damn enjoyable solo albums.  Some have resonated with me less than others –Driving Towards The Daylight, for example - but maybe that’s because I didn’t give them sufficient attention at the time.  I reckoned Blues Of Desperation was a pretty handy outing though, so how does Redemption shape up as its successor?
Joe Bonamassa gets all sensitive and reflective
Pic by Marty Moffatt
Well, I’m not sure it has quite the freshness and depth of its predecessor, but it’s still a solidly entertaining affair.  Joe and chums certainly demonstrate a sense of humour as the album opens with Anton Fig crashing through an iconic Led Zep drum intro before they plunge into a grungy chord as a springboard for the jabbing riff of ‘Evil Mama’.  Cheeky sod.  In turn that riff is subjected to call and response with horns, bass and whatever, before heading off into funky, horn-laden territory over rumbling bass from Michael Rhodes, and pounding drums.  I like it.
The fun stuff continues with the revved up, buzzing boogie of ‘King Bee Shakedown’.  With horns a-parpin’ again, a touch of rockabilly in the middle eight, and a Thorogoodly slide solo – if you get my drift – it’s a track that could easily inspire some hectic swing dancing.
‘Molly O’’ is the sort of song that Bonamassa has made a specialty over the years, with an epic aesthetic, a sweeping melody and an Arabesque riff, decorated by some slide guitar in the background.  Featuring a lyric based on a Titanic-style story, it’s a big and coherent moment in the album. To my mind it’s also better than the title track, another dynamic affair on which the various components may be interesting, but don’t seem to create an organic whole.  An acoustic opening is embellished by subtle keys from Reese Wynans, before shifting into a jagged, twisting riff.  It builds to a peak in a squall of guitar, which finds some direction just in time, leading to a downbeat, reflective segment.  The chorus also features swelling backing vocals, a common feature in JB’s recent recordings, but I question the value of them here.
And on a similar note, could a more stripped-down approach have been taken to the preceding ‘Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should’, without the use of horns?  It features a tough beat and strong guitar fills, plus an organ solo from Wynans, but feels overlong, with an overdone shredding segment. A tip should have been taken from its title, to my mind.
‘Deep In The Blues Again’ and the closing ‘Love Is A Gamble’ are mainstream stuff, the former with a prickly guitar motif akin to what Alex Lifeson delivered on Rush’s ‘The Weapon’, a stomping backbeat and a spiky solo, the latter straight up blues with fiery guitar licks, a wailing solo and woozy horns.
There’s more interesting fare elsewhere though.  ‘The Ghost Of Macon Jones’ is a country-
"Hell's bells - this guitar weighs a ton!"
Pic by Rick Gould
tinged duet with Nashville’s Jamey Johnson, with a hint of the Celtic over a skipping rhythm, and another interesting lyric with a Johnny Cash-like narrative.  More directly enjoyable is ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, with its boozy, N’Awlins vibe.  Essentially it’s ersatz Tom Waits, with amusing, down-at-heel lyrics, spot on honky tonk piano and moaning sax.  ‘I’ve Got Some Mind Over What Matters’ is a lurching chunk of R&B fun, which when you get down to it is a second cousin twice removed to Ian Hunter’s ‘All-American Alien Boy’.  A witty catalogue of moral failure and domestic disharmony, it draws on barroom piano, discordant guitar chords, and some spectacular splashes of delayed reaction cymbal from Fig.
More solemnly ambitious perhaps is ‘Self-Inflicted Wounds’.  Slow and spacious, its solo closes with neat use of guitar harmonies, and there are more licks to embellish the closing chorus.  That though, is nothing compared to the daring displayed on the penultimate track, ‘Stronger Now In Broken Places’.  Startlingly subdued, with little more to the arrangement than gentle, sparse picking from Bonamassa and expertly sensitive keys, it mingles melancholy and resilience in dramatic, triumphant fashion.
As so often with Bonamassa, less would be more.  With twelve songs stretching to five minutes over the hour, Redemption would be a leaner, stronger album if a couple of the lesser tracks had been jettisoned.  All the same, it gets a resounding thumbs up for several slices of imaginative, entertaining quality.  Now go take a six month vacation will ya Joe, and give us all a breather?

