Sunday, November 25, 2018

Andy Gunn - Too Many Guitars To Give Up Now

First impressions can be dangerous.  A few years ago I saw Scotsman Andy Gunn playing a support slot, and was left underwhelmed by a set that seemed lacking in direction.  In particular, guitarist Gunn took on only occasional vocal duties, and had a female singer at his side who seemed uncertain of her role.  So I had low expectations of Too Many Guitars To Give Up Now, and paid it little attention for months after its release in February this year.  This was a bad call on my part, and I owe Andy Gunn an apology, because it’s a damn fine album with a clear sense of purpose.
Too Many Guitars To Give Up Now is old school blues.  If you like, say, Eric Clapton’s
Andy Gunn does some interleaving with blues harp
reading of ‘Third Degree’ on
From The Cradle, then my guess is you’ll like this.  Or as Gunn himself has said in an interview, it started out as a guitar, keyboards and blues harp recording, partly inspired by the album Buddy And The Juniors, by Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Junior Mance, to which Gunn subsequently decided to add a rhythm section on several tracks.  
The underlying tone of the twelve tracks on offer is caught by songs like ‘Sorry Mess Blues’ and ‘Battlefield Blues’. The former is contemplative, with restrained piano from Andy May, and minimalist brushed drums from Jim Walker – who is just the man for the subtleties of this album.  Gunn’s guitar, meanwhile, is of the less-is-more variety, in which the spaces in between are as significant as the notes themselves. The latter is back porch stuff, with rootsy-as-you-get slide playing superbly interleaved with harp playing from Spider MacKenzie.  And on both these tracks Gunn delivers spot-on vocals in a crooning, moanin’ an’ groanin’ blues vein.  ‘Suffering Man’s Blues’ treads a similar downbeat path, with subdued guitar, a tasty organ solo from May, and the rhythm section of Walker and bassist Al James finding the pocket perfectly.
Straight ahead meditative blues like these aren’t the be all and end all of the album though.  ‘Back On Song’ may be low key, right from its murmured count in, but it’s a singular, boundary-melting offering, with backing vocals from Liz Jones of Broken Windows.  Leaning on warm piano playing from Mays, it has a lovely melody, beautifully sung by Gunn and Jones, that has a smidgen of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ about it, and
Groaning the blues
measured guitar playing that focuses on serving the song.  The final track ‘Going Home Again’ almost reaches the same heights, quoting ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ and bringing matters to a mellow but uplifting close.
Elsewhere, Gunn brings some sparkling, fuzzy guitar to the relaxed and swinging
‘Mississippi Ground’, with neat variations in rhythm from Walker, and wah-wah to ‘Eidyn Shuffle’, an instrumental with impressive, breezy harp from MacKenzie, flourishes of organ, and skipping drums.  The most upbeat moment though, comes in the form of the old-fashioned rough and tumble boogie of the title track, which recounts how Gunn got hooked on the blues, and where the musical addiction led.
For those who aren’t familiar with his story, it’s worth mentioning that Andy Gunn has good reason to feel an affinity with the blues.  Born with haemophilia, he contracted HIV and Hepatitis C from a contaminated blood transfusion, and went off the rails for a spell with addictions of a non-musical variety.  As a consequence of his illnesses he has also had to contend with two episodes of cancer and a related heart attack.  But for all these troubles, Too Many Guitars To Give Up Now presents a convincing case that the Gunndog, as Andy Gunn likes to style himself, is now in fine fettle.  He is, one might say, back on song.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Sharpeez - Wild One