Redemption is released by Provogue in Europe and J&R Adventures in North America on 21 September.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Man At The Back, Part 2 - Blues Enthused chats with King King drummer Wayne Proctor

In addition to being the 'Man At The Back’ with King King, Wayne Proctor is, of course, a highly regarded backroom boy, as a producer under his House Of Tone banner. His latest output on that front is Ben Poole’s forthcoming album Anytime You Need Me, which I reckon represents a big step forward for Poole in several respects – and features a great drum sound from Proctor into the bargain.  So how did he and Poole set about bringing the new album into being?
“Well, for his last album Time Has Come, Alan Robinson, King King and Ben’s manager, kind of picked the songs. I think he felt at the time that Ben - as much as he had a couple of
"You lookin' at me?"
Pic by Rob Blackham
real corkers of songs, like ‘The Time Might Never Come’, which is a stunning tune, and he had a couple of other little ideas - wasn’t yet in the place to write a whole record, with the kind of lyrical and melodic content needed to make a great record.”
As Proctor points out, this is hardly unheard of. Whether they’re newcomers or big stars, artists have long taken advantage of outside help to line up suitable material. Labels like Motown and Stax relied heavily on writing teams, Aerosmith made a mint out of stuff provided by Diane Warren when their own well was drying up, and Bonnie Raitt continues to pepper her albums with covers in addition to originals. So for Time Has Come, Proctor recalls, they selected material from a ‘long list’ of about 25 songs.
“And most of it was a singer-songwriter style in a bluesy manner,” he says. “So it ended up being quite light. Vocally Ben didn’t really have the grit then. But he was also singing other people’s songs, so him singing them a bit softer was kind of intentional to make it more emotional, in a kind of John Mayer way. So after that record, Ben and I chatted, and when Alan Nimmo had the little mishap with his voice last year I said to Ben, ‘Look, do you fancy us writing an album together? Writing a heavier album, writing songs that are written to your strengths, picking keys that suit you, writing with attitude, and trying to put something together that is more for you, that sounds like you on 100%?’  And Ben was absolutely up for it.
“So then Steve Wright [Proctor’s House Of Tone production compadre], Ben and I wrote ‘Take It No More’ and ‘Further On Down The Line’.  We did it over three days – we wrote the lyrics, melodies and arrangements. We had no idea what the chemistry would be.  We just knew we all got on.  But we came up with these two songs, and we were like, ‘These are really good – in fact they’re great.’  They were just demos – the drums were done out in Steve’s house, and it was all done quite quickly, but it had a vibe, it definitely had a vibe, and we were excited about them.  So we just carried on going.”
Between them they sifted whatever ideas were kicking around for things that caught the ear.
“And then we’d just work and work and work – a load of gestating the idea, and developing it, and ‘Let’s try it with this kind of feel, or this tempo, or this key’.  And then lyrically we all just sat down and said, what atmosphere did we think this song was about?  So something like ‘Take It No More’ had a lot of attitude in it, and we wanted it to be like where you’re pointing your finger at someone, having a go.  And ‘Anytime You Need Me’ should have this positive thing about it - I was going through something at the time, so I was like, ‘Can we do a song about this?  About always being there for someone, and not abandoning them.’”
As Ben Poole himself has observed, they spent six months writing and demoing material, off and on.
“And eventually we had a whole record,” says Proctor. “We did it without telling anybody we were doing it.  I literally just handed the album into Alan Robinson and said ‘Look, here you go. If you want to put it out on Manhaton Records, great, If not, I’ll shop it to somebody else.’  It was like, this is our album, we’ve done it on our terms. We’ve done it without any interference getting in the way of the creativity, without being told you’ve got to mix it this way, or you’ve got to use these musicians, or you can’t play the drums on it. I didn’t want to hear any of that. I just wanted to make the artist I was working with sound the best I could make him sound.  And if that meant us writing some songs together because we had a good chemistry, then perfect! Ben was more than happy to do that. At times the three of us were just sitting there with blank expressions on our faces, not knowing where to go, and then all of a sudden one of us would shout, ‘That’s it, I’ve got it. I’ve got the lyric, I’ve got the key to the gateway that lets us into the next line.’  And slowly but surely the song would present itself.”
Earlier in our conversation, Proctor had referred to King King’s albums emerging organically, as if from a lump of clay.  I recall the sculptor’s line about the big block of marble, that the statue is in there somewhere, it’s just a question of finding it.
“Exactly. You’ve just got to chip away at it and be really honest with yourself. Is it as good as you can make it?  Anyone I ever produce, I say to them, please just be honest with yourselves. If this is the best you can do, then fair enough. But I’m sure when you ask yourself, this is you on a six out of ten.  And pretty much everyone I’ve worked with then says, ‘Yeah, I can do better.’  ‘Well, why have you played this to me then?
“Although I don’t think I’ve ever actually said that, to be honest,” he laughs.  “You’re trying to light a fire up their ass, so that they go, ‘Yeah, yeah. I can do better.’  And nine times out of ten it works – and Ben absolutely rose to the challenge in every way shape and form for me on Anytime You Need Me.  I love it – I’m so proud of him and the album we’ve made.”
Part of the challenge is also about positioning things correctly though, I suggest.  Poole’s Live At The Royal Albert Hall album showed that he has a good voice – not especially bluesy, but soulful in his own way, with musicality.  But as Proctor noted, this didn’t really come over on Time Has Come.  It seems to me though, that some of the newer songs are in lower keys that enable him to come across more strongly.  Or is that just my imagination?
“No, that’s exactly right,” says Proctor. “All the songs were written with his voice in mind, in
Non-Diet Ben Poole gets potent
terms of where does it sound good?  Where do you sound the most meaningful?  Where can you get the grit into your voice?  But I know, even at the recording stage, we still dropped the keys of ‘Take It No More’, ‘Further On Down The Line’, and ‘Dirty Laundry’, because Ben couldn’t get to the high notes in a manner that we felt was ballsy and convincing.  And one thing that’s become apparent is that with ‘Dirty Laundry' in particular he just owned it, he just sang it great. I remember when he did those first few verses, he literally did two or three takes of each verse, and it was like, ‘Dude – do you wanna come and listen to how good your voice your sounds here?’
One aspect of Poole’s singing that I like, and which ‘Dirty Laundry’ shows off, is his diction, his ability to really pop consonants out very clearly, as in the line about the ‘bubble-headed bleach blonde’.
“Well, there are two elements to this thing with the diction. If you go back to the Albert Hall live CD, there’s a studio song on there called ‘Starting All Over Again’ that we worked on together. And one of the things that Alan Robinson had said to me was that we’ve got to work on his diction, ‘cause I can’t work out what he’s saying.  So it’s always been something that we’ve been very conscious of.  But also, writing melodies and picking lyrics that have a lot of syllables and a lot of percussive sounds in them. I remember Rob Temperton when he was writing for Michael Jackson, saying that he purposely wrote melodies, and words, that had a lot of percussive sounds, to allow Michael Jackson to really spit it out, and so it had a lot of rhythm to it, and a lot of attack.  So one of the things we did with the lyric writing on this album was to really try and find things that complemented Ben’s natural ability to spit a lyric out. So there are all those elements in there that are percussive and strong, and it not only makes his voice sound stronger, but it makes the lyrics sound clearer, and puts the lyric on the top of the music a lot easier.”
The difference is marked, in my book. Proctor may have produced Time Has Come, but I tell him that by the time I got to the end of the end of that album I was desperate for Poole to man up a bit, vocally.
“Well, on Time Has Come these were songs that weren’t written for him,” he repeats, “and they had a particular atmosphere, and they didn’t sound right being sung aggressively.  We did try it, but it just sounded weird, it didn’t sound like there was context.”
So defaulting to a style that fitted the songs didn’t really bring the best out of him.
“Exactly,” Proctor agrees. “So this time around I said, ‘Well man, we’re writing the songs ourselves, so let’s make every song work for you.’  And luckily it worked out great, and we had a load of fun doing it, and it was at the right time for me to be doing that as well. Me and Steve were already starting to write together, and I think we just knew what he wanted, we just knew that Ben needed to sound more convincing, to sound more aggressive. And I love the results. Honestly, I couldn’t say enough good things about the album, and the experience of making it. 