The cover of Wild One features a clapped out jalopy sitting in front of a shotgun shack.  Don’t be fooled though, because the vibe of the latest album from The Sharpeez is far more Seventies London than Thirties Mississippi Delta.  Which is fair enough, because these guys were there back then - Seventies London that is.
It’s probably no coincidence that one of the tracks on offer is titled ‘Dr Feelgood’, as the crackling energy on display recalls Canvey Island’s finest, and the likes of Eddie & The Hot Rods.  But that comparison’s simplistic too, because there’s Knopfler-ish embroidery, and more besides, adding colour to the sound.
The Sharpeez - All The Young Dudes
On brisk outings like the opening ‘Automatic Man’, the aforementioned ‘Dr Feelgood’, and ‘Heat Of The Night’, the guitars of Loz Netto and band leader Bill Mead bristle and compete, with Netto’s slide playing generally occupying the foreground to embellish the catchy riffs.  In fact calling Netto a slide guitarist is selling the guy short, because he’s by no means your average bottleneck honcho – his playing is expansive, by turns spiky, mournful, twinkling and slithery to cast different spells over the material.
Meantime Mead’s vocals are crisp and edgy, but with a few clever little splashes of echo for extra colour, and souped up by excellent backing vocals from Teresa Revill, which are generally double-tracked to bring a hint of the B-52’s to the overall sound. And their vocal efforts are applied to some neat and interesting narrative lyrics which give the songs a fresh twist, even if the stories on ‘Dr Feelgood’ and ‘Stiletto Heels’ could be more satisfyingly resolved.
While all this is going on Baz Payne’s bass holds down the bottom end in the background, but Brendan O’Neill drumming is all-action on occasion, with crashing cymbals complementing Netto’s typically refreshing slide on ‘Losing Hand’, and bags of flair on ‘Stiletto Heels’, on which Netto’s cracking solo is cleverly played off against Revill’s backing vox.
Other highlights include the lower key, moody ‘Bullet’, with its strong chorus, and ‘Heartache Express’ where Netto executes cute variations on a clever, descending guitar line, and a jittery solo dotted through the outro as a bonus.  The slower, churning closer ‘Desperate Man’ is a co-write between Mead and blues maven Pete Feenstra, which treads a different lyrical path in a road movie-ish tale of a hero on the run for the border – the Essex county line, maybe?  Joking aside, it sports another imaginative slide showcase from Loz Netto to bring down the curtain.
This batch of nine originals, largely from the pen of Bill Mead with a few co-writer credits, may not be a 5 star standout.  But it does deliver sorta New Wave-ish R&B with stylish sonic detailing, striding the city streets like a confident latter day Mod.  Or something.  Get your shell-likes round it and write your own slogans.

Wild One is released by 3Ms Music.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Main Street Blues - Bluest Blue

It’s taken a while for me to get round to it, but on the strength of Bluest Blue, this summer's release from Main Street Blues, their moniker is a good pointer to the style of this Scottish blues band. Their sound, to these ears at least, descends in a pretty straight line from the Three Kings, through the British blues boomers influenced by them, and on to later exponents of sophisticated electric blues.
The ten-track collection mingles three originals from guitarist and singer Derek Smith, a few familiar covers, and some less common or garden finds from other artists, and it has to be said that Smith’s homegrown material stands up to the competition.
Derek Smith and John Hay take a stroll down Main Street
The first of these, the mid-paced ‘Dusty Road’ opens proceedings with gutsy chords and washes of organ to underpin Smith’s vocals, which are mellow and tuneful in a Clapton/Cray vein – it comes as no surprise that they’ve covered Eric’n’Bob’s ‘Old Love’ on a previous album.  Smith’s guitar tone is one of his strengths, here and throughout, while John Hay’s five-string bass bubbles away contentedly and Iain Hanna’s keys solo fits in nicely. It all boils down to a pretty good marker for what’s to follow.
With ten songs lasting over an hour, you’ll appreciate that Main Street Blues like to lay back and spread out a bit, but they still succeed in making the time pass by without any dull longeurs.  There are a couple of seriously extended workouts in there, with over nine minutes’ worth of Smith’s own composition ‘Move On’, and title track Alvin Lee’s ‘The Bluest Blues’ coming up on the rails.  Smith’s tone on the former is excellent, contributing to the mood as he demonstrates good variation in pace on an extended solo, while Hanna contributes meditative organ and, by the sound of it, some subtle synth for additional textures. On the latter Hanna’s keys are also well to the fore, with delicate piano contributing to an imaginative, widescreen arrangement, while Smith’s vocals combine good phrasing and expressiveness.  His guitar could be higher in the mix though, and one of my reservations is that sonically they would sometimes benefit from more – to use a technical term – wallop.
A good example would be their reading of Coco Montoya’s ‘Last Dirty Deal’, which features a stinging riff with a very Sixties feel, and tasteful bass from Hay, but could do with more grit vocally, and with the guitar being a bit more in yer face to capture the bitterness of the lyric.  But on the other hand Smith’s ‘Cold Cold Bed’ effectively combines gritty guitar chords and surges of organ with a touch of funk and a bit more vocal edge from Smith.
The two familiar friends in the track list are Storyville's ‘Good Day For The Blues’, which has a tripping rhythm and sunny air to match its winning melody, and an uplifting keys solo from Hanna that melts into Smith’s guitar, and the covered-by-everybody ‘Breaking Up Someone’s Home’, which comes with a fresh, Clapton-ish arrangement that’s all stuttering riff, shuffling rhythm and spangly guitar.
It’s worth noting that due to a bit of a Spinal Tap-style exploding drummer syndrome, MSB were without a sticksman during the recording of the album, and so opted for drum programming by Smith to fill the void.  And generally he does an impressive job of it, though on the aforementioned ‘Cold Cold Bed’ the groove gets a tad predictable, and on ‘Breaking Up Someone’s Home’ the drum sound could be a bit thicker.
Between them Smith and Hanna provide enjoyable bursts of soloing throughout, the latter demonstrating a fondness for Jon Lord-meets-Booker-T organ playing on the likes of ‘Write If You Find Love’, while on Willie Dixon’s ‘The Same Thing’ Smith conjures up a sparkling solo that moves through some revved up chords into a piercing second section and then a lyrical segment dovetailed with the keys – and with good vocal phrasing to boot.
Bluest Blue is a well satisfying take on modern electric blues with a classic British bent.  It won’t take you on a journey to the centre of the universe, but it will keep the home fires burning.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Grainne Duffy - Stramash, Edinburgh, 8 November 2018

Grainne Duffy is a songbird. That’s not the be all and end all of what she has to offer – we’ll get to the rest in a minute.  But as a vocalist the girl from Co Monaghan in Northern Ireland demonstrates tremendous range and control, with enough power to fill the room too.  She really should be mentioned in the same breath as some bigger names in the female singer bracket as a matter of course.
Grainne Duffy gets laid back, sorta
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
That appeal is evident right from the opening track of this show, ‘My Love’, taken from her Where I Belong.  With its whooping chorus, interwoven guitars between Duffy and the slide playing of husband Paul Sherry, and some skelping drums from Darren Beckett, it makes for a dynamic start.
Duffy then delves back into her first album for the relaxed groove of ‘Each And Every Time’, the country rock audience participation of ‘Driving Me Crazy’, over strutting bass from Phil Donnelly, and the ballad ‘I Don’t Know Why’, on which she delivers soulful singing and also an emotional solo on her Les Paul Gold Top.
She picks an imaginative cover in the funky form of Koko Taylor’s ‘Voodoo Woman’.  Anyone less like a voodoo woman than the charmingly girl-next-door Duffy would be hard to imagine, but it’s still great fun as she shows her ability as a genial front woman, dancing cheerfully and contributing a wah-wah solo as a precursor to a bass showcase from Donnelly and a wailing outro from Sherry.
There’s a bit of a lull in the set before a classic gritty blues riff heralds Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Love Me Like A Man’.  Vocally this is right in Duffy’s wheelhouse, and collectively they do it justice as the whole band turn it up a notch or two.  In fact it seems to me that for the latter part of the show they benefit from the sound being cranked up generally, giving extra bounce to the reggae rhythm of ‘Sweet Sweet Baby’, with its fun, scrabbling solo from Sherry, and plenty of oomph to the crunching riff of ‘Bad To Worse’, with its bump’n’grind second half and “Whoah-oh-oh” singalong.
Then, would you believe it, just as they kick off Duffy’s trademark reading of Etta James’ ‘I Would Rather Go Blind’, a bunch of extra-curricular punters take up residence in the balcony area and obliviously start a loud conversation.  Credit to Grainne Duffy, she doesn’t allow it to phase her, and overpowers their prattle with a spine-tingling crescendo.
There’s just time for the rousing title track of her second album Test Of Time, including a nod to the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, and a final encore of ‘The Shape I’m In’, all ringing chords and harmonies, and with a curiously banjo-like solo from Sherry – how’d he do that?.
Personally I’d have liked to hear more of the upbeat material from Test Of Time, which is well suited to her – and Sherry’s – capabilities in a Bonnie Raitt/Tedeschi Trucks oeuvre.  But in a venue that can all too easily suck the energy out of a performance Grainne Duffy and co still deliver a warm and entertaining set to dispel the chills of an autumn night.
Liz Jones dares to be different
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
Edinburgh’s Broken Windows offer a refreshing change from the usual blues support band
fare.  Led by singer and songwriter Liz Jones, with her husky vocals, their opener ‘Strum’ incorporates a Latin groove courtesy of percussionist Suzy Cargill, and with the addition of breezy guitar from John Bruce takes on an air of Laurel Canyon-ish West Coast rock.  ‘Dangerous Game’, meanwhile, is a low cut and slinky slowie featuring Parisian-sounding organ chords from Andy Barbour.  There are different dynamics elsewhere, on something I took to be called ‘Well Being’, on which a slow tempo charges into an uptempo phase with Latin-sounding guitar from Bruce accompanied by ample hair tossing from Jones and a rasping vocal.
The Stones’ ‘Play With Fire’ is a good benchmark for their sound too – swinging, chugging boogie, slightly held in check, and coloured by rippling piano from Barbour. ‘Broken Windows’ itself has subtle guitar shadings, a big middle eight, and a tasteful solo from Bruce, while new song ‘Angel’ is ringing, happy-go-lucky, and an out and out winner.  Combining fresh songsmithery from Jones with musicianship from stalwart Edinburgh musos like Bruce, bassist Rod Kennard and drummer Gary Davidson, in addition to Cargill and Barbour, Broken Windows dare to be a bit different, and do a good job of it to boot.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Nimmo Brothers - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 2 November 2018