A blur of motion at the back with King King
“King King is Alan’s baby,” he goes on, “and I love and adore being in that band. But it’s Alan’s baby, and I don’t want to offer lyrics to him, I don’t want to offer chord structures to him and potentially water down our process. It’s not what he wants, he wants us to support him and facilitate the sound of the songs in his head - Alan always has a very strong vision for King King, which is great and definitely works. So, when this opportunity came up to co-write the lyrics, melodies and generally chord structures rather than just arrangements, I said ‘Great, let’s do it!’  It was just another asset to the House Of Tone arsenal of tools, another string to the bow and a lot of fun to do! Ben and I had a conversation the other day about the next album, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we know exactly where we want to go next time around!’
I make the observation that Don Henley’s recording of ‘Dirty Laundry’ featured Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro from Toto, so it gave Proctor the chance to emulate one of his inspirations, as he acknowledges. For me, it’s also symptomatic of Anytime You Need Me being something of a crossover album into AOR territory, in a good way, though tracks like ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ and ‘Found Out The Hard Way’ still give Poole room to breathe musically, and be expansive. Was that something Proctor had in mind?
“I just think that’s who he is, in all honesty,” he says. “He wants to be able to play the guitar, he wants to play cool, get-behind-it kind of riffs, so he can really make them mean something, and obviously he wants to solo as well. But it’s not about ironing all that stuff out, it’s about giving him a vehicle where he can be meaningful with what he’s playing, and one that you can transfer to a live setting.  And Ben likes mainstream music, you know?  That’s it, full stop.  So why shouldn’t that be incorporated into his style?  But he wants to do it in a non-emaciated way. You don’t want it to feel like it’s Diet Ben, because it’s a bit poppy, or it’s a bit mainstream in any way, it still needs to feel like it’s potent, and it’s got some attitude and meaning to it.”
At which point the self-confessed ‘studio rat’ has to get back to work knob-twiddling at Steve Wright’s Y Dream Studios on another project, this time for a forthcoming album tribute album to Willie Dixon by Ian Parker.
Drummers have a bit of a reputation – Moon the Loon, John Bonham the wild man, Phil Rudd and his recent, er, misadventures.  Hell, Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer Sam Lay even managed to shoot one of his knackers off due to carrying a loaded gun in his trouser pocket while playing. Wayne Proctor doesn’t fit the stereotype. Instead he’s a guy who’s passionate about the creative process, and evidently a detail freak with very high quality standards. But hey, he got through our discussion of the production process without sharing his extensive knowledge of microphones, for which I’m truly grateful!

You can find Part 1 of the Wayne Proctor interview here.
Ben Poole's new album Anytime You Need Me is released by Manhaton Records on 14 September.
Ben Poole's European and UK tour dates can be found here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Man At The Back, Part 1 - Blues Enthused chats with King King drummer Wayne Proctor

Stevie Nimmo once posted on Facebook to say that King King drummer Wayne Proctor is a lovely bloke, but you should never, ever discuss drums or microphones with him.  So when the opportunity arose to have a chat with the said Mr Proctor, what might be safe topics of conversation?
Well, the KK boys forthcoming tour supporting Europe seems like a reasonable bet.  Suggesting that Europe might draw an audience of more casual rock fans, I ask if Proctor thinks it might given King King a profile with audiences they haven’t encountered on previous support slots.
“It’s funny,” he reflects, “everyone has a take on this.  I think all of us in the band have had
Wayne Proctor feels the groove from his drum stool (see below)
varying views on how good a fit this is. You know, ‘This might work, this might not work.’  But then I know Alan just recently watched a DVD of their last tour from a couple of years ago, and he came back with a beaming face, going ‘It’s gonna be fine. It’s all gonna be good.’  So I think it’s more of a fit recently, it’s just people get a bit stuck in a place and time when it comes to Europe, where all they can think of is the big hair and the spandex.  Obviously we don’t do that – as good as Alan would look in spandex, I’m sure!"  Cue laughter at both ends of the phone line.  Anyone for tartan spandex?
"I was talking to Europe’s manager Adam Parsons the other night, and he said the same thing. He said they get stuck in a certain place, although pretty much everything they’ve done since then has not been that thing. And from what Adam was telling me, Joey Tempest absolutely loves us.  So I don’t think we would be on it if they didn’t think it was going to be a good fit, and a good package.”
And of course King King, with a fanbase originating in blues and blues rock, might bring a different audience for Europe’s benefit.
“Yeah, exactly.  So I think it’s going to be cool.  Obviously any time you’re playing to more people than you would at your own shows, you're going to win a percentage over.  We were just very lucky with supporting Thunder and John Mayall, that we took pretty much everyone with us, so if we can do that again then that would be amazing.”
The support slot extends to European dates as well, including Italy and Spain.  Was that an extra bonus factor from this tour?
“Yeah, I think so,” he agrees.  “I think Italy and Spain are newer territories.  We do quite well
in Germany, Switzerland and Holland and that. But any time you’re playing to those kind of numbers an opportunity like that’s great.  Because when you do these support tours you always get the English leg, you know, and you never get the European leg.” 
Things have moved on a bit since King King opened for Thunder though, I observe.  They’ve got another studio album under their belt, as well as a highly acclaimed live album that featured extended versions of some favourite tracks.  So is it a challenge to come up with a shorter set again?
"Well it’s funny, I’ve just had a text message from the boss today,” he says, referring to main man Alan Nimmo, “saying ‘Learn this one, learn this one, and learn this one’, all from Exile & Grace.  Because we haven’t played as many of those songs, because we had such a great set together, it was such a strong show, that you don’t want to interrupt it – though obviously we have peppered the set with two or three of the new ones. But I think we are going to be seeing a few more things from Exile & Grace on this tour – judging by the text message anyway!  And I think we’ve got 50 minutes, so we’ve got a pretty good slot to put over what
Auditioning for a catalogue modelling gig
Pic by Rob Blackham
we do – with Thunder I think we only had 35 minutes. That 15 minutes makes a big difference for us, it allows us to do maybe a few more of our drawn out, epic numbers.
And it will also mean that they don’t have to dilute some of the big climactic moments that come up on songs like ‘You’ll Stop The Rain’, hopefully.
“Absolutely, and it’s got the singalong bit now at the front end,” says Proctor.  “And obviously ‘Rush Hour’ is a big one.  So I think our big songs will be there.  When you write an album, like we did with Reaching For The Light, you don’t know that that’s what’s going to happen to those songs.  It just happens to be a collection of songs that we did, you know?  Although I remember when we did ‘Rush Hour’, we rehearsed it at a place in Germany, and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s alright’.  I never thought it was going to turn into what it’s turned into, like our signature tune.”
Now, I may not be prepared to get all nerdy and get into a conversation about drumming gear. Frankly I wouldn’t know where to start. But some chat about drummers and drumming seems reasonable, I reckon.  So I refer to the fact that Proctor is pretty much on record as having been inspired by Phil Collins and Jeff Porcaro, of Toto fame and innumerable sessions.  So what was it about their drumming that particularly grabbed his attention?  He takes his time answering.
“I think it’s so . . . direct.”  He pauses before going on.  “I was a guitarist before I was a drummer, and I always wanted a drummer that just kept it together, and kept it solid.  And I think when I became a drummer I gravitated towards the guys that had really great time, you know time-keeping, and really great sound.  The sound was always so important to me.  I remember buying this one record that had Jeff Porcaro on, and a guy called Mike Baird that used to be in Journey – and John Robinson who did Off The Wall for Michael Jackson.  But their sound wasn’t like Jeff’s.  There were these four tracks, and I remember not even knowing who was on it, and who played on what, and thinking, ‘Those four songs are just ridiculous – who is it? Oh, Jeff Porcaro.’  Then you look somewhere else at another album, and the best sounding song is with him on.
“And then I think certainly with Phil Collins, I first saw him playing on the Eric Clapton & Friends thing from ‘86, where there’s him, Eric Clapton, Greg Phillinganes and Nathan East, and once again it was just so strong, with so much intent – like there was no question what the guy was going to play. And every fill made sense, and every hit had value – there was nothing superfluous.  There was nothing in there that was unnecessary, but it wasn’t like it was boring, or weak.