No prizes for guessing what music accompanies the Nimmo Brothers as they take the stage.   And they’re not just back in town, they’re in their hometown, in front of a packed sell-out crowd that is ready for a good time. Which the brothers duly supply.
They light the blue touch paper with hard-hitting twin-guitar riffing on ‘Bad Luck’, and follow it up with the ZZ Top-like boogie of ‘The Shape I’m In’, including the first singalong of the night, of which Alan Nimmo comments “That’s fucking garbage”, before demanding an improved effort.  It’s indicative of an atmosphere where there’s already smiles all round, and big fun going down onstage.
The Chuckle Brothers
But the Nimmo boys can deliver emotionally charged material as well as rockers, as with the ‘Long Way From Everything’, which starts off sensitively before Stevie delivers a searing solo - knackered arm and all - over the solid rhythm foundations provided by Craig Bacon’s drums and Mat Beable’s bass.  Alan then chips in with his trademark pin-drop solo to total hush, ahead of a howling conclusion.  Similarly 'If I Could See Through Your Eyes' is a lovely ballad that clearly comes from the heart, matched by Peter Green-like subtlety on his guitar solo.  ‘Waiting For My Heart To Fall’ meanwhile, is heralded by spangly guitar work, and peaks with four successive, impassioned solos, two from each brother.  It’s an epic, barnstorming affair, that suggests these guys were born to be here, doing this, right now.  And on material like this the fact that they are both excellent, soulful vocalists also shines through.
They can funk it up too of course, on the likes of the breezy ‘Gotta Slow Down’, with meaty chords in the middle eight, and a lengthy party time solo that makes laughter and dancing unavoidable, while ‘Still Here Strumming’ is a tougher brand of street funk.
They go all the way back to their Backwater Blues Band days for a song that’s new to me, featuring a sledgehammer riff and Stevie on slide, as well as a guitar face-off that displays well nigh telepathic understanding.
A funky bass intro from Mat Beable announces the arrival of set closer ‘Black Cat Bone’, a ten minute affair full of lick trading and of course their octopus-like “I’ll play your guitar, you play mine” signature moment, to top off an irresistible show.
Just how irresistible is demonstrated by the scorching encore of ‘Ain’t No Love (In The Heart Of The City)’, on which the crowd bawl out the singalong section in a manner that defies Alan Nimmo to repeat his earlier banter.  And as it ends Craig Bacon immediately cracks out a brisk tempo to ignite their spanking reading of the Allman Brothers’ ‘One Way Out’.
It’s not quite Guy Fawkes Night, but the Nimmo Brothers delivered bucket loads of fireworks with this performance.  It was a show brimming with simple enthusiasm, that gave the punters exactly the reunion celebration they wanted.  And it does make you sigh over the fact that they didn’t achieve more success back in the day, because in all seriousness they produce a twin guitar blues rock experience to rival just about anyone.  Both Stevie and Alan Nimmo have other fish to fry of course, but let’s hope the Nimmo Brothers project resurfaces again in due course.  Altogether now, we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when . . . .