“It’s the same with Steve Jordan who plays with Clapton,” he goes on.  “All these guys had this directness, but this great, great feel. It wasn’t like it was clinical, but it always had this big, meaningful thing.  Even Bonham – Bonham was a massive part of growing up as well.  But I never found him busy, I just always found him groovy, and all the fills and stuff just added to the song.  He never took away from the song.
The late lamented Jeff Porcaro
“I liked the directness, and the discipline, that you’re not over-playing.  Yeah be powerful, but not to the point where it just sounds lairy. I want it to be powerful, and it’s got to be emotional, and it’s got to be energetic when it needs to be energetic – it’s not about just playing simple.  But it’s about playing pure, and full of intent, and those guys – for me they’re the best in the world at it.  I can think of so many songs where I just love the touch, and the sound, and it’s just a massive loss that Jeff died when he did in ’92.”
I may know diddly squat about drumming, but I share a story from Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, where he talks about Max Weinberg’s son Jay depping for the Mighty Max on drums in the E Street Band.  Bruce says Jay’s technique was fine, but to begin with he was playing “on top” of the band, riding the surface of the arrangements.  So he had to take him aside and explain that “the drums are the soul engine, buried down and breathing inside the band.  You play not on top but immersed in the band.  You power everything from within.”  Is that something Proctor can identify with, I ask?
“Absolutely, yeah!” he enthuses.  “That’s the thing that drew me to the guys we’ve just talked about.  If you can immerse yourself in the song it makes everything better - when it feels right, when it feels really good, your body’s moving, you’re more open to the intent of a melody, the intent of a lyric, the intent of an arrangement.”
Even down a phone line, Proctor conveys the sheer physicality of the experience.  “You get the drums right and the whole thing works better.  Sometime that takes a while to figure out, to figure where things are going to sit, and how far you want to push, or sit back.  But when you get it right and the whole band’s in that place, it’s just awesome, it’s just amazing.”
Now to my ears, and I’ve commented on this before, Proctor’s drumming style is quite distinctive – more substance than flash.  So how would he describe it?
“You know what, I think it splits people’s opinion.  I think some people don’t notice it, and I think some people really, really dig it. Like anything it could polarise people I guess.  I like to think I just play what the song needs.  I always try to find things that are idiosyncratic to the song we’re playing, so you don’t hear the same vocabulary repeated across loads of different songs. When I was younger I misunderstood playing for the song to mean purely playing simply, and it took me working with a couple of producers to kick me up the ass a little bit, to make me realise that it’s great you can do that, but you need to create energy at times.  It’s not down to the rest of the band to create this, you’ve got to move it sometimes.  And I guess as I got older I understood that more, and having become a producer and worked with a lot of artists now, I get it now.
“I’ve obviously got something, but I couldn’t honestly tell you what that is.  I just know I like it strong, I like it defined. I always visualise the Classic Albums series, you know where they break down an album, and they bring the drums up, and you go, ‘Man, those drums just sound great,’ and they bring in the guitars, and it’s like ‘Aaah!’  You can just hear the track sounding amazing.  And when I’m doing drums I always think I want it to sound like that.  If anything I ever played on was lucky enough to be dissected like that and they brought my
drums up, you just want ‘em to go, ‘These are great drums.  They sound great, they feel great.  You know, listen to the choice of fills, and listen to those ghost notes that are going on.’  You want the detail to be recognised.  So I just try to play with that intent, whatever that requires me to be, whether it’s super busy, or really straight.
And all of that, I suggest, is about reflecting the identity of the song.
Backing up the boss
“Yeah, and you can hear the song in the drums. You’re just trying to support it all the time, and emphasise it, and hopefully bring the emotion out.  And I’d like to think that’s one of the reasons why King King does well.  I like to think I understand what Alan wants, and what the band needs - and hopefully I can emphasise his solos, you know, like the ‘You Stopped The Rain’ one, or ‘Stranger To Love’.
“If you don’t create an emotional response, in a positive manner, then it’s game over for me really,” he says.  “I turn off. I’m not really fussed about super-cerebral, clever lyrics.  I like things that are accessible.  I like making things accessible for people, so that they can get an emotional sensation out of the music. I want to get goosebumps. So I try to create that sensation when I’m making music, when I’m drumming, when I’m producing, when I’m mixing.  It all becomes how you feel.  So I’m that kind of musician, long story short!  I’m a feel kind of musician, with hopefully enough technique and flash to do some extra stuff if people need me to.  But at the core of it all I just want to create an emotional response, where people go, ‘Oh man, I really get that, it really communicates.’”
Getting away from all this touchy-feely emotional aspect to drumming, there is one bit of techno-geekery that intrigues me.  Wayne Proctor’s drumstool is literally, to quote Cliff Richard, wired for sound.  So how does that work, for those that don’t know?
Well, inside my bass drum is a thing called a ‘Kelly Shu’,” he explains, “which is just a horseshoe, that’s on some rubber spider webs, and it’s got a microphone clip on it.  On that is a microphone.  That gets plugged into a head unit, from this company called Porter & Davis.  On that is a dial, and on the back of that it goes to my stool, and it’s a tactile monitoring system.  The thing in the bass drum is just to minimise low-end rumble, so I just get the feel of the bass drum, and it goes to my stool, and inside is a transducer.  It’s only on very gentle, it’s not like spleen-rupturing vibrations.”
It sounds to me like in the midst of all the spider webs and transducers, the purpose is once again to help Proctor feel what he’s playing.
Yeah, essentially.  And even though I said it’s only connected to the bass drum, you still get the sensation of the toms, and the snare drum, and you even feel the stage a little.  The whole kit feels more alive, a little bit more reactive.  You can place the notes a little bit more accurately.  And I’m on in-ear monitors as well, so between the two systems it really makes a bit of difference.”
Hearing Proctor describe this immersive experience, I mention that the observation I would make of watchinghim, live, is that he seems to be in his own little world a lot of the time.  Obviously you must be taking everything in, but you seem to be on another plane some of the time.  He laughs.
“Most of the time I’m just listening,” he says, “but I haven’t quite perfected the skill of keeping my eyes open and listening!  And smiling, and doing all the things that showbiz requires of you.  I’m still working on that!  I’m just trying to make it feel good for the band, and that really is the point of it.  But I really do suck on stage in terms of, ‘he looks like he’s unhappy!’  Alan’s brilliant at it, but ultimately I’m a studio rat really.  I love being in the studio, I love being creative.  And I think sometimes I forget that when I go on stage I’ve got perform as well, you know?  I’d like to think people still think I perform, but I get wrapped up in just trying to give it the best I can, from a feel point of view.
Drumming health and safety issues with sharp microphone stands
So are there any King King tracks that he’s particularly proud of, in terms of the drumming? There’s a pause.
“Ooh, that’s hard,” he says. “You know what, I’m not going to say the studio versions.  ‘Stranger To Love’ live – I just adore playing that, I absolutely love it, and I think just because the song developed and grew live, where it turned into this big beast, and it just kicked off a bit more, and it had all those new sections, and it was so organic the way it all came about.  Playing that song is just incredible.  And I’d probably pick something really obscure, like ‘Lay With Me’? It’s a different feel.  Playing a half-time shuffle like that is really hard, to get the feel of it right, and get the right fills, and get the right energy, and I really like the emotion of that one.  And actually ‘I Don’t Wanna Lie’, off Exile.  That song and ‘Lay With Me’, they’re two Jeff Porcaro grooves that are super-difficult to play, in terms of getting the feel right.
“It wasn’t that it was techie,’" he goes on, “it’s just it’s a really difficult thing to get to feel right. You could write it down, and it wouldn’t be that complicated, but there’s a little melody that goes on, on the bell of the ride cymbal, and a ghost note pattern that’s kinda going on, and getting those backbeats to sit in the same place – the bass drum and snare drum pretty much land at the same time throughout the song, so you’ve got to play it really tight, you’ve got to get a great consistent sound.  And it was a hard track to play, but I’m actually really proud of that one.”
So there we have a conversation with Wayne Proctor about drumming, which turned out to be more about the elusive feel than about drums.  Coming soon is Part 2, in which I’ll try to get through a conversation about production – specifically Wayne’s helming of Ben Poole’s new album Anytime You Need Me – without discussing microphones!

Details of King King's dates in Britain and Europe, supporting Europe, can be found here.
Click here for Part 2 of the Wayne Proctor interview, talking about the production of the new album from Ben Poole.